Operating Initials

(Mouseover any identifier to decode)

Every controller is assigned a two letter identifier known as “operating initials”. As suggested in my story elsewhere about “E4” their purpose is to positively identify personnel when reviewing recordings of positions—whether for performance review, incident, or accident.

I don’t know that there’s a manual or directive anywhere which prescribes the process—there must be, this is the government, after all—but my first set of initials was “PE”, presumably based on my last name. I must observe that initials in general, are a sort of personal shorthand for our name with which we’ve self-identified since a very early age. Just now as I’m writing this, I can’t begin to imagine when that may happen. I guess sometime in elementary school I might have become aware of monograms (not on towels at home, I can assure you) and inquired after their meaning and learned there actually is a correct format for them—big first letter of the last name, flanked by the first letter of the first and middle name.

But, I digress. I never cared for “PE”. For one thing it sounded kind of wimpy. While my detractors may claim it’s a spot on metaphor, it’s not how I see myself. Also, the very first thing that comes to mind when I hear “PE” is everyone’s favorite high school class, phys-ed. However, “Phys-Ed” has a manly sound and however we may not have enjoyed it, one was never embarrassed to say that their first class after lunch (for example) was “Phys-Ed”. You never heard anyone say “PE”. And it also rhymes (or is a homophone of) pee. Who wants to be described that way? I hated it. However, the management trust at ZJX was unsympathetic to any deviation from courses they had set, so for the whole of my tenure there, I was stuck with “PE”.

Now, congruent with all other ATC operations was the phonetic alphabet. I’ve described itelsewhere but suffice to say, the correct phonetics for “PE” were Papa Echo—hardly poetic gold. For context, let me say I always felt there was magic in certain combinations of letters or words. It’s why I write today (we can argue the quality later). Letters and words can convey so much more than just their naked characters. For example, in ZJX among the facilities with which we regularly worked was ZMA, and we often ran across the same people on a regular basis as we interacted. Most were anonymous voices or sets of initials, easily forgotten.

But one in particular, whom I remember vividly to this day, was “SE”. In truth, I don’t believe I ever heard him sign a simple SE. No, he had crafted the cute phonetics of “Slow and Easy”. But it wasn’t the cutenes or catchiness of the phrase—it was how he controlled traffic. There wasn’t a thing you could ask Slow & Easy to do for you that he wouldn’t/couldn’t accommodate. If you needed help with something, just ask Slow & Easy and it was as good as done. If you were buried in a problem that needed a favor from the next sector and you heard Slow & Easy’s voice over the line, you breathed a sigh of relief. You also never got bad ATC from him, either. He was also fun to talk to and seemed a genuine nice guy, and a thoroughly competent professional. But the important thing I learned was the power of those catchy phonetics.

One time when I went down to visit my parents, I stopped at ZMA and inquired about Slow & Easy. He was there. I met him. His name was Ron Sefalo (apparently his initials assignment was done by the same guy as mine). We chatted about stuff and when it was time for me to leave (around shift change), he offered to drive me up to my parent’s house, rather than call them or take a cab. Geez, even in real life he was Slow & Easy. I’ve never forgotten him, nor the lesson of the initials.

Fast forward to my time at ORD (and I don’t remember what initials I had there, but they were not “PE”). A set of phonetics I heard frequently when working South or East Departures was “Sex Aitch” (I later learned it was for XH—controllers are not only inventive but grounded in the basics…). Much as with Slow & Easy, Sex Aitch was always accommodating, always congenial, never gave bad ATC. I first met him when several of us made a FAM trip out to the center (ZAU) and I learned he was Mark Hanrahan. Mark was as genuine a guy as Ron had been, and later when I transferred out there, we became friends when I learned he was a neighbor (several blocks away) and we had a mutual interest in shooting sports. Later, when I decided to dispose of some of my guns, Mark bought them from me.

When I got to ZAU I was assigned LR for my initials. Nothing remarkable— Lima Romeo were the ICAO phonetics for them and during my first year, probably used them that way. But the lessons of Ron and Mark had germinated and after a while, following their example of accommodation and professionalism, I began developing a “personality” identifiable by my adoption of “Lone Ranger” as my cutesy phonetics.

It wasn’t a matter of just saying “Lone Ranger” at the appropriate time in a coordination—it was a matter of incorporating the phrase as a part of the conversation and all that was coordinated. Following Ron’s and Mark’s lead, I made it evident that if you were in a conversation with “Lone Ranger” you were a part of some great ATC. I’m not so sure it played all that well with my co-workers in house, but you sure could tell the difference in talking with controllers in other facilities. I remember on more than one occasion hearing someone from one of the other facilities asking over the line if the “Lone Ranger” was on.

I am proud of who I was then and how I was perceived. Unfortunately, it was all too short a time—probably from about early ’74 until I went to West Terminal in March of 1976. I kept the initials, but I didn’t take the personality with me for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, I went into a training mode which lasted for six or more months. No opportunity for grandstanding there—it was hard enough adapting to the differences in traffic and envioronment (low altitude vs high altitude). The principal external facility with whom we operated was ORD (there were a couple of local approach controls and towers), and while Sex Aitch had two departure sectors in his area, we only had one. Also, there didn’t seem to be the same opportunities or need for such personality with the arrival sectors.

Eventually, “Lone Ranger” kind of blended into the background, and I lost my enthusiasm for cutesy phonetics. When I came back from sabbatical I don’t even remember what initials I was assigned. At that point, it was irrelevant in my mind—almost as if it was a phase whose time had passed. I do recall that I had an opportunity in the ’80s to change my initials to something else as I moved rapidly up the seniority ranks. I opted for RP, and while there were some interesting possibilities (Rigid Peter came to mind) I don’t recall ever employing any. To me RP was more important as an indicator that I had sufficient seniority to get operating initials which were my real initials.

Ultimately, the fourteen months I spent in Quality Assurance was my undoing for any sort of verbal horseplay on the recorded lines. After one has heard about a hundred recordings of controllers saying unprofessional things, one takes a different attitude about phraseology and comportment. That’s not to say the sorts of things Ron and Mark, and to a lesser extent, I, did were unprofessional. On the contrary, I think they added a great deal to level of service and support we provided each other. But I think the change in the workforce post-1981 was not the fertile ground it once had been for the development of those types of personalities. It was definitely a changed environment. I did create a stylized conflation of them to use in the Read & Initial binder, however:

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Last updated: 21 May 2011