Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Sky's the Limit - Air Traffic Control: Info for Writers with NY Times USA Today Bestseller Allan Leverone

Fiona - 
ALLAN LEVERONE  - NY Times and USA Today Bestseller

A lot of my ThrillWriters and ThrillReaders are loving plots that include airplanes. To help us, Allan Leverone has stopped by to share his experience with us. 

Welcome Allan, let's begin by your explaining why I turned to you when I needed to make an emergency landing in my manuscript.

Allan - 
I've been an FAA air traffic controller for all of my adult life. I was hired March 1, 1982, when I was 22 years old, and have been telling pilots where to go ever since. 

Retirement is mandatory for controllers by the last day of the month in which they turn 56, so I'll be kicked to the curb at the end of this coming September. When that happens, I'll likely look to snag a job at one of the local contract control towers, where the privatized controllers are not subject to the age 56 limitation. 

Over the course of the last thirty-three years, I've worked in Bangor Maine, Providence Rhode Island, and for the last twenty-five years I've worked "approach control" radar at Boston's Logan International Airport. I wouldn't say I'm an expert on the pilot's end - flying is something I've never wanted to do - but as far as air traffic control is concerned, I would venture to say I've seen virtually all there is to see. I was working on 9/11/2001, when a supervisor said a plane had flown into the World Trade Center and I didn't believe him; and then when a second plane hit a second tower I knew we were in big trouble. I was working during the Boston Marathon bombing two years ago, when an emergency temporary flight restriction was set up around the bomb site, causing us to have to pull aircraft off the final approach course a
t Logan and giving us, for a while, no way to get the airplanes to the airport. I've worked planes with smoke in the cockpit, planes with rough running engines, planes with passengers who had suffered heart attacks, planes flown by private pilots who weren't instrument rated and were stuck in the clouds. I've worked Air Force One with every president from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. It's been a fun ride.

Fiona - 

Your job is pretty kick-ass at times, hopefully those times are few and far between. I have a friend who applied to be an air traffic controller but was turned down for training. Can you tell us the criteria for selection and what training you underwent?

Allan - 
Keep in mind that I was hired a LONG time ago. Back in August of 1981, the controller's union, PATCO, called for a strike against the government. People in safety related jobs are not allowed to strike, and ATC is considered to be in that category. So the president at the time, Ronald Reagan, fired all the striking controllers and basically rebuilt the ATC system from scratch. 


I had graduated college in May of 1981 and couldn't find a real job, so my father suggested I take the test to be a controller. I knew literally nothing about aviation, but wasn't doing anything the morning of the test, so I figured, "What the hell." I took the test in October 1981 and heard nothing from the FAA until the following February, when someone called me on a Friday and asked if I could be in Oklahoma for my initial job screen/training the following Monday. I said hell yes and for the next four months, I was in Oklahoma City getting my initial training. In June 1982, I graduated the ATC Academy and started my real training, at the control tower in Providence, RI. The hiring system is quite different now, I'm sure.

The initial training back then was actually a screening process, designed to test whether the applicant had the skills and abilities necessary to work air traffic. So, for the four months I spent in Oklahoma, I received a paycheck, but wasn't considered "hired" until I graduated that portion. The FAA Academy was - and still is - located in Oklahoma City. The initial training consisted of learning aircraft characteristics, and learning what was 
called "non-radar" air traffic control. It was a system of separating aircraft based on position reports and time/altitude reporting. It's rarely done anymore, only in places where radar coverage is limited or nonexistent. So the initial training is nationalized. Then, when I got to Providence Tower, my site-specific training started. I began that training in June 1982, and certified as a fully-rated controller at Providence in August 1983. The training at the airport consisted of me plugging in to work traffic with a fully certified trainer plugged in behind me, watching/critiquing everything I did. It was intense and stressful, but effective. 

Fiona - 
Surely you'd go cross eyed looking at screens all day - can you walk us through what a typical day looks like?

Allan -
Over my career, I've worked at a number of different facilities, but for the last 25 years, I've been a controller at Boston Tracon, which is the terminal radar approach control facility serving Logan International Airport in Boston. We work the airspace surrounding Logan from the surface to 14,000 feet, in a roughly 30 mile circle around the airport. My job consists of working sections of that airspace, called sectors, and separating/sequencing aircraft either departing Boston or landing there, via radar. I work four ten-hour days a week, and my time at work is spent working one of seven different Boston sectors, getting a break, and then going back and working another sector. I've never gone cross-eyed, but I did try wearing contacts several years ago; my eyes couldn't handle them with all that green on the radar scopes - I had to go back to glasses!

Fiona -
So Pilot has a heart attack and now the passenger has to take over the controls of the plane. Ach! They're depending on the tower to talk them through this and get them to the ground safely. Here's my barrage of questions (but you're a traffic controller so I know you can handle it): What do you do? And how do you know to do it? Do you also take flight school? Are traffic controllers typically pilots as well? Or are you just as confused if not just as panicky as the people in the air?

