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Jul 02, 2007

Sunday Jun 24

Adrenaline keeps air traffic controllers flying high on the job

Piecing together a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle that is constantly in flux can be an adrenaline rush and a challenge, one Bay Area air traffic controller said of his job.

In the wake of a near-miss at San Francisco International Airport last month due to an error by an air traffic controller with two decades of experience, several local controllers shared their experiences in the field with the Daily News.

Controllers' jobs range from managing landings and takeoffs at specific airports to scanning international skies.

In some cases, the work involves monitoring as many as 22 planes at once, said Scott Conde, a controller at Oakland Center, a regional air traffic control center in Fremont that monitors air space stretching from Australia to the western United States.

Conde's job as an "en route" controller involves tracking planes for hours at a time.

"On a clear blue sunny day, things are working pretty well," Conde said. "It's not that big of a deal for someone who has been doing it for 20 years. But every day there is some sort of an issue, whether it is something minor to something major."

Minor problems could be anything from dealing with a sick passenger to having to reroute a plane after a warning light goes on.

Major problems could include a runway "incursion" like the one that happened on May 26 at San Francisco International Airport, in which a pilot was forced to take off unexpectedly in order to avoid a collision.

That incident remains under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Conde said it is easier to make mistakes during lulls in air traffic.

"When you are really, really busy, your mind is working at a really high rate, trying not to miss anything. As that comes down, the adrenaline comes down," Conde said.

The work can be so intense that the FAA requires controllers to take frequent breaks to avoid burnout.

The goal is to give controllers breathers every two hours, but that does not always happen, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.

FAA officials said controllers' overall workload is expected to grow because air traffic will increase, in some places by as much as 75 percent by 2025 -- and 70 percent of the current pool of air traffic controllers will retire within the next decade.

The FAA has 14,600 controllers nationwide and it wants to have 16,100 by 2016. Veteran controllers can make up to $130,000 a year, but new hires make about $50,000 a year and earn up to $95,000 after five years.

"It's exhausting (at times)," said Steve McCoy, an approach controller in Sacramento. "It's not a demanding job, but it's very mentally fatiguing."

McCoy's job includes lining up airplanes for landings at airports from Monterey to Red Bluff before turning pilots over to local airport towers or "en route" controllers. He works in a windowless area filled with radar screens.

"We get them airborne and we get them down," he said. "It can be confusing at times, especially when you are working more than one sector (of airspace) at a time. You can't afford to second-guess yourself."

McCoy, who has 25 years' experience as a controller in the Navy and with the FAA, said the confusion happens when two pilots try talking to him at the same time, which causes technical problems that prevent him from hearing either pilot. At times he may have to jump from conversation to conversation, and switch radio frequencies to do so.

Once planes get within about seven miles of an airport, and when they are on the ground, local tower controllers take over.

At the busiest times, tower controllers could be talking to 15 planes at one time, said Dave Caldwell, who works at SFO. He has 27 years of experience with the Navy and FAA. His job involves keeping an eye on ground radar, which displays an airport's layout and shows where the planes are. He also keeps tabs on radar that tracks airborne aircraft.

"Working with aircraft on the ground is a challenge because we are limited on space," he said.

E-mail Mark Abramson at

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