We're cracking up down here!

Control tower to pilot...Control tower to pilot...

WALTER STEWART June 1 1969

We're cracking up down here!

Control tower to pilot...Control tower to pilot...

WALTER STEWART June 1 1969

We're cracking up down here!

Control tower to pilot...Control tower to pilot...

WALTER STEWART

"One of these days, we're going to have the most godawful mid-air collision you ever heard of, and then perhaps people will realize what a mess we're in." Think about that statement the next time you nestle into an airliner seat and buckle your belt securely across your lap.

The speaker is an air - traffic controller, one of the men responsible for your safety. He is not just repeating the now-familiar warning about the traffic jam in our skies. What he's saying is that hi~ job is becom ing impossible to perform. That job is to provide your aircraft with a corridor of

safe sky from city to city. Although an airline pilot does the flying, he cannot take off without the approval of the con trollers, or turn without their sanction, or fly higher or lower than they instruct, or land without their clearance. The de cisions a controller makes as two jet aircraft hurtle toward each other faster than a bullet fired from a .45 revolver depend on cool, quick wits and highly sophisticated electronic equipment. But Canada's 1,200 controllers are over worked and underequipped. Too often, the instruments they use go out of or der; too often, overburdened men break down under constant tension; too often, dangerous situations in the air are resolved more by good luck than good management; too often, the feder al Department of Transport, which is responsible for Air Traffic Control, shrugs off the complaints of its critics.

The situation is worsening as our skies grow more crowded and the traf fic more complex. Men who already have too much to do will soon have to deal with massive jumbo-jets and su personic transports; gigantic airliners that will have to be fitted, somehow, into the swarms of slow, single-engine planes, helicopters and other aircraft flocking in ever-increasing numbers around every major air terminal in Can ada. Each increase in traffic brings an increase in the number of accidents in the air. In 1962, when there were 6,249 registered aircrdft in Canada, the Department of Transport recorded 281 accidents and 103 deaths; in 1966 -the last full year for which the depart ment has published figures there were 8,310 aircraft, 422 accidents and 171 deaths.

To meet the challenge of this grim spiral, Canada needs more controllers, better equipped. And we need them fast. It takes five years to train a man for the task, and 10 years to bring him to peak performance, but there is no sign that the department sees the ur gency or has begun to do anything about it.

That is the "mess" the controller spoke of here are some of the signs of its coming: In February, an Air Canada jet flew from one end of the country to the other at the wrong altitude, an altitude at which it could have met other traffic, but fortunately did not. In the same month, two jets passed

It takes 10 years fully to train an air controller, like Toronto's Douglas Snyder (right). Canada has 1,200 - too few for safety. But Ottawa ignores criticism.

Wi'oiig runway! Approaching WI `OllfJ runway! You're cutting across path of inboundairliner! Pull up! Pull up !

each other 35,000 feet above London, Ont., so closely that one of them was shaken by the turbulence of the other’s passage.

Last August 8, one sector of the sky over southern Ontario became so crowded that the two Toronto controllers assigned to monitor it gave up and asked a Cleveland centre to take over. (In Cleveland, 15 men were working the same traffic as the two Canadians.)

At the time I was researching this article, three controllers were on sick leave from Canadian airports, all, according to their colleagues, suffering from nervous breakdowns brought on by their jobs. This is not a pleasant thing to see happening. “There is usually nothing dramatic,” a controller told me. “You just see a guy begin to back away and back away from his job ... We had one guy you could see just standing there, staring at his radar screen, and you could tell it was getting to him. After a while, he began to have stomach troubles — ulcers. Then he began to call in sick. Every time the weather was bad, which means trouble for us, he’d call in sick . . . Sometimes he’d be okay for part of a shift and then it would hit him. He got so he wouldn't even answer the telephone, because that meant making another decision ... He developed a cough, and the more hectic it got around here, the more he’d cough. One day he got coughing so bad he couldn’t do anything. Then he went away.”

