The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC for Decades

Movin’ Around

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The new traffic environment in ZAU’s West High—complexity and density—suited me just fine as the change from ZJX had envisioned. In fact, I might have stayed there for quite a while. I was comfortable, there were still challenges aplenty, and there was a pretty good group of people on my crew and in the area. There was still the bell curve, though. Do you know what you call the last place graduate from medical school? Dr. The same was pretty much true for ATC. Even if you barely squeaked by the process and got certified in spite of yourself, you still were assigned the same sectors and you still had to work the same rushes as the most talented, and you were still called a controller.

For all that, I was happy to work where I was assigned if I didn't have to bump into too many of the bottom dwellers. However, I did bump into them from time to time. And sometimes the bumps got elevated to management. Remember my earlier observations about authority figures? Even though I was, by now, thirty years old and a father, I still had not learned to control my disdain for incompetence, wherever it reared its head. You must understand things were never about gross egregious acts, dangerous practices, or malfeasance on my part. Practically every annual review I ever received graded me as exceeding standards on the technical aspects of the job, knowledge, and competence.

My people skills, however are/were suspect, and every one of the same annual reviews documented that. I was (am)…difficult. I was told years ago by a compatriot, “it's tough being your friend.” I mentioned that once to my friend, Roddy, and he's been throwing it back to me ever since. With that in mind, perhaps you'll grasp that I wound up in several conferences that were about my rough edges. It was never about skill or competence, or actual job performance. As time went by, it seemed I wound up having more and more conversations with my supervisor about my sandbox play. The world of West High was starting to close in on me.

Now, among the options available to me for solving niggling problems with the 5%ers who had managed to get into the controller pool in High, was to go to another area. I didn't care for East High, and going to a Wing was simply elevating the percentage in the bottom of the pool. East or West Terminal were the only viable choices. Frankly, I was intimidated at the prospect of either. East, in particular, had CGT/PLANT, which I walked by every day on my way back to West High, and which had legendary blowups of traffic that seemed to me, untamable. I had even taken note of them a time or two when I was still at ORD. West Terminal was still a terminal area but I had more geographic familiarity with it, so despite my overall concern about taking on terminal traffic, was still a more viable option. An attraction of both was that, much like ORD and the Common I, there was essentially an open bid out for either. If I decided a move to the terminal was the best choice, I could be there in a matter of hours.

Finally, the straw that broke the camel's back was an interview with my supervisor which involved either a complaint about my working the red-eye rush without shrimp boats or “issuing clearances generally given by approach control.” A little background is in order.

Traffic to ORD from over DBQ usually flew V100 after DBQ, over RFD, to FARMM intersection, then direct ORD. It was twisty/turny, and utterly unnecessary on the mid shift. We did lots of direct, direct, direct on the mids, and inbound traffic was no exception, although in the case of the busier terminals, like ORD, we would make it a feeder fix rather than the airport itself. If ORD was landing on 14R, the best place to send them direct was to OBK, a NavAid about 12 miles north of ORD. To complete the navigation, rather than direct, direct, I would tell them to intercept the 14R localizer on the way, as they would pass right through it in any event. Simple, efficient. Unless you're trying to make waves, and apparently someone did.

Geez, that still cracks me up. The shrimp boats thing I could marginally understand (from the viewpoint of a helpless bystander), but who could possibly complain about the direct OBK? Not the terminal guy I was feeding, particularly since he was sending all of my departures direct places as soon as they got on his frequency. Certainly not any pilot. And what could the aforementioned “helpless bystander” have to say about an act that has utterly no consequence or significance for him? Frankly, as was said once on Seinfeld, it sounded made up.

That was enough for me. I told the sup on the spot that I saw no alternative to this idiocy than to request a transfer to the West Terminal. And, true to my testament, within a matter of days, I was out of the West High schedule and headed for West Terminal. Oh, one slight side story. Shortly before I went, I quit smoking (23 March 1976). Cold turkey. From a 2½ pack/day habit. Haven’t touched one since. Think about the commonly assumed stress of working in one of the higher density, higher complexity areas in the world’s busiest air traffic control facility, and then multiply that by the added effect of training, in an even higher density, higher complexity area in that facility. Pretty good test of resolve, eh?

You may have noticed that my training experiences are starting to add up. MyTales of ATCpage (Curriculum Vitae) documents all the sectors on which I was certified. The gross figures are five areas in two facilities of successful training, and one unsucessful although not unproductive effort at another facility. I don't believe there are too many controllers, past or present, who could claim more.

So, after about 2½ years in West High, I packed my bags and moved to another area. Got to keep the same locker, though. Training in the Terminal was not a cakewalk. Innate aptitude, and experience such as I’d had still weren’t enough. It took practice, practice, and practice. Like any Terminal controller, I wound up in some adventurous situations. I recall a Saberliner I had trouble getting down for MDW when I was training at VAINS (now PLANO). They're supposed to be at 60 at JOT—mine was struggling to get out of 170 about ten south. Joe Badami never let me forget that.

Gary Zindars got me to finally figure out that I didn't have to wind up with exactly five miles when I was slowing behind someone—seven or eight was okay. It turns out no one is good enough to consistently do what I was trying to do (because I misunderstood the mission). Frankly, and especially after spending about ten years working adjacent to ORD, if I'd only gotten that memo from the beginning, I might still be in the Terminal Option.

In any event, I got checked out sometime in 1976 and began five of the best years of my career. I loved the Terminal. I loved the traffic. I loved the experiences. I loved the people. For practically the first time in my career, I truly respected the ability of the vast majority of my peers. Yes, we had a couple of weaker sticks, but to a large extent, they were guys who’d been around too long and really needed to retire or transfer to F-Troop (get a staff job). We carried them, though. Because they’d demonstrated that they belonged in the Terminal years before I got there. Most of the left bell people I mentioned in High (and the Wings) were people that would never get better. These vets had been better. They were just on their way down.

My initial supervisor was actually the best one I wound up having in thirty years. He was a veteran of East Terminal and legendary. Jerry Stokes—he’s worth a mention. He was relatively recently promoted into the supervisor ranks and he had a huge reputation as a jerk. In our “welcome to the team” interview, he told me, “I’m a prick, but I’m a fair prick.” I really couldn’t ask for more than that. Frankly, looking back, I think I can honestly say that was true of me, too.

Sadly, Jerry had some demons and they conspired to take him long before he was due. I can't remember now if it was an overt result of his demons (like an auto accident) or a longer term consequence (like disease). But I had him for too short a time. So began another in a succession of lousy managers, which is a theme I’ll explore next.

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Last updated: 14 September 2012