My (Mis)Adventures in ATC

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It’s Not What You Think

Those of you who know me reasonably well might have seen  the title of this post and had a momentary panic attack.  Let me put your mind at ease – I am not now, nor have I ever been, an Air Traffic Controller. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the ATC folks and all that they do.  I love my LiveATC app and routinely listen to the controllers at ORD, LAX and JFK. The number of airplanes they manage and the calm, efficient way in which they do it never ceases to amaze me.  But the idea of me as a controller?  Scary thought!  Little do you know just how scary!  Let’s just say that there’s a very good reason why I never pursued a career in ATC.

clueless controller 1.0A REALLY long time ago…

I attended a small HS in eastern Pennsylvania.  At that time the home computer was just starting to really become commonplace. To make sure we’d be prepared for it, all students were required to complete a “computer class.” This might sound really cutting edge, except that we didn’t learn programming. In fact, we didn’t really learn anything at all. Instead we spent our time playing a variety of computer games and simulations. One of the programs we were required to complete was an ATC simulation.

Before you get too impressed let me remind you that the simulations available on home computers at the time were pretty archaic. Plus we were using the easiest setting on the game.  We only had to deal with one type of aircraft. Weather was only marginally a factor – there was no rain, snow, lightning, or any wind beyond a gentle, manageable breeze which would sometimes change directions.  There was no speaking – all commands were typed in – and each plane immediately did as commanded. This means there were also no garbled communications, no misunderstandings, no requests for a different runway and no in-flight emergencies.

clueless controller 4.1What’s our vector, Victor? Roger, Roger!

In the simulation I was set up as a tower controller and was responsible for traffic crossing through the airspace, all planes on the runways, coordinating landings, etc. So I set to work, busily typing in commands and nodding with satisfaction as planes changed altitudes and directions as instructed. After a bit I reached the end of the simulation and I have to admit I was feeling pretty proud of myself. I’d managed to get all the planes where they needed to be, maintaining appropriate levels of separation, no near-collisions or runway incursions, etc.

very clueless pilotWhat the…!!!

Just then, a plane sitting near one of the gates appeared to burst into flames. Then another. Then another. The next thing I knew there were planes “on fire” all around the airport. So I did what any reasonable person would do – I started freaking out.  The teacher noticed the commotion and came to peer over my shoulder. Then he calmly explained that what I mistook for fire was actually the “out-of-fuel” symbol. Why the “out-of-fuel” symbol should look suspiciously like flames is beyond me. Perhaps it was designed that way to catch players’ attention.  It certainly caught mine! As it turned out, the reason there were planes “on fire” all over the airport is that while I’d done a great job of moving planes through the airspace and bringing them in to land… I’d neglected to have even a single plane take off! DOH!!!!!!!

clueless controller 3.0In case you were wondering…

Needless to say, after this experience I crossed Air Traffic Controller off my list of potential occupations. I also nixed “Nuclear Power Plant Technician” after setting a new school record for fastest nuclear meltdown in the power plant simulator.  And in case you were wondering, yes there was a flight simulator too.  I won’t go into detail about what happened, but let’s just say there are also really good reasons why I’m not an airline pilot!

How to Spot an Avgeek Airport Employee



Not all airport employees are created equal.  Most of them are there to do a job, and that job just happens to be located at an airport.  However, there are a few who are there to do a job specifically BECAUSE it’s at the airport.  These folks are true aviation enthusiasts (aka avgeeks) who may not always love what they do for a living, but they sure do love where they work.  Here are some ways you can identify an avgeek airport employee:

  • They park as close to the airfield fence as possible, even when that means parking far from the shuttle pick-up/drop-off areas.
  • They arrive early and stay late for the sole purpose of plane spotting.
  • They smile at the sound of jet engines spooling up.
  • They would never EVER try to sneak into the ATC tower… but they wish they could!
  • They’ll use the printer at the far end of the department just so they have an excuse to walk by the large front windows and see which planes are outside.
  • Their SIDA badge is their most prized possession.
  • Their official airport jacket is their second most prized possession.
  • The best thing about the fire alarm going off is they get to stand around on the apron.
  • They spend the entire fire evacuation taking pictures… of airplanes. (They don’t know what’s on fire and they don’t care.)


    Delta plays follow the leader.

  • They’re disappointed that the big 747-8s land at the OTHER airport.
  • They wish they could bottle the scent of JetA fuel.
  • They intend to leave early, and end up staying an hour late… IN THE PARKING LOT.
  • They spend lunch walking around the terminal and plane spotting at the gates instead of eating lunch.
  • They’re shocked to learn that most airport employees actually are NOT avgeeks.
  • They’re jealous of the marshallers.
  • They never park in the garage but they know the most expedient route to the top level and where to get the best views of the runways.
  • They can never have too many pictures of airplanes or the ATC tower.
  • They suddenly realize that even the best cell phone camera isn’t good enough to take really exceptional airplane pics and immediately plan to buy a real camera.
  • They make note of all the aviation-related businesses at the airport and consider them potential future employers.
  • It takes a tremendous amout of willpower for them to refrain from bombarding hapless flight crews with a million questions.
But probably the very best way to tell if an airport employee is a true avgeek: they spend their vacation from the airport at another airport!

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Me at Oshkosh, 2014. Hoping to go back for Osh15!

If You Have To Ask…

Oh no! Not THAT Question!

During the second round of interviews for my current job I was asked by the head of the accounting department why I was interested in working for the airport.  I explained that I love airplanes and am interested in becoming involved in the aviation industry.  He studied me quietly for a moment then asked, “Why do you love airplanes?” Doh!  I HATE that question!  My standard reply of “because they’re awesome” never seems sufficient. The fact is, if you have to ask then I’m pretty sure you aren’t going to understand.

