The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC for Decades

Winding Down

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This is probably as good a time as any to talk about things you never knew about ATC. For instance, for all the excitement people feel when they talk about Air Force One (A1 in controllerese), A1 is not a specific airplane. Any Air Force airplane, whether a B747, a VC137, a C9 (as will be seen), a Lear, or even some sort of propeller driven plane, which is carrying the President of the United States, is A1. If it happens to be a Navy aircraft (such as the C2 Greyhound which landed the Shrub on a carrier) it’s VV1 (VV is controllerese for Navy). The helicopter the President flies from the White House to ADW is VM1 (VM is controllerese for Marine). If the President is aboard a general aviation aircraft (such as a chartered Gulfstream, for example), it’s called Executive One (but written in controllerese as N1).

Interestingly, the tail numbers of the two B747s usually used as A1 are 28000 and 29000 (contrary to the racist and highly offensive image circulated by email shortly after Barack Obama was elected President). When they fly without the President, Vice President, or their families, they are usually filed as S28000 (pronounced SAM, meaning Special Air Mission). They could just as easily go as A28000, commonly done with other military aircraft not assigned a tactical callsign for the mission.

As I recall, I only worked presidential aircraft twice—once, A2 (the Vice President), inbound to DBQ. I cleared him direct for vectors to the ILS, Runway 31 Approach, but he declined and elected for the full VOR/DME approach. I thought that odd.

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Sometime while still in the South Area, I worked A1, himself. This is no big deal to the guys at ZDC—they can probably measure in weeks the interval between any of them working A1. Out in the field, however, it’s a much rarer event. On this strip (the actual one I used) you can see they were using a C9, which is basically a DC-9 (or MD80 in more modern versions). If you remember your flight data training from Chapter Two, you’ll see that he filed at 470 knots (a bit ambitious for a C9—420 would be more like it), initially at FL310 but later recleared to FL350. The route of flight shows the departure point (ADW) then short stripping to a fix (BVT) before my sector then over PNT (in my sector), direct BDF, direct MZV, direct IOW, direct FOD, then J82 to CZI (my all time favorite fix name), then direct JAC.

Local strip marking procedures at ZAU called for a diagonal slash in the route of flight box when the shrimp boat had been prepared, and a cross slash forming an X when communications was established with the airplane. Obviously, with the advent of RDP and data blocks in the ’70s, the initial slash was unnecessary, although over-exuberant (in my eyes) newbies used it to denote when they would manually pull up the data block once the aircraft was within our facility…make work, and it annoyed me no end.

We wrote altitudes in thousands of feet, instead of the customary hundreds done everywhere else in aviation. That actually made sense, because the last digit was always a ∅ for IFR aircraft. Whenever we turned a flight over to the next frequency we would mark a slash in the call sign box, which is usually when the D-side would pull the strip out of its holder and deposit it in the used strip bay. In this case I deposited it in my shirt pocket.

I think the last two plus years of my career were pretty much come in to work, work my shift, go home. I always enjoyed working airplanes, and the more the merrier—the recording of me working a PLANO rush was made during this period. But I was really tired of putting up with management nonsense (and by the way, it would be easy to get the idea they were all against me—management nonsense was non-discrimating stupidity across the board—I simply had less tolerance for it than most), coworker issues with seniority and shift bidding (I was the senior guy in the area and I liked day shifts, Monday through Friday), and the fact that I had interests at home that work was starting to interfere with.

In a story from Tales of ATC I relate that I knew in 1995 I was going to be okay to retire. That wasn’t possible then, as we were putting two kids through college. But by Fall of ’97 we were down to one, and the Spring semester was his last. Schedule bidding arguments had intensified and sometime in the New Year I was going to be stuck with a schedule with more swings and mids than the senior troop in the area deserved to be subjected to. It was time to go. My wife and I had a few discussions and we determined that 19 December offered a lot of advantages of timing.

I had really wanted to put in the full 30 years, but the schedule (and the mean spirited motivation behind it) was pretty much the straw that broke the camel’s back. I figured, close enough. Later, I rationalized that I could easily justify saying 30 years because no one would care a whit that it was actually 29 years, eight months (as it says on my DOT retirement plaque). So, I often slip in the “nearly” to be less inexact and nobody challenges it. Mostly, observers are amazed I appear as sane as I do.


