Tag Archives: aviation safety

Forty Years Ago Today — A moment in history

Forty years ago today, 3 August 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization — PATCO — went out on strike against the Federal Aviation Administration, and by extension the U.S. government. I was at the time an staff sergeant and an air traffic controller in the U.S. Air Force working at a control tower and precision approach radar (PAR) at an Air Force Base in the western United States.

It was quite a ride that year, and the year following. Weeks before the strike, just before PATCO’s first strike vote, I had my duffle bag packed and held orders to report the FAA Airport Traffic Control Tower at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada. Alas, PATCO voted to not strike during that first vote, and my orders were rescinded.

The “old” control tower at McCarran International

A second vote was taken on 31 July, and a strike date was set for three days later. Orders this time did not go to me, but rather to others at my facility. They were to report to the Denver Stapleton International Control Tower.

Denver Stapleton International Control Tower

But less than two weeks later, that contingent failed to pass the FAA’s stringent training program. I and another controller, Airman Vern “VJ” Johnson, were called into the chief controller’s office. We were handed orders to report on 17 August to the FAA control tower at El Paso International Airport, and we were instructed in no uncertain terms to make damned sure we didn’t blow the training program, as our chief controller was now under a Pentagon microscope.

Upon arrival, we joined up with four additional pairs of Air Force controllers from Luke, Shepard, Tinker, and Holloman Air Force Bases. Names from that contingent include Joe Lang, Joe Yatar, Dean Funk, Dane Grant, Wilford Rayford, Charlie Correll (sp?), Steve Glass, and at least one name that right now escapes me. My memory must be fading. Over the next several months, El Paso ATCT pretty much acted as an Air Force tower and an FAA TRACON.

El Paso International Airport Traffic Control Tower (and TRACON) as it looked in 1981

As for VJ and me that “90-day” deployment that stretched to almost eleven full months. I returned to my base to out-process from the Air Force. Having proven myself capable to the FAA and El Paso, I was ordered to return as an FAA controller in early September 1982. And so began a 27-year career in the FAA on top of the seven+ years I had served as an air traffic controller in the United States Air Force. Joining me in the move from USAF to FAA were VJ, Dean, and Dane.

El Paso Airport Traffic Control Tower as it appears today

I would go on to certify as a radar controller in the El Paso Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), and alternate duties between the “upstairs” control tower and “downstairs” radar room for the duration of my service to the U.S. government.

El Paso TRACON with modern STARS equipment

During that time I would also be tasked to assist in developing, evaluating, and deploying a modern upgrade to the nation’s air traffic control system — the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS). This involved repeated trips to the FAA Technical Center near Atlantic City, New Jersey, as well as deployment and evaluation trips to FAA TRACONS in Syracuse, New York; Memphis, Tennessee; Miami, Florida; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

STARS display with 6-level weather presentation

I hope you found informative today’s little aviation history lesson given to you from a personal perspective. And please excuse the personal history, but I at times get a bit prideful of my service.

Today the PATCO strike is pretty much relegated to the history books and all but ignored, but at the time it held incredible significance to this nation’s aviation system. The impact of the PATCO strike cannot be overstated, as that impact on U.S. aviation would only later be superseded in significance by the 11 September attacks and, perhaps, the recent Covid-19 pandemic.



Filed under Aviation Safety, Opinion Piece, R. Doug Wicker, Writing

Indentured Servitude is STILL alive and well in the U.S.

Back in October of 2013 I posted my most read blog article . . . by far. It garnered an astounding 7,368 views. And now, unfortunately, that article becomes timely once again. Only, this time, substitute President Donald J. Trump for any references that were previously made about Senator Ted Cruz (another absolutely despicable human being). And this time the hissy fit isn’t Obamacare. This time it is over a wall that nearly everyone acknowledges will neither add anything to national security, nor mitigate crossings along our border with Mexico, all at a cost that would eventually exceed $40 billion if completed along our entire southern flank. Besides, the president has had two years now to make Mexico pay for that wall, right?

