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Ryan Kelly’s real life counterparts

     Professional pilots often say O’Hare air traffic controllers rank among the best in the world. Due to security restrictions, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to observe them on the job. However, you can view eavesdrop on their colleagues in the Atlanta enroute Center here. For other feeds, try

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Meet Ryan Kelly
       A star controller in TRACONís fictional radar room, Ryan Kelly works approach control at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. He doesn’t give much thought to people in the planes overhead. It’s easier that way. They’re simply targets on the scope. Pieces in a video “game” he’s paid to play. Problem is, two targets just merged. And now the game is all too real.

     I haven’t 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.
      That scope is my world. A familiar, cozy haven for fourteen years. The board where I’ve “played” countless games of 3-D chess and never lost a match. Outsiders who tour the O’Hare 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 world’s busiest airport.
     The visitors 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 I’m parroting the company line. But it’s 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 several scotches.
     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 there’s more politics than inside the Beltway.
     Maybe it sounds callous, but I rarely think about all the lives in my
  hands. I can’t. 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 can’t ignore the reality anymore.
     The swath of life cut down leaves me dumbfounded and breathless, like a sucker punch to the gut. I’m 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 aren’t. 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 won’t stand still long enough to listen to my side.
     Maybe they’re right. If so, I doubt I can bear the burden. But as much as my tightly coiled world has spiraled out of control—blasting a crater in the armor of self-confidence I need to do my job—I’m 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 it’s 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 don’t know why so many people died.
      I won’t rest until I do.