Sunday, January 27, 2008

Defining Moments

I had a bit of a nightscare last night—not quite a nightmare but the next thing to it. I dreamt I was in Oklahoma City at the FAA Academy for supervisor orientation. As I looked around the room there were several other familiar faces all there for the same thing. Faces I didn't expect to see. We'd all put our names in to become supes. What happened to our pact to fight our lack of a contract, and avoid the lure of easy money and easy duty?

My feelings of shame gave way to anger as I listened to the speaker begin his propaganda. I sat there struggling to understand how this could have happened. There was a time in my career when I figured that at some point I'd make the move into management but that was long ago.

September 2nd, 1992 to be exact.

I was training Mike Thompson on his D-side (data side) at sector 18. There was a line of weather extending from north of Minneapolis and south to Texas. There were no holes with the exception of a couple gaps near Rochester to get traffic through, so nearly everything traversing the country was routed toward the north end of the weather and then to points beyond.

The squall line had been there all afternoon and it was now nearing 6:00pm and the evening push was coming through. There shouldn't have been any surprises with respect to the weather and alternate routes which would be necessary for the approaching traffic. That didn't stop our Traffic Management Unit (TMU) from revising the ORD (Chicago) arrivals route three times within 45 minutes adding to the complexity. But that was really nothing compared to what was about to happen.

TMU made a call to have us hold all our traffic going into the next sector in area 2. We did as we were told then promptly looked left and told the sectors feeding us to expect to be shut off. We had a scope full of planes and two of our more seasoned high altitude controllers driving them; Tim Hehr was working radar in our sector with Dick Becker tracking for him. Pat Lambert was working radar in sector 11 to the north. I took over from Mike on the D-side and had him monitor.

We were in the process of getting our traffic turned away from the next sector and put into the hold when I got a call from a controller in area 2 asking me what we were doing. I told him that TMU had shut us off from sending any traffic his way. He said "what?...nonsense". He had no traffic and told us to disregard the hold. Our sectors had been thrown into disarray for no reason.

During the ensuing chaos, an aircraft at 41,000 establishing itself in a hold northwest of Minneapolis got together with another aircraft which had overflown its holding pattern. It seemed that we all saw it at the same time—both aircraft nose to nose at no more than 6 miles with no time to spare. Traffic was issued and both pilots managed to see and avoid one another but we failed to maintain the required 5 miles separation.

What happened next would be the reason I would give up any desire of ever wanting to take a management position.

We (the controllers involved in the incident) were sold down the river by our area manager, Larry R., to protect the responsible supervisor in TMU who made the inexcusable decision to have us hold our traffic when it wasn't necessary. Rather than look at that decision as being the reason for throwing the sectors up for grabs, they only wanted to look at the final few minutes leading up to the loss of separation—those final few minutes spent trying to fix the problem created by the TMU supervisor.

A couple days later we gathered together in Jimmy Walker's office (our facility manager) with about a dozen people who had either starring or bit parts in the incident with the exception of one key player; the TMU supervisor who had orchestrated the chaos which led to the near-miss. We went around the room and offered our opinions as to what happened and why.

I'd contacted some former coworkers at Flight Service in Princeton and asked them if they could provide me with forecasts for the day of the incident. The information showed that the weather forecasts we were dealing with that night were accurate and gave a good 12 hours notice as to what to expect. I pointed this out in the debrief and felt that TMU should have done a better job of anticipating the need for more organized traffic flow and not been in a scrambling mode.

The person I most wanted to hear from in our discussion, the TMU supervisor, wasn't present but his manager, Jack H. was and his body language was speaking loudly. He took a seat in the doorway to our manager's office with his body mostly outside the room but his feet protruding in. I had to lean forward to see him. When it came time for him to speak he said two things. He said that the TMU supervisor felt bad about what had happened and that now was neither the time nor the place to discuss TMU's role in the incident. He promptly got up, told us he was late for another meeting and left.

I remember feeling stunned that he was for all intents and purposes being given a pass; at least so far as I could tell. If the purpose of our meeting was to help identify what led up to and caused the error, I could think of no better time to discuss the role of TMU than the present.

The next person to speak was our deputy manager, Ward H. He went into a several minute dissertation about how he used to be a radar controller and that his job was to maintain a safe sector. If he didn't like what he was getting from the controller feeding him he wouldn't take the hand-off. He'd tell them to spin 'em if he had to because he was a radar controller. He punctuated the end of each sentence with "goddammit!" His diatribe was nothing more than an admonishment to us controllers for not doing our jobs and keeping them separated. Not once did he mention the mistakes made by TMU which created the fiasco. I have no doubt that he was the sort of controller I'd least like working next to me when things got down and dirty. I also have no doubt that he did a minimal amount of time actually working traffic before moving 'up' into the supervisory ranks.

The final person to speak was our manager, Jimmy Walker. He told us that whatever happens in the way of disciplinary action with respect to TMU was none of our business. I sort of expected that but I wasn't anticipating what would happen next. Jimmy took the stack of papers which comprised the 'deal' (controller lingo for loss of separation) and turned it face down on his desk while at the same time stating that, "this stops here"...meaning, nothing was going into anybody's personnel folder and that nobody was being decertified or made to jump through hoops of any sort. And that was that.

I believe Dick Becker took the weather forecasts I'd compiled and a bunch of other information he'd assembled regarding the separation error and sent it off to NASA. The folks at NASA are a collection agency for situations such as this and where data can be submitted anonymously. I have my doubts as to what if anything meaningful becomes of the data they collect.

To my knowledge, nothing was ever entered into my record. None of us were decertified nor did the TMU supervisor in the middle of all of this miss a step; he remains in his position to this day. Mistakes happen but covering them up doesn't get us further down the road toward prevention and that's pretty much what happened here. The controllers were ready to take the fall for mismanagement and would have had it not been for Jimmy Walker. He may have had his faults but he at least got the controllers' participation in this one right. Nobody else in management was even close. But still, he chose to cover it up and that was wrong.

So, when I awoke from my dream and realized that I was still 'just a controller' I was relieved. My dream did cause me to reflect upon why it is that I'm still 'just a controller' and hopefully will finish out my career as one. I'd honestly always assumed that I'd quietly play out the final years of my career in management as it's often said that controlling is a young person's game.

Sadly, I don't know that FAA management is interested in improving the way they do business or in changing the disrespectful approach used toward their employees. If you have time, here's an interesting essay from 1995 by Rebecca Pels which details nicely an environment which existed so many years ago and persists today.

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