The Kids in the Tower

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It’s old news now, but for a week or so in March, 2010, a huge fake outrage was whipped up in the media about a controller at JFK who had apparently taken his kid(s) to work and had let them plug into his position and talk to airplanes. An audio tape surfaced and was posted to YouTube, where it languished for three or four weeks (among the zillions of other ATC recordings) until some handwringer found it and leaked it to the press.

My, you would have thought that surgeons were letting their kids cut open patients, the way the handwringers and the ignorantia wailed. There were calls for suspending the controller (which the FAA did, briefly, with pay), suspending the supervisor (which the FAA did, briefly, with pay), firing everybody, impeaching the Administrator, and all sorts of ridiculous things. They even managed to get the Secretary of Transportation and the President of NATCA (the air traffic controllers representative) to condemn the incident as “poor judgement” or “a mistake” by the controller (and supervisor).

If you’re any fan of these pages, you probably are interested in what my thoughts are. Well, I’ll tell you. First, a question (and this idea comes from a friend who used to be president of NATCA, and which is the perfect analog to the situation) do you remember the first time you sat behind the steering wheel of a moving car? I have a lovely home in Florida which I’ll put up as stakes that it was your father/grandfather/uncle or some other close family member. And that you were about six. Do I have to elaborate, or are you already nodding your head, “oh, yeah”?

Now, let me tell you what was going on in the tower. The controller in question was plugged into the Local position (the name for the controller who clears airplanes for takeoff and landing—there are other jobs in the tower for controllers, but that’s the one everyone recognizes). There are two sets of headset jacks at every position. One of them has override capability over the other. A controller usually plugs into that one, especially if he’s training someone or has a visitor plugged in with him. Yes, having someone plugged in with you is not unusual, and it doesn’t distract or otherwise interfere with what the controller is doing.

This day the controller had his son plugged in with him as he worked the position. Whenever he had a clearance to issue, he told his son what to say and the kid keyed the mike and parroted what the controller told him. That’s it. Did you think the kid was judging whether the airplanes were separated and then issuing the clearances? Apparently some people did.

There are lots of things I don’t know. The first rule I learned long ago was when I encounter a piece of information that I don’t know anything about, I keep my mouth shut. I do not make remarks on subjects about which I’m utterly uninformed. Do you know why? Because there’s a better than even chance of looking like a complete idiot. I don’t need any help in that regard.

What should have happened for all the nanny handwringers who raised such a hue and cry was to have gone in search of someone knowledgeable to determine if what dad did was kosher or not. And by kosher, I mean break the rules, put lives at risk, exercise poor judgement. In this case, the answers are “no, ” “no, ” and “no.”

Did my uncle break the law by sitting me on his lap behind the wheel? Well, did he ever actually relinquish control of the car (and by the way, we were on a one lane dirt road to the dump a couple of miles out of a town of 700)? Of course not. Not only is there no rule against letting a non-qualified visitor talk on the frequency in ATC, we were frequently encouraged to do it when a tour of Boy Scouts or a school class were given a tour of the facility.

I blame several entities for this brouhaha:

By the way, I think it’s safe to assume that the parties best positioned to fear the operation (if it was truly dangerous) were the pilots. You should listen to the tape. All of them are pretty jazzed about the kid getting some stick time. One of them even said “good job.”

I posted about this on FaceBook back when it came out and I told everyone I had done the same thing (taken my kids to work—more than once, usually on midnight shifts). My daughter commented that she “was a great kid controller.” She pursued ATC initially in college, and where do you think the initial impetus came from? Anyone familar with Take Your Kid to Work Day?

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Last updated: 05 September 2011