The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC in Four Decades

It Started With Vietnam

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To quote Ward Bond as the village priest in John Ford’s The Quiet Man, “I’ll begin at the beginning” (best appreciated in a thick Irish brogue). We have to go back to 1964, the year I graduated from high school. There was this thing going on in Southeast Asia and our military was seeking parties for a visit there at government expense. In fact, they were seeking pretty aggressively, Selective Service and all. For a variety of reasons, a lot of people sought alternatives to that path. I was one of them.

It’s not that I had anything against the military—after all, my father and mother had both served during WWII, as did practically everyone in my small home town. I later came to understand that I might not have been a good fit, or it might have made my life a little easier (both for the same reason)—those are kind of polar alternatives and weren’t within my range of consideration. I wanted to get a little farther along in my educational process, though, before I contemplated the military option. At least that way I might qualify to be an officer. So, I signed up at the local junior college, got a student deferment (probably 2S—my memory’s fuzzy, but that’s what I found on the internet), and embarked on my higher education journey.

I struggled. I probably wasn’t disciplined enough to do the work I needed to do, and college, even at the local community level, was not a place where I could get by without the application of some effort—which hadn’t been necessary in the lower grades. After the first semester I was put on academic probation. I worked my way out of that during the second semester, took some courses during the summer, but promptly wound up on probation again. I gamely attempted yet another comeback in the Fall, but by Fall Break I could see the handwriting on the wall.

Aviation was a big part of our family, as my father had flown 35 missions as a radio operator/gunner on B17s during the war. There wasn’t a time in my life that there wasn’t a B17 somewhere in our house. And I don’t remember a time in my life when my father wouldn’t look up whenever he heard an aircraft overhead. So, it was natural that when I started wondering about things to do, aviation reared its head as a possibility, even though I didn’t have the burning passion for flying with which so many other aviation scribes seem to have been afflicted. Since school wasn’t working out (killing any chance of being an officer), the Air Force, Navy, and Marines weren’t going to be a path for me if I wanted to fly. I talked to an Army recruiter.

I have no idea 40 years later what we must have discussed, but I do know that the next thing I did was meet my father for lunch that day for what I regarded even then as our very first adult, man-to-man talk. I laid out for him what you’ve just read in the preceding paragraphs. He told me about an article he’d seen recently in the local paper about how airlines were in a hiring binge due to the advancing age of their fleet of pilots, most of whom were WWII vets. The junior college in the neighboring county, it went on to say, was offering an aviation program to train students up to the minimum entry requirements the airlines were considering at the time—200 hours flight time, commercial license, instrument rating.

The program was just right for me and my grade point average went from 2.0 (on a good day) to 3.8 by the time I graduated with my Associate of Science in Professional Aviation, in June, 1967. From July on I sent resumes to every airline I could find listed in the library, and over the course of about six months heard back from every one of them. There must have been an industry boilerplate letter that said something along the line of, “…unfortunately, your experience does not meet the threshold of applicants we are currently considering. Please be assured that we will keep your application on file…” should we ever be scraping the bottom of the barrel enough to hire someone like you, they might as well have added. It seems that by then there were a whole lot of Thud, Phantom, and Starlifter drivers mustering out and they were displaying 1,500 hours of jet time on their curriculum vitae.

I pumped some gas, worked in a couple of stores, and did a stint in the Textbook Department (my second) at the local school board trying to figure out what to do. One day, my mother (a librarian in a local school) brought home a brochure published by the FAA advertising Air Traffic Control positions. With all my flying, I was more than aware of air traffic control—I had even visited a couple of towers. There had been a chapter in the Instrument text book (William Kershner) describing the function and layout of a typical enroute control position) and as a result, during my Instrument training I came to a survey understanding of the IFR part of the system. I particularly remember a trip I took with an employer I’d had during that unproductive air carrier hiring hiatus. He was a used aircraft dealer at North Perry Airport (HWO), and we’d flown a Cessna 172 over to Sarasota (SRQ) where he was picking up an Apache he’d purchased. We flew over IFR, since I was rated, he wasn’t, and he wanted some practice. I took particular notice of the sound of that radar controller as he managed us and whoever else he was dealing with. It sounded kind of cool.

