Saturday, June 21, 2014

Retirement, at last.


 This blog was kind of designed for sailing and boat owning and dreaming and suntans and slowing-down kind of thoughts and records, sharing what we’ve been up to, places we’ve gone and things we’ve seen.  Having said that, it only seems right that we wouldn’t spend a lot of time on things un-sailing-like, but in fact, most of the blog to date has been about just that. Stuff, happenings, circumstances, successes and trials that have brought us to the point of posting a blog entry from the dining table aboard our cruising vessel. To that end, and having just made a significant life change we figured it’d be okay to wax a little poetic about the jobs that put us in the position to eventually make the dream turn into reality.  Hope you’ll bear with us J


First job: Auto Parts sales while still in high school. 1971
U.S.Air Force 1972: Nuclear Weapons Technician
J.S. Motorcycle: 1975: Mechanic and service manager.
Moved from Sacramento, CA to Cheney, WA in 1976
1976: Ranch Hand/Implement mechanic
U.S. Postal Service: 1977: MPLSM Operator (Spokane, WA)
Westaire:  (Coeur D’alene, ID) 1979: Flight Instructor
Casper Air Service: 1980: Flight Instructor/Charter Pilot (Casper, WY)
Rocky Mtn. Aviation: 1981: Chief Flight Instructor. Charter Pilot (Casper, WY)
KCWY, FM Radio: 1982: Radio Air Time Sales (Casper, WY)
United Standard Distributors: 1982: Corporate pilot (Cheyenne, WY)
Sun West Aviation: 1983: Charter Pilot, Air Ambulance pilot (Ogden, UT and Walla Walla, WA)
12/07/1984: Hired as an Air Traffic Controller by the FAA.
4/31/2014: Retired as an Air Traffic Controller. 29 years, 5 months, 23 days later.

There’s a resume for you.  It speaks to years and places but not of people, experiences and feelings.  That would take a lot longer, and perhaps ought to be hard-bound and titled … ummm … I know; “The Story of my Life” or something like that. I think that’s a unique longing for many people: to somehow capture the essence of all their experiences, trials and search for significance through their jobs. I know that I’d certainly like to see it all on paper somehow, but I’m not totally sure why. Maybe it’s all just to sum up the idea that it all made some kind of difference and the effort, odd hours, commutes and politics were all ‘worth it’.  No matter… Here’s how I’ll sum it all up:

Hell of a ride… 35 years of Government service. I had some amazing opportunities (like getting a half hour of landing practice in the Space Shuttle simulator) and some amazing trials (working rotating shifts is just flat not healthy…) but sometimes reflecting on it all it somehow seems like single, lump-sum thing rather than a day after day string of weeks, months and years.

But I have evidence of those days. I have a flight log filled with a couple thousand entries of each day’s work and some high adventure to boot.  I have training certificates and performance letters (mostly good) and photos and business cards and pins and other memorabilia that can be strung together to put a ‘sort-of-timeline’ story to this past 35 years.  It is just a series of reminders that some cool, even amazing, stuff happened along the way to the place I find myself right now.  Highlights would include flying with the Governor of Idaho, meeting Bob Hoover, dropping incendiary flares for Morton Thiokol from the back of a Piper Seneca, saving a life by being able to get the air ambulance plane into an airport the other guys couldn’t, working closely with NASA developing new software for the FAA, getting a ride in the Space Shuttle simulator, meeting and briefing the FAA Administrator, briefing international dignitaries, and recently getting to put my name on and manage a national program for the FAA.  There is more, much more but this isn’t the right book J

There were low side too, and I choose not to share much except that the most common denominator behind the worst days was poor communications and crappy management. This applies in both the business and personal aspects.  I met, worked with and befriended some of the highest caliber people in the world.  I also worked with some tough ones.  People who could really use some training in interpersonal communications and people skills.  Ah, but that is what comes with the territory. 

All in all the career path has been outstanding.  Difficult, demanding, stressful and draining at times but I can only look back and smile now thinking that it has been a quest completed and it indeed served the purpose of checking the box titled “secure retirement”. 

I made a very difficult and critical decision to basically abandon the pursuit of my dream of a career as an airline pilot in favor of a job with the government for the security and stability. It was a very tough call, I still have feelings about the “what if I had chosen differently?” question but that is an impossible pondering.  No one knows what could’ve been as a result of a pathway decision.  The road of your choices brings you to where you are, and being able to live that chosen life well is what it’s all about.

Now, about this ‘career’ thing…  Once the decision was made to become an Air Traffic Controller, I had to accept their offer to go train (actually, be screened for suitability) in Oklahoma City.  The challenge was that I had just over a week to get ready and show up. I made it, but it was not without some upheaval and there was suddenly a need for a more reliable car too (but that’s another “Cavalier” story).

The training was successful, I reported for duty in Longmont, CO where there is a Regional Control Center with about 350 controllers. Their job is to make sure that the airplanes not in the immediate vicinity of an airport stay away from each other. Basically the job is to prevent the Seattle-to-Miami flight from bumping into the New York-to-Los Angeles flight somewhere over Nebraska.  These Regional Centers handle somewhere between 5,000 and 11,000 aircraft every day and are a very major player (though seldom mentioned in the news) in air commerce. I was proudly going to become a “Center” controller. 

