Saturday, March 28, 2009

Internet Connections

27 years ago today I began my career with the FAA. But this post isn't going to be about that. It's just noteworthy, that's all.

As the internet does on occasion it brought to my email box tonight an email from somebody in my past; from 33 years ago. Eugene and I were in the same company in boot-camp in the Navy and he'd taken a picture of me all those years ago and still had it. He found me after I'd posted a photo of our company on my Flickr account and coded in the names of all of us.

(We should never take for granted the power of a Google/Yahoo/Name-your-search-engine query and how quickly it can scour the internet and have the results before you.)

The photo was a bit dust speckled so I brought it into Photoshop and cleaned it up a little. There's not much to see, really. It's just me sitting on my rack possibly organizing the contents of a single drawer I used for my personal belongings. But it's me, it's from a long time ago and I've never seen it so that makes it important to me.

Gene sent me several other photos of guys in our company but there was one which caused me to pause more than any of the others. It was a photo he took of our Company Commander; our C.C., J.R. Bartling, as the bus pulled away on that last day of boot-camp and we headed for the airport and home. I don't know what the other guys felt at that time but for me, it was a profound, indelible moment. Really. He had earned my respect unlike anybody else I can think of to that point in my life. I mention a bit more about him in a series of blog posts I did a few months ago where I talked about what led up to me joining the Navy.

I'm thankful to Eugene for the photo of our C.C. outside the bus. It does an excellent job of taking me back to that moment.

For all the information out there on the internet there's nothing about J. R. Bartling other than what I've written; at least, if there is I can't find it. I'd like to think he'd remember me but I'm quite certain he wouldn't. I'd be just another wide-eyed kid he had shepherded through the program and toward a hunk of gray floating metal.

Speaking of internet connections; I made another one this past week. Steve Miller, a classmate of mine from when I first reported to Minneapolis Center saw the FAA Follies post that Paul Cox had done and thought 'hey, I know that guy' or something similar. He posted a comment to Paul's blog as well as mine. We've spent the past two days catching up with each other through emails. It's been fun. Steve works as a controller in Columbus, Ohio closing in on his retirement date.

I shared with him a photo I'd taken of him at the epicenter of Tornado Alley, behind the Alphabeta store next to the Cinnamon Square apartment complex on South May Avenue where I shared a place with John Yaccino. We were out photographing some building storms, or to be specific, some Towering Cumulus or quite possibly some Cumulonimbus. Seeing as how we were there for Flight Service training we had a special interest in all things weather-related I'm sure. Actually, I still do have that interest. Of all the courses we took going through Flight Service training, our class with Ed Jessup where he taught us about weather was easily my favorite.

Rachel was chosen to be one of the captains for her Mock Trial team next year. She's very happy about that as of course are Tammy and I. She's filling some big shoes as the team has won State the past two years. She has no intention of getting into law but simply enjoys the courtroom experience. She plays a witness for the team.

I had my RC plane out this afternoon but my flying time was cut short as a smallish tree reached out and snagged my Slo-V from the sky. There's a bit of realigning I'll need to do before I can fly it again.

There wasn't much wind today but there was enough to cause the plane to struggle to go where I wanted it to. The decision I need to make is do I wait until I've had more calm weather flying before moving on to a more powerful plane or do I keep trying to learn with this one? I can't say I'm learning all that much because whatever wind is out there, and it doesn't have to be much, is having more of an effect on the plane than my controls are at times. A plane more able to overcome the wind would give me more of a learning experience or so I think. I'll check with one of the guys at work who's been flying RC airplanes for 25 years and see what he says. Or, I could just check with Frank Whiten at Houston Center. He seems to have all the answers.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

I'm Humbled by Your Support

A couple weeks ago I penned a letter to the editor of Focus FAA, the FAA's website. I wrote about that in this post. I had a few guys at work come up to me and thank me for what I'd written but I didn't think much more about it. I was online a couple days ago when I saw a thread on our union's message board titled "Two Cents Worth". Paul W had found a response on the FAA's website to my letter from a supervisor at Houston Center. No doubt the tone of the letter is what made it stand out to Paul. It reads:

A Supervisor Responds

After reading Kevin Gilmore's thoughts on Jerry Lavey's article on leadership, I had a couple of pertinent thoughts (see “Boot To The Throat” in last week's “Your Two Cents”). Allow me to retort: "There's been no leadership exemplified by FAA management for far too many years," you said. You mean you can't find any leadership, Nada, not a smidgen, not even one iota of leadership? You must feel so lost, adrift in a sea of leaderless employees. Who was your last true leader? Jane Garvey? If so, remember, she gave the farm away. Is that what you mean by "…lead(Inga) by example?"

Here's a possible reason for the pay disparity between you and me: I'm finally being compensated for having to deal with your negative, whining, everyone's-an-idiot-but-yourself attitude you so clearly expressed in your little written tantrum. We have a couple of Kevins at our facility, too. That's where we supervisors earn our money. And yes, just so you'll know, my pay is capped too.

Your writing skills are actually quite advanced. You're not an unintelligent man. But using this gift to personally attack someone whose writing ability is far above mine and yours, and who consistently makes cogent and fair summations in everything I have read by him, indicates to me that you have some underlying anger/stress issues that might need addressing in a professional setting.

Final point: You said: "One can't help but be amazed that they actually pay you to write this tripe." I'll wager that people in the private sector would be amazed to know how you feel about your bosses and actually choose to stay in your job. I'm also quite sure that if you wrote your venomous screed in a public forum while employed in a private enterprise, the choice to stay in that job would no longer be yours.

Frank Whiten
Southwest Region

I'm stunned. I must have touched a nerve with Frank. I was under the impression that even dissenting voices were welcome. Apparently FAA management has little time for those of us who dare question their ways as Frank's letter so clearly shows. But forget all that; I'm actually bothered more by the assertion by someone in FAA management who doesn't know me but would feel emboldened to say in a public forum that I have anger issues and am in need of professional help. To me, that crosses a line. I'd have no problem if he wanted to attack what I'd said. I expected as much. But I didn't expect to have someone in management actually say what was said. Possibly even more disturbing is that the editor(s) of Focus FAA would actually publish it. I've read many editorials on the site before but nothing I can recall which sunk to the level of Frank's letter. And I don't think I'm feeling that way simply because it's me the charges were leveled at.

