The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC for Decades

High Altitude—Life High—Pay Grades

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A little ATC—a lotta personal stuff. I alluded to my radar certification in the previous chapter. I have reason to believe I may have been the youngest journeyman controller (or at least center controller) in the FAA at the time. Of course no one kept records and there were 21 other centers, so who knows? I’m pretty sure I was the youngest in Jacksonville. There was no trophy, of course—but I didn’t rest on whatever metaphorical laurels there might have been, however.

You may recall from previous chapters that I had spent a lot of time in High Altitude when I was on the A-Side. I really liked it there, and in fact, in Jacksonville, if you wanted to work where there was the most and the most complex traffic, High Altitude was the place to be. Apparently, my predeliction was well known, because no more than three days after finishing my radar training, I was sitting at SAV radar and one of the staff specialists came up to me and said, “do you want to go to High Altitude?”

“Would I?” as the old joke goes.

“I’ll make it happen,” he said.

Now these time spans are, as I said before, utterly undocumented (so far as I know) and I put them out as my best recollection. We’re talking 1970, here, so give a guy a break, huh? Within a week I was in High starting to train. Much like my Low Altitude radar training, it was pretty much two days per sector. The big difference was the sectors: JAX, SAV, CHS, AGS, CAE, AMG, GNV, TLH, CEW, and the two ocean sectors, Azalea and Gateway. It probably took a month or six weeks to do it all and it’s possible it wasn’t continuous.

I specifically remember a week or two after starting in High, one of the supes came to me and asked if I would work FLO/CRE over in Low for the shift. Seemed they had a couple of sick leaves they needed to cover. That was interesting because it felt like it was the very first day of working a position on my own. It was a bit of a confidence builder though (as if I needed that, some would say). I never went back again, though. Hello, High Altitude.

I fully checked out in High with one exception—T-38s. That was a sector that overlaid VAD. VAD was a major Undergraduate Pilot Training School which used T-38s, an extremely high performance jet trainer. Although we usually worked 8-4, 4-12, 12-8 shifts in the center, the guys assigned T-38s worked 7-3 and 3-11 (no mids for student pilots). Their function was to basically work various flights of T-38s into about four or five designated areas and then just watch them do aerobatics and ACM (air combat maneuvers) from FL240 up to FL350 and keep them from spilling out into adjacent sectors—all shift long.

At some point, probably before I even came over to High, plans were afoot to split High, East and West. The truth is, even though I checked out on CEW, TLH, GNV, and AMG, I don’t believe I ever worked any of those sectors on my own (with the exception of AMG). The split happened in the Summer of ’70, but not before…

…One day in June (the 22nd, we’ve discovered upon unearthing documentation—she’d made a note in her diary!) I noticed a fresh face across the courtyard in my apartment complex. I walked over, introduced myself to Linda, and we’ve been together ever since. She was an anesthetist and even though I was presently in training, it was as a journeyman certifying in a new area. We were both journeymen about to embark on a new career of togetherness. 131 days later on 31 October, we were married. We were the archetypal DINKs (dual income, no kids).

I must pause here to talk about pay. I’ve been extremely fortunate in a lot of ways in my life. The timing I had in the FAA was incredible. When I hired in, the starting grade was GS-6 which paid $6,137 per year. That wasn’t bad money for a 22 year old single man in those days, although the family guys had it tough for a bit. A GS-12 journeyman made around $12,000 per year. All of us who hired in at that time caught some timing breaks, but because I wound up going through a little faster than some of the others, I made out like a bandit—especially, as it turned out when I went to Chicago, compared to other facilities.

The drill, when I hired in, was to get promoted to GS-8 six months later if one was checked out on the A-Side. An aside—remember in an earlier chapter I talked about W.A. Marshall and the regimen in progression then in place. Well, I was on the leading edge of an FAA hiring binge, and that timetable was out the window before I even started training on the A-Side. To resume, about a year or so after making 8 and going through D-school, once checked out on the D-Side, one got promoted to GS-10. After another year, after checking out on all the radars, one got promoted to GS-11, and a year after that, GS-12. I could anticipate that it would take me about three and a half years to make GS-12. That schedule was predicated on historical practices (albeit recent), though, and change was in the wind.

First of all, in 1968 there was some kind of reclassification of our pay grades, but I don't recall it as across the board, all grades. New hires would come in as GS-7s, and we GS-8s were upgraded to GS-9s, and I'm pretty sure the GS-10s moved up a notch, too. But there was nothing for the GS-12s. As a consequence, within a month of getting my 8 in October (two pay grades amounted to a pretty substantial increase in one’s fortunes), I was upgraded to GS-9. I recall specifically that I got a step increase (to Step 2) a year later, which is how I came to think I went to D-School in December.

