I was an FAA air traffic controller from 1979 to 1997 and wrote this one in 1987. Much has changed in aviation since this, and here’s hoping ATC has kept up. –Paul Berge (2016)
"ATC Midnight Rules 1987" © 1987, 2007, Paul Berge
“Jet engines sound different on cold nights,” Michael thought walking through the snow toward the control tower. “But they still smell the same,” he said aloud.
His eyes were heavy from lack of sleep when he punched in the door code (same as the VOR frequency 117.5) and went inside. The front offices were dark, typewriters covered. Working without management around was the only advantage he could find for the midnight watch.
He stuffed his cigar into a metal ashtray on the wall before heading down the dark hallway toward the TRACON . He pushed open another door labeled, RESTRICTED—AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
“Anyone home?” he called. Inside, five radarscopes were arranged in a semi-circle along the far wall. “Already moved it upstairs,” he said to himself. The room was empty and as dark as the hallway, but, of course, it was always dark. The five scopes gave off a weak green light, their radar sweeps turning in perfect unison like a synchronized laundromat, any targets on a slow tumble. The evening shift had moved the operation to the single BRITE scope in the tower cab for the midnight watch. He wished for the hundredth time that one of the scopes from the TRACON could be moved to the tower cab to replace the BRITE.
“It's dangerous vectoring off that antiquated piece of junk,” he had often complained.
“Nothing wrong with the BRITE; always worked fine; do your best, besides, there's nothing we can do about it...” The responses flooded back in his memory like voices on an answering machine. He had long since quit complaining; there was no use anymore. The system was far more powerful than he; it would survive regardless. He, however….
Michael rode the elevator for six floors, and then walked the remaining three flights to the cab. Halfway there he plugged a fresh cigar into his mouth, and, by the top step, his heart thumping in his ears, he caught his breath.
“Good evening, Mike,” Helen called, glancing over her shoulder, before turning back to the BRITE scope. She stood alone in a corner, working traffic. The few lights from radio switches and the harsh glare of the reading lamp reflected off the surrounding windows.
“Hello, hello,” Michael answered through a deep yawn.
“Tired?” she asked and turned her head toward the window, where far below, amid the blue and yellow lights, a Boeing 727 pushed away from the terminal.
“No, United,” she said into the microphone. “That taxiway's still closed. Turn left on Papa, then D-2, follow the outer and hold short of runway two-three.” She wore a headset, so the answer was lost, but Michael could almost see the confusion form in a cartoon question mark above the airliner's cockpit.
“They still got taxiway Echo closed?” he asked and reached inside a cabinet for his coffee cup. “Wasn't that supposed to open last week?”
“Was to, but you know how those promises go.” They both smiled with looks of shared frustration tempered by years of disappointment. “Get any sleep this afternoon?” she asked.
“I can't ever get more than a catnap, either, before a mid. Somehow, I just can't seem to convince my body to cooperate. 'Hey, body, now pay attention. We're going to get up at five a.m., work for eight hours, go home at two-thirty, get up at ten p.m. and work until eight a.m. Now, brain, I want you to stay sharp. Those are real airplanes you'll be working.'”
She started to laugh, and then keyed her microphone while pointing out the window. “United six-oh-two, hold short of Runway two-three; traffic landing.”
“Put it up in the speakers,” Michael said and plugged in a handset microphone.
Helen flipped the receiver switches up, and United's voice scratched through the speaker, “Roger, hold short Runway, ah, two-three.” He, too, sounded tired, slightly irritable.
“Just don't scare me like that,” Helen said to the glass without keying the frequency. “You ready for this?” she asked Michael.
“Not really, but the paycheck might stop coming if I said, no.” He moved closer to the board with the flight progress strips. “What’ve you got?”
“There's flow control into Denver, still—”
“I don't know, maybe they just wanted to give the tower over there a break. Maybe everyone went on strike. Who knows?”
Helen recoiled theatrically, covering her ears. “Strike? Perish the thought.”
“Those words never left these lips,” Michael said making a locking gesture at his mouth. “Besides, they can't fire us all.”
