star controller in TRACONís
fictional radar room, Ryan Kelly works approach control at Chicagos
OHare International Airport. He doesnt give much thought
to people in the planes overhead. Its easier that way. Theyre
simply targets on the scope. Pieces in a video game
hes paid to play. Problem is, two targets just merged. And
now the game is all too real.
havent slept much lately. Even if I close my eyes for just
a moment, my mind replays that nightmarish Friday evening with insistent
cruelty. The merging targets. My urgent warning to one of the pilots.
His steady voice tinged with fear. I can hear every inflection in
my headset and see each pixel on the radarscope with painful clarity.
is my world. A familiar, cozy haven for fourteen years. The board
where Ive played countless games of 3-D chess
and never lost a match. Outsiders who tour the OHare TRACON
always say the jumble of green blips and lines look chaotic. To
me, the apparent clutter represents a majestic blueprint for bringing
home hundreds of planes a day that converge on the worlds
always comment on the stress of my job, too. When I tell them pushing
tin is a kick, they shake their heads and look askance like Im
parroting the company line. But its true. Choreographing aerial
ballets to reel in one string of pearls after another on final approach
is the next best thing to sex. I leave work on an adrenaline rush,
my brain racing ninety miles an hour, and have to spool down over
Stress, my friend,
is in the eye of the beholder. I shudder at the thought of trying
to teach a bunch of third-graders who are hyped up on Gummy Bears.
Or shuffling reams of paper in some office cubicle where theres
more politics than inside the Beltway.
Maybe it sounds
callous, but I rarely think about all the lives in my
hands. I cant.
That sort of reflection invites second thoughts. And one of the
first things an air traffic controller learns is that our fast-paced
profession leaves no room for self-doubt.
Then a few hundred
lives fell out of the sky. On my watch. Suddenly, I cant ignore
the reality anymore.
The swath of
life cut down leaves me dumbfounded and breathless, like a sucker
punch to the gut. Im paid to talk for a living, yet I grope
for words that never come to express my guilt over being alive when
so many others arent. The nightmare haunts me relentlessly.
My bosses are trying to hang me, the news media have already knotted
the noose and even the woman I love wont stand still long
enough to listen to my side.
right. If so, I doubt I can bear the burden. But as much as my tightly
coiled world has spiraled out of controlblasting a crater
in the armor of self-confidence I need to do my jobIm
not so sure I messed up.
I keep going
over the sequence. A routine climb and a routine descent. Those
weird readouts on my scope. And that damned computer they put in
the cockpit to backstop controllers. I like the second set of eyes,
but its created a tug-of-war between man and machine. I keep
wondering about the pilot: Did he believe me or the silicon chip?
I remember a lot about
that Friday night. I remember that it rained. But, despite all my
vivid recollections, I still dont know why so many people
I wont rest until I do.