Sure, I took a swipe at the Jerry Lavey's writing by calling it 'tripe' but I never suggested that Mr. Lavey has some emotional instability which was in need of professional help. That would've been unprofessional and unacceptable for me to say. I suppose I could possibly get away with saying that in a private email with him but not in a public forum. After reading Mr. Whiten's letter to me and the rest of the world I drafted one of my own to Focus FAA:

Frank Whiten accuses me (see "A Supervisor Responds" in last week's "Your Two Cents") of having anger issues in his response to my letter in Your Two Cents (see "Boot to the Throat", March 17th). Um, yes, Frank, I'm angry about the hypocrisy we're force-fed out here in the field day after day. No doubt you would be too if the tables were turned but would it be fair for me to say that you had anger issues? No, it wouldn't. Please don't insult me by comparing my anger about blatant hypocrisy with 'anger issues' and then suggesting that I need professional help. That's a leap for you to make but one which certainly speaks to a lack of leadership I mentioned.

Feel free to personally write or call my facility manager for his opinion about me. I have no doubt that he'll tell you that he would take a facility full of people with my work ethic, attitude and ability in a heartbeat. You have my permission to discuss me with him. Also, feel free to come back here and publicly apologize to me once you have the facts.

Thank you.


Kevin Gilmore

A couple posts down from Paul W's on the Natca forum was a post from Paul Cox stating his intention to write a blog post about Frank Whiten's ill-conceived words. Paul Cox writes a blog called The FAA Follies and he does a beautiful job of pointing out all things wrong with the FAA. It takes a lot of work to keep a blog interesting and informative. Paul does a lot of fact-finding and piecing together of information in a way that few people can. It's a daily stop for me; oftentimes more than once for the comments which follow his posts. Fortunately for Paul, the FAA gives him a fair amount of material to draw from.

Read Paul's words here: Gettin' Personal (Paul's blog no longer exists.)

In addition to Paul, Natca's former president, John Carr, also weighed in with his perspective on the matter: Pen Pals (WITH Benefits!)

And one last blog. Tim (whom I work with) also has a few things to say to close this out: The FAA Big Stick Again (Tim's blog no longer exists.)

I'm very humbled by the support from all of you who took the time to write about or comment on the blogs about this. My one hope is that people will gain an understanding of what is happening within the FAA and know that it is all so unnecessary and WRONG. My friends and family outside the FAA are surprised to find how disenchanted I've become with my job these past few years. I love controlling airplanes and I can't think of anything I'd rather do. It's my hope and my prayer that someday soon FAA management will once again value and respect those of us who remain in the trenches doing the demanding work of air traffic control.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

No New Truck For Me and Young at Heart

I'm not the type to buy a new vehicle every few years. I'd rather pay them off and drive them for several years until just before they become fixer-uppers. The first new car I owned was a Mazda 626 I bought after graduating from the FAA academy in the summer of 1982. Of all the cars I've owned, my 626 has been my favorite by far. The only photo I have of it is one that my mother took when she and my father used my newly purchased car on a trip to Canada. They had nothing reliable to drive at the time so I offered it to them.

I drove it for ten years and put 118,000 miles on it. It was 102,000 miles before it needed any brake work. The only trouble it gave me was an occasional broken seal on the valve cover gasket. A 15-minute fix.

I sold it to a high school kid from St. Paul for $1500. I think I may have gotten the better of that deal.

Tammy and I had planned to go to the Auto Show last weekend but we changed our minds and went to the dog park instead. I knew that if I went car shopping there was a good chance I'd get the bug to buy something new when what I'm driving is getting me around just fine.

My current ride is a 2001 Nissan Frontier truck with a little less than 90,000 miles. It's eight years old and I'd like to replace it but now is not the time for us to be taking on more debt with Rachel's college expenses looming just around the corner. Perhaps if the Obama administration should decide that air traffic controllers actually were wronged and make us whole I would reconsider a new purchase. It wouldn't even be considered 'stimulus money' as it would simply be giving me back something which was wrongly taken from me and so many others. A guy can always hope.

Our dance lessons for the Dads' Dance at Rachel's spring dance recital began last week. We'll meet every Tuesday night for an hour for the next two months and hopefully get our rag-tag group of flat-footed Neanderthals moving in step with each other. Wish us luck. We only had an hour of practice but we were able to learn the first 38 seconds of the dance. It feels more complicated than I like and I know I'm not alone in feeling that way. I think we all left practice with our heads spinning as we contemplated what we'd struggled to learn.

I'm curious to see where they position me this year. In any recital, they've typically got the best talent front and center. I danced with the dads for the first time a few years ago the last time they had the Dads' Dance. I thought I was doing a good job but I couldn't have been because I was tucked away in the back corner. We'll be assigned our positions tonight based on how well or poorly we did last week and I'm pretty sure I know where I'll be standing, again. But I'm not disappointed. Really, I'm not. Well, maybe just a little.

I watched a documentary last night called Young at Heart. It's the story of a group of seniors who remain "young at heart" through the contemporary rock and pop music they share as they tour the US and Europe. There are some sad moments along the way as bodies fail while the spirit within tries to press on. One of the more touching moments of the film was a scene toward the end where Fred Knittle sings a Coldplay song called Fix You while his air compressor pumps out of time to the music. There's a story behind the video which I won't spoil here. You have to watch the movie for that.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Full Weekend

I was able to get out and fly my RC plane a couple times over the weekend. It's got more power than my last one but it's still too wimpy. It's a simple trainer though and that's what I need to learn with before I'm ready for something more powerful. When I stop crashing it I'll know that it's time to move up and I'm not there yet. I do tend to have this fascination with seeing how close I can have it pass by me as I'm standing in the field adjacent to Hosanna's parking lot. A bit of a game of chicken with me controlling both players. I did nearly crash it into myself when I lost it in the sun just before it flew past me. The phrase, 'thinning the herd' comes to mind.