And here is that reprinted article:

An Airport Traffic Control (ATC) Tower

An Airport Traffic Control Tower (ATCT)

Take it from a former controller who has in his 34 years in the business worked at some pretty busy facilities under less than ideal conditions with obsolete or failing equipment and uncooperative weather:  There are few if any jobs more stressful than air traffic control.  Period.  It’s certainly more stressful than being, say, a congressman or a senator.

Imagine working New York TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) during a busy inbound rush of air carriers, failing equipment, and a line of thunderstorms pushing into the area from the west.  Throw into that mix an inflight emergency or two and perhaps an aircraft with minimum fuel that needs to get on the ground right now.

Then let’s add to all that stress.

Let’s tell those controllers that they have to go to work, but a group of about thirty congressmen and a senator or two who didn’t agree with the results of the last election are going to refuse to allow the United States Congress to pay them.

These already overworked, stressed controllers have mortgages to make, utilities to pay, car payments, grocery bills, kids in college . . . but none of that makes any difference.  They are required by federal law to work.  For free.  Indefinitely.

Think that’s fair?  That’s what’s happening right now, this very second.  In New York.  In Dallas.  In Atlanta.  In Chicago.  In Los Angeles.  In myriad other busy facilities across this great nation.  All because of thirty-some-odd Congressmen and at least one delusional, grand-standing Senator from Texas who has ambitions beyond the senate seat he’s held for less than ten months.

Tomorrow, these controllers will be paid for only 48 of the 80 or more hours they worked — the 48 hours they worked before the shutdown that occurred just thirteen days ago.  Those controllers received that bad news when they got their “pay” statements last Thursday.  Two weeks from tomorrow the amount in their paychecks drops to Z-E-R-O despite working another 80 or more hours during the next pay period.

How long do you think you could financially hold on under such conditions?  How long do you think it’ll be before some of these controllers have to resign to find jobs that pay the bills?  How long do you think it’ll be before retirement-eligible controllers with 20 or 25+ years of badly needed experience and who are currently mentoring an already far-too-young and inexperienced group of new controllers decide that they should go into retirement just to pay the bills?  (Controllers, by the way, are only allowed to work to the last day of the month in which they turn 56 because of the stresses inherent to their jobs, and because before that reduction in the retirement age, very few controllers could make it to mandatory retirement because of failing health and deteriorating abilities and reaction times.  These are the professionals who your congressman is stiffing on pay for work they’ve already done.)

How long before that radar control room guiding your airliner is staffed like this?:

The Control Room of a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON)

The Control Room of a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON)

And while these people are working for free, I’d like for you to consider this:  Those congressmen?  The ones who before the last election proclaimed the 2012 elections a “referendum on Obamacare?”  The congressmen who are now having a temper tantrum because, at their core, they apparently only believe in democracy when it suits them?

Those congressmen work on average just two days out of every five-day workweek, earn at a minimum $174,000 a year (Speaker Boehner gets a whopping $223,500 for not doing his job), are vested for retirement benefits after only five years on what I laughingly call “the job,” get federally subsidized healthcare (which those thirty want to deny people who make one tenth as much as they), and they continue to receive those pay and all those benefits while your air traffic controllers are forced to do without.  Those congressmen certainly aren’t hurting financially during this self-induced “crisis,” but your air traffic controllers certainly are.

How dare any elected representative do this to employees who work for them?  How dare any elected representative put employees’ families through this kind of stress and uncertainty?  How dare anyone whose job is given to them by a democratic process repudiate the outcome of a democratic election because they do not agree with the results?

It is way past time to start reducing the stress levels of your already overstressed air traffic controllers, and to start raising the stress levels of your elected representative.  And if you live in the state of Texas, as do I, it’s way past time to tell the wealthy Senator Ted Cruz (55th wealthiest member of the U.S. Senate) that if he doesn’t agree with democracy, then it’s well beyond time to democratically terminate his employment come next election.

