The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC for Decades

Bitter Pill

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I have reservations about chronicling the next episode in my career. In the first place, even some fifteen years after the events, it’s an extremely painful memory. Resurrecting it makes me seeth with anger, and I’m generally not disposed to loosing that emotion from my control. But maybe it will be cathartic and do me some good.

As I’ve candidly laid out, I’m not the easiest person to get along with. However, that doesn’t mean I’m universally reviled. Those who have been my friends for years will affirm that I have many good qualities. Patience, however, and tolerance for incompetence are not on the list. Apparently, tact isn’t very high on it, either. Nevertheless, I’ve been married to the same woman for >40 years, have two kids who adore me, six grandkids likewise, and I’ve had two dogs who loved me. I have dinner once a month with people I’ve known for 50 years. Even though I’m not remotely spiritual, my wife tells everyone that I have the highest moral and ethical standards of anyone she knows. How bad can I possibly be?

Well, apparently bad enough for someone to level a charge so outrageous and so unfounded as to be laughable if it didn’t have so many evil facets to it. I think the genesis of the episode is born of a change in the workforce in the late ’80s and through the ’90s. I’ve told listeners that the people are what made me retire. In the old days (geez, can that be any more dinosaur sounding?) we looked out for each other. We looked for ways to help a fellow controller who may be struggling. The predominant attitude in the last few years I worked was “how many of my airplanes can I get someone else to work?”

When I was in the West Terminal (after 1981) and the Southwest Area, although there were perhaps 85% new faces once I returned from sabbatical, there were still plenty of old ones with whom I’d worked for many years. I was a completely known quantity, warts and all. People knew who I was, what I was, that they never had to worry about getting bad ATC from me, etc., even if they weren’t particularly fond of me personally. And the 85% who didn’t know me were quickly educated by both actions and endorsement to the foregoing.

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I should also point out that the facility (all ARTCCs) had two rows of two lines each of sectors. We called the individual lines of sectors the A row, B row, etc. The pairs were obviously the A-B row and the C-D row. While sectors on the A and B rows and on the C and D rows were across the aisle from each other, and most areas had sectors installed on both, there was no common ground between the A-B row and the C-D row. It was almost like being in two different facilities under one roof. From the time I went to West Terminal in 1976 until I went to the TMU in 1988, I worked exclusively in the C-D row, and never returned to the A-B row until 1990.

Selecting the South Area for deployment when I came downstairs from QA put me back in the A-B row for the first time in fourteen years. Although I might be recognized as someone who worked in the building, I was virtually an unknown quantity to 98% of the A-B row controllers when I plugged into the South Area that first day. Most of those people just didn’t know who I was. That I whistled through recertification at BVT and RBS, and only needed a couple of days at South Departures, their three hardest sectors to that point, was no doubt unsettling. When BOONE came over and I not only breezed through that sector but wound up training almost everyone in the area there (because I was virtually the only one in the area with significant arrival experience—at least ten years worth), fragile egos could easily feel threatened.

To say that several South Area people and I got off on the wrong foot would be an understatement. And some of it was for cause, as it turned out that the area was a bit of a dumping ground for people who couldn’t certify on the extremely difficult terminal sectors in the old East Terminal, whence the South Area was partially born. So, if you’ve been following along, you’ll know I was doomed to not be happy with the surroundings. Nevertheless, I did my job and functioned as professionally as I could, but I was still an outsider to many of those people, some of whom had worked together for four or five years by that time. Three or four people in particular were not kindly disposed toward me, and while that has never been a problem in the past, they happened to have a coworker whom they could exploit to do serious and real harm to me.

Often, I was surprised to discover old alliances I’d never suspected. Not only in the FAA, but schoolmates who had attended the same school together before we met, for example. In this case, the common ground was the Academy in OKC. Recall I’ve never been there. Although that blank on my resume doesn’t figure in the story per se, the lack of that experience later helped me understand the mechanics of what subsequently transpired.

There was a core of perhaps four troops at the center of the story. I’ve often told of the verbal grab-ass and “pimping” (as we called ribbing or joking) amongst the corps, but under certain circumstances it may no longer be a back-and-forth and instead transform into blatant picking of a, by now, festering wound. I was old enough to know how to handle bullies and I certainly had a thick enough skin to handle any good natured ribbing and even the first couple of levels of malignant behavior. But these folks took it beyond that. It wasn’t enough to just ignore them and have the lack of attention kill off the activity. They kept at it and kept at it.

During that period (1995 principally), my brother had been diagnosed with cancer, had surgery, and rapidly declined into a coma. On 1 July, he passed away. I was at his side, and in fact had made approximately five other visits during the year to help tend to him. Shortly after my return from laying him to rest I went to the Area Manager to tell him about what had become a hostile work environment that I was unable to neutralize by myself. I was confident I’d get competent support. He was, after all, a returned PATCO guy and one of us Seven who took PLANO to the Southwest area years before. We had worked side by side, every day for more than a year. He assured me he’d look into it. 108 days after my brother’s passing, my father, a long time Alzheimers patient expired, as well.

A few days later I might as well have been kicked in the chest. My area manager called me in and told me he’d conducted an investigation and told me that another coworker, a female, had leveled a charge of harrassment at me. The spotlight had been turned toward me!

