The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC for Decades

Going to “The Show”

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Well, I’ve hinted at Chicago—I might as well tell the story. I did not like Jacksonville. In fact, I did not like Florida. I felt like I was snatched from paradise as a ten year old (rural Western New York, hills, valleys, snow, seasons) and my new home was like living in the desert. When I moved to Jacksonville it felt like I was living in cracker desert. What’s Jeff Foxworthy say? “A glorious absence of sophistication.” While no one confuses me with sophisticated, I do appreciate a little of it, and I needed to find some. And before anyone leaps to its defense, let me point out that the Jacksonville of 2009, where my daughter lived for 2½ years, is not the same place euphemistically named at the time “the Bold New City of the South” of the late ’60s—early ’70s.

Moreover, I no longer felt challenged professionally in Jacksonville. Oh, sure, there was that dustup on 23 December 1972 that I wrote about on the Tales of ATC page, but that wasn’t routine, day-to-day traffic—that was an aberration, and actually more incentive to leave than stay. There were far too many periods of one or two airplanes at a time and far too few actual challenges in the rushes that did occur. Plus, the training pipeline had closed up and we were starting to have to pull strips off the printer again for a good part of the shift. Frankly, insofar as moving airplanes was concerned, I felt I had conquered all that Jacksonville had to throw at me. I wanted out.

In fact, I’d been trying to get out of Jacksonville for some time—even before I met Linda—bidding on supervisor jobs at towers in the region. Although I liked working airplanes, I had a notion that there were challenges to be conquered in the management track. I even visited a couple to try and get my hat in the ring. I chuckle now at my naiveté. Those jobs were probably already filled before they were announced and I later learned that there is a virtual one way door for inter facility transfers between centers and towers, and I was on the wrong side of it. One of the many things that angered me about the FAA was the countless bids I saw during my career for center supervisors, which were open to one and all in the center and tower option. Virtually every tower bid had a “center controllers need not apply” restriction on it. Seriously (although not in those specific words).

Nevertheless, there was a loophole. The two hardest to staff approach controls in the country were New York’s Common IFR Room (then called the Common I, and now known simply as NY TRACON), and ORD, Chicago O’Hare. There were open bids (no expiration date) for controllers at both, so, I bid on both. Echoing my earlier efforts of paying a visit, I made trips to each. As it turned out, Long Island wasn’t going to be a place I wanted to or could afford to live, so it was with relief that my bid wasn’t accepted. ORD, on the other hand, must have been more desparate, as sometime in January, 1973, I got a call to come north, all expenses paid.

Naturally we discussed it and Linda rightly had some reservations. Canadian born, she had never lived south of the 43rd parallel and in three years prior to coming to Jacksonville had lived even farther north in RST (44° North). Cold blooded anyway, she was just getting used to Florida and didn’t relish the prospect of heading back to the cold. I’ll never believe there wasn’t consensus in the decision to accept the bid so I’ll have to assume it was with positive sentiments and mutual agreement that we planted the For Sale sign in the yard, waved goodbye to the moving van, and pointed our car north in late February, 1973.

We had a nice leisurely drive, even stopping by the road in Kentucky for me to make my first snowball in 15 years. We got to Chicago, made the still annoying drive on the Borman, up the Tri-State, and finally to picturesque Rosemont where we found a suitable motel that the government would subsidize for thirty days while we hunted for a house. It was perhaps a ten minute drive to the tower. Self centered slug that I am, I never considered what my long suffering wife had to endure in that motel for eight hours a day while I reveled in the excitement of a new facility and new challenges. Ultimately she survived and frankly we did some grand exploration of Chicago and the environs during my off time, so it wasn’t all horrible.

The house hunting was a grim slap of reality. Our palatial 4/2½, two story colonial that we had bought for $38,000 and had on the market for $58,000 would cost just shy of $200,000 in any of the suburbs near the airport. We had to keep expanding our radius to the west to find something suitable, and even at that, as we looked more and more for homes in our price range, they looked more and more like starter homes than we were accustomed to. Ultimately, we wound up buying the house in Carol Stream from a fellow controller who was leaving the agency to pursue a medical career. It wasn’t the dream home we were looking for and it wasn’t a ten minute commute, but as it turned out, it fit our needs more than we could have foreseen.

Meanwhile back at ORD, I was excited to get started and of course the first thing to do was sit down with maps, lists of identifiers commonly used in the facility, operations manuals, letters of agreement, and so on—pretty much the familiarization exercise you might expect for a new facility and not much different than what I had experienced when I first arrived in Jacksonville. The difference now, of course, was I was an experienced controller and I understood the significance of the material in ways I never could have imagined in Flight Data School in 1968. We (I think there were three or four of us—I have zero recollection of any of them) didn’t have an instructor, per se—the drill at this point was to absorb the material. However, someone from the training department poked his head in the room periodically to see if we were okay. I asked him once how long it would take from when we started training to when we were FPLs. “About two years” “Ruh, roh,” I thought. This didn’t sound like the two days per sector I was accustomed to.