“Anyhow,” Helen continued, “United's holding short of two-three; he wants twelve left. I guess he thinks it's closer to Chicago, who knows? TWA's on short final for two-three; Mitsubishi Five Mike Romeo is following TWA, eating his lunch and—” She scanned the darkened airport as though searching for someone. “Down there somewhere,” she pointed, “is Twin Cessna Three Delta Lima, he's called ready.”
“I got it,” Michael said as TWA touched the pavement and shot past United in a rumble of thrust reversers. “United, ah, ah, what's-your-number, cross runway two-three.”
“That's United Six-Oh-Two, Tower. We're crossing two-three.”
“Glad I'm not staying up all night,” Helen said unplugging her headset and wadding it into a knot. “I'm beat.”
“Tell me about it,” he sighed. “Mitsubishi Five Mike Romeo, runway two-three cleared to land, traffic departing twelve left, wind two two zero at eight.”
The Mitsubishi pilot read back the clearance while Michael turned to Helen. “At least I got tomorrow off. I can catch up on a week's sleep.”
“Got overtime again this week?”
“Of course. Who doesn't? Twin Cessna Three Delta Lima, runway three-zero-right taxi into position and hold.” A voice acknowledged, and red and white lights moved onto a far corner of the crossing runway.
“TWA Eleven Eighty-four, turn left first intersection, cross three-zero left, via Alpha two, hold short of three-zero right, traffic to depart.”
“Roger, turn left, cross the left, alpha two, short of the right, TWA Eleven Eighty-four.”
“Can't remember the last time I saw a two-day weekend,” Helen said heading for the stairs. “Well, have a nice mid. Try and stay awake.” She vanished.
“Why?” Michael called after her. He heard the door click below. “Ah, Twin Cessna, let's see, Three Delta Lima runway three-zero right, cleared for takeoff, caution wake turbulence from the DC-9 landed on two-three, wind two three zero at seven.”
“Three Delta Lima, cleared for takeoff,” the Cessna pilot repeated, and the flashing lights moved down the runway.
“Mitsubishi Five Mike Romeo, traffic a twin Cessna departing thirty right prior to your arrival.”
“Got 'em in sight.”
The Twin Cessna rolled past TWA's nose and lifted. TWA switched his taxi lights off while the airplane departed. “TWA Eleven Eighty-four, cross thirty right, taxi via Charlie stay this frequency.”
“Eleven Eighty-four, with you to the gate, good night.”
Michael turned to the BRITE radarscope, a scuffed tan box with an ill-focused presentation. Adjusting the contrast knob, he saw the data tag for Twin Cessna Three Delta Lima acquire about a half-mile away from the actual target.
“Close enough,” he muttered. “Twin Cessna Three Delta Lima, radar contact. Turn right on course.”
The Cessna pilot acknowledged, and United called, “Tower, United Six-Oh-Two ready on twelve left.”
“United Six-Oh-Two, runway one-two left, taxi into position and hold, traffic landing two-three.”
The airliner crawled onto the runway, its landing light cutting like a broad white sword through the night. The Mitsubishi was about to squat on the intersecting runway.
“Ah, Tower, did you say United was cleared for take-off?” Michael clamped the mike button, “Negative, United, hold in position, traffic landing two-three.”
“Okay, on the hold, United Six-Oh-Two.”
“What am I doing here?” Michael asked the darkness. His own reflection looked back at him from the glass. It looked sad, the face heavy and deeply creased with dark furrows. He shrugged, watched the Mitsubishi land and throw on the reversers. He lit his cigar, blew a cloud of blue smoke at the BRITE scope and said, “United Six-Oh-Two, cleared for take off.”
Thirty minutes into the shift, the traffic tapered off to nothing. He poured water through the coffee maker and set the empty pot on the burner. A bead of water, caught under the glass pot, hissed. He switched on the radio. Jazz. One good thing about the mids, he thought, the radio stations played better music. John Coltraine’s saxophone filled the cab with a mellow sadness, and he sat in one of the tall chairs, propping his feet on the counter. Scotch would be nice, he thought.