Tammy, Rachel, Josh and I spent some time at Hosanna yesterday for Project 363. The link speaks for itself but I'll say that it's a remarkable story of the difference one person can make in the lives of so many others.

Mr. Law spoke to our group of volunteers to tell us a little about how the project began and how it has become his every waking hour preoccupation. He said that he sleeps just a couple hours a night, usually in his van by one of the lakes near Minneapolis. I wondered as he was talking to us if he has a home? His entire focus is amassing whatever food he can and then distributing it to people in need. Quite a guy.

I believe the goal for Hosanna is to make and ship out 40,000 sandwiches this weekend for donation to the project. They rotate teams through every two hours. There were several tables set up with about nine people at each table working together to make and package the sandwiches. I talked to one of the organizers who said that Hosanna would have over 1000 people volunteering this weekend to help make it a success. It's well orchestrated and I suppose it needs to be with that many people involved.

Speaking of projects, Tammy and I put in several hours this weekend on the stained glass panel we're working on. I really want to keep pressing on with this one and get it done so I can satisfy my curiosity about how it's going to look above the entertainment center and whether or not we'll need to make some changes before continuing on with the other five panels. It's a lot of work to have to redo the panel if necessary but considering how long it will serve its function I'm not opposed to doing what I need to so as to get it right.

I was walking past John Kline's house while out with the pups this morning. John was sitting on the tailgate of his truck reading the paper. We chatted for ten minutes but we never once spoke of politics, unlike the last time we talked. He's no doubt a political junkie and lives for that sort of thing but I have to believe that even he needs a break from it even though he signed on for that sort of life when he chose to run. Could I talk bikes all the time? Probably not.

Speaking of which; I've spent the last eight days off my bike and considerably more time off the rower. I've been battling what I think is bronchitis all week and I could tell that my last ride didn't help it any. The rower is another story altogether. I've got a persistent case of tendinitis in my right forearm. I developed it at least six weeks ago (I assume while rowing) and I've only attempted to use the rower a few times since then. I don't notice the pain when I'm using the machine; in fact, it feels just fine. It's nearly any motion with my arm other than rowing which causes the pain. I don't get it.

I rode out toward Randolph this afternoon under sunny skies and temps in the mid-50s with little wind. I was heading east on Hwy 86 coming into Castle Rock when a Dakota County Sheriff passed me. He pulled into a gas station on the right then circled around and waited for me to pass by. When I did he pulled up alongside me. I thought for a moment that he was going to hassle me about using my mp3 player while riding. Nobody's ever said anything to me but it wouldn't surprise me that someone may have a dim view of me using it.

I looked over at the car and the officer in the passenger's seat had his window down as was saying something to me. I pulled my left earbud out just as he was pointing to the driver. It was my neighbor, Bob Stowell, with a big grin asking me if I could go any faster. I dialed it up to 30 and stayed in front of them until the train trestle then they passed me and sped away.

I continued east to Hwy 56 then headed north toward Coates. Somewhere just south of Coates my quads began to cramp up and my water bottles were empty. Cramping up less than 40 miles into a ride just doesn't happen to me and eight days off the bike can't account for it. There was definitely some sort of electrolyte imbalance going on. The only thing in my diet which has changed has been the lack of a glass of California red at night since giving it up for Lent. I can live with the cramps.

If I stayed seated I was okay but once I stood to pedal, putting my full weight on my legs, my quads would immediately cramp up. It reminded me of the time I was racing the Headwaters 100 in Park Rapids eleven years ago.

Excuse me while I go into reminiscing mode.

I was with the main peloton of riders some 50 miles into the race when we traversed off one highway to another in a sweeping right turn. I was on the outside and forced off the road by the guy on my right who swung too wide. There was a 3-4" drop from the pavement to the gravel shoulder I was now on and it was everything I could do to keep the bike upright. I had to stop to get my bike back up on the road. Just as I was about to do that a logging truck came toward us and I had to wait for it to pass. It allowed the peloton to leave me several hundred yards behind by the time I was able to get back on the road. I spent the next 20 minutes working my 19-year-old retro Colnago harder than I wanted in an effort to get back into the slipstream of the pack. I only had two water bottles with me and by the time I'd rejoined the pack both bottles were empty and my quads were cramping badly.

This wasn't a race where they closed the road to regular traffic. I remember thinking how we all dodged possible tragedy had the logging truck been there as we came out onto the highway with not enough time for a bunch of amateurs to safely react to the truck hidden by tall pines as we approached the turn say nothing of other traffic too. The next several years they ran the ride as a tour rather than a race but it's back on the racing schedule in recent years.

It would be another 20 miles of soft-pedaling within the peloton before my quads would recover. There was no way to take on more water once the race began unless you had somebody waiting for you out on the course to provide you with a 'hand-up' which wasn't allowed but several guys did it anyway.

The last 15 miles of the race was a blast with plenty of small rolling hills to power over as the peloton dialed the speed up to another level in an attempt to catch a group of 3 who had gotten off the front more than an hour earlier. My quads recovered nicely and I went on to finish in 3:57 averaging over 25 mph for the 100 miles.

So much for my racing career.

Here's the latest video of the pups. We had them out to Three River's Dog Park southwest of Lakeville last night. Charlie is quite a bit lighter than Allie but nearly as long as she is. We think he's got potential to be a super-sized Shih-Tzu. We'll know soon enough.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Vacationing—With Bob

It's been a few years since we've taken a family vacation. The last trip we went on was to western South Dakota nearly five years ago. That's got to be a boring trip you must be thinking. Ah, but you would be wrong and I have proof: Here and here.

We love the Black Hills and have talked in the past about what a nice place it would be to retire to. I doubt that we will but one never knows. They've got some great roads for cycling. Enough said. (at least for me)

Tammy and I have been talking about finally taking a trip this summer and we've got a few places in mind that we're considering; Las Vegas; New York or Grand Marais on the North Shore. I'm leaning toward New York as I've never been there. I've never been to Las Vegas either but I'm in no rush to get there. It'll happen someday.