The story was that the female (I’ll call her Sandy) had complained that I’d been mean to her. Yes, that was about it. She said I’d quit saying “good morning” to her and other mean stuff. We arranged a meeting with her and me plus a couple of supervisors and actually had a productive meeting. I thought the complaint (trival as it had been) had been taken care of. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m unsure of the timeline now, but for the purposes of this narrative, it’s not important—in any event, probably only a few weeks.

Whatever the interval was, my AM called me into his office and informed me that he’d received another complaint from Sandy. What! She apparently was moved to escalate her earlier complaint, this time with charges that included creating a hostile work environment, personal attacks, and malfeasance in the technical arena (bad ATC). He was proposing a letter of reprimand for the continued harrassment of Sandy and he presented his justification as a summary of approximately four or five specifications. I was stunned.

At one point in the back and forth regarding the proposed letter, my former friend, the Area Manager threatened me with removal (which I was absolutely confident could never be made to stick—hey! I’d been fired once already) or a forced transfer to another area. I categorically refused to accept either and filed my reply to his proposed letter. Nevertheless, the well was truly poisoned for me in the South Area and ultimately I asked for reassignment to the Southwest Area. I think I offered the transfer to save him some certain humiliation—he should have stood firm, but he didn’t, and consequently he didn’t deserve the gesture.

To be fair, he was in what could be described as an untenable position. In the FAA whenever alleged harrassment involves a female, the charge seems automatically to morph into “sexual harrassment.” In the 1990s, there was hardly a more volatile topic nor incendiary charge in the government workplace. For any but the most able of managers, resisting the forces brought to bear would be very difficult to withstand. Knowing me—who I was, and who I wasn’t—should have made the response a slam dunk for anyone with any semblance of character. Sadly, he was anything but a most able manager, as it turns out, and he absolutely failed to demonstrate any character whatsoever in this episode.

Fortune smiled on me once I had that information (the specifications of abuse) in hand, because I had a clear memory of each of the so-called incidents. I wrote down my recollection of each of them in detail, including dates and dialogue—a practice, the wisdom of which I’d learned when I served as the PATCO Area Representative in the West Terminal. The FAA loves documentation, although they’re not very good at it, and it was very easy to beat them at their own game, although they’ll clobber you if you don’t play it. In earlier years, I’d been presented with a Record of Conversation (an actual FAA form for supervisors) purporting to accurately depict a meeting in which I had been involved some time previous. It bore almost no resemblance to what had actually taken place, but because they had been the first to put something on paper (and it was an official FAA form), regardless of its accuracy, it became accepted as evidence. The lesson I learned was immediately after any meeting with a supervisor, make notes about it while fresh in one’s mind. Having an excellent memory for dialogue and events makes this practice devestating to the opposition in subsequent dealings.

In this case, I’m extremely happy I had adopted the practice, because a few weeks later I learned I was to be deposed for the purpose of processing an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) complaint filed by Sandy and her husband (let’s call him Tim—and who is a player beyond spousal support in the whole affair) against the FAA for permitting a hostile work environment. On the day the EEO lady was to depose me, my NATCA rep and I went downstairs to meet with her. After a couple of questions, with her busily typing her analysis into her laptop each time, I could see that she was essentially asking about the specifications given to me in the notice of intent to issue a letter of reprimand.

I stopped her and told her I could save her a bunch of typing if she was interested in the documentation I’d already prepared and had on my computer at home. She would, so we adjourned temporarily, I went home and cut her a disk with the documentation file on it, and presented it to her on my return. I invited her to look it over and see if there were any holes in her investigation I might be able to fill in.

I heard nothing more from her until I was called to sign for a prepared deposition. You may imagine my amusement to find it was word-for-word the document I had prepared. I never heard anything more about it, although I have reason to believe Sandy (and her spouse) were unsuccessful in their complaint based on subsequent events.

So, around August, 1996 I went back to the Southwest Area. Sometime later that year I heard that a Federal lawsuit had been filed by Sandy and Tim—and my former friend, another supervisor, and I were to report to the Regional Office for deposition. Naturally I was fully prepared with another copy of my documentation of events, but the day before we were to go we were notified that the suit had been withdrawn.

That was the last I ever heard from Sandy and Tim. Of course they were in another world on the A-B row and I was back in the C-D row, but it seemed we never even crossed paths in the café or in the halls. The major lesson I had learned which played out exactly so in this case, is prepare as complete a set of facts, including dialogue, as you possibly can. In my case, I’ve learned that no one remembers conversations as well as I do, and when presented with what appears to be a virtual transcript of an earlier conversation, they are in no position to refute it (due to their own poor recollection and the near congruence with the actual dialogue) and the documentation becomes as good as hard evidence. Sandy and Tim didn’t have a leg to stand on once my version became fact.

There were lots of casualties in this story. I suffered immensely in ways that are beyond imagining. A quality relationship between me and my former friend was destroyed in the process. If Sandy has any heart at all, she must be aware that she was used and used badly. I’m absolutely confident that the three or four individuals who’d caused my problems in the South Area to begin with and who had attended the Academy with Sandy exploited that relationship for their own purposes. I lost what little respect I had for some coworkers who should have known better.

Once all that dust settled, I began my valedictory tour in my old haunts, PLANO, STQ, BDF High, LOWLI (a new high departure sector split off from BDF), and HNC (a new super high which overlaid BDF).

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Last updated: 29 October 2011