Published in December 2015 issue

By Clayton Taylor

The Jurassic period was just beginning to wind down when I was enjoying the privilege of earning a living by juggling airplanes and telling pilots where to go. At the time, we sat behind radar scopes that bore little resemblance to those that Air Traffic Controllers use today.

The screens were about 18 inches in diameter and had a little sparkling sweep that went around the scope every six seconds or so. The displays in front of us were created by a rudimentary computer system termed TPX-42. The Controllers either saw greenish-white blobs that represented airplanes, referred to as ‘primary’ targets, or, if the airplanes had transponders, small symbols over the blobs that were called ‘secondary’ targets. The shapes of the symbols meant something, but those data got flushed from my mind decades ago.

The fancy part of the displays were the data tags. The little tags were actually small boxes that were attached to the secondary targets by tiny greenish-white lines. Inside the boxes were displayed the airplanes’ transponder codes and altitudes. Later, when the FAA introduced the ARTS system, the tags got bigger and contained all sorts of information: call sign, speed, current altitude, cleared altitude, and a small area for additional data. Often, that small area contained the number or letter of the sector that was working the airplane, but it could also be used to indicate the intended landing runway, or even the gate assignment. And, to a much lesser extent, one could type in ‘jerk’ so that everyone knew what to expect. I would never have used it for that purpose, of course; I just heard stories.

As a target moved across the TPX-42 scope, what could only be described as a small contrail followed it across the screen. It told the Controller where the airplane was coming from. Later, the contrail was replaced by some slashes and the Controller gained the capability of seeing where an airplane was going. Imagine that. I mean, Controllers don’t really care where airplanes are coming from, they only care about what they might run into.

Since the airplanes’ call-signs were not depicted on the TPX-42 displays, every time we spoke to airplanes (because Controllers speak to airplanes—not to Pilots), we had to look at our flight progress strips to see which call-sign and transponder code went together, and then look at our screens before speaking. Yes, it took some getting used to, but unless it was busy, most of us younger guys—you know, under 30—were able to simply remember who was who.

The bad thing about TPX, and there actually were quite a few bad things, was that the system would frequently fail. For example, sometimes, all of the primary targets would suddenly disappear and would be forced to increase the distances between airplanes, since we would have to use secondary radar separation. On occasion, the secondary radar would fail and all we would see were the primary blobs. It wasn’t a big deal unless it was busy, and, thank goodness, it never happened to me when it was busy.

What did happen fairly often, but, thankfully, only a few times when I was minding the store, was that the entire unit would crap out. One minute, you’d be sitting there with a half-dozen or so airplanes or so, and, the next minute, the screen would go blank. I had learned early on, when this happened, to close my eyes, place each airplane on the screen in my mind, and go from there. I can tell you that, whenever I saw it happen during rush hour, I was glad that the more experienced guys were working the traffic while I was assigned to a non-control position. And I’d be willing to bet that the Pilots who knew me would have agreed.

Another weird thing was that, sometimes, a tag would appear in more than one place at the same time. When you asked a Pilot to “Ident,” which meant, “Push a small button on the transponder,” the secondary target and data tag would flash. Controllers use this to positively identify an airplane. There are a number of reasons for doing that, but I can tell you, that I’ve seen two tags flash an ident when there should have only been one. Usually, the false target would disappear after a few sweeps; usually, but not always.

Lastly, there was a phenomenon called anomalous prorogation, or AP. It was supposedly caused by a temperature inversion, in which the air gets warmer with an increase in altitude, rather than cooling off. The effect of APs was to cause the appearance of primary targets all over the screen, and, sometimes, those phony targets would do weird things. Watching them, you’d swear you were seeing a bunch of airplanes, but then one or more of them would disappear or make a sharp turn. Seeing some of those displays would likely cause UFO hunters to salivate with excitement. You’d almost hate to tell them that they were actually nothing at all. The newer ARTS radar solved a lot of those problems, but it had its own set of oddities.

Recently, I made a trip to one of the towers I worked in long ago. The original tower had been torn down and a brand- spanking new one had been put in its place. The weird thing, for me anyway, was that they had placed the new tower on the opposite side of the airport. I drove my rental up to the gate, picked up the phone and said something like, “Hi, my name is Clay Taylor. I used to be a Controller here, and I was wondering…” The fellow who answered the phone interrupted me, saying, “Yeah, we know who you are; come on up.” As I’d never before met either of the two guys who worked there, the fact that they knew who I was sort of threw me off.

When I cleared the top step and entered the cab, I instantly found myself in the Land of Oz. It was as if I’d spent my life driving a 1966 Volkswagen bug with a four-speed manual transmission, an AM radio, no heat whatsoever, and no such thing as an electric window—and then, suddenly, had been given the keys to a brand-new Porsche Carrera. The first thing I said out loud was, “Wow, nice digs!”

As I looked around, I noticed that the place smelled like a new car, and the only noise I could detect was a very faint hum emanating from the equipment. I then noted that the temperature and humidity in the cab were perfect. I knew right then that I wanted to live there.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a Falcon 50 business jet streaked in from my left. I momentarily winced and asked, “Where the heck did he come from?” The new orientation of the tower had totally thrown me off. I’d spent years working at this airport, but I felt like I’d never been there before.

The two guys on duty were great. We had a few laughs and exchanged some stories. It took a few minutes before I remembered where I was, and then quickly took my laughter and volume down a few notches.

We talked about some of the Controllers we knew, but had worked with decades apart. One of the fellows we laughed about passed away two days later.

Tom worked at the New York center before getting fired in the 1981 PATCO [Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization] strike. He was probably the best non-radar Controller I ever knew. Of course, when he had been hired at the center, he had worked without radar for a very long time. Back when I worked with him, even though he had been fired, the old hands who had stayed on the job at the center trusted Tom enough to let him run their low-altitude non-radar traffic for them. Eventually, all of us in the tower were working some of the low-altitude traffic in that sector, and it was because of Tom. For me, working arrivals into a satellite airport meant one in and one out at a time, but not for Tom. I swear: that guy could have worked LaGuardia approach control without a radar scope.

I know it may sound foreign to some of the people reading this, but you have to remember that this was not long after the PATCO strike. It seemed that practically everyone at the center, or at least in the sector in which our tower was located, was in training. Getting rid of some small airplanes freed the FAA Controllers to train and concentrate on the job at hand. In reality, much of the stuff we did was simply taking position reports and then passing along the information to the guys on Long Island. We also issued clearances in and out of a few satellite airports. Still, it was a great learning experience. And, truth be told, at the time I was still feeling quite bruised, having been freshly fired myself. Doing something that was important and close to what I’d been doing in the FAA helped to ease some of the pain and suffering that had been brought on as a consequence of the strike.

The new tower also had one of those new-fangled square radar scopes; the kind that doesn’t have a sweep. The thing barely made a sound, unlike the scopes I had worked with. It was odd to see airplanes move around a radar screen without being prompted by a sweep. The only thing I noticed that was left over from my era was that they were still using flight progress strips. These small green slips of paper are on the way out. Thirty years ago, I could have told you what information was supposed to be in each one of the 15 or so boxes, but I guess that my mind has flushed all of that information, too.

When I left, that day, I wasn’t feeling the least bit melancholy. That chapter in my life is closed and, although there are some great memories, I’d rather fly to Rome and eat at some place recommended by the editor of Airways, rather than watch airplanes move around in a seemingly haphazard manner on a computer screen.