The empty radarscope turned at a pace swaying with the music. He shifted his weight trying to find a comfortable position; it was a long haul until sunrise. Suddenly, the armrest gave under the slight pressure of his elbow, almost spilling him to the floor.
“Shiii….stupid piece of junk,” he grumbled kicking the chair away and reaching for another. “Can't they buy anything around here that doesn't break? Low bidder junk.”
He settled into another chair, after first testing it. He picked up a copy of an old sports magazine. Never interested in sports, the images of brawny men in short tight pants and padded shoulders grappling for each other on plastic grass only added to the boredom.
“Wonder who took the swimsuit issue?” he mused, glancing around the cab and opened the not-so-secret compartment behind the clearance delivery consul where the dirty magazines were kept—nothing. An article listing the top twenty salaries in the NFL caught his interest. He read the salaries under the photographs.
“One million-four,” he muttered. “And will ya look at this—two million bucks.” He read further. “Oh, only seven hundred thousand a year for you, poor babe.” He studied the faces, all thick neck types with teeth missing and blank stares in their eyes. He took his own checkbook from his hip pocket and thumbed to the balance. Discouraged, he shoved it back into his pocket. Catching a glimpse of his reflection again in the window, he puffed his chest and grimaced like the faces in the magazine.
“Michael Grands, Air Traffic Controller, free agent. You want me to vector, it's gonna cost ya.” The grotesque image staring back from the glass relaxed and slumped in the chair. “Not much it's gonna cost ya,” he said and closed his eyes. A stinging warmth under his lids told him he should sleep. He listened to a piano, gentle and friendly with the low wail of a sax.
He had no idea how long he sat like that, but when the Center called, trying to make a hand-off, his body moved with the speed of wet cement. He pressed the interphone button.
“Approach, hello,” he said, his voice like death.
“Sorry to disturb you, but, hand-off...” The voice at the other end was filled with mock cheer, another controller fighting sleep.
“Ah, radar corn flakes, Air Express One-Thirty-Eight.” Mike disconnected and wrote the aircraft's altitude on a blank flight plan strip. “Glory be to the marvels of automation,” he muttered.
Each night at midnight, just before the first inbound rush of late-night cargo haulers, the Center's computer would shut down for maintenance. The result was that all flight plan data were then passed manually over the phone, adding to controller workload. Made it feel like 1960 but went with the job. Who cared?
“Approach, Express One-Thirty-Eight, descending out of eight for six, airport in sight, requesting runway five.” The young freight dog’s voice reported with a stony boredom that came from a steady routine of hauling bags of cancelled checks all across the Midwest, night after night, in a worn out Twin Cessna.
“Express One-Thirty-Eight,” Michael answered after pouring a cup of coffee, “Cleared visual approach, runway five, cleared to land, taxi to the ramp, wind two-three-zero at six, altimeter three-zero-zero-zero.”
The Express pilot slurred an answer, but Michael was busy mopping at the coffee he’d just spilled.
“Approach. Handoff.” It was the Center, again, pawning off a Learjet screaming from the north at twice light speed.
“Radar Contact,” Michael yelled into the phone after jotting down the information.
Seconds later: “Approach, Night Jet Seven-Oh-One, leaving flight level two-one-oh for eleven, looking for lower, airport in sight, requesting runway two-three.”
“What else?” Michael mumbled. “Love opposite direction approaches.” He took a moment to relight his cigar, then, grabbing the microphone, answered in one long breath, “Night Jet Seven-Oh-One, Approach, cleared visual approach runway two-three, cleared to land, taxi to the ramp, wind two-three zero at six, altimeter three zero zero zero, traffic a Twin Cessna twenty south for runway five, landing as soon as you clear.”
“We'll hustle.” It was another young voice, confident, cool. Michael knew the Lear pilot would keep the tiny jet moving at incredible speed until short final, then hit the pavement, throw on reversers and turn off with less than half the runway used. He knew this. Fifteen years of watching it told him it would work. Still, he watched impressed, when the Lear touched, made the turn, and almost instantly, the Twin Cessna landed in the opposite direction, and the two raced each other to the ramp.
“Approach. Handoff. Got a couple of 'em.”
