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Winging It! With Dr. Paul


Today's pilots tend to be more than a little intimidated by air traffic controllers. To the student pilot, after all, they represent the ultimate authority figure, cops of the sky whose very words make even the noble flight instructor quake. It was not always thus. During flight's formative years, intervention from the ground was considered an usurpation of the pilot's authority at worst, a frivolity at best. In an era when the very act of returning from flight to a safe landing was often a subject of open speculation, it was pilots, not controllers, who flew the planes.

The airlines, not the government, created the first air traffic control system in the U. S. Aircraft mechanic Archie League, probably the world's first air traffic controller, was hired by the city of St. Louis to direct takeoffs and landings at Lambert Field in 1929. League stood at the end of the runway and waved flags; the first radio-equipped control tower wasn't established until a year later, in Cleveland. Towers at Chicago, Newark and Washington DC followed shortly thereafter.

The first three Federal air traffic control centers were established on 6 July 1936, and employed a total of eight controllers. At the same time the Bureau of Air Commerce designated 73 civil airways. Within months, a nationwide ATC strike was narrowly averted, when the Government promised to increase the controllers' $167-a-month salary.

During the intervening half century, as the number of active aircraft has increased tenfold, the U. S. Air Traffic Control System has grown to over 25,000 personnel, supporting over a million flights a year. Currently FAA personnel provide service within hundreds of terminal areas, as well as from 22 enroute air traffic control centers serving a quarter million miles of Federally regulated airways. That's a mile of airway for each aircraft (airline, military and general aviation) in the country, and about one controller for every ten aircraft in existence. Some empire!

Somewhere along the way, as this system was evolving, a very unfortunate thing occurred. The term "Air Traffic Controller" was coined. Now there's no disputing that air traffic controllers provide a host of useful services to the flying public, including traffic advisories, weather updates, navigation assistance, traffic separation and sequencing, and emergency aid. But "controller" is a misnomer. It must be remembered (by pilots and controllers alike) that the ultimate responsibility for the safe conclusion of every flight rests firmly with the pilot in command. The plane is flown not by controllers, but by the loose nut behind the stick. ATC personnel should more properly be titled Traffic Advisors; for all the useful services they provide, they control nothing!

We who fly the system are fortunate indeed. We are served by a dedicated team of air traffic control professionals, operating as best they can with antiquated equipment, under the most difficult of conditions. These well trained men and women have an unquestioned commitment to aviation safety. You literally bet your life on them every time you punch a cloud, and the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor. Yet anything we can do to ease their workload, to provide ourselves with additional input without negatively impacting their established function, has got to make flying all the safer. We pilots need the continued goodwill and support of our controllers. But we also need control.

Our friends in the towers and on the airwaves and at the radar screens can well be likened to gods. There they sit atop Mount Olympus, conversing in a language known only to themselves and a few of the faithful. They see all and know all, hold our lives in the balance, can be swift in retribution or benevolent beyond belief. But if man had intended gods to fly, we would have given them wings.

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this page last updated 14 June 2007
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