How I became friends with ATC
Back in the 1970s in Air Force pilot training, everything was new. Since we are thinking here about Air Traffic Control, we’ll zero in on them. I did not think much about ATC beyond necessary encounters on the radio before we taxied, took off, and went out and back to the training areas. Unlike my writing, which is like a holiday ham needing the fat boiled off, they were laconic, crisp, clear, and direct.
That changed at Moody AFB, sometime in the middle of T-37 training. By now we had done landings, controlled spins, acrobatics. Most of us had soloed. That’s where I was: solo, upside down, 20,000 feet, zero Gs, recovering from a loop. A loud bang occurred somewhere in one of the engines, and smoke and fumes filled the cockpit. I righted the airplane, went to 100% oxygen, and looked through the darkened air at my engine instruments, all in about two seconds. The engines were still 100% power, but I had no idea what had caused the bang and smoke.
Within ten seconds, I squawked 7700 and called ATC. “Valdosta Approach, Moot 12, 20,000 feet in ‘A’ working area, declaring an emergency, coming home.” ATC immediately gave me a vector to home base, cleared all the traffic, gave me the winds and weather. I put the nose down and ran the airplane up to the redline airspeed. With the field in sight, I could see that Tower had scrambled firetrucks and an ambulance.
I shut down on the runway and stepped away with alacrity. The airplane sat on the runway, quiet and uncomplaining at the hands of another student pilot. An airplane mechanic went out, looked the airplane over, and came back, saying, “Bridge, you lost your air conditioner.”
I really like emergencies that end well, even with one so inglorious as mine. What I did learn was that ATC was like your older brother watching over you as you took off your training wheels.
In T-38s, I learned that ATC tower operators are human beings with a dry sense of humor. After a solo flight in the working area, I came back for a few touch-and-gos. As a rule, we kept about a minute and a half between planes landing to allow wing turbulence to march away from the field. In this case, there was a crosswind that kept one vortex right over the runway. With gear and flaps down and close to the 135-knot landing speed, this vortex rocked me like a mighty hand might jostle a paper airplane.
Without hesitation, I jammed the throttles to full afterburner. The airplane was light, having used its fuel in the previous hour. By the end of the runway, I think I was doing somewhere around 400 knots. To remain at pattern altitude instead of topping out at 10,000 feet, I had to roll the airplane over in a curving left turn and pull down. Basically, I could see the airport through the top of my canopy. I rolled out, and throttled back. The only comment from tower was, “A little wake turbulence?”
With “Three green, gear checked, cleared to land,” I was down. That’s the day I learned to love go-arounds, respect wake turbulence, and to know ATC people are human, too.
At home base, with my wings and hundreds of hours in the Cessna 337 or O-2, I learned ATC is human and doesn’t like surprises, and that I could be an idiot. Flying an O-2 meant many hot, sweaty hours at low level, lurking behind hills—and performing “tactical landings.” The premise of the latter was, “You have to get the airplane down, people are shooting at you, you need to stay low and fast, and minimize your exposure in the landing phase.” We usually practiced these out in the desert, with no traffic around, on short dirt strips.
For some reason on this day, heaven knows why, I felt I needed to practice this at the international airport which graciously housed our military unit. About four miles out on final, tower gave me clearance to land—not “for the option,” not for “a tactical pattern,” but only for the usual landing with a stabilized approach, as we say in general aviation.
I came in low, clean, gear up, fast—maybe twenty feet above the ILS lights at about 225 KIAS—chopped the throttles, pulled the nose up with about two Gs, “whifferdilled” to reverse the airplane track, dropped the gear when the airplane was at the apex of the short climb, in the 70-degree bank, dropped the flaps with the Vfe speeds, landed on the numbers and stopped in fifty yards. It was a good “tactical landing.”
My sense of satisfaction was erased, however, by my squadron commander. He was not happy. “Bridge, what did you do?” I had to call the tower and apologize—and got grounded for two weeks. I was re-checked out by the squadron safety officer—without tactical landings.
What I did was not hard on the airplane or even unsafe. It surely frightened the people in the tower and gave us military pilots a sour reputation for a while. To say the least, it helped me grow up and treat ATC with kindness—and never to surprise them if we can help it.
