Faces behind the Voices


First go, then no go, then go again or maybe no go. So fluctuated the weather forecast for our upcoming flight to Fox field to visit the Air Route Traffic Control Center or ARTCC ( simply know as  LA Center) at Palmdale.  The day dawned with visibility quarter mile and 100 foot ceiling, with forecast calling for clear skies after10:00 am. As the skies cleared for another perfect day of flying, Anne and I set off on an IFR flight to Fox field in communication with our friends watching over us in a dark room whence we were going.

Over the years I have visited many Center, Terminal Radar Control (TRACON) and Tower facilities to familiarize myself with the procedures and operations at these facilities; to understand what functions were available to me as a GA pilot; what the expectations were from the controller standpoint; what the correct communication terminology was and much more. I have also had the fortune to attend several AOPA and 99s organized safety seminars and personally know several air traffic controllers.

Having learnt to fly at an airport with a control tower, I was fortunate enough to visit, learn and understand what happens up in control tower right from my initial flight training days: much before automation started to creep into small GA airports, when controllers used binoculars to look for aircraft coming into land.

While it is carefree to fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and not talk to a soul, I always find it comforting to use flight following. Having done the bulk of my flying in California, I was spoiled by  the ever friendly controllers.

“Bakersfield Tower, Cessna 6LN in bound from the west landing Bakersfield”, said I.

“Where exactly are you,” queried Bakersfield Tower.

” I am about 10 miles to the west near highway 5, ” responded I.

Being a freshly minted pilot, on my first venture east away from the cherished 101 highway that kept me feeling safe, I was nervous, a little lost and hoped Bakersfield Tower could reel me in to the airport.

“Highway 5 extends from Seattle to San Diego, where exactly are you?” asked the controller.

For my sake I wish I knew. I peered at the VOR one more time and tried to verify I had dialed in the correct VOR frequency. The glare of the sun made it difficult and only by chance it struck me that I had dialed in a 115.6 instead of 115.4  for Shafter VOR. I triumphantly adjusted the frequency and saw some life come back. I adjusted the radial and reported to the tower one more time. Still no sign of the airport.

“I don’t think your transponder works, it didn’t for the guy who came in yesterday, turn 10 degrees to the south”, commanded BFL Tower.

I complied and was happy to hear “Okay, I have you now on scope, 10 miles from the airport, turn heading xxx and the airport should be at your 12 o’clock. Report airport in sight” said the controller. I followed the directions and soon sighted the airport and landed safely. Thank goodness for radar!

Controllers, whatever their function, and where ever they are in the tower, on the ground in a semi dark room peering at scopes are the one voice of comfort to a pilot cruising along be it an emergency, a simple case of being lost, need some weather information or just a friendly voice welcoming you home after a long journey.

It is always a joy to communicate with the local air traffic controllers. Having learned to fly at SBP with a staffed ATC tower, I miss not being able to interact so closely now  as I did then. I miss not being able to put a face to a voice. I miss not being able to take cookies to the tower for Christmas or stop by and chat and enjoy watching aircraft land and takeoff from the hot seat up in the tower. I miss not having friends in high places 🙂

Thanks Ellen, Dan and all the other controllers for a job well done!

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