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Keith told the trainee beside him, “George, start getting the picture.”


George Wallace nodded and edged closer to the radarscope. He was in his mid-twenties, had been a trainee for almost two years; before that, he had served an enlistment in the U.S. Air Force. Wallace had already shown himself to have an alert, quick mind, plus the ability not to become rattled under tension. In one more week he would be a qualified controller, though for practical purposes he was fully trained now.

Deliberately, Keith allowed the spacing between an American Airlines BAC-400 and a National 727 to become less than it should be; he was ready to transmit quick instructions if the closure became critical. George Wallace spotted the condition at once, and warned Keith, who corrected it.

That kind of firsthand exercise was the only sure way the ability of a new controller could be gauged. Similarly, when a trainee was at the scope himself, and got into difficulties, he had to be given the chance to show resourcefulness and sort the situation out unaided. At such moments, the instructing controller was obliged to sit back, with clenched hands, and sweat. Someone had once described it as, “hanging on a brick wall by your fingernails.” When to intervene or take over was a critical decision, not to be made too early or too late. If the instructor did take over, the trainee’s confidence might be permanently undermined, and a potentially good controller lost. On the other hand, if an instructor failed to take over when he should, a ghastly mid-air collision could result.

The risks involved, and extra mental pressures, were such that many controllers refused to take them. They pointed out that the task of teaching their work to others carried neither official recognition nor extra pay. Moreover, if anything went wrong, the instructing controller was wholly responsible. Why suffer so much strain and liability for nothing?

Keith, however, had shown an aptitude as an instructor as well as patience in bringing trainees along. And although he, too, suffered and sweated at times, he did the job because he felt he should. At this moment, he took a personal pride in the way George Wallace had developed.

Wallace said quietly again, “I’d turn United 284 right until you get altitude separation with Mohawk.”

Keith nodded agreement as he thumbed his microphone button. “United Flight 284, from Washington center. Turn right, heading zero six zero.”

Promptly the reply crackled back. “Washington control, this is United 284. Roger; zero six zero.” Miles distant, and high above in clear bright sunshine while passengers dozed or read, the powerful sleek jet would be easing into a smooth controlled turn. On the radarscope, the bright green half inch wide blip which was United 284 began moving in a new direction.

Below the control area, in a room devoted to rack upon rack of ponderously turning tape recorders, the exchange between ground and air had been recorded–for playback later if need arose. Every such conversation, from each position in the control room, was recorded and stored. Periodically, some of the tapes were replayed and listened to critically by supervisors. If a procedure was wrong, a controller heard about it; yet no controller knew when a recording of his own might be selected for analysis. On a door of the tape-recorder room was the grimly humorous reminder, “Big Brother Is Listening.”

The morning progressed.

Periodically, Perry Yount appeared. He was still overseeing two positions and stayed long enough to assess the current traffic situation. What he saw seemed to satisfy him, and he spent less time behind Keith than at the other position, where several problems seemed to be occurring. Around mid-morning the air traffic volume eased slightly; it would pick up again before midday. Soon after 10:30 A.M. Keith Bakersfeld and George Wallace exchanged positions. The trainee was now at the scope, Keith checking from alongside. There was no need, Keith found, for intervention; young Wallace was proving competent and alert. As far as was possible in the circumstances, Keith relaxed.

At ten to eleven, Keith was aware of a need to visit the toilet. In recent months, he had had several bouts with intestinal flu; he had a suspicion that this was the beginning of another. He signaled Perry Yount and told him.

The supervisor nodded. “Is George doing okay?”

“Like a veteran.” Keith said it loud enough so George could hear.

“I’ll hold things down,” Perry said. “You’re relieved, Keith.”

“Thanks.”

Keith signed the sector log sheet and noted his time of checking out. Perry scribbled an initial on the next line of the log, accepting responsibility for monitoring Wallace. In a few minutes time, when Keith returned, they would follow the same procedure.

As Keith Bakersfeld left the control room, the supervisor was studying the scope, his hand lightly on George Wallace’s shoulder.

The washroom Keith had gone to was on an upper level; a frosted-glass window admitted some of the brightness of the day outside. When Keith had finished, and freshened himself with a wash, he went to the window and opened it. He wondered if the weather was still as superb as when he had arrived earlier. It was.

From the rear of the building into which the window was set, he could see–beyond a service area–green meadows, trees, and wild flowers. The heat was greater now. All around was a drowsy hum of insects.

Keith stood looking out, aware of a reluctance to leave the cheerful sunlight and return to the control room’s gloom. It occurred to him that lately he had had similar feelings at other times–too many times, perhaps; and he thought–if he was honest, it was not the gloom he minded so much, but the mental pressures. There was a time when the tensions and pressures of his job, unrelenting as they were, had never bothered him. Nowadays they did, and on occasions he had to force himself, consciously, to meet them.