Rachel has done her share of traveling in her short life. She takes at least a couple mission trips each year with the youth groups at both Hosanna and Prince of Peace. She went with them to Guatemala and Seattle last year and will be going to Atlanta in a few weeks with Prince of Peace and back to Guatemala this summer with Hosanna. I think it comes down to us being happy to deny ourselves a road trip as long as we're able to provide her an opportunity getaway. Her looming college costs also factor into our little bit of self-denial.

Of all the people I work with it seems it's the younger people who are much more apt to get up and go someplace. And they're the ones who earn a considerable amount less than those of us who've been here a while...or so I thought. I'm not just talking a once a year vacation either. Many of them get away multiple times a year.

A few of the ladies have taken a trip together to Mexico for the past two years. I'm not sure who began the chatter about Bob going along with them but it became a bit of a running joke in the area we work in that Bob would meet them there. Bob is one of us older types so that's why it was a joke at all. We're all fine with sitting in the lunchroom together but going along on a vacation with the younger crowd probably isn't going to happen.

Last year when their plane departed Minneapolis we got a message to the pilot to tell Danielle, Jessica, and Megan that Bob would meet them in a van at the airport when they arrived in Mexico. They weren't expecting it so it gave them a good laugh to begin their vacation.

A few weeks before their trip this year, Megan asked me if I could do a favor for her. They planned to take several photos of themselves with some strangers while they were in Mexico and she wondered if I could get a picture of Bob to Photoshop into their photos for them? They wanted to create the illusion that Bob really did go on the trip with them?

Oh, yes. There would be no arm twisting necessary. I'd be happy to help!

Bob was kept out of the loop on all of this. We'd joke with him about what a good time he had in Mexico this year and he'd play along but he didn't have any idea what we were up to. I got a disk of the photos to Megan and Danielle last week and they had them printed to bring into work. I don't know what they said to Bob as they gave him the photos but it was a good laugh. Maybe Bob will comment here. Bob?

The word I'm hearing, Bob, is that you're going again next year. All I ask from you is a different picture on your Facebook account to work with.

Here's a bit of the fun they all had. There's more but I promised not to post them all...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I Didn't Think So

The FAA has a position at headquarters in Washington, DC for dispensing propaganda. Really. I can only imagine that the people who support this sort of disingenuous information don't believe that their workforce is astute enough to see it for what it is. I'm insulted. I should probably be as equally disturbed that I would spend any amount of time actually visiting the site and reading the drivel. But I do.

A couple weeks ago the main propagandist, Gerald Lavey, penned the following article:

Executive, Heal Thyself

March 5, 2009

In the last several years, the FAA has gotten better at measuring performance — with the agency's strategic Flight Plan and the business plans as the cornerstone of this effort. But, recently, as I was reflecting on my role as an executive, I couldn't help but wonder if we executives often don't use the wrong metrics to measure our own performance. We’re pretty good at measuring employee performance, but I am not so sure we’re as good at measuring our own.

How often do we hear executives talking about how busy they are? But, I wonder sometimes if they — we — are busy about the right things. Our desks are groaning under the weight of paperwork we “can’t get to” because we’re so busy. What’s wrong with this picture? A lot, I would suggest, and often it has nothing to do with workload.

Somebody once wisely observed that many people never actually leave their previous jobs. Even when they become senior managers or executives, they keep doing the same job they had before — simply because they feel more comfortable working at that level. They found success there, so they prefer to stick with something that works for them.

Of course, the consequences are serious morale and productivity problems at the staff level, and an absence of leadership at the top — a problem that always makes it to the top of the charts in employee surveys and feedback.

So, what’s the solution? Like so many other things, there’s no easy answer. But, for starters, I would suggest we executives need to reexamine our roles. We could start by remembering that we weren’t made executives to become “super” controllers, technicians, or staffers. Or glorified copy editors who feel they have to leave a mark on every piece of paper that hits their desks, like animals marking their territory.

Presumably we were made executives to lead — to make those who work for us successful, and thus make the organization successful. Leadership is not about control or power. In fact, it is not primarily about us at all. It’s about the employees. Until we have that Copernican epiphany, realizing that we are not at the center of this workplace universe, things will probably never change.

Gerald E. Lavey
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Corporate Communications

Don't be fooled. Actions speak louder than words. Much louder. And the FAA's actions over the past few years have been rooted in anything but what Gerald wrote about. They've disparaged, insulted and demoralized the workforce at every turn. But now they would like us to believe that it's time to reevaluate that approach. Is it possible that Lavey fears the 'change' a new administration will bring to the FAA and because of that he's now singing a more conciliatory tune? Had McCain been elected do you suppose Gerald Lavey would've penned what he did in his most recent column? There's no way to know but I have a strong hunch that he wouldn't have.

There's much in Gerald's words to pick apart but in my response to Focus FAA published in the latest edition, I made my 'focus' his last paragraph:

You're not serious, are you? There's been no leadership exemplified by faa management for far too many years. There's been a 'boot to the throat' mentality and a demoralizing of the workforce (controllers) certainly but there's been no leadership. Real leaders lead by example.

Every controller I work with would've had no issues with having our pay capped if only management had done the same to their pay. Anything less is unacceptable. You want us to pay for your Nextgen grandiose delusions but none of you have contributed one penny toward the effort.

I was sequencing several JFK arrivals 30-miles-in-trail over Nebraska and Iowa last week. It was a bit complicated with all of the chop and other traffic I had to contend with. In all of that, I wondered how Nextgen would've made my life easier and I couldn't come up with anything. More runways would be nice I thought.

Anyway, thanks for the laugh about leadership. One can't help but be amazed that they actually pay you to write this tripe.

Okay, maybe the last sentence was unnecessary. No, actually it was dead on. Why is the FAA paying this person a salary in the range of $172,000 to serve as a spokesman? It seems like a lot of money for as little benefit as the public receives.