“Radar contact all of ‘em,” Michael called again over the interphone and scribbled new flight strips.
“Approach, Air Lump Six-Twelve with you descending to six, airport in sight requesting thirty right...Approach, Interstate Four-Nine-Seven with you, airport in sight, requesting runway one-two left...Approach, Late Night Eight-Eighteen with you, airport in sight, requesting runway two-three...Approach...Approach....Approach....”
The calls rattled from the speaker like children's voices in a day care center, loud, unignorable, all demanding to be first. Michael knew the business. He knew the pilots ran under tremendous pressure to meet schedules, to shave a minute or two off their runs wherever possible. To them, a straight-in approach to the nearest runway, regardless of wind conditions, could mean a total of ten, twenty minutes saved over the course of an evening. Plus, he knew that these guys loved this stuff—max performance, freight dog machismo.
“Cleared visual approach, cleared to land runway two-three...Cleared to land, follow the Baron, half-mile final...cleared to land runway three-zero right, hold short of two-three, traffic landing that runway...Cleared to land...Cleared to land...Cleared to land....”
The words flew between Michael and the pilots with a rapidity only those who flew could possibly understand. His mind was a tired jumble of flashing lights, call signs, and radar targets, all converging on the center of the scope — all converging on him.
He grumbled between transmissions, “Hope this works...stupid way to make a living...tired, tired, tired.”
His eyes burned from straining to read the fuzzy numbers on the scope. He wished they would all go away, and, yet, he felt the usual thrill from orchestrating millions of dollars worth of airplanes and cargo, flung at him from all points of the compass, into a neat procession across the ramp.
“Navajo Six Two Kilo, cleared to land runway two-three, taxi to the ramp,” he said to the last target on the scope.
“Roger, you want us to stay with you, Approach or go to tower?” the pilot asked, a touch of innocence in his voice.
“New pilot,” Michael thought. “Stay this frequency,” he said. “I am tower, and ground control, and clearance delivery....” his voice trailed off.
“You wear all the hats at night, huh?”
Michael ignored the question and looked down at the ramp below the tower where the airplanes now parked. Two a.m., and it was swarming with activity. Delivery vans from Federal Express, Purolator, and a few independents raced through the gate, weaving between aircraft as though driven by demons.
Everyone rushed. The pilots, even before the propellers seemed to come to a stop, had the doors open and were flinging plastic bags onto the pavement. Mounds of bank notes and checks, express letters and small packages grew beside each fuselage. Michael could see the puffs of night steam from their voices, calling orders, making jokes, each young pilot trying to be the fastest, the most casual, the best. One day, they, too, would need sleep, but tonight they were young and could fly ‘til dawn without closing an eye.
In daylight the ramp would be thick with polished corporate jets and smartly dressed pilots in crisp white shirts, toting baggage for toney clients. But after midnight, the black sky unleashed the rawest elements of flying. The night world was full of blue jeans and sneakers, young unshaven faces chewing gum and feeling alive.
Michael watched them pack the airplanes full, first tossing the bags deep into the fuselage, then squeezing them in, pounding the bags to make room for more. Within minutes, the mounds had vanished, and the propellers started to turn. Michael took a quick swallow of coffee. He heard one of the Lears start to whine, its turbines spooling up. Its door was still open when the speaker by Michael's hip shouted, “Ground, Night Jet Seven-Oh-One, taxi out of cargo, to Chicago Midway, requesting two-three.”
Michael answered, “Night Jet Seven-Oh-One, taxi to runway two-three, cleared to Midway as filed, maintain one-zero thousand, expect two-three-oh, ten minutes later, cleared for takeoff, turn left on course, wind two-three-zero at eight, altimeter three zero zero one, squawk seven six four five, remain this frequency.”
The co-pilot was just closing the upper half of the Lear's door as it taxied from the ramp; a Twin Cessna, one engine running and the other starting to crank, right behind it.
“Ground, Express One-Two-Eight, taxiing out of cargo, request two-three to Kansas City, got the numbers.”
