My Worst Day As a Controller


December 1972
Was a Bad Month for Aviation

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22 December 1972. At that particular time in ZJX, journeymen controllers were having to pull A-side duty due to lack of trainees in the pipeline. Mike Opalewski was working Ocean radar and had just gotten his ass kicked with a shitload of special sections plus regular traffic in the morning rush down C1150. When he got relieved after the session, he got up and asked me if I wanted the radar and he would pull strips. I said, “sure.”

Well, not being just any dummy, I figured that all those airplanes going south were going to have to go back north soon. So, the first thing I did was get the supervisor (don't remember who it was, but probably Ron Browne), and told him the situation and asked him to get some flow control worked up to keep us from getting hammered when they did.

Sure enough, about two hours later, we started getting a bunch of strips as they launched all those stinking airplanes out of ZMA. The first thing that happened was Barracuda (ZMA sector) called Gateway (sitting next to me—I was working Azalea) with a blob of airplanes. I got on the line to help and the ZMA controller said he didn't know which ones were which, but he knew they were all separated.

After coordinating with the kid working Gateway (I don't remember his name—I say kid while I had all of 4½ years in myself), I told Barracuda to go ahead and ship the airplanes and we would sort it out. As the airplanes started to come over, the Gateway kid started trying to identify them when his transmitter quit, both main and standby. About then someone on the frequency, aware that Jax wasn't answering, told everyone, “hey, the next frequency is 134.05” (mine).

I had airplanes start calling me and I started identing them and getting them identified (a time consuming process, as it could take as long as eighteen seconds—an eternity in ATC—to get the result). In the meantime, two more blobs of airplanes were handed off from Barracuda to Gateway, whose frequency still wasn't working. They all came over on mine.

At this point I still had delusions of being the big hero and getting everyone identified and sorted out. I idented a couple of guys, vectored one Eastern flight out east to get him away from the pack so I could identify him, etc. The targets at the Gateway/Azalea boundary on the CHS radar, looked like large double lined slashes, and airplanes that were as far as ten miles apart looked like one target if their slashes were lined up.

As I was neck deep in airplanes trying to get them sorted out (flights that were supposed to be at FL330 showed up at FL230 because ZMA had never been able to get them up because they were so buried), the CHS radar started to shift; first 15° one way, then 15° the other. We were accustomed to it doing that, far too frequently. It did it for 15 minutes. I finally caught the Eastern that I had vectored out by Smelt (now 50 miles off course) and vectored him back toward C1150 (the airway they were supposed to fly).

But the frequency was a mad house. I never could get control of it and I couldn’t identify aircraft while the radar was shifting. The NIP radar, never good much north of Gateway, was useless at this point.

Somewhere in all of this the supervisors got involved and calls were made to ZDC advising that they were getting a bunch of airplanes and to get people to ILM Low, ILM high, and Atlantic (super high) sectors to take the crap we were about to give them (I wasn't aware of this until later). As the blobs got up toward ILM I started shipping them to frequencies I thought they belonged on—there wasn't much else to do.

About then, some aircraft asked me about the Eastern flight that had just passed in front of him at FL290. I said, “what Eastern?” I later figured out it was the one I had heroically vectored all over the ocean just to get him together with someone else near the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

When all the smoke had cleared someone plugged in to relieve me and I went out to the café. I was shaken and shaking. I got lots of support and kind words from people I would never have expected. I got drunk on the way home. I never did that before or since.

Why all the airplanes? Well, it seems the collective idiots at flow control (ours was Sandblower) had indeed checked all the scheduled flights out of MIA and FLL. They did not, however check for any special sections (three days before Christmas, when all manner of special sections typically flew—even A-sides knew that), nor did they check for proposed traffic from PBI, NAS, ZBV, or FPO, or any oceanic stuff from South America. It was all there, though.

I was furious—so furious that, although I was truly the only one who knew about the two close airplanes, I turned in the deal (loss of separation) myself. When they did the investigation, they found that there had been more than 30 airplanes on the frequency at one point and when they laid out the strips, found eight flights estimated at Azalea at the same minute at FL290. Naturally I bought the deal (which I thought flow should buy) for vectoring one airplane into another. I always thought it was a shitty deal and that the investigators hadn't done me any favors.

There had been an accident on the 6th when a departing North Central DC-9 crashed into a taxiing Delta Convair at ORD. Two days later a United B737 crashed at MDW with some Watergate figure's wife on board. And on the 29th EA401, an L1011 inbound to MIA, crashed in the Everglades. You can look them up. My personal disaster got no publicity whatsoever, of course—nevertheless, it was a tough month for commercial aviation.

The epilogue is positive, however. Years later I worked with two controllers at ZAU who both recalled the incident when I told them about it. One was a guy with about the same time in as me who was working in ZDC that day. He told me they were finding airplanes as far north as RIC that had been in that pack. The other guy was a freshly checked out kid working NE departures out of MIA. He got buried with all the same stuff as us and neither he nor the Barracuda guy were ever able to recover from it to give us anything. We talked about it often.

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