Wednesday, May 18, 2011

From the Mop to the Top

The relationship between pilots and air traffic controllers is nothing like that between drivers and traffic cops. It's closer to the relationship between runners and the people who cheer us on and hand us food and cups of water. I don't know how they select and train people for the job, but the typical air traffic controller's desire to do everything they can to expedite traffic seems to be tempered only by their desire to keep us safe. I know that occasional arbitrary-seeming restrictions on my access to airspace are required for separation. I can't think that I've ever felt a controller was holding me up because she was being lazy. They do make mistakes, and every once in a while we joke that one is trying to kill us, but we forgive them, because they always forgive our mistakes and protect us from their consequences. I can't think that I've ever felt rage at an air traffic controller. I've certainly never wished one dead.

So it's with admiration and sorrow that I present the life story of the late Eleanor Joyce Toliver-Williams, an FAA air traffic controller I found out about recently through Greg Gross's travel blog. She retired as chief of the Cleveland ARTCC, which is pretty impressive for anyone seeing as it's the busiest of only twenty-two such 'Centers' in the US. But it's remarkable because she started as an FAA janitor. In Alaska(*). She went from janitor to stenographer to certified controller in three years, which is about half the time than it took me to go from flight instructor to charter captain. Then it took five more years for her to be given an actual assignment as a controller. I'm not sure if that was because she was the first black woman to qualify and America didn't know if it was ready for her, or if she had some time off before she got a placement she wanted. She did raise seven children along the way.

It's worth reading her full obituary here.

* That's only one step up from unemployed in Greenland, isn't it.

9 comments:

K1MGY said...

"...because they always forgive our mistakes and protect us from their consequences."

Having listened to some of the high traffic airports in the US, particularly Newark, I would differ.

Some of the attitudes displayed on the air by controllers are appalling. Arrogant, self-righteous, smart-ass remarks, all with apparently no recognition of the workload of the crews. Perhaps it is the "I'm a federal employee" thing, which apparently brings with it the associated male strutting and bravado one sees with 2-bit traffic cops in small towns.

In particular instances I've heard remarks that cry out for humbling, re-training, or firing, as the first concern: safety, was certainly not the priority.

Maybe it's different in Canada. If so, good thing.

Rhonda said...

Yeah... I've had ATC forgive some of my goofs, like entering their airspace without permission because I miscounted highway interchanges. They didn't even yell at me, just once they told me which interchange I was actually over, asked if I could see the field. I must have sounded suitably embarrassed. Had to do a full 360 turn to get low enough to make the field at that point, too, and they let me do that.

Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Trix:

I must rise to defend the controllers who work the New York airspace, as I am in complete disagreement with K1MGY's comment. I've flown through that airspace nearly every week for a couple of years now and have never heard anything other than professionalism on the frequency.

That said, it IS a very tough airspace environment and the controllers there are the best in the business. As a pilot, you need to be on top of your game, and I've heard exchanges that left me absolutely embarrassed on behalf of the GA community. And yes, I could hear tension and frustration in the controller's voice but - if anything - the reaction was to hew even more closely to professional standards.

I have no idea whether K1MGY got some controller on a really bad day, but I do know - based on considerable personal experience - that the behavior he/she describes is highly anomalous for New York.

Best regards,

Frank

cockney steve said...

I'm not so hot on USA geography, but K1MGY was directing his ire at NEWARK, Which , AFAIK is New Jersey.

Perhaps the confusion arose because of the American pronunciation,- Newark and New York, spoken by many Americans, do indeed sound similar to my English ears. :-)

The subject-matter of the blog was an inspirational person, irrespective of race or gender.-the fact that both stacked the odds against her, makes her achievements all the more remarkable.

cockney steve said...

I'm not so hot on USA geography, but K1MGY was directing his ire at NEWARK, Which , AFAIK is New Jersey.

Perhaps the confusion arose because of the American pronunciation,- Newark and New York, spoken by many Americans, do indeed sound similar to my English ears. :-)

The subject-matter of the blog was an inspirational person, irrespective of race or gender.-the fact that both stacked the odds against her, makes her achievements all the more remarkable.

TangoMike said...

I have enjoyed your blog for several years now. I miss the flying blogs - not as much as you miss the flying I'm sure!

Thank you for todays blog - a very inspirational story that I will pass on to my kids. It is easy to forget what an achievement this was for an African American women in the early seventies.

Keep up the good work and hang tough for the right job.

Paul said...

I'm going to leave it to Aviatrix to explain all the different types of controllers, but here on the east coast Newark is considered part of the New York airspace and and also part of some of the busiest Class-B airspace in the US, encompassing Liberty, JFK, and La Guardia airports--not to mention many other GA airports: Teterboro, Linden, and others.

A busy airspace for sure. Don't mistake the take no prisoners stream of commands for meanness or laziness.

--paul

DataPilot said...

I will never forget the day when ATC saved my neck. I was a student pilot, and hadn't been particularly well prepared for the solo cross country flight I was attempting. (You can bet I was more careful with my own students after I became a flight instructor!) The controllers at Seattle Center calmly and politely helped me get my Cessna 152 onto the ground at a suitable airport. If they hadn't, I probably would not be writing comments in this blog today.

Eleanor Joyce Toliver-Williams' life story is extraordinary. Back in the 70's, it was hard for women of any race to be taken seriously in a male-dominated field -- let alone an African American woman. My hat is off to Mrs. Toliver-Williams.

airphoria said...

There are pockets of impatient controllers here in the states, but my experience is that they're the exception. PHX approach used to be a tough place to deal with if you weren't 121, but they've since fixed it. I'm often stunned at how helpful SoCal can be under difficult workloads.

Nice guys in Edmonton center, too, AFAIK.