“Express,” Michael said, “follow the Lear, runway two-three, cleared to Kansas City Downtown, as filed, maintain six, cleared for take-off, caution wake turbulence.”
Another voice called and Michael rattled off another clearance while the Lear fired down the runway and lifted in a tight left turn, wasting no time pointing its nose toward Chicago. The Twin Cessna rolled almost directly behind it, and banked into a steep turn toward the south. A Mitsubishi was hard on his tail, rotating past midfield and banking tight for Minneapolis.
“Night Jet Seven-Oh-One, radar contact...Express One-Two-Eight, radar contact...Blah-Blah-Blah, radar contact...radar contact....”
Michael's clipped voice chased the airplanes away, until they were tiny flashing lights among the stars, swallowed back into night sky. One-by-one, starting with the Lear, he shipped them over to Center frequencies and dropped heavily onto the chair. The scope beside him flashed its pale green light in a steady pulse, completely out of time with the Kenny G music on the radio. Michael closed his eyes but never slept. He hated Kenny G and wondered how it got on the jazz station; someone must’ve fallen asleep there, too.
Four a.m. (0400), Michael's brain was wrapped in fog when the next rush began. It was lead by a Convair 640, bringing the morning's Wall Street Journal. Quickly, a stream of Lears, Cheyennes, and a pair of Twin Commanders appeared on the scope. All requesting direct to the airport, all requesting to be first, and they all, somehow, managed to get their wishes. Michael's voice was thick with fatigue, not the healthy kind from, say, playing basketball, but, instead, soul drenching fatigue, brain-cell-eating tired. He mouthed the clearances from habit, his mind barely formulating the sequences. A Centurion pilot, new to the area, announced he would need the ILS approach to find the runway. Stifling a deep moan, Michael vectored him to the final approach course and sequenced him behind one of the Commanders. A routine task in daylight, after midnight, it only drained his already spent energy. He glanced at his watch—0430—24 hours since he had last slept. During that time he had worked a busy day shift in the TRACON, and was still hours away from being relieved. The scope was empty again. The Centurion taxied past the tower toward the hangars. Michael's eyes clamped shut without him knowing.
“Approach. Hey, Approach.” the voice, shrill through Michael's unconscious world, snapped him to his feet. “Oh,” he uttered and glanced around, reaching for the microphone. He saw a data tag on the scope flashing from the southwest—America West Airlines—the first airliner of the morning.
Computer must be back up, he thought and rolled the cursor over the flashing data tag, signaling—a little late—to Center that he had radar contact on America West.
“Cactus Twelve-Seventy-two, Approach. Good Morning,” he said, hoping the words came out as imagined.
“Good Morning, Approach. Center said they couldn't get a hold of you, so we should try. We're level at eleven thousand and looking at the airport.”
Michael glanced around at the scope and runways, making certain there was nothing unusual there, such as other airliners wandering around without guidance. He cleared America West to land and rubbed his face, pressing life into the skin.
To the east the sky lightened to a sickly pink—0530. In a half hour the day shift would be in to open the TRACON.
Twenty-five hours since he’d last slept.
“Say wind,” the America West pilot said.
Michael's brain hesitated. Say what? Say wind, what? His thoughts were mush. “Oh, ah, wind, three two zero at one zero,” his voice answered as though detached from his body, his mind.
Two more airliners arrived before 0600, a United Boeing 737 from O'Hare and a TWA DC-9 from St. Louis. United requested runway 30R, while TWA asked for runway five. They both got their wishes. Somehow it worked, and, at 0600, the TRACON on the first floor opened for business.
Michael spent the last half-hour of his shift seated on the couch in the break room reading the paper. Mostly, he scanned the pictures, the small print beneath a blur of nonsense.
As he walked out the front door at 0700, a supervisor passed him on the way in. “Morning, Mike. How was the mid?”
“Ah, all right, you know. The usual.”
“Well, enjoy your weekend.”
And Michael stepped into the cold morning air as a jet departed, sounding completely different than it had eight hours before. Smelled about the same, though.
“ATC Midnight Rules 1987” © 1987 Paul Berge, all rights reserved. Contact Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC for queries or reprint permission. Now, get some sleep.