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Posted: March 14, 2010 12:00 a.m.

Look, daddy, an airplane

Last week news broke of an air traffic controller working New York City's busy John F. Kennedy International Airport bringing his young son to work with him, and actually allowing the child to convey instructions to aircraft. Some of the airline pilots were amused, and the aberration from the normal airport operation almost passed without incident.

Having spent parts of the 20th and 21st centuries in the company tower for the busiest airline at the world's busiest airport, I was flabbergasted by the news report. It just couldn't be true, I thought.

First, how could the kid gain access to an FAA control tower or flight center despite stringent federal security measures? Did the controller just nod and wink his way past security with his son in tow?

Next, what kind of supervision was going on in that tower? Was the controller's supervisor aware of what was happening? If so, is he still employed? And is the controller still working? If so, where might he be stationed now? Is he still in the tower at JFK International? Or has he been reassigned to finish out his career in Alaska?

I taught school for many years, was once a drive-time disc jockey, and spent parts of three separate decades at Hartsfield-Jackson International, in various positions with two airlines. In all of those endeavors, it was possible for me to bring my children to work and to show them my workplace.

But air traffic control is a horse of a different color. Controllers work in a rarified environment of high stress brought on by the need for split-second decision making resolving situations routinely occurring over the course of a normal day, which literally comprise life-or-death decisions involving hundreds of thousands of airline passengers.

And a guy brought his young son to work, put the headset on him, and coached him through talking to a few airliners on restricted federal aviation radio frequencies. Got him through security, showed him off to his co-workers and his supervisors, hooked him up and allowed him to tell the big boys moving multi-million-dollar airplanes around on concrete crucial to national security what to do with their passengers and aircraft.

My wife was a bit miffed at my reaction to the news story. She wondered why it was such a big deal, as she thought it was kind of neat that a guy could bring his kid to work. Nothing like a little quality father-son time, I suppose.

Well, the deal is this. Airspace over America is divided into sectors governed by various flight centers: Jacksonville Center, Atlanta, Memphis, Indianapolis, and so forth - all across the land. Airliners flying at altitude are handed off from one center to the next en route to their destinations.

As a flight nears its destination, the last flight center turns it over to the federal approach and departure tower working that particular airport. Now, as it happens, Atlanta has the most tightly controlled concrete in North America, with takeoffs and landings occurring with great rapidity. Once an arriving ship is safely on the runway, the approach controller hands it off to a ground controller on a separate frequency. "Ground" then directs the flight to the ramp designated for that plane to park and hands the flight off to a ramp controller on yet another frequency. In the meantime, various airline company tower controllers talk to the flight on yet other frequencies.

While all of that transpires with arriving flights, the same controllers are simultaneously directing departing aircraft out of their respective gates and ramps in reverse order to that of the arrivals on still other frequencies.

During my years working the company tower, my habit was to keep all those frequencies "up" in my headset.

Though I could not actually discern every detail in the myriad of terse instructions given by the controllers and affirmed by flight crews, monitoring all those frequencies enabled me to track flights which were mine to work. And I have to tell you that listening to the sing-song routine of the very best air traffic controllers in the world as they kept a tight rein on Atlanta was the closest thing to a magical experience this old boy ever had.

The thought of some guy bringing his kid into that environment and letting him play for a few minutes on the radio makes my blood boil. What may seem a harmless thing to folks outside the industry actually constitutes an affront to the professionalism exhibited by the best of the best as they keep America's airways safe every day for the traveling public.

But I, too, have made mistakes along the way. And this, perhaps, makes me a compassionate guy. So I hope they didn't fire the guy right in front of his son.

Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.


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