These people, quite frankly, disgust this former Republican who, effective October 1 of this year, no longer affiliates himself with what once was truly the Grand Old Party . . . but is no more.

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Filed under Author, Aviation Safety, Opinion Piece, R. Doug Wicker, Social Networking, Writing

The Classic Definition of Insanity — Privatizing Essential Government Services . . . Again . . . and Expecting Different Results!

We’ve tried this failed experiment before, and once again it’s your safety and the nation’s security that are at stake as we try it yet again.  Yep, we’re talking lives, property, and national security sacrificed upon the altar of a long-discredited philosophy that places corporate profits above your (and the nation’s) interests.

Standard warning posted outside Air Traffic Control Facilities — Looks “Inherently Governmental” to me!

This time it’s the remnants your Air Traffic Control system they want to sell off.  You remember air traffic controllers.  They’re the only federal employees during the run up to and aftermath from the 9/11 attacks to actually have performed flawlessly in saving lives that day and disrupting further attacks.  The FBI and CIA?  Not so much.

The usual suspects are at it this time as well.  If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time then you know who they are.  They are Congressman John Mica, “Think” Tanker Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, and privatization forces both within and outside congress.  And, as always, all one need do is follow the money.

We’ve seen before how these forces work together.  They manufacture a “crisis” by defunding, sequestration, furlough, and intentional disruption, then claim the only “solution” to Congress’ inability to govern (in other words do the one job your representative and senators were elected to perform) is to spin off yet another essential government service so that corporations can profit from those services while charging taxpayers two, three, four or even more times what we now spend in return for reduced levels of service over what we currently receive.

Now we have another proposal to privatize, either through a government-run corporation (how’s that Post Office thing working out for you, by the way?) or spin off to corporate America (ditto Blackwater, Haliburton, Harris Corporation, Lockheed Martin AFSS, and many other examples too numerous to list), the remaining two of the original three legs of this nation’s air traffic control system.  Those two remaining legs would be this nation’s vital Air Route Traffic Control Centers and Terminal Facilities (Terminal Radar Approach Controls and Control Towers).

What was the third leg, you ask?  The one that is now a laughable shadow of its former self?  We’ll get to that now:

Here’s an example of what to expect from the selling/spinning off of your air traffic control system — the system you already bought and paid for.  John Mica and Robert Poole advocated for and achieved the privatization of the Flight Service Stations that file flight plans; coordinate overdue aircraft notifications; and brief general aviation pilots on everything from equipment outages, to presidential aircraft movements they need to avoid, to hazardous weather and other safety-related information critical to the conduct of safe flight.  It was their crowning achievement, designed according to them to save the government money while providing better service for less cost.  How has it worked?

Dismally.  And you, the taxpayer, are paying what I conservatively estimate to be four times as much per operation as you did before the sell-off.  Worse, because AFSS facilities were consolidated and vital services were curtailed to increase corporate profits, people have actually died as a direct result of John Mica’s and Robert Poole’s efforts, others have had rescues delayed after crashes (see below), and the security of even presidents of the United States — both past and present — has been violated on more than one occasion because private pilots left flight service briefings unwarned of presidential movement flight restrictions.