The boot to the throat mentality I spoke about isn't just me regurgitating some tired union rhetoric as many would likely discount it as. I've lived it.

If Gerald Lavey is serious about his words then I'm encouraged. But, it's going to take more than his words or the words of anybody with their hand on the rudder of the Good Ship FAA to instill in me any sort of trust or confidence in them. Does anybody think for one second that there would be any conciliatory change had Obama not been elected? I didn't think so.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Saturday Night Stuff

I picked up a sore throat and a head cold at the hockey tournament last weekend and it's taken a bit of the wind out my sails all week long. The head cold has now settled in my chest leaving me with coughing fits that come out of nowhere. I figured the best thing for that was a long ride on my bike yesterday, you know, something to clear out my lungs. It sort of worked but I'm still not well. I probably should've moderated my effort but I didn't. Once I got out there I was feeling pretty good but only through the first couple hours. My endurance began to fade after that. Still, I was glad to be out.

There's a rule of thumb about when it's okay and not okay to workout when you're sick. It's said that if the symptoms are above the neck you may be okay to go but if the symptoms are below the neck you should refrain from exercise. I'm not sure where that leaves symptoms residing in the neck. Personally, I feel the exact opposite of that advice works for me. But what do I know? I'm just an air traffic controller.

Spring can't be far away. The temp has been in the 40s for the past two days and will be in the 60s for the early part of next week. I don't know why but this winter has dragged on unlike any other in recent memory. It's only been maybe four months since it turned snowy and cold but it seems twice that long. I've got plans to try and do less riding this year in favor of some indoor activities such as stained glass and rowing. I'm worried that those plans won't stand a chance once I get a taste of spring and summer and the heat of the sun on my back as I ride. We'll see.

Speaking of stained glass. I spent a good part of this afternoon down in the shop working on our project. I got the new 'Strip Pro' tool in the mail that I'd ordered two weeks ago. It's perfect for what I'm doing with all these small pieces and straight-line cuts. The project will still take me well into next winter but this tool will save me a considerable amount of time. It's nice to be down in the shop regularly again working with glass and listening to music. Time flies by in that world.

I've done some Frank Lloyd Wright miniatures in the past which took quite a bit of time with all of the small pieces but I was always doing them as one-off projects so there was no way to do them quickly. I can see where I could knock these sort of things out much more quickly with the Strip Pro. Tammy saw how easily it works and right away said something about putting together a bunch of stuff for a booth at a craft fair after we're retired. I've never really pictured myself as one of those guys sitting on a stool all day long at a craft fair but once I'm retired all bets are off. That could easily be me.

Charlie watches TV. No kidding. We were watching the Dog Whisperer last night and he was sitting on the end of the ottoman watching another dog on the screen. It wasn't for just a few seconds either. We'd noticed him watching the TV before but not as intently as he was last night. I should try and get some video of him doing that.

I tried taking all three dogs for a walk on one three-way leash yesterday but it didn't work so well. We've got a double leash that Tammy made for Toby and Allie which works really well but they've sort of grown into it over the years and know how not to get tangled. I added a third section to it for Charlie and he kept getting his legs caught up in it. I had him on a separate leash today and it worked much better. I took them for a 45-minute walk and I was worried that Charlie wouldn't be able to keep up but he did fine.

I brought them all down in the shop with me when we got home and within five minutes Charlie had peed on the floor. They say that Shih-Tzu's aren't so easy to potty train. I agree. But once they get it, they get it and that's usually not until six months. We're nearly there.

On our walk I came across a discarded painting tossed aside in a snowbank. It would be great refrigerator art but it's a bit too large for that. I took a photo of it and uploaded it to my Facebook because that's the sort of thing a person does with Facebook. Don't they? Anyway, it got a few comments and began to morph over the course of the day.

The original...

Then my brother Tim found a photo of some guy he thought may have posed for the photo...

I countered with...

Only to be one-upped by Steve from San Francisco...

See all the fun we have on Facebook? There's room for a lot more of you guys to get involved. All the cool kids are doing it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stories From the Trenches

As an air traffic controller, there are a couple things I don't do when I'm in the sector (or out of it for that matter). I don't try to imagine how many people may be under my control (although I have) at any one time and I don't spend any time worrying that the next call may come from a pilot in distress. Either of those two things occupying much of my idle thoughts would only serve to distract and unnerve me say nothing of the hyperventilating that would follow. The green slash on the radar which represents the aircraft's position is just that; a green slash. It's not really an airplane at all. There's a bit of disassociation that needs to occur to be able to do this job day after day. At least for me.

This month marks my 27th year as a controller with the FAA. I can't say I've had a huge number of emergencies in that time but I've had my share. Often times they're military aircraft with equipment malfunctions requesting an immediate descent in the direction of their destination. Sometimes it's an air carrier with a medical emergency needing to get on the ground as soon as possible with an ambulance at the ready.

All too often they unfold in unpredictable ways.

I took over the sector from Bob Nicol back in 1990 with Mark Warren on the (data) D-side. It was a busy sector with lots of traffic (some non-radar) and military airspace active from 6000 feet and up just northwest of Fort Dodge, Iowa. I don't think I'd had much more than a few seconds to catch my breath for the first 15 minutes I'd been plugged in. I remember commenting to Mark when there was finally a lull, "Let's see if everybody is present and accounted for". It was my way of making sure I had the flick. I began to methodically go through the flight progress strips correlating them with the targets on the scope. Right away I noticed that a non-radar aircraft at 6000 feet had failed to report progressing the Fort Dodge VOR (navigation aid) and appeared to be inside the military airspace we were protecting for. That's not good. I had Mark get on the line with Coffin Corner (the military radar unit working with the fighter aircraft in the airspace) and tell them that we may have somebody inside the airspace so that they could protect for him. While Mark got on the line my next move was to key the frequency and issue a clearance to the pilot to descend to a lower altitude which would get him underneath the airspace. Coffin Corner told Mark to standby. Mark said to me, "This doesn't sound good...they've got sirens going off and said they just had a midair". Mark assumed that one of the A-7's had collided with our guy who'd gotten away from us. I assured Mark that it wasn't our guy because I was talking to him. Huge sigh.

