Perchance to Dream

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Generally, when someone learned of my line of work they would remark on how stressful that must be, speculate on how was it possible to do that job, or occasionally, that it must give me nightmares. In truth, I never dreamed about airplanes at all for the 30 years I worked as a controller. Only recently, nearly ten years after I retired, have I started to have nightmares about ATC. For the most part, it’s not what you might think.

99% of my ATC nightmares are variations on the theme of being expected to attend a class to hand in a paper or take a test and not knowing exactly where to go because you hadn’t been to the class all semester. I’m told that’s a common anxiety dream. In my ATC variation I’ve been on vacation or recently transferred to a new area or new facility and I haven’t been there in so long I’ve forgotten when my next shift is supposed to be. I can’t find the schedule and I can’t find my headset.

Recently, I had my first and only ATC nightmare that actually involved airplanes. I was working BDF High and the next sector had asked me to issue a new route to an aircraft in my sector. The new route would cause the flight to bypass the next sector altogether and to go through a completely different sector than originally planned.

I told the aircraft that he was going to be rerouted and waited for him to tell me he was ready to copy. Then I got tied up with a couple of airplanes here, some coordination there, maybe even a little grab-ass. In any event, the flight never got the clearance, I never got the amended route in the computer, and when I figured out all I hadn’t done the aircraft was three sectors away without benefit of handoff to anyone (a major no-no), and was rapidly approaching ZOB’s airspace (another major no-no).

I didn’t know the dial code for the sector in which he was located, nor did anyone around me, and I couldn’t find a sup to physically go to the area and alert them to the interloper—frankly, I didn’t even have time to explain it to the sup—I needed to talk to them myself. About then I woke up. It was horrible. No monsters, no lead feet, no pistols squeezing out bullets like gumdrops—just plain old ATC horror. I don’t want that dream again.

Update: Nearly two years later and I've had three or four more. Not identical, but clearly what I would call anxiety dreams. The latest one involved me working PLANO (Southwest arrivals to ORD) and being in the hold. I was about to be relieved by a supervisor (whom I didn’t like—that’s not a short list) and it was too complicated to explain to him that the Jetstream I had at 8,000 needed a holding clearance. I realized during the process that the jet I'd had at 8,000 in the hold but had switched to ORD was still turning there just as the Jetstream started holding. The old jet-chasing-a-prop-around-the-holding-pattern thing. I couldn’t call ORD, I couldn’t move the Jetstream, I couldn’t let the supervisor take the sector and catch my mistake…

I mentioned it to Roddy and he said maybe I had been a shitty controller all along and it’s just now catching up to me. He’s so supportive. I immediately dismissed that notion, primarily because all of these dreams are stuff I never would have done in the first place. Just like ditching class in college.

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Last updated: 20 January 2011