Richard Eyer Smith's Excellent Adventures in Paradise

Monday, December 6, 2010


Lots of people, when I tell them my profession, say, "Air traffic controller. Wow! That must be very stressful." My standard reply is, "It has its moments."

This post is about one such moment. I've labeled it Million Dollar Day because, over the course of my career, the FAA paid me more than a million bucks to keep planes from running into one another. On just this one day, I earned all one million dollars of it - and then some!

Los Angeles Enroute Center in the late 1970's was undergoing a transition. We had been using an old type of radar that displayed airplanes as "blips" of light on the scope. To keep track of the blips, we used little plastic markers with callsign and altitude grease-penciled onto them. We'd push these "shrimp boats", as we called them, over the blips to keep track of everybody. It was primitive, but it worked.

The newer system we used was computerized. It displayed a glowing data block of information next to the blip showing callsigns, altitudes and other information. Like all new computer programs, ours was "buggy" and it frequently failed. When this happened, we just flipped back to the old system. Not a problem.

That day, I sat comfortably in front of my radar scope. My sector was mostly arrivals streaming into Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Denver Center handed me a lovely "string of pearls", planes already lined up along the airway. My job, not very exciting, was to sit there and not mess up the handiwork of my fellow controllers.

My assistant controller and I were observing this pleasant flow of air traffic; then - poof! - my radarscope went blank.

As I said, this was not particularly unusual back then, so I just pushed a button and watched as the scope filled with little flashes of light. These blips represented a dozen or so aluminum tubes flying, literally, thousands of people miles above the Arizona desert.

I put target markers over the flashes and counted my blessings. This traffic was routine and easy to control.

South of my sector, in Albuquerque's airspace, I noticed a swarm of dots, like a legion of ants, beginning to inch their way north.

"Give Albuquerque a call and see what's up," I instructed my assistant.

The Albuquerque controllers were probably going into a holding delay - not something that would effect my traffic. As their jets approached my sector boundary they would turn back to the south, keeping clear of my pretty line of airplanes.

"Albuquerque doesn't answer," my assistant said. "Something's wrong."

Rather than turning south to stay out of my airspace, the mystery targets just kept marching north. In violation of every ATC rule ever written, the invaders broke across the boundary line and streamed into my sector like the Mongol Golden Horde.


Miles above Flagstaff, fifteen planeloads of my movie-watching, peanut-munching fellow citizens were wandering out of control over the Great American Southwest. Unless I came up with a plan, many of them were about to die.


This was bad. Beads of sweat formed above my lip. I fumbled one of my shrimp boats, then righted it on the scope.

The insurgents were storming up from Albuquerque's airspace. I didn't know their altitudes nor which way they were going to fly. All I could do was begin steering "my" flock of airplanes away from the menacing invaders.

My throat tightened as I began barking out instructions. I was now in a deadly game of dodge 'em with these huge jumbo-jets. I knew that if I messed up, and any two of my little blips touched one another, there was going to be a shower of body parts raining down into the Grand Canyon.

I took control.

"United Fifty Five, turn right heading three five zero, vector around unknown traffic."

"Continental Twenty Eight, turn left heading two zero zero."

"Delta One Seventy, turn right heading three six zero."

"Attention all aircraft, numerous unknown aircraft entering the area from the south."

"American Thirty, traffic eleven o'clock, ten miles, northbound, altitude unknown. Turn ninety degrees left to go behind."

My beautiful string of pearls had become a crazy mish-mash of careening, swerving humanity. The pilots, realizing that something had gone dangerously wrong, snapped to attention, looked out their windshields, listened up and flew their airplanes.

My hands shook, my voice cracked and I just kept going. I turned planes sharply to the right, then snapped them back to the left. I stayed in command as the phalanx of invaders flew north through all my traffic, then turned back south again on their deadly march through my sector.

The chaos continued for ten minutes; then fifteen; then twenty. My mind spun with the sheer complexity of time, space and altitude.

And then, as quickly as this teffifying jigsaw had begun, it was over.

Finally, all the errant jets straggled back into Albuquerque's airspace.

I'd kept my cool, kept on task and nobody died that day.

I don't really know what else to say.

It happened, it's over, and, thank God, everyone survived. Things easily could have turned out differently.

Cold beer, anyone?

