Remembering ATC's Secret Weapon

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When I swore the air traffic controller employment oath, I shed my civilian identity and for the rest of my FAA career was known by my operating initials. Controllers never said “Goodbye” to end a call to another controller. Instead, like a secret cult, we gave our initials. In my case, IE. Unfortunately, PB was taken, and FU was off-limits, but through a random act of administrative kindness both I and E were available, so I was henceforth, IE, as in, “Wake up, IE, it’s time for your break.” If I’d died on duty, my acrylic headstone at the FAA Cemetery in Oklahoma City would’ve read: Here lies IE, 1979-1997, a fully successful HRU (Human Resource Unit) … and the cost of the funeral deducted from my severance pay.

Despite the effort to homogenize the workforce and make us “One FAA,” controller personalities emerged with the tenacity of weeds in the runway cracks. Likely some upper management hack gleaned an award for ginning up that slogan following the 1981 PATCO strike. “One FAA” was administrative brilliance. Six letters that easily fit on a baseball cap while imparting zero substance but distracted from the real issues that led to the suicidal walkout. I trust the “One FAA” slogan is gone now but can only hope that controller initials are still used, mainly because I can’t recall names. But I do recall KK, the quintessential air traffic controller from another era.

He was six foot tall, thin and sported a flat-top buzzcut. When I met him in 1984 at the Des Moines, Iowa, TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) he’d been a controller longer than some of the workforce had existed. In short-sleeve dress shirt and skinny dark tie he stood out like a Mercury 7 astronaut among the jeans and puffy hair that made the rest of the controllers resemble the boys from Animal House. There wouldn’t be any women in DSM’s full performance level (FPL) controller frat house until years later. Secretaries, sure, but there was something that kept women from reaching “journeyman” status there.

Despite the sharp-elbowed initials, KK—aka Kilo-Kilo or K-man—was friendly and possibly the most devoted air traffic controller ever. Don’t worry, this isn’t his obit. KK was a dyed-in-the-gabardine air traffic controller who never strove to be a supervisor, but he certainly frustrated a few, because he knew far more about ATC than most of them. He was devoted to the art and science of working traffic. When on a break—and we rarely worked more than five hours per day—he wouldn’t slump in front of the breakroom TV. Instead, he’d grab a 7110.65 (the ATC manual, known as the “Point Sixty-Five,” or “Seventy-one Ten” and never by its full name: “FAA Order 7110.65 Book of Unfathomable Complexity and Confusion”), which he’d already memorized, and he’d sit in a training room to re-re-read the Talmudic minutiae of what makes ATC work. More correctly, prevents it from not working.

I never saw him make a mistake, while I made plenty. When the rest of us were going down the tubes trying to cram arrivals dodging thunderstorms onto the ILS, our voices reaching higher and higher octaves of anxiety, KK would sit in non-caffeinated serenity, vectoring to the final approach course with textbook spacing and a confident tone that parted the towering CUs. His was the Charlton Heston voice you wanted to hear when all around your cockpit was flashing hell and St. Elmo’s Fire. And over the dozen years we worked together, he taught me not only much about ATC but also about flying.

There’s a long-standing argument about whether controllers who are pilots are better than non-pilot controllers. I was both pilot and controller and can say with absolute certainty: Maybe but probably not. They’re two related but distinct skills … like dentistry and water-boarding. KK wasn’t a pilot, but he thought like one and never hesitated to ask me for the flyer’s perspective. And despite his devotion to the regs, he understood the pulse of flight, the beat of breaking up a flight of A-7 fighters, cruising at 300 knots for individual ILS approaches with minimal spacing … no, exact spacing, exactly what was needed for a given scenario. He put himself in the cockpit, asking, “What does the pilot want … expect?” And delivered.

When KK ended his career at the maximum allowable age his initials should’ve been retired to the FAA’s ATC Hall Of Fame along with his pressed shirt and tie, because they’d never fit anyone else. I doubt if controllers today know of him, but everyone in aviation should. And, while I worked beside him for years, I never approached his excellence and devotion to ATC. What crumbs I gleaned I passed along to both my ATC and my flying students. Grumble all ye might about the FARs and FAA dicta, knowing them and working their unseen angles not only makes for a better pilot or controller but often irritates the tar out of FAA upper management, and that’s always worth the effort.

--IE (retired but still griping)

Comments (14)

Great read IE. You just made a new friend, MX, retired pilot friendly ATCer, pilot, mom and wife.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 25, 2018 11:08 AM    Report this comment

So YOU were the controller I was talking to when I was scud running DSM westbound ferrying a broke down T-41A who said, "Look straight ahead ... do you see that VERY tall tower ... you might want to turn north or the wires will catch you ... and oh by the way, watch out for that flight of four A-7's passing just off your left." True story. I learned to always stare closer at charts looking for tall towers from THAT tete'-a-tete' although nowadays, my trusty Aera 660 does that for me and warns me audibly..

