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?


Maripaz Quintero said...

Love it......Bless you!!

Za B said...

What happened with ABQ center to cause thus mess??

La Vida de Perro said...

ZaB - to this day, I don't know. The watch sup called 'em and they just said "things got a little out of control."