Two A-7's had collided in a dogfight. Here's a report of the incident a coworker and friend, Tim, found...

USAF A-7K Corsair 80-0292/SD and A-7D ??/SD of South Dakota ANG/175th TFS collided head-on in mid-air near Spencer, Iowa during a mock dogfight. Both aircraft exploded in a ball of flame spreading debris over a wide area of farmland but no injuries reported on the ground. The two pilots and one civilian passenger, Ward Bushee editor of a newspaper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, all ejected safely.

I remembered that there was a reporter from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader on board who had to eject. That was the part of the story that was always so intriguing to me. I'm not sure that anybody can be prepared to eject from an A-7, certainly not a newspaper reporter just riding along for a story. The reporter most definitely got more to write about than he anticipated.

Edit: Ward Bushee from the A-7 ejection story was kind enough to put that experience into words for my blog. You can read what he wrote at this link.

In the late 1990's I had a woman attempting to land at Mason City, Iowa in dismal weather conditions who was sounding more and more distressed with each unsuccessful attempt to execute an instrument approach. I can't remember the last time I'd asked a pilot how much fuel they had remaining but I did that in this instance. Her reply was "20 minutes."  That wasn't a number I wanted to hear. With that little fuel left she had only one more attempt at an approach if that. I declared an emergency for her without telling her what I'd done as I figured it would only add to her stress level. I asked the supervisor to see if there were any pilot-rated controllers available who could help me/her out. Mike Blume was plugged in with me in a matter of moments. Mike was probably one of the more experienced pilots of any of the pilot-rated controllers/supervisors among us and we have many.

I have no idea what sort of thought processes the pilot was using to allow herself to get into such a position but her situation had deteriorated to do-or-die and I don't think that's much of an exaggeration if at all. Mike was able to talk her through the approach in ways that a non-pilot controller such as me likely couldn't.

At the "missed approach" point in the procedure, she stated that she still didn't have the field in sight. Mike and I both looked at each other and understood that she was eventually going to have to come through the clouds. She could either do it now in a controlled manner or do it with no power in an aircraft with empty fuel tanks possibly much further away from the field and a low ceiling allowing for little time to react once she broke out. She needed to somehow squeeze another 100 feet or more out of the minimums otherwise there was much less chance of her and her passengers walking away from this one. Mike asked her if she could descend just a bit more to see if she could make ground contact. Within a few seconds she came back on the radio and stated: "I can see the airport". Less than one minute later she was calling us on the ground to say she'd landed safely. I remember being surprised at how quickly she got the plane on the ground from the time she first reported the field in sight.

Months later I asked the Quality Assurance people if the incident was ever processed as a save. It wasn't. All in a day's work I suppose.

It was my sector that golfer Payne Stewart's plane fell out of the sky from back in October 1999. It wasn't much of an emergency by the time it got to me as there was conceivably no chance to save anybody on board since they were all likely hours dead from hypoxia (a lack of oxygen) due to a sudden decompression of the aircraft. Still, it was quite a zoo with all the military aircraft shadowing the plane waiting for its fuel to run out. It came through the sector on autopilot with its altitude maxed out somewhere above 40,000 feet and fluctuating slightly. I simply had to keep everyone clear of its path knowing that it could come crashing down at any time although we had a pretty good idea how far its fuel would carry it based on the information the pilot had entered in his flight plan.

In the middle of it all, I had a United pilot requesting a routing change which would have taken it across the stricken plane's path. I told the pilot I couldn't help her with her request but I didn't elaborate as to why. There was a lot going on behind the scenes as well which was competing for my attention. I remember she made a comment about me finding somebody else who could get the job done. It was a rude remark to make and one she no doubt felt embarrassed about later in the day when she watched the news and realized what had been happening and why I couldn't accommodate her. We all do and say stupid stuff occasionally and she was no exception.

Typically, pilots experiencing a loss of cabin pressure are able to don oxygen masks and at a minimum keep flying the plane until they can either correct the problem or safely descend to a lower altitude. Investigators were never able to determine why the crew of Stewart's plane were unable to do that.

I've never had a pilot on my frequency who showed any signs of hypoxia and I'd like to think that I'd recognize it if I did. But then again, depending upon the severity of the condition it may go unnoticed. The pilot in the audio link below is a 67-year-old retired United Airlines pilot. It's my understanding that the copilot was unconscious for most of this event and the pilot doing the talking doesn't recall much of any of it. Notice how they begin to regain their senses as the aircraft descends into denser air but imagine how easy it would've been for the pilot to slump over in his seat and drift away. My guess is he was fighting pretty hard to remain a player in this one whether he remembers it or not. Scary stuff.

I was at work the morning of 9/11 and remember walking past a TV in our Traffic Management Unit tuned to the first tower crash as I made my way to the area. I had no idea nor did anybody else about what would soon unfold. I assumed it was a small, single-engine plane that got off course and crashed into the tower. Sometime later Dave Holtorf came around to the sectors and told us to stop all departures. About that time Jim Niemann offered me a break from sector 26 which covers much of Nebraska including Offutt Air Force Base where President Bush would arrive a few hours later. "Sure, I'll go," I said to Jim. Who could have imagined?

I can't think of any other notable situations off the top of my head that I've been involved in during my career. If I have no more to add to this collection by the time I retire I'd be fine with that.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Simulating Experience

My brother's former wife Kim works for Northwest Airlines (soon to be Delta) in their training department. She asked me several months ago if I'd be interested in coming out to where she works on a Saturday night and spending some time in one of the simulators. I sort of felt that it was a lot to ask and that maybe she was just being polite by making the offer. I was wrong. She emailed me last week and said she had us slotted in for 8:00 Saturday night (last night) to come down and take a ride. I asked her if it was okay if I brought my camera and she assured me that it was.

