by Allison Moore
photography by Matt Wright
Trying desperately to recall how his friends challenged his manhood enough to convince him to fly, he tightens his safety belt around his already creased waist. Sweat beads, then streams down his brow after realizing that taking in the view, 700 feet above sea level, was not the calming effect he needed. Wringing a hanky with his girl friend’s delicately embroidered initials around his trembling thumb, he longs to be with her, firmly footed on the ground.
Despite the pilot’s calm demeanor when receiving his landing instructions, his passenger tucks his head between his knees and prays a rambling prayer. Approaching the runway, automobiles and pedestrians advance in what looks like a snail’s pace. Neighborhoods, buildings and parks resemble the layout of a board game. Descending upon the runway, the pilot secures a routine landing and salutes the air traffic control tower while taxiing the runway, thanking them for a safe landing. The anxious passenger straightens his wardrobe and wonders what he was so worried about. From the tower, where safe landings are secured, the air traffic controller calmly hails back.
While the external view of the Brackett Field tower has an unimportant presentation, the interior operations of the tower are, in fact, one of the pilot’s most essential resources.
After ascending the spiraling steps of the five-story tower, one emerges into a circular room that is slightly smaller than a moderately-sized family room. A view from windows that outline the entire room extends across the green slopes of Mountain Meadows and provides an additional incentive to Brackett’s air traffic controllers already satisfying occupation.
Within the control room, a dash of puzzling buttons and controls border most of the perimeter. Swivel chairs glide controllers across the room allowing them to interact quickly with co-workers.
Intercom headsets crown the heads of the controllers, giving them two-way communication with the pilots. Speaking close to the speed of planes during lift off, the controllers give precise information to pilots while landing, taking off and taxiing the runway.
Peering through binoculars, Ken Evans, an air traffic control specialist, confirms that a descending aircraft’s landing gear is functioning properly. Evans sums up a controller’s job qualification by saying, “Basically what this job does is manage stressful situations, and creates order from chaos.”
Controlling 800 to 850 operations a day, Brackett Field is one of the nation’s busiest general aviation airports. Maintaining safe operations on a regular basis requires certain skills. They must visualize a clearly detailed map of every scenario occurring inside the limits of Brackett Field.
John Paiva, veteran Brackett Field controller for 10 years, interprets the required proficiency, “You have to be able take the movement [of the planes] and project where they need to be, and if you can’t do that, then you can’t do the job safely.”
Paiva attributes much of his success as a controller to the mastery of skills used while playing a childhood game, “Dungeons and Dragons.” The game created abstract events where Paiva attempted to maneuver through scenes from verbalized, step-by-step instructions.
Evans, like most other controllers, gained his technical knowledge of air traffic controlling from his four-year enlistment in the military in 1972. He estimates that 80 to 90 percent of controllers come from the military. In the past, college preparatory classes that specialized in air traffic control were rare.
Today, controllers are required to pass a rigorous training school in order to work in national towers. Stationed in Oklahoma City, the trainees are placed in situations that simulate the complexity of an actual day’s work in a tower. Evans spent four months training in a mock tower with screens that project scenes of an airport.
“It’s just like a video game,” Evans remarks. “It simulates the real world, the best that they can create it.”
The trainees are required to solve 23 problems with different levels of complexity. Evans was among 14 of his fellow classmates who passed the course in which 114 entered.
Art Yarnell, air traffic control supervisor, explains that controllers must be able to think abstractly in a 3-D sense. “If plan A doesn’t work, and you don’t have a plan B to get you out of trouble, then you’re going to have an operational error.”
These plans must not only be formulated one right after another, they must also be done within a matter of seconds. Thinking quickly is of the essence. “You don’t have time to second guess yourself,” says Paiva.
Unlike most jobs where minor mistakes occur daily, air traffic controllers live up to different standards. “We basically have to hit it 100% all of the time.”
Yarnell says that living up to that standard requires having confidence in oneself. “You have to have a pretty strong ego to be an air traffic controller. You actually don’t find many that don’t have a pretty strong ego.”