You will now forever be known as ... Id Est :-)

THIS blog answers much for all of us ...

Posted by: Larry Stencel | November 25, 2018 1:09 PM    Report this comment

You bring up a good point. All pilots ought to know about, do a quick review of and remember that 7110.65 exists. Before I went to work in a flight test ops organization, I'd never heard of it. I used the tenets contained therein to "eat" a tower controller one time, too.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | November 25, 2018 1:12 PM    Report this comment

You mean this 744 page little old thing?

FAA Order 7110.65V

"This order prescribes air traffic control procedures and phraseology for use by personnel providing air traffic control services. Controllers are required to be familiar with the provisions of this order that pertain to their operational responsibilities and to exercise their best judgment if they encounter situations not covered by it."

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 25, 2018 1:45 PM    Report this comment

It takes a strong constitution to walk away from an intense career and never utter a word about it until over 20 years later... might be a good candidate for an intelligence operator!

Posted by: A Richie | November 25, 2018 6:44 PM    Report this comment

KK sounds a bit like Don Brown of AVWeb's "Say Again?" series of articles. It's always enjoyable to work with someone totally dedicated to their job.

Thanks for reminding us about the unthanked masses behind the mikes. We just came back from the grandparents' house, flying through JFK's airspace on Sunday night after Thanksgiving. The frequency was as busy as Oshkosh after the airshow, yet the controllers perfectly vectored our little Cessna through the fray.

Thank you.

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | November 26, 2018 5:55 AM    Report this comment

On the AvWeb site, it says the article is by Paul Bertorelli. When started reading it, I thought "This doesn't sound like Paul Bertorelli--this sounds more like Paul BERGE!

I don't know which of you should be more insulted! (laugh)

You guys ARE the best aviation writers in the business today--but some layout person at AvWeb owes each of you a six-pack for the mixup!

Posted by: jim hanson | November 26, 2018 5:26 PM    Report this comment

Larry Stencel--"You will now forever be known as ... Id Est :-)"

VERY clever, Larry! It's one of the things I like about this site--great humor--AND a requirement to rise above the normal "we write for people with a 10th grade education" advocated by journalism instructors.

Posted by: jim hanson | November 26, 2018 5:31 PM    Report this comment

Fly me to the moon... ID est hold my hand?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 26, 2018 9:22 PM    Report this comment

HEY! I came back and now this blog shows Paul Berge wrote is ... just like Jim H said ???

I'm SO confused. It isn't Friday yet.

Yeah, Jim ... while we learn, share, are entertained and -- yes -- moan, we can have a good techno laugh, too. Except ... we now know that we can't joke about the ADS-B deadline lest we suffer public humiliation and threats of certificate revocation. That is, until the ADS-C's deadline kicks in. I'm hearing that all 660 of those ADS-B towers are going to be replaced by just two satellites ... kinda like only four FSS remain where once there were hundreds.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | November 27, 2018 3:18 AM    Report this comment

The tale of the two Paul's. Excellent blog no matter who wrote it. Now, Avweb could really make it interesting and change the author to simply Paul B.and let us decide who "B" really is. perception is most folks reality.

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | November 27, 2018 11:40 AM    Report this comment

Ah, ADS-C. So many eggs; so few baskets.
As I recall, Faust made a Contract.......

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | November 28, 2018 3:47 AM    Report this comment

Ah, ADS-C. So many eggs; so few baskets.
As I recall, Faust made a Contract.......

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | November 28, 2018 3:48 AM    Report this comment

ADS-B was obsolete even before it was implemented. The Canadians had satellite-based ATC tracking over Greenland/Hudson's Bay starting in 2009--even as the FAA was still trying to install more of the old-technology ground based towers.

Who says Canadians have no sense of humor? From Nav-Canada's sat-based "ADS-B" report

This leads to a system solution, which in turn defines the required:
- Communications, Navigation and Surveillance
- Regulatory framework

- Does not define solutions
- Likely won't lead to needed benefits

FAA blew it when they mandated the ground-based tower system. It has led to wide gaps in the middle of the country for GA airplanes. The RUSSIANS had sat-based ADS-B--it didn't take long for the Europeans and Canadians to implement it--but we are stuck with a dinosaur. It's kind of like the old LORAN system--it was good while it lasted, but its usefulness was quickly eclipsed.

Rather than perpetuate this boondoggle, the FAA should throw in the towel and give everyone that equipped with ground-based ADS-B a new satellite-based unit.

Posted by: jim hanson | November 29, 2018 9:13 AM    Report this comment

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