There’s an old saying, “the older I get, the faster I was, ” which speaks to how our memory tends to focus on highlights and repress the realities. First, don’t take any of the following as an attempt to assert parity with some extraordinarily gifted personages. There are some lessons to take from their stories, however.

I once saw an interview with Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn. The moderator asked each some questions designed to highlight their similarities, such as, “did you ever bat anyplace but 3rd in the lineup?” “Nope,” from both. “Did you ever look at the lineup card each day to see if you were playing?” “Nope,” from both. They each had been so confident in their abilities that it never occurred to them there was an alternative. And yet, even Ted Williams, the greatest pure hitter in the history of baseball, was only successful about a third of his times at bat. To put it another way, he failed nearly seven times out of every ten.

Arguments will rage for years as to who was the best golfer of all time. Answers range from Bobby Jones to Ben Hogan to Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods. I think ultimately, Woods’ legacy will defy comparison to any other, but that’s not this story. What we tend to do is cloak the stories of past notables with a succeeding aura of invincibility as time passes. We begin to imagine that Bobby Jones was assured of victory every time he stepped on a tee box. I recently had occasion to read the story of his 1930 Grand Slam effort, which has been legendary almost since that time. One imagines he must have lapped the field in every tournament. I found a website which had narratives of each tournament, and I was surprised to learn that Jones spent a fair amount of time in the rough due to wayward tee shots during those tournaments. One of the match play events went to the 18th hole before he defeated his adversary. It was much more a near run thing than the mists of nearly 80 years would have us remember.

Jack Nicklaus is rightfully considered to be the Monster of the Majors. Until Tiger Woods got to double digits, Nicklaus’ eighteen major titles was nearly twice the next competitor’s total. Of note is that he finished 2nd in nineteen more. Just considering those 37 majors, Nicklaus didn’t even bat .500.

Despite six wins plus the FedEx Cup in 2009, and despite getting to within a couple of Nicklaus’ 2nd place mark on the Career Victories list, Tiger Woods failed to close the deal in at least three significant tournaments (PGA Championship, Tour Championship, HSBC Championship) that year. And he failed to win a major at all. Tiger Woods, fail. Sort of doesn’t go together, does it?

The point of all this is no controller ever went through a career error free. No controller always worked a perfect rush. No controller always made the right sequencing choice, and no controller never wasted any space. While I have a pretty good opinion of my career, it’s from remembering the good things and glossing over (or even forgetting) some not so good things. I had that jarringly driven home going through some files recently in which it referred to some five operational errors over a three year span in the ’80s. “Whew!” I can hear some say, “that boy was dangerous.” Well, the errors weren’t inches away from disaster in which I was surprised by something I hadn’t noticed. They were almost always controlled situations in which I wound up with 4.8 miles instead of the five we advertise. It still looks bad in the record book, but no lives were ever at risk in any of them.

The real point is I was able to function effectively at the highest level (discounting my time at ORD). I’m proud of that. What I hope to be able to do is to always remember the warts on some of those rushes—the Sabreliner out of 17,000 just south of JOT because I hadn’t properly attended to him while putting out fires elsewhere in the sector—the Eastern B727 at FL280 out over the ocean who I had vectored out of the pack and then back in while fighting a crushing rush and malfunctioning radar—and other things that didn’t work as well as I would have liked. We’d like to think of ATC as a zero error profession, as contemplating less is unthinkable, but at some point, the reality that it is, after all, a human endeavor must be acknowledged. Perhaps, it’s best to do so as I’m doing here—after the fact, and with advancing years, better performance. “The older I get…”

If you made it this far, thank you. I’ve been working on this story for a long time, and it’s been ¼ done for ten years. I plan on a lot of fiddling and fine tuning (didn’t discuss my tenure as Area Rep, for example) including adding the deposition I gave in the Sandy matter. You’ll love that. Well, I hear the beach calling. Here it is, the middle of the afternoon and I don’t have to be anywhere—today, tomorrow, next week. After almost twelve years, I’m still not bored with that.

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Last updated: 05 December 2009