So, with at least a positive awareness, if not a burning interest, I perused the brochure and found out the minimum requirements, which were: a four year college degree (bzzzzzt!—don’t have one of those), three years ATC experience in the military (bzzzzzt!—don’t have one of those), a licensed pilot with an Instrument Rating (hello!)…I filled out the paperwork and over the next month or so—mostly January, 1968—jumped through a bunch of administrative hoops. I know I took a test although I don’t remember anything about it. I do recall I scored a 93.5, which was apparently good enough to get hired, as we shall see (wouldn’t be much point in this narrative if it hadn’t been). I had a physical (I was already carrying a Class I Airmen’s Medical Certificate—called a Medical by everyone), and I had an interview. That I remember vaguely. It was held in the Miami Area Office located on Miami International Airport grounds. All of the area offices were consolidated into the Regional Offices within the year, so I never went back there.

Coincident with all the FAA hoop jumping, my student deferment having expired upon my graduation and lack of pursuit of further education, my draft board got wind of my availability and sent me a notice to attend their periodic physical examinations at the Armed Forces Entrance Examination Station (AFEES) in Coral Gables at oh-stupid-thirty on some day in January 1968. The instructions were to be in Ft. Lauderdale (north of me by ten miles) to catch a bus to Coral Gables (south of me by 25 miles). I just had to add that so you can understand why I might not be positively predisposed by the experience to ensue.

I had suffered an injury to my ankle a couple of years earlier in local sports aggravated by a bunch of things (even necessitating navigating around campus on crutches for a week—that was no fun, whatsoever). Consequently, I figured I wouldn’t be able to pass the physical. In any event, I boarded the bus in the dark, sat around with a fine cross section of the community, ate a box lunch, and finally in the afternoon, related my tale of ankle woe to some captain-doctor. Without an X-ray or other supporting documentation (although I must have had something with me on that trip—I was a Boy Scout, after all), all he could do was concur that I probably wasn’t qualified, would so mark my paperwork, and that I should have my physician forward the necessary information to the local draft board. I figured that was that.

I told you all of that, because I want to tell you the rest, and you need a little background to understand some of what brought me to the point where I have these notes to pen. I pumped more gas and slung more books until one day in late March, 1968, I got a phone call that changed my life. Would I be interested in a position in the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC or just the Center) beginning on 8 April? See you there!

My father and I grabbed the club Citabria and flew to Jacksonville. We landed at Imeson Airport, former location of the old, now closed, center (the new one, where I would be working, was in the small town of Hilliard, about 30 miles away), rented a car and headed out US1. We visited the Center and got a tour which had been given the same way dozens, maybe hundreds of times before, and was given the same way hundreds of times afterward (dozens by me).

I learned that the controller who actually talked to the airplanes was called the Radarman (or R-man or R-side). Often, during busy periods, there would be someone assigned to the D-side (or D-man or in later years, manual controller). That position managed the flight progress strips which contained all of the data of each flight, and also performed some preliminary separation tasks in the same manner as had been done since before radar. The D-side also issued initial clearances to towers who called when an aircraft was ready to depart, coordinated inbounds to approach controls or towers, and coordinated with adjacent facilities regarding flights of mutual interest (altitude revisions, time revisions, route revisions, etc.) Then there were people called Assistants or A-sides who were assigned to some of the sectors which required a lot of coordination, and who also worked Flight Data—an area which produced all of the strips needed for operations in the facility.

After lunch we left the Center, found an efficiency apartment in Hilliard, signed a lease, and headed back to Imeson, and via Citabria, home. It was a long day.

On Sunday, 7 April 1968, I backed my fully loaded 1964 Volkswagen beetle out of the driveway, waved to my parents, and headed out to start my career with the FAA. The trip probably approached eight hours (in those days) and I was definitely ready to stop when I got to Hilliard. Stupidly, I had gone to bed the previous night just having started reading Arthur Hailey’s Airport. If you haven’t read it I will tell you that a significant portion of the book deals with air traffic control and it is not a pretty picture. Although I finished it well before dawn, I didn’t get a good night’s sleep and it was an inauspicious introduction to the career upon which I was preparing to embark.

That evening I got my apartment set up, but frankly I have zero recollection of what else I might have done. Despite the certain excitement and anxiety of the first day next morning, I was definitely short of sleep from reading the previous night, so I crashed early. The apartment was all of a three minute drive to the Center and so, on 8 April 1968, a little before 0800 I passed through the gate, physically as well as metaphorically.

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