I love female pilots. I love being around them. I love the brilliant jokes they make. I love the way they graciously thank someone for holding one door open and without changing demeanor kick down the next one. I love the ingenious tricks they have come up with to make the female piloting world a more functional place, like using football sit-upons to give you the height you may not have to reach the petals. I love the way they chose to joke about their abilities instead of brag about their ratings when introducing themselves. I love the helpful tips they freely share like “always bring a little jacket to any FAA building. It’s always cold where the FAA’s involved.”
But perhaps my favorite thing about female pilots is their ability to network and get clearance into just about anywhere. Last night my 99s chapter was cleared to tour an Air Route Traffic Control Center for a hub airport.
It should make all Americans feel at ease to know these places are very secure.
How strict were they?
When I pulled my car up to the gate to show my driver’s license I was instructed to put it in reverse and park in a nearby lot. I was fourteen minutes early. Even though my name was on a list they received weeks ago, I was not allowed in until exactly 18:00.
At 18:00 we were brought into the guard shack, passed through a metal detector, and given required badges made from our driver’s licenses. We were escorted by multiple guides through the gates and down to a nearby building. After a presentation, Q & As and instructions to turn our phones off and not take any pictures, we were taken to the location where ATC personnel were doing their thing.
It looked more like a hacker’s basement than an FAA office. It was dimly lit and there were giant computer screens all the way up the makeshift walls. Everyone had a custom built cubicle space. There wasn’t a window anywhere, even by the weather guy’s station.
We were escorted two by two into each room to listen in on a phone and watch the ATCs at work.
The guy I watched was in charge of one little section of the sky looking at departures from DFW that had cleared the tower. When they left his air space he passed them off to the fellow working at the next set of computer screens. I was amazed at the amount of power and responsibility this guy had even though I barely understood what he was doing. It also gave me my first glance at how commercial pilots converse with ATC. Pilots asked him for clearance to change their course. “Denied.” They asked if he had any shortcuts he could work for them. “Ya, hold on a minute.” They asked about the weather. If he told them to change altitudes, they did. No questions. No protests. Just Roger. My guy was very down-to-earth and friendly but I wonder how many ATC folks start to get god complexes after being the final word on so many people’s lives in the sky all day.
I can honestly say it’s nothing like Pushing Tin. John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton are a far cry from the beer-belied, hunched over gentleman with a “don’t tread on me, I’m eligible for retirement” lanyard I saw. It’s actually quite boring. I sat there for twenty minutes and still couldn’t tell what the wizard in front of me punching all of the numbers and moving this little wheel was actually doing. At one point I joked to myself “does he know he doesn’t move the planes on the screen no matter how many buttons he punches?” Seriously, what’s the point of the buttons?!
After a while we were taken back out of the facility. I was glad to go. Interesting as it was to watch people space planes out, twenty minutes of numbers moving around a screen at a snail’s pace in a dark room was all I could take. I appreciate what they do, but I’ll stick to piloting.