While having an ego is often seen as negative characteristic within the average workplace, air traffic controllers feel that a healthy ego is important. “This is a job where you have to know that you can do it, otherwise you can’t. Your self-confidence is your main resource here. If you have any doubts of whether or not you can do it, it’s going to be in the back of your mind and it’s going to slow you down, and you can’t make slow decisions,” Paiva adds.
Achieving 100% accuracy takes more than an individual effort. “All of us are a little niche. We’re all putting together one piece of a puzzle, and if all the pieces don’t fit then it doesn’t work,” illustrates Paiva. Charles Register, air traffic control manager, agrees with Paiva about the importance of teamwork saying, “It’s the corner post of what we do.”
Under normal circumstances, there are four to five controllers in the tower: one working ground control, local, flight data and a controller in charge. Together they form a team. “We listen and watch what the other controllers are doing. Each should be aware of what the others are doing. They should each have a picture of what the others have going on,” Yarnell explains. He adds that “part of the teamwork is that if somebody makes a mistake, someone else is there to catch it and correct it before it becomes a problem.”
In light of the fact that Brackett Field has been the departing point for about nine airplanes that have crashed, including a recent Sylmar accident, the crew has never been the wrong party in any of the situations. Paiva adds that it is rare for horrific accidents to happen. The most common problem occurs when an airplane skids on its body as a result of landing gear malfunctions. Such situations only occur about two or three times a year.
Paiva says that controlling is exciting everyday. “It’s totally different circumstances all the time. You never know exactly what’s going to happen.”
At a recent air meet, Paiva says that the controllers were maneuvering almost double the amount of airplanes of a normal day’s worth of work. He agrees there is a higher potential of dangerous situations developing during busy days, but says that maintaining a steady work ethic is important.
The days in which hundreds of airplanes are not crowding the runway are those when routine activities need to be fine-tuned. “It’s all about the habits that you make. The standard of what you do when you’re slow, is what you’ll do when it’s fast,” Paiva says.
In addition, Register explains that many of the flight schools train foreign students without a command of English. This results in pilots not having a good grasp of the instructions they are given. Register experience has been that language conflicts have not gotten to the point of absolute danger.
Mutual respect lies between the relationships of the air traffic controllers and the pilots in the aircraft, but Register admits that the controllers are often seen as authority figures. A controller has the ability to suspend the license of a pilot if the controller feels the pilot lacks the skills to fly safely.
Students especially feel threatened by the controllers. To avoid being perceived as monsters in the tower who gobble up piloting licenses, Register encourages an open door policy with the pilots. “We try to make the students come up and visit, and to let them know that we’re here to provide a service and to help them. If they have any questions that need to be answered, then they should be over here talking to us about it,” he says gesturing with open arms.
Evans agrees and feels that mastering the art of piloting came easier for him because he understood the air traffic control element.
Other air traffic controllers, like Joe Starks, prefer to keep their distance from airplanes. “I like planes enough to watch them from the ground.” Starks confesses that he has a tendency to become dizzy. He gave friends a good laugh when, while flying, his face turned several colors.
Paiva shares that often new pilots are not exactly sure what the controllers are asking them to do because they are still learning. He says there is nothing the controllers can do about it at that point but just give them a little more attention. “There have been a couple of times when a student found that he wasn’t really ready to do what needed to be done, but when you’re flying, you can’t just stop like you can in a car; you’ve got to keep going.” Paiva also adds that some, who have been having trouble in the air, will break down and cry once they reach the ground.
Part of the pilot’s inability to understand the commands of the controllers is the fact that controllers use a phonetic language to give orders. The universal aviation language is English, no matter where a pilot is in the world. The difficulty level rises for the pilots from training schools who are from different countries.
“If you’re not familiar with the lingo, it might go over your head,” points out Register “We use phrases instead of conversational language. Conversational language is inefficient.”
Unlike many young controllers who have aspirations to move on to other facilities, Paiva has found his niche at Brackett Field. He has become comfortable with his surroundings and lifestyle there. “I’ll be here until they close the place,” Paiva confirms.
Cruising onto the runway, the pilot of a Cessna P32 taxis slowly and steadily, maneuvering the two-ton piece of machinery onto the runway. Then the pilot waits for his command. Gaining speed, the plane races down the runway, then reaches into the clear blue sky. Guiding these metal birds is all in a day’s work for the air traffic controllers at Brackett Field.