The training took around three years, but I did indeed receive my “Full Performance Level” credential just about on Valentine’s Day, 1988.  I spent about 5 years doing that, and was made an instructor so I could help other folks come along in the skill.  Then I transferred internally to the Traffic Management Unit where there was more training and instead of actually talking to airplanes (well, except that every month I had to maintain at least 16 hours of ‘currency’ by controlling live traffic) I was deeply involved in strategic traffic flow planning. I made sure that no single controller or sector got overwhelmed, I made sure that airplanes were set up on the correct cross-country routes for their airports and made sure that whole flows of traffic made it safely and effectively around long lines of thunderstorms. I also ‘metered’ airplanes into and out of the major airport, Denver Stapleton as well as some of the smaller airports in the mountains when it was the ski season.  Traffic Management was a pretty cool job and it offered me the opportunity to get involved with some budding ATC technologies. I met some amazing people from NASA and was afforded a rare opportunity to go to California and fly their Space Shuttle simulator. What a kick!  Seven stories of full vertical motion, and they’re not afraid to use it.  I made a half-dozen approaches to different landing sites and experienced emergencies such as accidental chute deployment and a flat tire on rollout. The guys were just great and I had a blast. 

I stayed in TMU for nearly 5 years. I did enjoy the job but another opportunity knocked so I took it and moved to the ‘Plans and Programs’ Office. Here I learned about the physical parts of running the building, contracting out support and repairs and basically how to make things happen in a large complex.  It was long enough ago … that I was the one who brought in networking and taught classes to administrative staff on a thing called e-mail J.

A year later I was promoted to the role of Front Lime Manager, was put on the operational floor in charge of a team of controllers and responsible for oversight of the area’s operations.  I had a tough time stepping up to those challenges but once I finally got the ‘picture’ it was a job that I really enjoyed and could sink my teeth into.  I stayed with that job for almost 13 years so there must’ve been something about it that was well worthwhile.

 Shift work is hard.  It was hard on the body and hard on the family.  For those that don’t know, the Air Traffic controllers typically work a rotating shift beginning at 3 or 4 P.M. on the afternoon of their first work day.  The second day is an earlier start, say noon, or 1 P.M. The third day is an earlier start again, something like 7 A.M. and the fourth and fifth days are the whacky ones where you start at 6 A.M.-is, get off 8 hours later, take an 8 hour break and work from 10 P.M. till 6 A.M. the following morning. 

Basically, starting at 4 P.M. on your first day, is compresses 5 shifts into 4 days. This is great for having a long weekend every week (I got off work at 6:30 A.M. on Wednesdays and didn’t have to be back at work until 4:00 P.M. on Saturday) but it takes its toll in missed sleep, messed up diet, lost family time, missed events on weekends and evenings and in so many other ways.  I am not about to whine over the shifts however, they were part and parcel to a great job and career path that allowed me to achieve a great dream, at some expense (but then, to achieve a dream is often hard ).

I spent the last 3 plus years as FAA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.  I was hired to develop training for controllers and it was, again, a brilliant opportunity to make a difference in the way things happen in the world of ATC. 

Twists being what they are, no sooner was I hired than I was sent away on a detail to Oklahoma City to fill in for a departing manager.  What an eye-opener to walk in to an office that creates and distributes Academic courses but was in the throes of reorganization. It was a messy 7 months, full of steep learning curves and tough personnel issues but I made connections with some wonderful and talented people.  There were about a dozen projects on the plate for me but one in particular caught my attention and I became particularly involved in it. 

History: at one point, Air Traffic Controllers were permitted to fly in the cockpits of commercial airlines in order to see what it was like, ask questions and to share ideas/concerns with flight crews. This was a great privilege and it had benefit to the FAA … but … it was frequently abused by folks just wanting to get a free airplane ride to go on vacation or something like that.  The airlines, the Inspector General and even Congress had launched an investigation into the program and they were just about to shut it down. Then the attacks took place on 9/11/01 and that solved it altogether. He airlines, the new Homeland Security, the new TSA and everyone involved with safety and security within the FAA said no more controllers in the cockpits .. actually no more anyone in the cockpits except flight crews.  So, for 10 years the program was shut down cold.  I wanted to see it reinstated and I was in a position to do so. Working for right at a year, my team and manager and Union official managed to get the program up and running again in spite of all kinds of roadblocks and as of the date of my retirement some 7,500 flights had been accomplished; each and every one individually vetted and approved by our office to make sure we would not come under the microscope of an inquiry again.  The program, now called Flight Deck Training” (FDT) is a wonderful opportunity for what is now mostly a new generation of controllers. The program is strict, the approval process is cumbersome and each airline has its own rules BUT it is a working program again and I am pretty happy that we were successful in getting it up and running. I guess finishing a career and going out on a high note is not a bad thing at all.

Well …  I had planned on a short note to mention that I’d retired …  That went well

Now you know more than most. Thanks for bearing with me.


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