5:18 PM

Listen to That
Voice in Your Head(set)

As with anything in aviation, if you poll enough pilots, you will certainly find one who has absolutely nothing good to say about our nation's Air Traffic Controllers. These are also the clowns who like to strafe their home patch in their B55 Baron full out at 200 AGL without making a radio call.

And as you might expect if you read this blog regularly, I am NOT one of this group. I am a big fan of the men and women inside my headset, and this week one of them took me on a tour of the Eugene, Oregon tower. I had been up in the FAT tower once before, and it is always good times when you get inside the inner sanctum of ATC:

My wife Julie and I are standing in Cascade Approach, one screen covering roughly 35 miles around EUG up to FL110, and a second screen handling the 35 miles around Medford to the south. The first thing you see when you enter the radar room is...darkness. The only illumination comes from the faint green glow of the radar screens, and if you listen intently, you can almost hear the controllers talking over the constant hum of a million electrodes assaulting your body from every angle. At the screens, a couple of controllers sit casually in their chairs, pushing a button here, sliding a slip of paper down the console there, occasionally giving guidance to some invisible pilot out there in the netherworld who is known only to them as a tiny green blip on a screen.
As our escort Controller explains what is before us, I try and listen for transmissions from the controller seated just three feet away working the Eugene sector. His voice is almost inaudible as he calmly tells a Skywest regional jet to turn fifteen degrees for traffic. Our escort seems overjoyed to be showing us the place, as if he is relieved to have something else to do then to stare at an nearly empty radar screen.
On this night, it is stone cold outside, with the temperature and dewpoint dancing dangerously with one another. You can count the blips on either screen on one hand, and still have fingers left to snap. Unlike the images we all have of Centers exploding with commotion as airliners converge on major hubs, tonight, Cascade Approach is a ghost town, a very boring post to have to work.
After hearing about the specific migratory routes of the giant flocks of birds that frequent EUG's airspace – it takes about 200 geese to show up on their radar screen, in case you were wondering – we head up the elevator to the "cab" as I believe it is called. The controllers working up there call it the best view in all of Eugene:
Maybe on a clear summer day when there were lots of arrivals and departures, the Eugene tower may be a hopping place to be. But tonight, one controller looks bored out of her mind, and is thrilled I'm sure to have to work an inbound Skywest RJ. We are shown the many levels of runway light brightness available to the arriving flyer, just at the time when the inbound Skywest was on short final. About the time that RJ pilot was dropping the gear, runway 16R lights up like Fifth Avenue during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, only without the Snoopy balloons. Welcome to EUG!
For the next 15 minutes, we stood in the cab and chatted up airplanes with the two controllers. After the RJ made the gate, an eerie stillness enveloped the field, nothing moving in or out. The controller working "tower" seems happy to record the next hour's ATIS message, rattling off the info like she had done this a million times before...because she HAS.

As we drove home from the tour, I reflected on the kind of training these controllers must have to be able to stay so cool under any circumstances. Eugene Tower is far removed from the hectic pace of say Los Angeles Center, but I am left with the feeling that if a couple of hundred inbounds suddenly were handed off to them, they could work each pressurized tube with as much grace and skill as was needed to get everyone on the ground safely without generating any of that pesky FAA paperwork.

As pilots, we should be indebted to ATC for watching our backs, for guiding us through the quag, and for keeping things under control when things get out of control in the cockpit. These people deserve to be respected not only from all who fly, but also the FAA, who seems to have little interest in giving them a fair employment contract. When you see ATC in action, the current treatment of them by FAA seems a disgrace.

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