While Keith Bakersfeld was standing at the window, thinking, a Northwest Orient 727 jet, en route from Minneapolis-St. Paul, was nearing Washington, D.C. Within its cabin a stewardess was bending over an elderly male passenger. His face was ashen; he seemed unable to speak. The stewardess believed he had had, or was having, a heart attack. She hurried to the flight deck to inform the captain. Moments later, acting on the captain’s orders, the Northwest first officer asked Washington Air Route Center for special clearance down, with priority handling to Washington National Airport.

KEITH WONDERED sometimes–as he was wondering now–how many more years he could force his occasionally weary mind to go on. He had been a controller for a decade and a half. He was thirty-eight.

The depressing thing was–in this business you could be mentally drained, an old man, at age forty-five or fifty, yet honorable retirement was another ten or fifteen years away. For many air traffic controllers, those final years proved an all-too-grueling trail, whose end they failed to reach.

Keith knew–as most controllers did–that strains on the human systems of those employed in air traffic control had long been recognized. Official flight surgeons’ files bulged with medical evidence. Case histories, directly attributable to controllers’ work, included hypertension, heart attacks, gastric ulcers, tachycardia, psychiatric breakdowns, plus a host of lesser ailments. Eminent, independent medics, in scholarly research studies, had confirmed such findings. In the words of one: “A controller will spend nervous, sleepless hours every night wondering how in the name of heaven he kept all those planes from running into each other. He managed not to cause a disaster today, but will he have the same luck tomorrow? After a while, something inside him–physical, mental, oftentimes both–inevitably breaks down.”

Armed with this knowledge, and more, the Federal Aviation Agency had urged Congress to allow air traffic controllers to retire at age fifty, or after twenty years of service. The twenty years, doctors declared, were equal to forty in most other jobs. The FAA warned legislators: public safety was involved; controllers, after more than twenty years of service, were potentially unsafe. Congress, Keith remembered, had ignored the warning and refused to act.

Subsequently, a Presidential Commission also turned thumbs down on early retirement for controllers, and the FAA–then a presidential agency–had been told to cease and desist in its argument. Now, officially, it had. Privately, however–as Keith and others knew–Washington FAA officials were as convinced as ever; they predicted that the question would arise again, though only after an air disaster, or a series, involving worn-out controllers, followed by press and public furor.

Keith’s thoughts switched back to the countryside. It was glorious today; the fields inviting, even when viewed from a washroom window. He wished he could go out there and sleep in the sun. Well, he couldn’t, and that was that. He supposed he had better get back to the control room. He would–in just a moment more.

THE NORTHWEST ORIENT 727 had already started down, on authority from Washington Center. At lower altitudes, other flights were being hurriedly diverted, or ordered to orbit, safe distances away. A slanting hole, through which Northwest would continue descending, was being cleared in the growing midday traffic. Approach control at Washington National Airport had been alerted; its function would come shortly when it accepted the Northwest jet from Washington Center. At this moment, responsibility for the Northwest flight and other aircraft devolved on the sector team next to Keith’s–the extra sector which the young Negro, Perry Yount, was supervising.

Fifteen aircraft with combined speeds totaling seven thousand five hundred miles per hour were being juggled in an airspace a few miles wide. No airplane must come near another. The Northwest flight must be brought down, safely, through them all.

Similar situations happened several times a day; in bad weather it could be several times an hour. Sometimes emergencies came together, so that controllers numbered them–emergency one, emergency two, emergency three.

In the present situation, as always, Perry Yount–quiet-spoken, cool, and capable–was responding with experienced skill. Working with others in the sector team, he was coordinating emergency procedures–calmly, level voiced, so that from his tone no bystander listening would be aware that an emergency existed. Other aircraft could not hear transmissions to the Northwest flight, which had been instructed to switch to a separate radio frequency.

Everything was going well. The Northwest flight was steady on course, descending. In a few minutes, the emergency situation would be over.

Amid the pressures, Perry Yount even found time to slip across to the adjoining position–which normally would have his undivided attention–to check George Wallace. Everything looked good, though Perry knew he would be easier in mind when Keith Bakersfeld was back. He glanced toward the control room door. No sign of Keith yet.

KEITH–STILL at the open window, still looking out at the Virginia countryside–was remembering Natalie. He sighed. Lately, there had been disagreements between them, triggered by his work. There were points of view which his wife could or would not see. Natalie was concerned about Keith’s health. She wanted him to give up air traffic control; to quit, and choose some other occupation while some of his youth and most of his health remained. It had been a mistake, he realized now, to confide his doubts to Natalie, to describe what he had seen happen to other controllers whose work had made them prematurely old and ailing. Natalie had become alarmed, perhaps with reason. But there were considerations to giving up a job, walking away from years of training and experience; considerations which it was hard for Natalie–or for any woman, he supposed–to grasp.

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