Thursday, December 2, 2010


I've done a little time at sea, and, to paraphrase Dickens, there are the best of ships, there are the worst of ships.

A few weeks ago, Cath and I spent seven days cruising the lovely Caribbean Sea aboard the GTS (Gas Turbine Ship) Celebrity Summit. On board this splendid ship were about three thousand people from over thirty five different countries.

The goal of the passengers was to relax and enjoy. The goal of the crew was to make money by helping the passengers relax and enjoy. These thousands of people got along well with one another. There were no fiery political debates, no righteous religious testimonies or heated ideological conflicts. Other than a few rowdy conga-lines of off-key merrymakers, people were well behaved and delightfully cordial to one another.

Think of it: thousands of people from thousands of places around the globe have worked over many years to build, provision and maintain this beautiful ship.

All this marshaling of human capital and material resources was for the sole purpose of giving other folks a pleasant vacation. To the extent that the workers succeed, they are able to make money to raise their families and enjoy their lives.

Is it just possible that cruise ships are mankind's greatest accomplishment?

And then, there's the other side of the nautical equation. A number of years ago, in connection with my job as an air traffic controller, I was flown out to an aircraft carrier. It was stationed about one hundred miles north of the US Virgin Islands as part of an international naval exercise.

Now, I can tell you that landing and taking off from an aircraft carrier are truly thrilling experiences. My heart beats a bit faster just remembering that day.

I can also tell you that the awesome blast of jet engines, the unforgettable smell of kerosene and the precision of the deck crew during launch and recovery periods is mind numbing. It's like watching a magnificent ballet . . . but a ballet that has gone terribly wrong.

While below decks, a feeling washed over me: I am in the presence of incredible evil; pure and unadulterated evil.

This remarkable work of engineering brilliance has but one purpose. It is designed to kill people. Lots of people.

Here, just as with the GTS Summit, thousands of people had labored, combining their singular talents and best efforts. They had built a technological masterpiece. This thing is beautiful in its display of creative genius. But in this instance, everything has been done for the purpose of spreading death and destruction.

To this day, I feel a chill at the memory of such an amazing display of humanity run amok . I know many will argue the need for such things. I say to them, I have seen the instruments of war and the instruments of peace, and, as we say aboard the good ship Summit, I'll have another piece of strawberry cheesecake, please.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


"I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam." - Popeye

Wow! Nine posts in one month. But then nothing. The flash of an idea: Trump Network marketing . . . then nothing. Excitement, enthusiasm, a whir of activity followed by a quick shift of interest and then - you guessed it - nothing.

I've been here before. In fact, this is who I am. I stumble onto an idea, I pursue it like mad for a brief time and then I stop dead in my tracks. I've done it many times before.

Here's an example: Elder Rap. About five years ago, I came up with the idea of creating a type of Rap Music for older people. I invented a persona, El D'Rage, and wrote some "songs". I recorded a studio CD and made music videos. I put together a website and then I started to perform on stage.

El D'Rage was interviewed by the press and stories were written. selected one piece - Warrior Nation - as "Song of the Month". In less than six months I had a solid start as the world's only Elder Rapper.

Then I moved to a new city, shifted my focus to my new job and I just quit the music. Elder Rap came screeching to a halt.

My Novel
Here's another example. In the late nineties, after retiring from the FAA, I decided to write a book. I took a creative writing class, joined a writing group and, by God, in six months I wrote a novel, Radar Contact Lost.

Once it was published, I set out to promote it. I did lectures, book signings and gave classes. I was interviewed by the press and articles were written. In short order I was acclaimed by the press as an up-and-coming local author.

Then I moved to a new city, shifted my focus to my new job and I just quit the author biz. Radar Contact Lost came screeching to a halt.

In my career as an air traffic controller, I never stayed more than seven years in any one location. I worked successfully in some very busy facilities, but grew bored with each one and moved on to yet another ATC job.

I've lived in more than twenty five different homes in the past forty years. I've bought countless cars, I've hosted seven exchange students and owned seven dogs. I've run three hypnotherapy practices.

Tell me; can you find a pattern here?

So, as I see it, here are my options: now, at age sixty-five I can attempt to change my personality; I can grow up and I can settle down and focus. Or, I can accept who I am, be grateful and come up with ways to use my "flighty" personality to grow and succeed.

Any ideas?