Southwest 2

Ready to fly

How did it Begin?

It is hard to pinpoint exactly how my love of airplanes began. I’ve just always loved them. Any time I ever got to drive by an airport it was the highlight of my day. If a plane happened to take off or land as I was passing by I considered it to be a good omen. I was in heaven the day I discovered live ATC and flight tracking apps. But if you INSIST I pinpoint a starting point for my avgeekiness, I suppose there were two things that influenced me.

Let’s Blame my Brother

Without going into too much detail, let’s just say my family situation growing up was a bit odd. When I was in 6th grade my father got angry about something or other and for punishment he got rid of the TV. And by got “got rid of” I mean he threw it away. We didn’t have a TV in the house for the next ten years. (Except for a small contraband TV that my brother kept hidden in his toy box, but that’s a story for another time.) For entertainment I ended up reading a lot of books. And I do mean A LOT.


USS Yorktown Circa 1943 Source: US Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command Center

One day when I was in 7th or 8th grade I grew bored with my own books, so I decided to raid by brother’s bookshelf. On a whim I picked up a book on the battle of Midway. The next thing I knew I was devouring every word. I found myself fascinated by the aircraft carriers. They can launch airplanes from ships? AND land them? Get out!!! How freaking cool is that??? I became hooked on air combat stories and began reading other books about military aviation.

The Unknown Pilot

The second major event involved the skies over eastern Pennsylvania. The family homestead is located out in farm country and when I wasn’t reading books, I liked to spend time wandering through the surrounding fields. I knew pretty much every bridle path and hiking trail around my home. The area was (and still is) a busy corridor for airplanes. There is commercial traffic heading to and from PHL, military flights heading to Dover AFB and GA airplanes flying to the county airport.

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Team Aeroshell at the Dayton Air Show, June 2014

One day while I was hiking across a neighboring farm I heard a small plane flying around and around overhead. Most flights are passing through, and at much higher altitudes, so the fact that this plane was staying in the area caught my attention. I looked up and saw a small plane flying in circles and doing loops. At first I thought, “What the heck is that pilot doing?”  But then I thought, “I have no idea what is going on, but it looks damn cool!” It was like my own private air show! I have no clue who the pilot was, but he or she showed up periodically over the next couple of years and I always made a point to watch.

The Truth Is

Explaining how it began still doesn’t really tell you WHY I love planes. I think it has to do with the magic of flight itself. That large jet airplane that seems so awkward and lumbering on the ground somehow manage to lift into the air, where it becomes a graceful, amazing thing of beauty. Every time I see an airplane take off or land it brings back the same child-like sense of wonder I had the first time I saw it. And it never gets old. Ever! Plus I love things are loud and go fast, so of course the sound of a jet engine spooling up never fails to make me smile.

Delta takes off

Delta Takes Off

So to Answer the Question

I really don’t remember how I responded when the head of accounting asked why I love planes. I might have pointed out that they are a marvel of engineering. I could have mentioned the important role they have played in our military and commercial endeavors. I might have discussed the forces of gravity and the dynamics of flight. In the end, however, what I probably said was, “because they are awesome!”

An Introduction


Let me start with a confession: I’ve tried blogging before (more than once, actually) and was never able to stick with it.  I struggled with what to write, wasn’t especially passionate about the things I did write and eventually I just stopped writing.  I had come to the conclusion that blogging wasn’t my style.  But over the last few months the urge has returned, this time with a focus: my love of aviation.  I’ve decided that it’s time to give blogging another shot.


Nice tail feathers!

So, Who Am I?

I’m your average aviation enthusiast who just started a new job at an airport.  In accounting.  Sorry, I know you were hoping for something more glamorous.  As it turns out, though, even accountants receive SIDA badges.  This means that I have access to most areas of the airport.  So far I’ve used this special access to enter the highly-secured, off-limits area of… the Human Resources department.  Yeah, I know.  But I’ve only been at the airport a week – give me some time to figure it all out! On Friday I got lost wandering through the ticketing area.  No, I’m not kidding.  In my defense, a large portion of the airport is under construction so I accidentally got funneled into a long tunnel surrounded by warning signs and “hard-hat-only” stickers which ended at the Southwest counters.  The cool part is a pretty Southwest bird was parked just outside a large window – so the adventure wasn’t a total waste of my time.


The view from the employee lot.

My Favorite Places… So Far

Even though I have yet to wander into any of the super-exciting secret areas that surely await me beyond the security lines (ha!), I have gotten to visit some pretty cool places.  Like the employee parking lot, for example.  The employee lot is located next to runway 10R/28L and right beside the Air Traffic Control Tower.  I actually enjoy getting to work early so I can sit in my car, sip coffee and watch the planes take off and land, which is one of my very favorite things to do.  I could do it all day long and never get tired of it.

From the office

View from the department window.

Another fun place to go is the top level of the parking garage.  From there I have a lovely birds-eye-view of both runways.  If the weather cooperates, I can also get an amazing view of the sunset, which silhouettes both the city and the tower.  Wandering around inside the administrative offices is always an adventure because I never know when the next corner will bring me to a window with a cute RJ or maybe a business jet peeking in at me.

But my very favorite place so far has to be the top conference room.  It overlooks the American Airlines/US Airways gates, as well as the runway.  I’ve discovered that it can be quite tricky to focus on meetings when there is such awesome scenery just outside!  As for the view from my desk… sadly all I can see are walls.  Bummer!  However, in a week or so we’ll be moving to new digs which, apparently, will require us to walk outside through the baggage area.  That ought to be interesting! I’m not holding out much hope for a nicer view from my new desk, but considering all the other nice views I get to see every day, I won’t complain.

city at sunset

Sunset over the city