So, Tammy, Rachel, Josh (Rachel's boyfriend), and I showed up at 7:45 last night and got much more of a tour than any of us were expecting. Jeff Crawford is one of the managers of the department and has been working in simulators for over 30 years. He had a DC9 simulator that wasn't in use and he walked us over to it and brought us inside. I'd been on a flight deck a number of times before so I pretty much knew what to expect. Lots of buttons and lights molded into what looked like worn battleship gray consoles and seats that are too small for as much time that is spent in them. I know several pilots and they're all in reasonably good shape, meaning not overweight. Perhaps there's a connection.

We let Josh and Rachel get us airborne. The feeling of takeoff is incredibly real. The visuals outside the window only add to the experience. Buzzers buzz, bells ring out and audible voices come to life when climb rates, speed, and the aircraft's position on the approach fall out of normal parameters. When we strayed, Jeff was quick to help get the aircraft lined up, trimmed out, and on a steady course again, and again and again.

It's easy to forget that you're in a mock-up.

I didn't think to ask Jeff but I'd be curious to know if the visuals in some of the newer simulators are even more real. I imagine they are as the DC9 simulator was using technology considerably older than what's now state of the art. I got to look at some of the green two-layer wafer computer cards behind the simulator that serve to program it. I haven't seen that sort of stuff in a long time. Still, what it could do was all very impressive.

We paired up and took turns working together to bring the plane to both successful and unsuccessful landings. I could honestly see myself being good at that sort of thing once I've had a chance to get familiar with what I was looking at. No doubt Jeff had little to no wind for us to contend with on final. I didn't think to ask him what he'd programmed into it. Jeff can program whatever ceiling (cloud cover) he'd like in addition to several other atmospheric variables, even hail. I don't know if turbulence is one of them but I'd guess it is. So many questions I didn't think to ask.

After doing several approaches we left the DC9 sim and Jeff walked us around more of the complex to show us some of the other simulators. Boeing has their new 787 on-site but it's locked so as to keep the inside out of view of regulars like us. Jeff said that there was some proprietary equipment in there which wasn't ready for public display.

He walked us out to the lobby where there's a display of one of the very early aircraft simulators; the C-3 Link.

I thanked Jeff for the tour and told him that I'd be happy to return the favor by showing him my end of the operation. I like their sims a lot better than ours.

I know Josh and Rachel enjoyed their time behind the controls but I don't know that either of them wants to consider being a pilot as a profession. I don't think any of my airline pilot friends are encouraging their children to follow in their footsteps. Sadly, it could be a long time before it becomes a desirable career choice again. But for those who love and are determined to fly it's likely the only career choice for them.

Here are a few photos I took along the way in addition to the video below.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Rink Rats

I was a rink rat in my youth growing up in Bloomington, Minnesota. My younger brothers Keith and Tim were rink rats too; Keith more so than Tim. There was no lack of ice to skate on near our home. I can think of a dozen ponds or hockey rinks within two miles of where we lived but the one we spent most of our time at was behind Hubert Olson Jr High where Mike Norris was the warming house attendant. Mike would usually have the radio tuned to WDGY which played top 40 stuff. To this day, whenever I hear the song I'm Your Venus by The Shocking Blue my mind goes back to the warming house where Mike would often have drum sticks in his hands banging out rhythms on the benches and the barrel just inside the door where we put our sticks.

The regulars would show up at the same time after school. After a little while of skating around taking shots at an empty net somebody would yell out, "everybody for a game down here!" We'd figure out the teams and go at it. There were few rules and definitely no icing or offside pass calls. We lived at that rink during the winter. My brothers and I would bring a can or two of Shasta pop with us and bury them in the snow behind the warming house for later. We would head for home at dinner time and often hurry to return and skate until the rink closed at 9:00.

I revisited the spot where we spent all that time on our skates last summer when I was writing about An Intersection in My Life. It remains undeveloped and most likely always will as it's now part of a wetland area. I took the photo to the left, standing where the hockey rink used to be and looking out over where the pleasure rink was.

I've never been one for organized sports which I suppose some may find odd since most of my adult life I've been active in sports. I began on the bike then moved to running and eventually found my way back to my bike. I'm a part-time athlete but running and cycling were/are solo endeavors for me and I enjoy participating in them that way. I suppose I'm not a team player in that I march to my own beat. Those who know me well understand what I'm saying.

I played organized baseball for one season and organized hockey for not quite two. I was a quitter. It would take me a while to live that name down. I lost the starting role of left wing to the coaches son and there was no way you could convince me that it was a just decision. I stopped showing up for practice but that wasn't enough for my dad as he insisted before the next game that I call the coach and tell him I was quitting. I still remember being on the phone with him but I can't remember what I said. I don't recall if I was honest with him about my reasons for leaving the team. I only know that it was a bittersweet feeling as I hung up the phone.

I would catch more grief for quitting than I ever imagined I would from my friends. It was a good lesson for me to learn and I'd like to think I've never been a quitter since that time but others may disagree. Some may say that I quit on high school but I'd counter by saying that I was never in the game. There was a time last spring when I quit pushing on an issue my union felt strongly about as they stood behind me. In the end, I followed through in my own way but I did what I needed to do for reasons of self-preservation. I certainly didn't quit on my first marriage. I'm not a quitter and those who know me know this.

My dad coached Tim's hockey team one year. Tim was maybe ten years old then and my dad's whole approach to coaching was to make sure every kid got to see an equal amount of playing time. Winning the game was secondary to all else. If it was down to the final two minutes of play and they were behind, he didn't put his best line out there. He let the chips fall where they may. He no doubt caught grief from some of the players as well as their parents but my dad also marched to his own beat.

I don't suppose his method of coaching would find much support these days but I'd like to think there are some out there who understand.

A couple years before he passed away in September 1995 he gave me a plaque (photo to the right) which occupied a place on the wall by his desk at work. He and I were alike in many ways.

I originally sat down to write a post about the International Air Traffic Controllers Hockey Tournament which was in town this past week but I find myself reminiscing a little.

Back to the present.

