might think my background as a reporter would have given me an advantage
while researching TRACON, but in one respect
the opposite was true. Many of the controllers I interviewed pleaded
with me: If you're going to write a book about us, youd
better get it right because you journalists always screw it up.
truth to that statement. Outsiders often have a hard time grasping
the essence of the controllers world and accurately synthesizing
a situation in a few paragraphs. Even some professional pilots
dont entirely understand the nuances of air traffic control.
However, I did know that controllers
do not wave glowing wands on the airport tarmac. That got
me off on the right foot, at least.
To gather their story, I spent a
lot of time interviewing and observing. I shadowed working controllers
for a week in the tower and TRACON at Seattle-Tacoma International
Airport, spent another week at several more facilities, and
even joined my new friends in the bar after their shift ended.
I dont claim that TRACON
is 100 percent accurate, but Im gratified that many controllers
have told me the book ranks as one of the best accounts theyve
read about their profession. I was also honored to be commissioned
by the national controllers union to write a nonfiction
account of their struggle to reorganize in the wake of the PATCO
strike in 1981.
In many respects, TRACON
is a work of nonfiction. To paint a genuine portrait of the largely
unseen and often misunderstood world of air traffic control, I
borrowed heavily from real life. TRACON
includes authentic controller and pilot phraseology, ATC and cockpit
procedures, references to air safety issues and aviation accidents,
even real radio frequencies and airline flight numbers. And, yes,
all of the humorous controller vignettes actually happened.
Although the characters are products
of my imagination, theyre composites of some of the 15,000
professional men and women controllers in the United Statesand
45,000 others around the world, for that matter, who all share
a common mission and bond.
A midair collision eerily similar
to the one depicted in TRACON
occurred in July 2002after publication of the book. A Russian
Bashkirian Airlines Tupolev 154 and a DHL Boeing 757 freighter
collided over Überlingen, Germany. Although the investigation
is continuing, this much is known: Both pilots received and responded
to an advisory from their respective onboard computer systems,
the Traffic Alert/Collision Avoidance System known as TCAS.
When TCAS went into operation in
the late 1980s, teething problems frequently caused dangerous
near misses. Computer software updates and
other changes based largely on
from controllerswho were not consulted when the system was
developedhave improved the reliability of this much-needed
safety tool. And, as TRACON
tries to point out, were better off with TCAS than without
But no machine is fail-safe, and TCAS false
alerts that lead to near misses still occur.
The scenario in TRACON
is based on several frightening incidents, including one over northwest
China in the summer of 1999. Two 747s flown by British Airways and
Korean Air whisked past each other, wingtip to wingtip, a mere 600
There have been some changes in air
traffic control between the time I began researching TRACON
and the publication of this special edition commemorating the twentieth
anniversary of the 1981 PATCO strike. Some are minor, others more
significant, and at least one is potentially sweeping in scope.
Sadly, some of the issues that led to the historic walkout and firing
of more than 11,000 controllersincluding outdated equipment,
excessive overtime, and inept management at a few too many control
towers and radar roomsstill exist today.
The main stage for this bookthe
OHare TRACONhas moved from the base of the airport control
tower to a new and much larger building in Elgin, Illinois, about
twenty miles away. The controllers are happy to have more modern
radarscopes and radios, and to avoid traffic congestion on the expressways
around the airport. But some wistfully remember their old haunt,
where they could walk outside and see airplanes. The cramped quarters
helped foster a camaraderie thats more elusive now because
the controllers dont all work within shouting distance of
The OHare control tower described
in the book still stands, however, operations are conducted at a
new and larger tower nearby. Its so roomy, in fact, that shorter
controllers standing on one side of the tower cab must perch atop
a plastic stool to observe planes on the other side of the field.
These and other new ATC facilities
around the country are welcome news to the traveling public and
a profession that, until recently, grappled with unreliable equipment
often older than the controllers using it. With the first stages
of a long-awaited system modernization moving forward in fits and
starts, the Federal Aviation Administration has shed its dubious
distinction of being the worlds largest purchaser of vacuum
tubes during the late Nineties.
above material is partially excerpted
from the commemorative hardcover edition of TRACON.