Another man, under domestic as well as job pressures, had a complete mental collapse; he began to imagine the government was out to get him, that officers of the department were following him around. Another man got up one day from his radarscope, showing no apparent sign of illness, walked a few steps to a glass door and collapsed through it, cutting himself.

Failures in equipment occur frequently. During January 1966, Precision Approach Radar, used for landings in bad weather, was out of action for a total of 6411/2 hours at Halifax, Vancouver and Toronto. I was assured by Department of Transport officials that such breakdowns are a thing of the past, but, during a week-long visit to the Ontario Regional Control Centre in Toronto, I saw them happen frequently.

I timed for one hour an emergency system designed to signal when aircraft approach each other too closely. It set off false alarms on the average of once every seven minutes.

Multiplying swarms of small aircraft have become a menace around

airports. About one third of all flying hours clocked in Canada are flown by private pilots with varying levels of skill. These aircraft mix awkwardly with the huge, swift airliners. “It’s not the big birds I worry about,” an Air Canada pilot told me. “What worries me is an airliner coming off the turf a little heavy, dragging his tail, and smacking into one of the little guys.” To counter the menace at Toronto, the department established a Visual Flight Advisory Service, which consists of a tabletop radar screen and a radio through which a controller can advise small aircraft of other “targets” around them. The controllers who man this service call it “useless.” Few light aircraft carry the radar equipment that would allow the advisor to sort them out on his screen; many don’t bother to contact him, and they are so numerous he couldn't talk to them all if they did. Moreover, amateur pilots sometimes can’t understand a warning when they get it. One was told, “You have a target at 12 o’clock” — meaning an aircraft dead ahead — and he responded, “That can’t be so — I’m landing at 10.30.”

Three years ago, when the harried skywatchers threatened to strike, the department appointed Judge John B. Robinson, of Haileybury, Ont., to look into their problems. In a 15-month study, he found plenty, including staff shortages, “unacceptably low” morale and difficulties in the supply and maintenance of equipment. (Equipment is not handled by the Air Traffic Control Branch, but through the department’s Telecommunications Branch, which once bought secondhand radar systems to fill an urgent need at Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, spent four years installing and checking them, then found they were no good and scrapped them.)

Judge Robinson’s report was produced in two volumes. The first, general in scope and mild in tone, was filed in the Parliamentary Library; the second, a searing indictment of the Department of Transport, was promptly labeled confidential by that department, and taken out of circulation. The copy I obtained indicates that, while some minor changes suggested by the judge have been made, his major proposals, including the entire restructuring of the administration, remain just that — proposals. This month, the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association goes to the bargaining table to ask the government for many of the things Judge Robinson thought should have been granted long ago. ^

Harried radarmen track planes during flight. Secondhand systems installed at Toronto took four years to set up — then proved useless and were scrapped.

We re short of staff, overworked, overtired and under a crushing tension that can snap a man 's mind -and your Ufe may be in our hands

The association won’t get all its own way. R. W. Dodd, Chief of Air Traffic Control, told me, “Perhaps Judge Robinson didn’t have full information on the fields he was writing about, and his report would have been different, perhaps, if the information had been available to him.” So much for Judge Robinson.

To understand the system he weighed and found wanting, let’s retrace the route of a recent flight, Air Canada 445, Vanguard service from Ottawa to Toronto, with Captain John Gallagher as pilot.

Long before it left the terminal, a flight plan was filed for AC445, showing the intended takeoff time, routing and type of aircraft. Translated into a specialized shorthand, this information was transcribed onto several narrow strips of paper, called Flight Progress Strips, one of which was distributed to each of the half-dozen controllers in Ottawa and Toronto who would be affected. Throughout its flight, the plane’s progress would be checked against the strips and followed constantly on radar to ensure that the flight plan was adhered to.