I thought my hockey days were behind me as I'd last laced my skates up nine years ago. It's been eleven years since I played in the tournament. Steve, one of the guys on the team at work had been encouraging me to skate with them at this year's tournament but I could never muster the ambition to fit practicing into my schedule. "My hockey days are done" I'd say and then I'd go on to tell him how busy I was with everything else in my life. My brother Keith who also plays on the team gave up encouraging me to come out a while ago.

This past Tuesday, Steve mentioned to me that he wasn't going to be able to play in Friday's game and would I give some thought to taking his place. He must've caught me in a weak moment because I told him I'd consider it.

I woke up Wednesday morning for work and when I came down into the kitchen I picked up the phone and called the Area 5 supe requesting a couple hours of vacation time at the end of my shift. I'd planned to watch some of the tournament on Friday and film some video too. I needed to move that up to Wednesday if I wanted to get something for YouTube since there was now a chance I'd be playing on Friday. Plus, it would give me an opportunity to study the situation more closely to see if I really wanted to get back out there and mix it up.

I didn't at all like the idea of going out there cold. Nine years off the ice is a long time and rollerblading doesn't count. I tried to convince myself to just go have fun with it and not worry about the certain erosion of my playing skills but I was having a hard time buying into that idea. I didn't even own a hockey stick anymore since giving them all away a few years ago to the neighbor kids to play street hockey with. Keith said he had one I could use.

When I got back from watching Keith and the rest of the team play I got out the ladder to find my hockey bag which I had stored up in the rafters of our garage. I brought it down into the basement and began to go through it. It was like opening up a time capsule. Everything was just as I'd left it. Most likely unwashed, too. I noticed that a mouse had chewed through the zipper and made a home inside the bag at some point. There were some pieces of corn in the bottom but all of my gear was fine.

As silly as it sounds I was actually nervous about playing. I was worried about getting injured and I really didn't want that to happen. I like my bikes and my rower too much to have to spend time away from them because I needed to play this game one last time. I told Tammy that this may be the only chance she'd ever get to watch me play hockey. She was excited about it and said she'd videotape the game for me. I was committed.

I wish I could say that I played a great game but I didn't. I was terrible. Five minutes of warm-up before the game to grind away at nine years worth of rust wasn't nearly enough. I struggled to keep the puck on my stick anytime it came near. It was probably the worst hockey I've ever played but none of that really mattered because I had a blast; so much so that I've decided I'm going to get back into it again. Keith mentioned to me about a group of guys who play on Wednesday nights that we could hook up with in the fall. I'm all in.

I put a video on YouTube of some of the stuff Tammy took during the game. I'm number 47 in yellow. Keith is number 22. They call our team the Goons and I'm proud to have been one again if only for one game this time around.

If you stay with the video to the end you'll see of a couple of rink rats I wrote about earlier in this post as we leave the ice together. I think we've got more hockey to play; in fact, I'm sure of it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Streamlining Our Operation and Flying Again

Maybe you've stopped by my blog recently and noticed that it was down. It appears to have happened twice in the last few weeks but I'm not sure why. If you ever notice that it's down please feel free to email me to let me know. I'm not sure what's causing it but it's usually a quick fix to get it back up. Thanks.

Our stained glass project has been sitting idle for the past week. I've decided to go about this project differently than I have with others since this one has so many small but identical pieces. Rather than cut out individual pattern pieces (which is very time consuming) and gluing each pattern piece to the glass I'm going to opt for an assembly line approach where I cut out hundreds of pieces in one sitting. There will be minimal pattern cutting along the way to slow me down. I ordered a glass cutting tool which will help me streamline the process. I also intend to fashion a jig to further help in getting the pieces cut to the exact measurements I'll need. This should save a considerable amount of time.

I've yet to ever work on stained glass during the warmer months but I'm hoping this may be the year I make an exception. I'm excited to get moving on this project and complete it. We'll see.

Keith and Tracee had a booth set up at the Twin Cities Food and Wine Experience last weekend. With the slow economy, I think he's feeling the need to invest a bit more time and money into drumming up business. Booths at those events don't come cheaply.

Funny that some people think that I have a stressful job as an air traffic controller. Some days I do but I usually mention my brother when I'm told things like that because to me he's the one with the stressful job. He operates without a net. I have a sizable sick leave balance should I need it. I just spoke with him on the phone. He's on his way to the Minneapolis Convention Center to set up a booth for this week's Home & Garden Show. If you know of anybody looking for custom cabinet work in the Minneapolis metro area, Keith is your guy. Here's his website, Dakota Wood Design.

With all of the home projects we did last year there was little money left over for my new found hobby of R/C flying. I'd stumbled onto some virtual reality remote control aircraft videos on YouTube last year and immediately decided that I wanted to learn to do that. So, I'm back in pursuit of my dream and with a new airplane.

The hobby store in Richfield where I'd been doing business last year is undergoing some strife and reorganization. The owner of the store is being sued by his son for a financial agreement gone bad. Apparently, the son was supposed to take over the business but the father is reluctant to let it go, or so I've heard. Anyway, I had a $30 credit which was due to expire this week so I went there on Friday to see if I could find something to spend it on. I was told that they'd no longer honor the credit as the store had been closed and was now open under a new name. A friend at work who is also into R/C flying told me that the son opened his own store in Eagan. I stopped by there last Saturday and spoke with him. He was very helpful and also said that he'd honor my credit from the other store. One guess who'll be getting my business in the future.

Tammy had bought me my first R/C airplane a year ago last Christmas and I used it a few times but it was too underpowered for anything but zero wind conditions. It went out in today's trash. I didn't learn very much with it other than the knowledge that I'd need a plane with more power next time. The propeller on my new plane is more than twice as long as the other and the new plane is smaller. It should have enough get up and go for me. The owner of the hobby store recommended this as a good trainer; just what I need.

Rachel and I used to do a handshake which over the span of a couple years morphed into something that would take us maybe 30 seconds to work through. We talked about how on her wedding night when it came time for just the two of us to take to the dance floor we'd go through our routine as a joke for everybody to watch. We still may. It's a bit complicated but nowhere near what you'll see in the video below. I'm very impressed.