The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC for Decades

Newsprint & Baling Wire

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On my return to ZAU, I returned to the West Terminal. I thought it would be easy to jump on the horse and get right back in the swing of things. It wasn’t. Even though several coworkers who had been reinstated at various intervals between November of 1981 through early spring of 1983 and succeesfully (and seemingly easily) completed their recertification, I found it a little more challenging. I was perplexed and couldn’t understand why I was having difficulty.

At one point I was involved in an Operational Error and my supervisor started an action to completely retrain me starting with the D-Side. Long a vocal adversary of mine, he was outvoted, saner heads recognizing his proposal as punitive and unproductive. Finally, one of my instructors put words in my ear that resonated and it was clear sailing from that point. He told me, “look, I can see that you’re a good controller. But that sixth sense we develop that keeps us going without having to think of everything isn’t back up to speed yet. Take the time and effort to double check things when you’re working, and you’ll be fine.” It was like a light went on, as when Gary Zindars told me I didn’t need exactly five miles—six was fine, too.

Very quickly I was back up to speed and fully recertified in the Terminal. But it wasn’t the same place. I cannot overemphasize the unbelievably inept talent pool the FAA had put in place after 3 August to try and keep the system running. People whom we had earlier washed out had been brought back and certified. It took about ten seconds to assess that our original termination had been for cause. They brought people in from other facilities at ridiculous per diem rates, some of whom could not possibly have been successful at ZAU under ordinary circumstances. I heard of (but never witnessed) people who were secretaries or clerks brought in and certified to work light traffic. We joked (in a crying shame sort of way) that they had been certified LTO (light traffic only), a protocol that had never existed before August 1981, so far as I know.

Let me tell a story in which I was involved which will illustrate the “talent pool” in place when I returned. Airplanes fly under one of two sets of rules—IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) and VFR (Visual Flight Rules). All air carrier traffic operates under IFR. All aircraft flying above FL180 (18,000') operate under IFR. That’s what our purpose is in the ARTCCs—provide IFR services. Under visual conditions (called VMC—Visual Meteorological Conditions) airplanes below FL180 can operate VFR and don’t need our services. They fly on the see and avoid principle.

Whether an airplane is IFR or VFR, they occupy airspace, and we’ve learned that when two aircraft try to occupy the same airspace, bad things happen. High performance airplanes flying at 17,500' VFR represent every bit as much of a risk to an IFR airplane as if they were IFR themselves. Smart and conscientious controllers recognize that and work VFRs routinely. While we don’t separate them, per se, most do everything they can to make sure they don’t hit. I’ve even stopped an IFR’s climb or descent due to a VFR, even though there’s no legal requirement to do so. Controllers who aren’t very good view VFR airplanes as an annoyance and an unnecessary burden when they have all they can handle with their IFR traffic load. Or, worse, they act as if they weren’t even there. They cannot comprehend that VFR airplanes are thus a danger to the very aircraft they’re paid to separate and protect.

One day I was working West Departures and just such an aircraft, a King Air (twin engine turboprop business airplane) at 17,500 called me requesting VFR advisories southeast bound. I identified him, started a track, and made a strip. In addtition to being important to provide the service on general principles, he was cutting across my departure track and given my several ORD departures it was better having four pairs of eyes looking for each other than just two (the respective cabin crews). As he continued southeast, I could see he would cross V10 (Victor 10) the principal arrival route to ORD from the Southwest. Not only that, he would cross it at a point about where much of the jet traffic coming out of high would be going through his altitude in their descent. This is what I mean about VFR risk.

So, despite knowing who was working PLANO (the sector controlling those jets) and knowing full well what his answer was going to be, I called him up and asked him if he would work the VFR (telling him the type and altitude—in other words, giving him every clue that he really needed to work the King Air for the reasons cited above). “Unable VFR,” he snapped. In 30 years of ATC, I consider that response the single most irresponsible and dangerous act I ever witnessed by an alleged professional.

My choices were to advise the King Air of the traffic in the next sector, tell him the next controller was unable to work him, and since he was leaving my airspace, bid him good luck and adieu. Or, I could keep him on my frequency and at least call traffic to him as the lazy idiot next door descended a continuous line of jet traffic through him despite knowing he was there. What do you think I did?

Apparently I wasn’t as prepared as I thought, because just about the time he got into the idiot’s sector the King Air notified me he was going to be unable to remain VMC and would need an IFR clearance. Ouch. That put me in an utterly untenable position (all from trying to be a professional and a good citizen). I couldn’t give him a clearance (since by then he wasn’t in my airspace—ATCs #1 no-no). I didn’t really want to call up PLANO again (the miscreant was a yeller and screamer, as weak sticks often are—I’m sure he became a supervisor). However, I looked over and saw that a handoff man was plugged in, so I took a chance and gave him a call, telling him the situation and the history. He said he’d take care of it and told me to ship the King Air over to them.

I was so livid I could hardly speak. I complained to the supervisor, and complained to the area manager, and complained to Quality Assurance. That was utterly unconscienable, unprofessional, and dangerous. He took a transfer some time after that (not as a consequence) and I never saw him again. That was the “cream of the crop” your FAA flacks said had remained at work those two years.

I can’t abide a liar, and those people have been lying to the public for over half a century. There’s a common saying in the Air Traffic Division—“loved the job, hated the employer.” My sentiments exactly.

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Last updated: 13 April 2010