Page 15 of Airport

Keith Bakersfeld thumbed his microphone. “Braniff eight twenty-nine, make an immediate right turn, heading zero-niner-zero.” At moments like this, even though pressures built to fever pitch, voices should stay calm. Keith’s voice was high-pitched and betrayed his nervousness. He saw Wayne Tevis glance at him sharply. But the blips on the radar screen, which had been uncomfortably close, began separating as the Braniff captain obeyed instructions. There were moments–this was one–when air traffic controllers thanked whatever gods they acknowledged for the swift, alert responses of airline pilots. The pilots might beef, and often did subsequently, at being given sudden course changes which required tight, abrupt turns and shook up passengers. But when a controller gave the order “immediate,” they obeyed instantly and argued later.

In another minute or so the Braniff flight would have to be turned again, and so would Eastern, which was at the same level. Even before that, there must be new courses for two TWAs–one higher, the other lower–plus a Lake Central Convair, an Air Canada Vanguard, and a Swissair just coming on the screen. Until the KC-135 had come through, these and others must be given zigzag courses, though for brief distances only, since none must stray into adjoining airspaces. In a way, it was like an intricate chess game, except that all the pieces were at various levels and moving at several hundred miles an hour. Also as part of the game, pieces had to be raised or lowered while they still moved forward, yet none must come closer than three miles laterally or a thousand feet vertically from another, and none must go over the edge of the board. And while all of it happened, the thousands of passengers, anxious for their journeys to end, had to sit in their airborne seats–and wait.

In occasional moments of detachment, Keith wondered how the Air Force pilot, in difficulty and letting down through storm and crowded airspace, was feeling at this moment. Lonely, probably. Just as Keith himself was lonely; just as all life was lonely, even with others physically close beside you. The pilot would have a co-pilot and crew, in the same way that Keith had fellow-workers who, at this moment, were near enough to touch. But that was not the kind of nearness which counted. Not when you were alone in that inner room of the mind, where no one else could enter, and where you lived–apart and solitary–with awareness, memory, conscience, fear. Alone, from the moment you were born until you died. Always, and forever, alone.

Keith Bakersfeld knew how much alone a single human being could be.

In succession, Keith gave fresh courses to Swissair, one of the TWAs, Lake Central, and Eastern. Behind him he could hear Wayne Tevis trying to raise the Air Force KC-135 on radio again. Still no response, except that the distress radar blip, actuated by the KC-135 pilot, still blossomed on the scope. The position on the blip showed the pilot was doing the right thing–following exactly the instructions he had been given before the radio failure happened. In doing so, he would be aware that air traffic control could anticipate his movements. He would also know that his position could be seen by radar on the ground, and trusted that other traffic would be routed out of his way.

The Air Force flight, Keith knew, had originated in Hawaii and come non-stop after mid-air refueling over the West Coast, its destination Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington. But west of the Continental Divide there had been an engine failure, and afterward electrical trouble, causing the airplane commander to elect an unscheduled landing at Smoky Hill, Kansas. At Smoky Hill, however, snow clearance of runways had not been completed, and the KC-135 was diverted to Lincoln International. Air Route Control nursed the military flight northeast across Missouri and Illinois. Then, thirty miles out, West Arrivals Control, in the person of Keith Bakersfeld, took over. It was soon afterward that radio failure had been added to the pilot’s other troubles.

Most times, when flying conditions were normal, military aircraft stayed clear of civil airports. But in a storm like tonight’s help was asked–and given–without question.

In this darkened, tightly packed radar room, other controllers, as well as Keith, were sweating. Yet no hint of pressures or tension must be betrayed by controllers’ voices when speaking with pilots in the air. The pilots had plenty to concern themselves with at any time. Tonight, buffeted by the storm, and flying solely on instruments with nil visibility outside their cockpits, demands upon their skill were multiplied. Most pilots had already flown extra time because of delays caused by heavy traffic; now they would have to stay even longer in the air.

From each radar control position a swift, quiet stream of radio orders was going out to hold even more flights clear of the danger area. The flights were awaiting their own turn to land and every minute or two were being joined by new arrivals coming off airways. A controller, his voice low but urgent, called over his shoulder. “Chuck, I’ve got a hot one. Can you take Delta seven three?” It was a controller’s way of saying he was in trouble and had more than he could handle. Another voice, “Hell!–I’m piled up, too… Wait!… Affirmative, I got it.” A second’s pause. “Delta seven three from Lincoln approach control. Turn left; heading one two zero. Maintain altitude, four thousand!” Controllers helped each other when they could. A few minutes from now the second man might need help himself. “Hey, watch that Northwest; he’s coming through from the other side. Christ! it’s getting like the Outer Drive at rush hour.”… “American four four, hold present heading, what’s your altitude?… That Lufthansa departure’s way off course. Get him the hell out of the approach area!”… Departing flights were being routed well around the trouble area, but arrivals were being held up, valuable landing time lost. Even later, when the emergency would be over, everyone knew it would take an hour or more to unravel the aerial traffic jam.