A week or so later we were introduced to our crews and started training. The first thing we learned was “Off Times”. In the radar room there was a bank of four vertical radar scopes along one wall, and another four or five horizontal scopes spread around the dark room. One was reserved for parallel monitor, one was for South Satellite (mostly MDW but also CGX), one was for North Satellite (mostly PWK and NBU, but also UGN), and there were two for departures. Depending on the runway configuration, East and South Departures might share a scope or West and South Departures might share one. Whichever was left over used the remaining one. For all ORD vets, please bear with me—it’s how I remember it, and it was >40 years ago. The two departure controllers sharing a position sat roughly 90° around the scope from each other. Another 90° quadrant was taken up by a printer and other paraphernalia, and the fourth quadrant was occupied by a helper, or an observer, or…the Off Times person.

This was a transitional period. ORD was using ARTS III, I believe, which was state of the art then, and the center had a flight data processing computer up and running (I had actually taught the class on that computer in Jacksonville but it hadn’t been delivered by the time I left). However, they only shared flight plan information and in one direction at that (outbounds). The ARTS was primitive by today’s standards and had no idea it got its information from the center’s computer—it certainly couldn’t talk to it. The center’s computerized radar system didn’t come on line for a couple of years or more. Anyway, whenever the controller up in tower launched an airplane, he would toss the strip into a tube which would take a few seconds to race down the couple hundred feet and emerge in a little catch box above the radar. It was up to the Off Time person to identify the callsign and direction and then call the center with the departure message—thus Off Times.

Training on Off Times took a day or two—much as I anticipated. I shouldn’t have felt so good about it. Off Times was a non-control position and the janitor could have been trained to do it. Before long, however, things got serious and I started training on departures. While the departure positions were named separately, they all operated essentially the same way and with about eleven possible runway configurations there was quite a variety of departure solutions. So, if you checked out on one, you pretty much checked out on them all with a little extra training thrown in for familiarization with unusual configurations. The upshot was I trained on South, I trained on East, I trained on West. I trained with two of them combined (not unusual—they were quite flexible with combining positions at that time), I trained with all of them together. There was no North Departures as a separate entity. On some configurations East would work North departures and on others West would work them. I think there might have been times when North Satellite worked North departures. The operation at ORD was very fluid. I was and still am amazed at it.

Let’s recap a bit. I was a center controller. I had started in low altitude but had truly only worked in low for a week or two as an FPL. The vast majority—perhaps 90%—of my experience was in High Altitude. The operational characteristics of even jet airplanes are vastly different at 70 (7,000 feet) than they are at FL350 or even FL240. I never considered that a handicap as I had experience working reasonably high volume traffic in complex situations. Hey, we were a GS-13 facility—1,000,000 operations. As it turned out, it was, in fact, a bit of a handicap. It wasn’t fatal. My friend Luke Gravely came to ORD around the same time I did. He was a center controller in ZOB with about the same experience level as mine and he made it. Perhaps we should look elsewhere for clues.

Well, if you’ve read this far (and particularly if you already know me) you must have an idea of some of my personality incapacitations. I’m cocky, arrogant, and don’t care much for hazing games. At ORD hazing was an institution. I don’t mean running the gauntlet or fraternity rites—I’m talking more about expressed attitudes. “You’re here in the big leagues, boy. You better stand mute until you can show us what you got.” While they had every right to be proud of their achievements as FPLs at ORD, I didn’t accept being made to feel like a raw recruit when I was a five year veteran—more time than many of them. So, attitude played a part, you might say. Or I might say we viewed circumstances differently. Under the circumstances, they were right and I was wrrrrr…er I had made a mistaaaaa…uh, I wasn’t as correct as I should have been.

Still, I might have overcome that if I’d exhibited high performance values. I didn’t. And this goes back to the experience thing. Center air traffic control is very different from TRACON air traffic control. Another refugee from the ORD mill shortly after I left used to tell people that the tower could launch five airplanes within a minute or two, and they’d all be separated…until you talked to them. That wasn’t far off the mark. I just didn’t grasp what some of those rules were. In my defense, it might have been easier if I had trained in the tower like most of them had (the facility had split, up and down, a couple of months before I arrived). But I think the long and the short of it is, I wasn’t ready—either professionally or psychologically. The marriage lasted five months.

In August, and after two or three performance evaluations that were disappointing at best, my supervisor and his advised me that my training was being terminated. You might not be able to imagine how horrible a cocky arrogant person can feel at that point. It was absolutely the lowest point of my life. I had never experienced anything like it. I hadn’t thought it through (hadn’t considered it is more correct) so I had visions of being kicked out on the street or moved back to Jacksonville. To my frank relief, they told me I was heading down the road, to the center, in Aurora. Did I mention fortuitous? ORD to Carol Stream was about the same commute distance as Carol Stream to Aurora, although as different as, say, driving into the city versus a ride in the country—literally. From the point of view of a center controller in a strange land, I was going home. We’ll see how that worked out.

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Last updated: 23 May 2016