Full Circle: A Controller Speaks, Part Two

More excerpts from David Larson’s “Spinning at the Boundary: The Making of an Air Traffic Controller.”

The last time we were together I began a series highlighting one of the aviation-themed audiobooks that I produced and narrated: the interesting and entertaining memoirs from an FAA air traffic controller.

Retired after 36 years of working traffic—initially at some small and then on to several very large ATC facilities—David Larson’s “Spinning at the Boundary: The Making of an Air Traffic Controller” is available in print and e-book from Amazon, while the audio version that I narrated can be found at Amazon, Audible and in Apple’s iTunes Library. (Note: this book contains a measure of salty/profane language—be forewarned if you prefer not to hear or read that sort of thing.)

“Spinning at the Boundary” is an insider’s view—with lots of iconoclastic observations and irreverent opinions—from an experienced controller’s career path and the ATC happenings during that long (and often tumultuous) period in our aviation history. Continuing with our selected excerpts from the audio script, and with the author’s permission, here are a few highlights from his years in the Miami (KMIA) tower, beginning with one particularly boring night shift:

I was working the midnight shift with a friend of mine and nothing was going on, so—idle minds and all—I made up a tag for an aircraft that didn’t exist. To keep it from dropping off the radar, I put it into a handoff status to an unused scope (a target in that mode will sit on a scope indefinitely).

Then I called the tower and told him a C-130 was going to make low approaches over Runway 09/27. I moved that tag by using the reposition function so that it would appear to be moving when the controller in the tower watched it on his radar display.

I ran the tag out to a 10-mile final and started to move it down the final approach course. When the tag got to a seven-mile final, I used the backup radio and called the tower. Disguising my voice, I said, “Metro Tower, Air Force five-six-nine on a seven-mile final for Runway 27; low approach.”

The controller cleared “Air Force” for the approach, and I moved the target slowly down the final, “flew” down the runway, and out the other side.

Needless to say, the tower guy never saw anything.

I kept up the approaches for the next hour or so while I told the guy in the tower it was a top secret test the Air Force was doing on super stealth aircraft that were really, really quiet.

I kept at it until the guy upstairs realized that the voice on the radio was me. Oddly enough, he didn’t think it was near as funny as I did. Go figure.

Another story within “Spinning at the Boundary” came from the radar room in Miami. It happened while Larson was training a new controller on approach control and other controllers in the room were carrying on very loud and raucous personal conversations with each other:

The incident that pulled the bottom card out of our card house wasn’t the mistake that was eventually made; the final straw was the action taken to fix a mistake. A British Airways heavy B-747 (callsign “Speed Bird”) filled with happy Brits winging their way to beautiful South Florida was on the final approach for 09L, descending out of 2,800 feet, 10 miles from the airport and already on the control tower frequency.

My trainee had turned an American heavy jet north from the south side of the airport for a visual approach to 09R. American had called the airport in sight, and the trainee cleared him for the visual approach.

So, although American was pointed directly at Speed Bird—and also at the same altitude—it didn’t matter because American would turn toward the runway before he became a factor for Speed Bird—in theory.

But instead of hearing the visual approach clearance directed to him, the pilot heard a bunch of yelling in the background of the facility from that bunch of bored controllers, so he kept winging northward—ready to T-bone Speed Bird.

Luckily, visibility was good and American eventually said, “Would you like us to turn onto the final?”

Now picture, if you will, standing on a pitcher’s mound. In front of you are 20 people with their hands behind their backs. All at once, all 20 of them fling a softball at you, and as they release them, someone yells, “Catch the red one, or everybody dies!”

That’s exactly how much time you have to fix this problem involving hundreds of people coming together with a 400-knot closure rate.

My guy had an instant fix: Speed Bird was at 2,600 feet, and he needed 1,000 feet of separation to be safe, and since American was descending, he told that pilot to descend immediately to 1,500 feet. The downside was that American was still at 3,000 feet, so to get to 1,500 he had to descend through Speed Bird’s altitude.

I took the frequency over at that point, stopped that, and let American pass behind Speed Bird.

Even though they would miss each other by less than half a mile and 100 feet of altitude, it was the best alternative I had. It was technically illegal, but by using that option, everybody got to go on living.

Unfortunately, that was when something else turned really sour.

Once I took the position over, I began transmitting at a hundred miles an hour. The fact that 300 or 400 people nearly died at my hand didn’t help my mental condition at all—but I still had to keep ‘em separated.

At the time, I had 15 to 20 aircraft on my frequency, all going between 250 and 150 knots, and all trying to get to the same spot on the earth. I was talking nonstop as fast as I could, not even taking time to unkey my radio so the pilots could answer me.

After every instruction I would tell the pilot to “ident to answer”—that would cause a little “ID” to show up on the scope, so I knew they were doing what I told them. I was now “vectoring for Jesus,” as the expression goes.

All things considered, events were actually going pretty well at that point. The rest of my wards were adequately separated, and I could see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. The light quickly turned out to be an express freight train headed directly toward me.

I looked up into the northeast arrival corridor, and noticed that an Air Canada Airbus and a Comair regional jet were winging their way down the arrival chute at the same altitude—but luckily, three miles apart, side by side. I thought I should pull these guys apart a little more.

As a refresher, on any radar scope little “tags” follow each aircraft. A “position symbol” sits over the actual aircraft (this symbol is the letter of the scope that is working that traffic: “S,” “A,” “V,” “N;” whatever).

Then a line called a “leader line” extends, usually about one-fourth of an inch, to the “data block.” The data block contains the flight information, callsign, aircraft type, altitude, etc.

This automation also has a cute feature called “auto offset.” This feature will offset a data block that is laying on top of another one, so the controller can read it.

Back to our hapless duo in the arrival corridor. As you may remember, I was going to help them out by pulling them farther apart. The tag for Comair was on the east side of the corridor, and the tag for Air Canada was on the west side, so I turned Comair 20 degrees to the east and Air Canada 20 degrees to the west.

As I’m sure even the slowest of you have already figured out, the tags had auto offset, and instead of giving the pilots some breathing room, I tried to fly them up each other’s noses.

All Comair had time to say was “Hey!” as he ripped right behind the Airbus.

The history that was made at this point was this: two “deals” (ATC system errors) in one session that weren’t even related to each other.

I politicked for my trainee, who had done a smashing job (no pun intended) right up until the deals occurred. So the instructor—me—was decertified with a double deal, and the trainee was checked out.

Next time: The weirdness of KMIA prevails.

Editor-at-large Thomas Block has flown nearly 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, and a best-selling novelist. Over the past 30 years he has owned more than a dozen personal airplanes of varying types. Send questions or comments to .