Allan - 

I'll answer the last question first - you can never panic. Ever. A controller who panics while in a working position is one that will never succeed at the job, and rightfully so. You have to stay calm and collected no matter the situation. 

At Boston, we actually had the exact situation you describe above. In the Manchester Area (not the area I work, but part of my facility), a young lady was flying with her father, who became incapacitated. The controller working that sector was also a pilot, and he actually "talked her down" to the runway, a young woman with zero flying experience. This controller received a national safety award for what he did that day. A lot of controllers are also pilots, although I'm not. If I ever had that scenario occur while I was working, the first thing I would do is holler for someone with flying experience to help me.

Fiona - 
You have a bunch of airplanes as little dots on you screen. One just up and disappears. What do you do?

Allan - 


  1. I would do is mark the location the target was last seen on the scope. That location will be critical for starting search and rescue operations. 
  2. I would be to turn around and advise the supervisor, who can begin the coordination to start SAR operations. 
  3. If it's a day with good weather, I would reroute another airplane over the last known location, as low as possible, to see if that pilot can see anything - smoke, wreckage, etc. 
Fiona -
Let's go back to the "no panicking ever" part. Do you find that in your day-to-day life that this skillset translates over - are you a rock in extreme situations?

Allan -
That's a good question, but I'm not sure how to answer it! I consider myself anything but a rock. However, one thing I guarantee I will not do in an extreme situation is panic. The difference is that I've been a controller for 34 years, so that stuff is ingrained into me to the point that I feel confident nothing will happen I'm not prepared for. As I'm sure you know, though, real life is not so accommodating. 


I'm probably just as ill-prepared as anyone else for the stuff life throws at me, so while I know I won't panic, I can't guarantee my decision-making process regarding how to deal with the situation will be any better than anyone else's. 

The other thing is I make decisions all day long at work, so when I get home, I hate deciding anything. What to have for dinner, what to watch on TV, I don't want to decide anything. It drives my wife crazy.

Fiona - 
Piggybacking on that question, can you tell me what kinds of personalities would be successful in this job and conversely, if a writer wants to make this turn out badly, what personality aspects would make a terrible career fit.

Allan - 
I think to be successful as a controller, you have to be able to think on your feet, you have to be able to remain calm under stress, and most importantly, you have to be able to take criticism. The training process is not easy, it can take years, and having people standing behind you, second-guessing your every move as a trainee, often with less-than-subtle criticism, is not easy. Plus, everything a controller says and does on position is recorded, audio data, radar data, everything, and if something bad happens, you have to be prepared to justify every action you took. 


Any writer wanting to make a "poor controller" would probably want to invent a controller who was arrogant, convinced of his own ability while not being technically proficient, and someone with a short fuse, who loses his patience easily. There's a recipe for disaster, and likely someone who would never make it through training.

Fiona - 
You get a call in that the plane has been taken over by hostiles. What do you do?

Allan -
I swear to you, this is not a cop-out - but I can't tell you everything I would do, because I'm prohibited from doing so. But speaking very generally, I would try to ascertain the desires of the flight crew - how they wished to approach the situation - and give them whatever they needed in terms of support. While doing that, I would start coordinating for assistance for the airplane, which could mean military support among many other things. From the standpoint of the controller working position, that would normally mean telling the supervisor what was happening and letting him/her perform the coordination function. As you might imagine, at that point I would be way too busy to make those phone calls myself! 


Fiona 
So not panicking.

Allan - 
Exactly!

Fiona - 
Small planes and flight plans - who needs to file and who needs to stay in contact with the tower? Would you see drug planes? Or would they try to fly under the radar?

Allan - 
The requirements as far as flight plans are concerned depend upon where the airplane is and whether they are flying IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) or VFR (Visual Flight Rules). 


VFR pilots are encouraged to file flight plans but there is no requirement for them to do so. However, a pilot flying VFR around major airports IS required to be in contact with the controllers and abide by safety instructions they are given while in the airspace surrounding that airport. 

IFR pilots always file flight plans. Being IFR means the pilot is capable and qualified to fly in the clouds, in poor weather, using only his/her instruments. Flying IFR without a flight plan can't happen. 

The question about drug planes is an interesting one, because I think a lot of people who aren't too familiar with aviation think every pilot is always talking to a controller, and that's definitely NOT the case. Any pilot who understands the rules and knows what he or she is doing, can go a lifetime without ever talking to a single controller, as long as they fly out of small airports and are careful what airspace they fly in. So for a drug plane in this area of the country to fly under the radar really wouldn't be necessary. There is no way for me as a controller to know a particular target is carrying drugs. That's not to say the DEA or FBI or some other alphabet soup organization doesn't have the pilot under surveillance, but that's another situation entirely.

