is filled with acronyms and this is one of them. It
stands for Terminal Radar Approach Control. There
are about 185 of these dark, windowless radar rooms
across the country. The controllers who work in them
handle airplanes just after takeoff and right before
landing. TRACON the book
(pronounced tray-kon) takes you inside the
radar room at OHare Airportthe worlds
busiestwhere the best of the best each juggle
up to a dozen planes at once.
Why did you write a novel
about air traffic control?
also been fascinated by aviation and ATC ever since
I was a boy. I wanted to lift the veil on a world
that few of us get to see. A world in which thousands
of professionals sit hunched before radarscopes, playing
a game of 3-D chess with human lives.
A world where humorous stories and heroic saves happen
all the time, but rarely make the news.
Why were you thrown out
of OHare Airport during your research?
moment of a controllers working life is dedicated
to preventing midairs, so they were only too happy
to tell me how collisions can happen and what they
do to prevent them. But OHares top manager
of air traffic at the timea bureaucrat whod
never been a controllerordered me to leave as
soon as he heard Id brought up the issue of
midair collisions. He cut my three-day visit in half
and sent me packing. The controllers were furious.
I suspect I touched a nerve because TCASthe
onboard anti-collision system that plays the antagonist
in my bookwas going through teething problems
at the time. There were many frightening real-life
do controllers think the midair collision in TRACON
is a disaster waiting to happen?
watched it come close many times. The scenario in
the book is caused by a computer glitch involving
a collision avoidance system called TCAS
(pronounced tee-kass) that is installed on
every commercial airliner flying in the United States.
Although TCAS has prevented some potential midairsand
is much more reliable today than it was in the early
1990sit is susceptible to frequent false alerts
caused by several key limitations. Some of those false
alerts have led to dangerous near misses.
The issue really boils
down to this: To what extent are we willing to entrust
our lives to technology?
When TCAS goes off,
pilots must follow its instructions and controllers
cannot interfere in any way—even if a collision seems
imminent. Although TRACON
is suspense novel, it is really a fictional exposé
about the conflict of man versus machine. A wake-up
call to encourage people to recognize the limitations
of technology and the importance of human interaction.
it like to be a controller?
liken it to tending to a group of wind-up toys, all
buzzing in different directions at once. If you stay
on top of the situation, everything keeps running
smoothly. Fall behind, though—which can easily happen—and
tension sets in as you race to catch up to each target
on the scope just as a crisis is about to break.
an unusual ability to think in three dimensions. They
also multitask well: talking on the radio, answering
phones, joking with their colleagues.
One controller confessed
to me that his wife once accused him of ignoring her
while she talked about her day. But even though he’d
been watching the news on TV at the same time, he
was able to repeat everything she’d said. And because
controllers spend all day telling pilots what to do,
it can be hard for them to stop when they go home.
Another controller confided
in me that he told his two daughters a little too
forcefully one night to brush their teeth and go to
bed. One whirled around, hands defiantly on her hips,
and shouted: “Stop ordering us around, Daddy. We’re
controllers handle the high stress?
controllers consider their work a video game that
involves nothing more than talking to pilots and moving
little green blips around on a radarscope.
Controllers by nature
have a low boredom threshhold. They like to keep busy
and enjoy the challenge of juggling many airplanes
at once. What stresses them out are the mundane issues
that aggravate us all—like equipment breakdowns and
Some controllers suffer
medical, marital or other problems because of job
stress, but they’re in the minority. The world of
air traffic control is not very forgiving. Make three
mistakes in 2½ years and you’re fired. So most
of those who can’t handle the pressure wash out of
training or leave the profession after a few years.
It can take a toll on you after several decades, though.
That’s why the mandatory retirement age for controllers