Just before takeoff time, Captain Gallagher called a ground controller in the glass tower atop the Ottawa terminal and was routed to the end of Runway 07. After a change of radio frequency, he called the airport controller in the same tower and was cleared for takeoff according to a preset pattern. Once away from the airport, the flight passed to an IFR (for Instrument Flight Rules, as opposed to Visual Flight Rules) controller at a radar set downstairs in the tower building. To the IFR man (whose set, incidentally, is topped by a sign reading “Man Was Not Meant To Fly”), the Vanguard appeared as two parallel lines moving along the airway known as Victor 300. About 30 miles out of Ottawa, control changed over to the Regional Control Centre in Toronto. This centre — then; are eight of them across Canada — monitors all traffic on IFR plans, as well as much of the Visual Flight Rules traffic in Ontario. It is housed in a darkened room 90 feet long by 35 feet wide at the base of the Toronto control tower. Three walls of this gloomy room are banked by radar screens. Below them are bays of metal boxes holding Flight Progress Strips, and radio equipment. Here, AC445 appeared as a blip on the radar sector called Stirling Low Altitude. The aircraft passed through three radio checkpoints and two radar screens before being handed over to Toronto Terminal Con-

“Were opening new control

towers, butwe can t keep upwiththe workload now. What ’s going tohappen tomorrow?’’

trol for landing instructions. Along the way the radar-watchers noted four aircraft in the vicinity of 445 (Captain Gallagher saw only one) and routed a faster DC-9, inbound from Halifax, around and over the Vanguard.

That is the system. It works well, except when disrupted by equipment failure or human frailty.

Take the afternoon before Captain Gallagher’s flight. Maclean’s photographer Horst Ehricht and I climbed the spiral staircase to the Toronto tower, an 18-foot octagonal room, walled in glass, lined with desks and electronic gear and crackling with the buzz of control talk. Ehricht was asked not to take pictures because the radar set used to monitor approaching traffic had been hauled into the centre of the room for maintenance. We had been told by John Gibb, chief of the air-control unit, “You hear a good deal about the gut-wrenching tension of this job, but that’s a lot of hogwash.” We settled down to watch and listen, anticipating a quiet afternoon.

It didn’t work out that way. First, a Vanguard came in with one engine out of order. Emergency trucks screeched into position as the plane settled onto the runway. The landing went smoothly enough but it laid a flickering layer of tension across the tower. Soon, the tempo of aircraft arrivals began to pick up; Montreal airport was closed by a storm and the diverted flights added to the normal buildup of Toronto traffic. I decided to time the intervals between one plane’s wheels lifting off the runway and another’s touching down, and found it was often as brief as 10 seconds. Safe enough, but edgy for the . controller who was also monitoring traffic on a cross runway at the end of the field. Aircraft began to line up for takeoff and the tower controller asked the

terminal controller downstairs to stretch the interval between arriving planes from three miles to six, so that he could work more departures into the traffic flow.

Then the power went off. Every radio in the tower went dead, and controllers found themselves barking instructions no pilot could hear. An emergency powerpack was rigged, warning lights flickered, and the tower was back on the air within two minutes. This happened three times within half an hour and Ehricht and I, despite John Gibb’s earlier comment, began to feel a twinge of gut-wrenching tension. The controllers’ faces took on a set and ragged look.

Next, the pilot of a light aircraft cleared to land on Runway 05 Left, well away from the main traffic, headed instead for 05 Right, across the path of an inbound airliner. The airport controller radioed him in tones of icy calm. “XQC,” he said, using the plane’s call letters, “I gave you Runway 05 Left, and you repeated it.”

The tower supervisor broke in, his voice a shade less calm. “Don’t argue with him, pull him up!”

“Pull up!” barked the controller.

XQC pulled up.

My pulse rate was just working its way back to normal when a North-Central Airlines Convair broke out of the clouds 200 feet over the end of the runway — far too high to land safely — just as a DC-9 was roaring into the sky. The DC-9 climbed right through the path of the Convair. They missed by a wide margin but, on the radar screens downstairs, two blips suddenly merged into one, and an IFR controller’s voice burst over the tower radio full of questions, commands and complaints.