Years later, after a full career and a grown family, I stepped back into flying. I experienced the same sweaty-palm anxiety of the new pilot who stumbles on the radio, forgets what he is told, and freezes in what you are told to do.
One day, I heard the following, “T-t-t-t-o-o-w-w-w-e-e-r-r, n-n-1-1-2-2-3-4-4, t-t-a-a-x-x-i-i.”
I thought, this sounds like me, overwhelmed.
Tower: “N1234, taxi to runway 35.”
A little later came, “T-t-t-t-o-o-w-w-w-e-e-r-r, N-n-1-1-2-2-3-4-4… r-r-r-e-a-a-d-y f-f-f-o-r-r—t-t-a-k-e-o-f-f.”
Tower: “N1234, cleared for takeoff, runway 35.”
You get the idea. The pilot was perfectly competent. He had dealt with his stutter all his life. The tower controller knew this. The pilot and ATC set the standard for the flying community that day.
A few months later, my wife and I stepped into a Bonanza A36. It was perfect for the Angel Flight missions we had in mind: six seats and fast among piston airplanes. People living with cancer often do not have a good day, and the A36 with its comfort, speed, and windows would give them a day of refreshment on their way to the clinic.
One of our first flights saw us do a round-robin up to central Washington State to learn the aircraft handling. The return destination was to an unfamiliar airport in the PDX Class C, at the Troutdale Class D airport. We were still VFR pilots, and as we all know, the earth looks very unfamiliar from altitude. I was pre-ForeFlight and hardly knew the GNS530W.
Somewhere north of the Class C, I told ATC of our destination at Troutdale. I was given “160 degrees, descend and maintain 5,000 feet.” Approach Control also asked, “Do you know Lacamas Lake?”
I said, “No, not yet, and this is an unfamiliar airplane.” Things were happening very fast (I did not yet know why some pilots called the throttles “event levers:” pull them back if you don’t want things to happen so fast).
At that, the PDX Approach Controller’s voice lowered, his pace of speech slowed, and he said, “No problem. It’s coming up in about ten miles. Maintain this heading. I’ll call you back when you are over it.” Then, a few minutes later, he came back on his own, saying, “Bonanza 46UM, the airport is five miles ahead. In a couple of minutes, a bit north of the river, turn 090 degrees, maintain 1200. You will be in an extended right base for Troutdale. Contact tower.”
I did just as I was told, and landed safe and sound. That evening, I left a message with the PDX public relations person’s voice recording, telling her about the whole thing. To be honest, surprised by my own tears in the telling, my gratitude for this controller’s help was so deep. In the morning, the PR person called me back and thanked me for the voice message. Right after listening to it, she told me, she called the FAA office in Oklahoma and recommended our PDX controller for FAA Employee of the Month.
Now settled in with Angel Flight, we flew patient/passengers into Portland from Boise, Bend, and Medford, and sometimes passengers from Portland to Boeing Field, Seattle, or up to Skagit Field near Whidbey Island. I renewed my IFR rating to deal with the smoky skies in the Northwest and the frequent stratus weather. By now, the reader can understand my fealty to ATC and the high regard in which I hold them. The following example was, for them just another moment in their busy day, and for me, a gift of life.
My wife and I had to bring a one-year-old baby boy from Medford to HIO, near Portland. The baby had to endure a gastric feeding tube all his life thus far. I filed 8,000 feet in my IFR flight plan: this would get us over the mountains, and through and over the clouds. The air at altitude would be amenable to all on board. I mentioned in the flight plan that we were bringing in a baby for medical care.
In essence, ATC give us two turns the whole way before the arrival procedure, and cleared us up to one altitude, 8,000 feet. It was the smoothest, most peaceful ride for the baby and his mother you can imagine. At every frequency change from Cascade Approach at Medford, to Seattle Center, to Portland Approach, and on to the Hillsboro Tower, the controllers said, “Good morning,” or “Have a good day,” or “How are things going up there?” They knew. They all had seen the flight plan. They all had a hand in bringing in a baby for care. The care and safety of our airplane and our baby were foremost, for us and for ATC.