Keith Bakersfeld was trying hard to maintain his concentration, to retain a mental picture of his sector and every aircraft in it. It required instant memorizing–identifications, positions, types of aircraft, speeds, altitudes, sequence of landing… a detailed diagram, in depth, with constant changes… a configuration which was never still. Even at quieter times, mental strain was unceasing; tonight, the storm was taxing cerebral effort to its limit. A controller’s nightmare was to “lose the picture,” a situation where an overtaxed brain rebelled and everything went blank. It happened occasionally, even to the best.

Keith had been the best. Until a year ago, he was one whom colleagues turned to when pressures built to unreason. Keith, I’m getting swamped. Can you take a couple? He always had.

But, lately, roles had changed. Now, colleagues shielded him as best they could, though there was a limit to how much any man could help another and do his own job, too.

More radio instructions were needed. Keith was on his own; Tevis, the supervisor, had propelled himself and his high stool across the room to check another controller. Keith’s mind clicked out decisions. Turn Braniff left, Air Canada right, Eastern through a hundred and eighty degrees. It was done; on the radar screen, blips were changing direction. The slower-moving Lake Central Convair could be left another minute. Not so, the Swissair jet; it was converging with Eastern. Swissair must be given a new course immediately, but what? Think fast! Forty-five degrees right, but for a minute only, then right again. Keep an eye on TWA and Northwest! A new flight coming in from the west at high speed–identify, and find more airspace. Concentrate, concentrate!

Keith determined grimly: He would not lose the picture; not tonight, not now.

There was a reason for not doing so; a secret he had shared with no one, not even Natalie, his wife. Only Keith Bakersfeld, and Keith alone, knew that this was the last time he would ever face a radarscope or stand a watch. Today was his last day with air traffic control. It would be over soon.

It was also the last day of his life.

“Take a break, Keith.” It was the tower watch chief’s voice.

Keith had not seen the tower chief come in. He had done so unobtrusively, and was standing by Wayne Tevis, the radar supervisor.

A moment earlier, Tevis had told the tower chief quietly, “Keith’s all right, I reckon. For a few minutes I was worried, but he seemed to pull together.” Tevis was glad he had not had to take the drastic action he had contemplated earlier, but the tower chief murmured, “Let’s take him off a while, anyway”; and, as an afterthought, “I’ll do it.”

Glancing at the two men together, Keith knew at once why he was being relieved. There was still a crisis, and they didn’t trust him. The work break was a pretext; he wasn’t due for one for half-an-hour. Should he protest? For a controller as senior as himself, it was an indignity which others would notice. Then he thought: Why make an issue now? It wasn’t worth it. Besides, a ten-minute break would steady him. Afterward, when the worst of the emergency was over, he could return to work for the remainder of his shift.

Wayne Tevis leaned forward. “Lee will take over, Keith.” He motioned to another controller who had just returned from his own work break–a scheduled one.

Keith nodded, without comment, though he remained in place and continued to give radio instructions to aircraft while the new man got the picture. It usually took several minutes for one controller to hand over to another. The man coming in had to study the radar display, letting the over-all situation build in his mind. He also needed to become mentally tensed.

Getting tensed–consciously and deliberately–was a part of the job. Controllers called it “sharpening to an edge,” and in Keith’s fifteen years in air traffic control, he had watched it happen regularly, to others and to himself. You did it, because you had to, when you took over a duty, as now. At other times it became a reflex action, such as when controllers drove to work together–in car pools, as some did. On leaving home, conversation would be relaxed and normal. At that point in the journey, a casual question like, “Are you going to the ball game Saturday?” would elicit an equally casual answer–“Sure am,” or “No, I can’t make it this week.” Yet, nearing the job, conversation tautened, so that the same question–a quarter mile from the airport–might produce a terse “affirmative” or “negative,” and nothing more.

Coupled with tense mental sharpness was another requirement–a controlled, studied calmness at all times on duty. The two requirements–contradictory in terms of human nature–were exhausting mentally and, in the long run, took a toll. Many controllers developed stomach ulcers which they concealed through fear of losing their jobs. As part of the concealment, they paid for private medical advice instead of seeking free medical help to which their employment entitled them. At work, they hid bottles of Maalox–“for the relief of gastric hyperacidity”–in their lockers and, at intervals, sipped the white, sweetish fluid surreptitiously.

There were other effects. Some controllers–Keith Bakersfeld knew several–were mean and irascible at home, or flew into rages, as a reaction to pent-up emotions at work. Coupled with irregular hours of working and sleeping, which made it difficult to regulate a household, the effect was predictable. Among air traffic controllers, the list of broken homes was long, divorce rates high.