When that got straightened away there was a moment of dead silence into which Ehricht dropped a quote. “You hear a good deal about the gutwrenching tension of this job,” he said, “but that's a lot of hogwash.”

In the IFR centre downstairs, the same power failure that had blankedout the tower radios was creating havoc. Abruptly at 4.20 p.m. radar sets, navigation aids, radios and even lights went off. (We learned later that an electrical contractor working on the main supply had switched the centre to emergency. A bolt had worked loose in the emergency generator and jammed the air-intake doors so that it overheated and shut off. The contractor called it an Act of God. He was asked to confine future Acts of God to the midnight shift.) At half a dozen positions across continued on page 64

the blackened room, controllers were frantically trying to remember which planes in their sectors were likely to imperil each other. One controller had been directing two planes, one behind the other, up to 31,000 feet, while another was coming down to 29,000 feet on the same airway. Later, I askecf him what he had done. "I prayed a lot,” he said.

A portable power unit took over in the most vital sector — airport arrival and departure — while other positions were left to hope that nothing went wrong until the electricity came back on, 33 minutes later. When normal operations resumed, I told a controller, “You guys were pretty good to come out of that without a crash.”

“Good, hell,” he said, “we were bloody lucky.”

That chaotic afternoon was not, thank God, typical, but it served to indicate how tough the job can be for a controller. Tension is his constant companion; he knows a single mistake can mean disaster. The tension hits different men in different ways. Sometimes, an overtired controller peering at a radar screen will “lose the picture” — he can no longer keep track of the 10 or 12 blips on his screen; he can’t remember where they are going, or how high, or how fast. There is little he can do but call for help. Sometimes the reaction to strain is violent — one man had to be removed from a control centre in a straitjacket. Sometimes it is silent — an Ottawa controller on duty when a helicopter crashed, through no fault of his, suddenly lost his voice.

Along with the tension, perhaps the most acute and chronic problem is overwork. John-David Lyon, president of the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association, told me, “We were short of staff in 1960, and here it is nine years later and we’re still short of staff.” In some centres — Montreal is the worst — controllers work the equivalent of a full day of overtime every week; one man once worked 56 days without a break. Airline pilots, in recognition of the potential dangers of fatigue in high-speed, high-tension jobs, are forbidden to fly more than 85 hours a month; controllers normally work a 40hour week, and sometimes half that again in overtime.

No relief is in sight. Between 1963 and 1967 the volume of aircraft movements handled by the department’s control towers rose 75.6 percent, and it is still rocketing. But there has been no comparable increase in controllers. At the time of the Robinson report, the Air Traffic Control Branch was 113 men short of its established staff of 1,079. The department would not provide figures on the current shortage, but the controllers’ association believes it is even worse.

Controllers’ president John-David Lyon said, "We are opening new control towers all the time and we can’t even keep up with the workload of today. What’s going to happen tomorrow?”

I put this to ATC Chief Dodd. He replied, “We are geared to meet whatever requirements become necessary.”

Perhaps. Yet, at the Air Training School in Ottawa, where these requirements must be met, each instructor has asked for a transfer, because they were reclassified to a lower grade last summer. There was no one to replace them, so they stayed on. But they are not happy. Morale appears to be low everywhere in the control service, although Dodd doesn’t think so. “We think we’re doing a pretty good job,” he said.

That’s how the department sees it. Here’s how a controller sees it: “I find myself aroused to annoyance every time I think of humans being used the way we are. It is assumed that we can cope with whatever extra traffic turns up, that we are infinitely absorbent sponges who make the system work regardless of the fact that little planning appears to be being done to update it. Any thought that there is a limit to human capacity, that fatigue effects can compromise safety, is viewed as heresy.”

The effects of fatigue do compromise safety, and the controller’s complaint is not his alone: it involves every Canadian who flies and doesn’t want to be part of the “godawful” mid-air collision many controllers are beginning to regard as the inevitable, bloody prelude to reform. □