Of course as a result of checking out on the D-Side in around February, ’70, I was promoted to GS-11. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have had to wait until Fall to get my 11 but in that period around ’69-70 Congress was trying to get staffing shortages resolved which had accounted for the large amount of hires of which I was in the vanguard. Legislation had been passed which was called the Whitten Amendment (and I have no idea to what it was attached * Update: see below) a waiver of which provided for immediate promotion to the requisite grade upon full certification. Consequently, I got my 11 in February (waiver #1), and then sometime shortly after I was radar certified (April or May) was promoted to GS-12 (waiver #2).

Not long after that, as a result of the Sickouts of 1968 and 1970, the governement reclassified the entire air traffic control pay system, bumping the top level up a grade, and making the journeyman grade GS-13, except for the GS-12s in about 15 centers (and probably several tower/approach controls). I’m sure there must have been some hard feelings among the veteran journeymen, but I never heard it, and probably couldn’t anyway because of my elation at another unanticipated raise.

The threshold for GS-13 grade for the four or five busiest centers was 1,000,000 operations per year. We were sitting around 900,000 but with traffic only increasing 4-5% per year, were going to have to wait a while. In the grandest mass larceny ever perpetrated on the FAA we started padding our count. Not completely lying, mind, but for example, ZTL had an ATCAA called Hot Rock up in the FML/SPA area in which NORAD would operate Air National Guard aircraft, much like Tarheel in our area. Sometimes, just as sort of a courtesy, ZTL would point out a target to us and tell us it was a Hot Rock aircraft, which would often spill over or at least get very near our boundary. So, we wrote an overflight strip for it…and counted the number of times the flight spilled over—or at least an estimate of the number of times…or an estimate of whether they had actually spilled over…

We had other creative methods. For example, very often C-141s would take off CHS and go out to an area over Lake Marion (about halfway between CHS and CAE) and do airwork at around 150, VFR (visual flight rules). The agressive amongst us would offer an IFR clearance which counted two points. I’m sure the statute of limitations has long expired, but it came to pass that in a matter of just a few months, our count exceeded 1,000,000 for the rolling twelve month period and we officially became a GS-13 facility.

I was thrilled, of course, at the prospect of my third promotion in a year, but was informed that the old year-in-grade rule was going to apply, so I didn’t make 13 that year. They did, however, rule that a combined year as an 11 and 12 would qualify, so when February of ’71 rolled around, I got my 13. Thus, by hitting all the waivers, upgrades, and reclasses, I was able to go from off-the-street to journeyman controller in about two years and from GS-6 to GS-13 in two years and ten months. I’m unaware of anyone who could match that fortuitous record.

Incidentally, another product of my lucky timing has to do with the FAA academy in Oklahoma City. Most controllers have gone through OKC at least once at some point in their career. At one time or another the FAA has done initial training at the Academy, D training at the Academy, and even R training at the Academy. When I hired in, the Academy was dormant (no hires in three years) so we were run through at the facility. They re-opened the Academy in the Summer of ’68, however, so people as few as three months behind me went there.

Sometime in 1971 the FAA decided to send everyone to the Academy for D-School—ostensibly to standardize the training. Of course since I’d been an FPL (full performance level, or journeyman controller) for a year by then, I missed out. Around 1974 they decided to send radar trainees to the Academy, which, of course, I missed by a wide margin. The upshot is I was a rare commodity—nearly 30 years in the FAA and I was never in OKC.

The final chapter in my pay story was the massive reclass of 1977 when journeyman pay went to GS-14. I can remember the effective date from years of data analysis in Chicago—14 February 1977. Except for a brief detail as a GS-15 supervisor, I retired as a GS-14 Step 10. There was a major reclass about a year after I retired, but I don’t know any of the details except that if I had stayed, it would have been worth quite a bit of money—both working and in retirement. I couldn’t stay, though, and I’m okay with it.

*I’ve recently discovered material that explains—the Whitten Amendment dated to the projected end of the Korean conflict in the early '50s and its purpose was to require a full year in grade for promotions from one GS level to the next. It was intended to prevent civil service grade bloat as had happened after WWII. In the FAA rebuild of the late '60s, early '70s, waivers were sought and approved to the Whitten Amendment for just the purpose my circumstances required.

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Last updated: 10 December 2011