Fiona - 
In my book Missing Lynx my heroine Lexi is flying a Cessna C500 Citation. She lost electrical and has no comms. Can you tell me what you would do if a plane suddenly came onto your screen and would not answer? Would this answer change if you knew the plane was flying near military bases or other high-concern targets? (I swear I'm not trying to get you to divulge safety secrets - just what you can tell us without NSA pounding on either of our doors)

Allan - 
If she was flying IFR, on an instrument flight plan, and was experiencing no other immediate issues that would affect the plane's airworthiness, I would continue to attempt to communicate with her on the frequency, while expecting her to continue on her previously cleared route of flight. 


I would advise the next sectors that she was NORDO (no radio) and would try to call her on the standard emergency frequency of 121.5 as well as on my sector's frequency. 

If I saw her deviate from her cleared route of flight while not maintaining communication, I would attempt to determine where she was likely heading and would - obviously - clear any other traffic out of her flight path as best I could without knowing exactly where she was heading. I would at that point assume the flight was in serious trouble. 

If the plane was flying near high-concern targets, it would change the response - not in terms of what I would be doing to try to re-establish contact, but it would add additional layers of response.

Fiona -
Can you please tell me what a typical work setting would look like. Describe the room where you function and the room where you rest your eyes. How comfy/sterile is it? What is the lighting like? Do they adjust temps to help keep your mind focused? Maybe a little cooler than normal? And what kinds of clothes are the norm?

Allan - 
The facility I work in is relatively new, it opened in February 2004, and is large and comfy, especially when compared to the little tiny space we worked in at Logan Airport before the new one opened. 


When you walk into the operations room, you walk into a big, oval room. Radar scopes run around the outer portion of the room, and the inner portion consists of the workspaces for the supervisors and traffic management specialists. The lighting is dim, not dark, and you can see everything. There's lots of equipment, along with multi-colored warning lights, plasma screens on the walls depicting traffic into and out of Boston and Manchester. It kind of reminds me of watching the old show 24, and the facility where Jack Bauer operated out of.

I wear jeans and a golf shirt or a t-shirt - we don't wear white shirts and black ties anymore like you see in the control tower if you watch "Airplane."

Fiona - 
Last chance, what didn't I ask you that you think we should all know?

Allan - 
I'd just like to say that as a guy at the end of my career - I have to retire in September - I've been incredibly blessed to work as a controller since I was 22. The level of technical ability and dedication I've seen from controllers as a group is something people don't truly understand, I don't think, especially when you hear about the sleeping scandals or the stupid things one or two controllers may have done. I'm lucky to have had the chance to actually make a difference in a positive way when I go to work and I wouldn't change a thing about my career...

Fiona - 
I love that! Thank you for keeping us safe, Allan.



You work 4 days on and in your three days off you are writing. Tell us about your newest book. (Which, by the way, I read and LOVED! and left an Amazon review.)

Allan - 
Read It Now

Book synopsis: Tracie Tanner doesn't always play by the rules. It's this personality trait that makes her simultaneously one of the CIA's most valued assets and an operative who is impossible to employ. As the blackest of black ops specialists, Tanner's employment is known only to CIA Director Aaron Stallings, who hands her only the most secret - and most dangerous - of missions. 


In THE OMEGA CONNECTION, when the entire upper-management structure of a key defense contractor is murdered, Stallings puts Tanner on the case, with instructions to find - and stop - the killers by any means necessary. With action moving from Washington DC to Miami, from Havana to the Florida Everglades, THE OMEGA CONNECTION is a non-stop thrill ride that will leave the reader compulsively turning the pages...

Fiona - 

And, per our tradition, please tell us about your favorite scar.

Allan -
Fifty-five years of life have left me with any number of scars, some of them even physical. But my most harrowing experience didn't involve any injury at all. It was June, 1982. I had completed my initial air traffic control training/job screen in Oklahoma City and was celebrating my final weekend in Oklahoma with a half-dozen other young, newly-hired controllers. We were drinking at a huge bar - maybe they do things big in Texas, but Oklahoma is no slouch either - and for some reason a guy at another table took exception to something about one of my buddies. He kept throwing ice at my friend, who kept ignoring it. After last call, when the bar's doors closed for the night, the crowd was streaming into the massive parking lot when my friend saw the guy who had been tormenting him all night. He walked up behind the guy, and just like you would see in the movies, tapped him on the shoulder and then cold-cocked him when he turned around. Unsurprisingly, a brawl erupted, and being a lover not a fighter, I was only too happy to step back and watch the action. But then a guy I had never seen before, but was obviously a friend of the kid who had been punched, came at me with a knife. I took off running, and I guarantee that if you had held a stopwatch on me that night, I would have set a world record for the hundred meter dash! No scars, but an experience I'll never forget. At least until the Alzheimer's sets in.


Fiona -
Whoop!

If you all want to stay in touch with Allan here are his links:
www.allanleverone.com 
https://twitter.com/AllanLeverone


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