Before FAA Administrator Marion Blakey transferred to Lockheed Martin control of most of this nation’s Automated Flight Service Stations back in 2005, the FAA in the preceding year conducted around 25,922,000 “operations” (defined as any pilot contact whether by radio or telephone for a specified service).  By 2011, the last full year for which such data is currently available, that number had dropped to around 6,553,000 (a figure which includes right around 435,000 operations performed by the FAA’s few remaining Alaska Flight Service Stations).  That’s a drop of right around 75%.  Where did all those pilots go?  If you ask they’ll gladly tell you their horror stories.  Many quit using Flight Services because of notoriously bad service, incorrect information, and long waits on the telephone and over the radio since Lockheed Martin took over AFSS operations.  Indeed it initially got so bad that many pilots in the Lower 48 were calling FAA Alaska Flight Service Stations to file flight plans and get weather briefings even if they were going no farther north than the Florida panhandle.  Really.  I’m not kidding

And don’t even think of asking pilot Michael Trapp about the services he received from Lockheed Martin’s Lansing AFSS.  They darned near managed to kill him.  Mr. Trapp contacted Lockheed AFSS as his Cessna 150 was going down into Lake Huron on July 26, 2011.  He thought his radio distress call was being picked up by Lansing AFSS.  Unfortunately, in the name of cost cutting and unbeknownst to Mr. Trapp, Lockheed Martin had closed Lansing AFSS.  His distress call was instead answered by someone in Leesburg, Virginia.  That someone was totally unfamiliar with the area around the Great Lakes, and consequently unfamiliar with the landmarks Mr. Trapp relayed to the controller.  That just so happens to violate a clause in the AFSS contract that stipulates AFSS controllers will have familiarity with the area they are servicing.  So, despite Mr. Trapp having given his approximate location after an initially incorrect position report, the controller in Leesburg still managed to send rescuers to the wrong lake — only four hours after the crash, because the Leesburg controller did not initially relay to the Coast Guard the seriousness of the situation.  What should have been perhaps an hour ordeal wound up with Mr. Trapp treading water for eighteen hours and throughout a very long night before being picked up the next day by boaters unconnected to the rescuers searching in the wrong area.

Meanwhile, despite never having fully complied with the terms of their contract and having chased away three out of every four pilots using Flight Services, Lockheed Martin still get paid as though they were still handling nearly 26,000,000 operations per year.  Indeed, the FAA announced in September of 2013 that they were extending Lockheed Martin’s contract for an additional two years at a cost of $221,000,000.  That’s on top of a previous three-year, $356,000,000 extension awarded in 2010.  Those figures as far as I know doesn’t include bonuses routinely given to Lockheed Martin despite repeated noncompliance of contractual obligations.  Lockheed Martin then bragged in the same press release that they had in 2012:

  • Filed more than 1 million flight plans for aviation pilots;
  • Provided more than 1.5 million pilot weather briefings;
  • Answered 457,575 aviation radio contacts; and
  • Helped pilots in 6,691 aviation search and rescue events.

Now, I’m no math wiz, and the FAA has yet to release statistics for all 0f 2012 and beyond, but it appears to me from the above numbers that total operations dropped even further to less than 3,000,000.  In just two years!  Additionally, a quick calculation reveals that if (a big”if” considering the decline in numbers seen ever since Lockheed Martin took over) Lockheed Martin AFSS specialists continue to work 3,000,000 operations a year over the two-year life of that latest extension, they will pocket nearly $37 per operation.  Or, in other works, $37 for every telephone and radio call made to a Lockheed Martin AFSS.

Sounds a bit like one of thoseI-made-$15,000-last-month-working-at-home” scams, doesn’t it?

Think that’s a good deal for the taxpayer?  Robert Poole and John Mica do.  But don’t even think of letting them do for your (because you bought and paid for them) En Route and Terminal Air Traffic Services what they did with your (which you also bought and paid for, but which they gave away) Flight Service Stations.

And don’t let your congressman or senators tell you that you must now relinquish services you bought and paid for, and turn them over to corporate profiteers, because your congressman or senators either cannot or will not do the job they were elected to perform.  Any congressman or senator telling you that has just told you that they are unfit to govern and shouldn’t be in office.

Indeed, John Mica has been telling his constituents that he’s unfit to govern for over a decade.  Question is, are the voters in Florida’s 7th Congressional District finally going to listen to him this time?

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Filed under Aviation Safety, R. Doug Wicker