Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Reaching Eligibility

25 years ago today, March 28th, 1982, I was sitting in an auditorium in Oklahoma City with 500 other wide-eyed people just like myself as we stepped off into careers as air traffic controllers. While we sat there in our seats that first day the suits up front doing the talking weren't very encouraging as they emphasized a failure rate of nearly 50%...and that was just at the academy. You could expect to see another 50% washout at your assigned facility. A good part of the morning was spent filling out forms and getting indoctrinated. I looked at the paper of the guy sitting next to me for his name and he'd penned in 'Railhead'. Hmmm, that can't be right. I came to find out later that Railhead was the name of an apartment complex where a lot of the students were staying. He didn't make the program. I found myself a place to stay at Cinnamon Square apartments on South May ave. It was a flea-infested place like most down there but it served me well.

The academy was pushing through a lot of people at the time as the Patco controllers had gone on strike the previous August. The airlines and general aviation had some major restrictions placed on them while the FAA hurried to certify controllers as quickly as possible in an effort to get back up to speed. The strike wiped out over 90% of the workforce with only 1200 controllers crossing the picket lines while 11,359 were fired by Reagan. It was an interesting time.

While the academy wasn't a breeze I didn't have any problem getting through. We lost a good many of our class just as they said we would. I reported to Minneapolis Center after leaving Oklahoma City and began the process of certifying. It didn't go well for me. Within a few months, they had washed out 6 of 9 of us from my class with me being one of them.

They were running so many of us through and success often depended on who you got for an instructor. Myself, John Yaccino and Steve Miller were all assigned to Gene Peterson. Gene was a retired controller who signed on to work with the new trainees coming through. We were his first students. Gene was good at catching errors and teaching us the job but he did little to build our confidence. I don't believe there is any such thing as a controller without confidence and an important part of being an instructor is to help build confidence through encouragement, not discouragement. Some instructors were known to give your chair a kick or clear their throat during an eval if you made a critical error. Not Gene. He was strictly by the book. Within two months of working with Gene, he would wash all three of us out in the manual labs. The manual labs are a non-radar environment where you don't actually work with live traffic or a simulated radar display. It's not where you want to end your training. It took not only us by surprise but it sent a strong message to the classes of students behind us. I think most anybody would tell you that there was no question that we'd all three make it through that portion of our training to progress to working with live traffic but we didn't.

I was sent packing to Huron SD where I worked for two and a half years at the Flight Service Station there. FSS is listed as one of three controller options for the FAA but it's not a job where you're controlling traffic. You're much more of a weather briefer. It paid well but it wasn't what I came in the FAA to do. I wasn't bitter about washing out but there were times when I'd dwell on it, especially at night. Sometimes I'd lie awake unable to sleep because I'd be thinking how I knew I could've done the job but I didn't feel I got a fair shake.

In January '85 my supervisor approached me about returning to Minneapolis Center. His boss had just returned from a managers' meeting in Minneapolis and my name came up. They were interested to know if I'd be willing to come back and give it another try. At the time I'd been putting in applications to towers around the country in an attempt to become a real controller but I wasn't having any luck. I went home and asked Noy (my wife at the time) what she thought. She encouraged me to try again as it was still early on in my career and there really wasn't much to lose by trying. I seriously doubt I would have agreed to go back had it not been for her encouragement.

There was an open bid for controllers to Minneapolis Center but it closed in a few days (I still remember the date, January 22nd, 1985) so I had to act fast. Within a couple weeks of submitting my application, I received the news that I'd been selected for one of the openings. Huron FSS would drag their feet in releasing me but by the end of the summer of '85, I'd make it back to Minneapolis Center, or ZMP as it is known. When I moved back to town I stopped by the local watering hole for controllers in Farmington and ran into my old instructor, Gene. To Gene's credit, he apologized for letting me down because he felt he missed with us in that we were his first students and we should never have washed out. I appreciated that. My training progressed without much difficulty and by early 1988 I was a fully certified Air Traffic Controller.

The guys I initially went through training with also found jobs at flight service stations around the country. Steve was sent to Ohio and eventually bid into Columbus tower. I've lost touch with him and don't have any idea where he is today. John went to South Bend FSS and about the time I left Huron he was quitting the FAA to return to school. I exchanged emails with him recently. He's a dentist in the Air Force with a few years left before he's eligible to retire. He's done well.

As for me, I remain a controller in the trenches at ZMP day in and day out. I'd always assumed I'd eventually get into management but that never happened. I've had my share (as most of us have) of people along the way encouraging me to do something more with my career. Several years ago I began telling those prodding me that what may seem like an unfulfilled career to them is not that at all. The FAA needs good controllers and that is my calling.

So here I sit having reached my eligibility—25 years get away in a hurry. I had a few people congratulate me at work today as it's a big milestone in any person's career. It would be nice to be able to afford to retire but I'm not quite there yet and to be honest, I'm not in any particular hurry. As I've said before in my blog, this is a time in my life where if I could slow time down I would. I've got a great family, my health and a job I really enjoy doing, what's the hurry to get through this phase of my life?

I did say goodbye today to one of the controllers I came into the FAA with—Jeff Ofsthun retired today. Best wishes to you, Jeff, and I'll be right behind you before I know it.


David Bryan Gilmore said...

Congratulations Kevin! In this day and age, working 25 straight years at any single job is rare. The say most people in the work force have about 7 jobs through their career.
Retirement is mostly a shift in occupations. For me, not driving to the office nor flying around the country.
You artistic ability and good health will provide good options down the road.

Kevin Gilmore said...

Thanks, intentions are to remain where I'm at for another 6 years and then ride off into the sunset when I reach 56. If something else comes along between now and then I suppose I could be convinced to do something different but I'm not holding my breath. I look back at where I was 6 years ago and how quickly that time went by, realizing the next 6 years will go by even faster.