Unusual Attitudes: Tales of a Tower

Martha's adventures on the mid-night shift.

Martha Big

Martha Big

(August 2011) When the Brouhaha erupted over air traffic controllers dozing off on duty I couldn't help wondering if it's really important to have humans manning control towers at all hours of the day and night, even at places like Reno and Dulles. Do people have any idea how many airports routinely and safely accommodate a mix of air carrier, corporate, military, and small and large general aviation airplanes without a control tower? Or how many others have towers with reasonably intelligent beings on duty only during days and early evenings, closing up shop after 10 or 11 at night? Is safety really the issue or is this just the latest knee-jerk reaction to something the media got its teeth into? FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt immediately announced his outrage but, c'mon, controller fatigue isn't "news" to the agency. NATCA, the controllers union, has battled over more staffing for years, with FAA management countering that it can't afford, nor is there a need for, more air traffic controllers. It kinda makes me wonder if all that money Congress allocated in the last decade for more FSDO inspectors (my old office went from 22 to 85 in the five years since I retired ... and, no, it wasn't because I was that hard to replace) would have been better spent on air traffic controllers.

Maybe we’d get more bang for our buck with “controller monitor specialists” — you know, like GS-3 nannies with training in sleep deprivation techniques to keep the real controllers awake. Heck, these low-cost, low-tech jobs would be perfect for TSA or Flight Service Station dropouts, and a bargain for taxpayers. The job description would read “Position requires experience and proficiency in a variety of board games to include Monopoly and Scrabble, a working knowledge of gin rummy and old maid, and the ability to brew really thick, high-test coffee. Preference to high-school (or equivalent) graduates, minorities, women, disabled persons, veterans and those with an extensive repertoire of limericks and politically correct jokes.”

When I began hanging out at the ’drome, Cincinnati Lunken’s tower was on the second floor of a 1937-vintage terminal building. A few years later the FAA erected a more modern, modestly taller tower down the road. But the old terminal building — despite being shamefully allowed to deteriorate by the city of Cincinnati — is still charming and still very much in use. It’s one of those ubiquitous WPA structures you’ll maybe still find at airports all over the country, like Fresno, New Orleans Lakefront, Houston Hobby, La Guardia and the original Washington National ... you know the style. Sadly, Lunken’s was completed in a hurry without the usual art deco detail because Ohio River floodwater was lapping at rooftop level midway through construction.

But 25 years later, when I made my debut, the tower was still in that old terminal, still an FAA facility, open 24/7 and staffed almost exclusively with ex-military controllers: Jim Lewis, Frank McKenzie, Don Griggs, Gene Buckley, Bob Brown, Howard Smock, Chuck Maier, Norb Meyer and the chief, Wes Schaffer. (My gosh, that’s from memory, although I might have murdered a few spellings). An unlocked door with “Control Tower” stenciled on the glass was on a second-floor balcony just above the airport restaurant, and it wasn’t at all uncommon for pilots to pay a visit upstairs after a few belts in the Sky Galley bar. But it required a modicum of sobriety to successfully negotiate the wickedly steep metal ladder to the tower cab.

Upstairs in the cab, glass doors opened onto the roof for access to radio antennas and lighting equipment. I remember the fiendish delight those guys took with a really bright spotlight that could be aimed from the console. See, the adjacent south terminal parking lot was popular for clandestine assignations; the controllers knew which cars and trucks were likely targets and just how long to wait before illuminating the shenanigans and figuratively throwing cold water on the “shenaniganners.”

Since the airlines had moved across the river years before, traffic at night was pretty sparse — maybe one of Procter and Gamble’s DC-3s or Federated Department Stores’ big Martin, N72B (memorable because my 180 is N7772B). The Federated guys had the biggest airplane, egos and testosterone levels and were famous for acknowledging transmissions with a simple “Baker.” One night a crusty old controller named Don Griegs was giving them a ration of crap after a hand-off from Cincinnati Approach when they called with their usual, “Lunken, Baker, Loveland.” Don waxed eloquent about the use of “proper terminology” and “authorized procedures.” There was a long silence and then the bored, laconic reply: “Baker.”

Around Halloween one year in the mid-’60s somebody found a life-size cardboard robot at a sleazy discount store down the street called Chinatown. It was pretty elaborate and lifelike — a scary “metallic” thing with articulating arms, legs and fingers. The controller working the 3 to 11 shift set this thing up with one hand holding the mike to his mouth. When he saw his replacement pull into the parking lot and enter the building, he placed a lit cigarette in the robot’s other hand and turned on the prerecorded tape. Then he dimmed the cab lights to the lowest setting, slipped out onto the roof and closed the door. The midnight guy reached the top of the ladder and, when his eyes adjusted to the smoky dimness, he was face to face with this eerie-looking creature holding a smoking cigarette in one hand, a mike in the other and chanting in robotlike staccato, “Cleared to land ... go around ... cleared to land ... go around ...” There was obviously plenty of time to cook up mischief on that midshift, but I don’t think anybody fell asleep at the wheel.

During the 1980s when operations (takeoffs and landings) dropped below a magic number known only to the FAA, the facility at Lunken was contracted out to Midwest Air Traffic Control. And why that happened is a point lesson in how bureaucracies work ... or don’t work. The FAA manager was so roundly disliked that the controllers were filing grievances over everything from nonflushing toilets to who got prime spaces in the parking lot, so the FAA replaced him with a temporary acting manager. And one of the first things on his agenda was to shut down a local helicopter school by denying it use of a training area out in the middle of the airport. There had been a good working relationship for many years between Cardinal Helicopter Training and the tower for use of this remote area called “the playpen.” But with pressure from a new FBO who didn’t like the noise or the proximity of operations to the corporate jets on its ramp, the FAA guy announced it was unsafe and the school would have to go elsewhere. Don and Pat Fairbanks obligingly moved their school to Clermont County Airport but, without the huge count from takeoffs, landings and autorotations in the playpen, Lunken’s operation count tanked and the FAA moved out.

Well, at first everybody was worried, but soon learned the Midwest ATC people (many retired FAA) were just as professional but a lot friendlier. I think the best controller I’ve encountered in 50 years of flying is a little gal named Janet Brackenwagon, a veteran caught up in that PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike in the early ’80s. With humor and uncanny skill, she choreographs a mix of touch-and-go trainers, G-550s and Boeing Business Jets bound for Beijing, air-care helicopters, 172s inbound for $100 hamburgers, quarter-share Citations, RV formation flights, warbirds requesting tactical approaches, tycoons in tiny Cirruses, blimps, an occasional balloon — and a pain-in-the-ass diva (me) wanting a downwind departure against traffic so I don’t have to taxi all over the airport. I wish I could fly as well as Janet controls traffic.

Curiously, there's this controller at Dayton Tower who's also a veteran and also uncommonly sharp — the guy you want if you're in trouble — but who's legendary for being a true curmudgeon. I'm always amused when the kids from the Wright-Pat Aero Club who come to Lunken for flight tests talk about getting that "really crabby controller" at Dayton Approach. I happen to know that Earl's bark is far worse than his bite but, yeah, his MO is quite different from Lunken's easygoing lady controller's. When I'm on the frequency headed to Lunken through a sector he's working he'll often tell me to "say hi to Janet." See, they're married ... go figure!
Sure, I miss the accessibility of the old tower and especially the camaraderie and friendships between local pilots and controllers.

But, no, I have absolutely no recollection of a strip poker game on a midshift in the ’60s ... when I was losing ... badly.