Going Down the Pipes

By the mid-’90s, the American air traffic control system was on the verge of a nervous breakdown: broken equipment, insane overtime, impossibly high stakes. We bring back a classic story from the frontlines of the world’s most stressful desk job.

Any fan of longform creative nonfiction has certain stories she cannot get out of her head. Earlier this year, when my Topic colleagues and I were sitting around thinking about our upcoming Journeys issue, I came up with the idea of republishing a memorable piece from The New York Times Magazine a year after I graduated from college … and which I had never forgotten.

Written by Darcy Frey and originally titled “Something’s Got to Give,” the 1996 piece focuses on a group of air traffic controllers, including “Zack,” “Jughead,” and “Graz,” working at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control, an air traffic facility in Long Island that oversees the crowded airspace over New York City, which includes flights coming into and out of airports like Newark Liberty Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world. We decided to republish the piece, with new art, for a generation that had very likely never come across it in the first place.

As part of putting the 9,200-word piece (back) together, we asked Frey, now the director of Harvard’s Creative Writing program, to say a few words about the experience of writing it, which involved spending the entire month of November 1995 side-by-side with the controllers as the days counted down to what Frey calls “the busiest American air-traffic day of the year: the Sunday after Thanksgiving.”

Frey explains that the genesis of the story came from his editor, Alan Burdick, who pitched it to him over the phone. “Even before I’d met any controllers, I heard the potential piece in my ear: Something like David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross set in a radar room,” Frey remembers. “As it turned out, that’s just what I found at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control. Stressed out, overworked, and hyped-up on legal stimulants, the controllers did indeed speak with the expressive profanity and elliptical elegance of characters in Mamet plays like Glengarry and The Duck Variations. And my editors at the Times Magazine were on board with my ambition to try to write a piece of long-form journalism that sounded like one of them.” (Frey’s piece was turned into a feature film, Pushing Tin, starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Angelina Jolie, and Cate Blanchett and released in 1999.)

Frey remarks that, post 9/11, he probably wouldn’t be given the sort of access to the people or facilities that he was granted in the ‘90s, and he remembers that the controllers ended up mostly being fine with the final piece, especially regarding details he worried “they’d be furious about—for example, that they once put the plane carrying the Vancouver Canucks’ families in an endless spin because they were Rangers’ fans.” The guys were miffed, however, about one thing Frey didn’t expect: “that I described them eating Chinese food at the scopes, which they told me was a violation of FAA rules.” (Eating in general, not the eating of Chinese food specifically.)

“The controllers I wrote about worked the beyond-hectic ‘Newark approach scopes’—guiding the pilots of all the planes heading for that airport,” says Frey. “More than 20 years later, whenever I’m coming into Newark myself and feel my plane bank sharply and descend, I think about Zack, Jughead, and Graz (or whomever replaced them) down there in the radar room, sweating and swearing while keeping everyone safe.”

—Anna Holmes

All the way down the bank of radar scopes, the air traffic controllers have that savage, bug-eyed look, like men on the verge of drowning, as they watch the computer blips proliferate and speak in frantic bursts of techno-chatter to the pilots: “Continental 1528, turn right heading 280 immediately! Traffic at your 12 o’clock!” A tightly wound Tom Zaccheo, one of the control- room veterans, sinks his teeth into his cuticles and turns, glowering, to the controller by his side: “Hey, watch your goddamned planes—you’re in my airspace!” Two scopes away, the normally unflappable Jim Hunter, his right leg pumping like a pneumatic drill, sucks down coffee and squints as blips representing 747s with 200 passengers on board simply vanish from his radar screen. “If the FAA doesn’t fix this goddamned equipment,” he fumes, retrieving the blips with his key pad, “it’s only a matter of time before there’s a catastrophe.” And Joe Jorge, a new trainee, scrambling to keep his jets safely separated in the crowded sky, is actually panting down at the end as he orders pilots to turn, climb, descend, speed up, slow down and look out the cockpit window, captain!

From the passenger seat of a moving airplane, the sky over New York City seems empty, serene, a limitless ocean of blue. But on a controller’s radar scope, it looks more like a six-lane highway at rush hour with everyone pushing 80. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving—usually the busiest air-travel day of the year—jets are barrelling toward Newark just 1,000 feet above the propeller planes landing at Teterboro. Newark departures streak up the west side of the Hudson River just as LaGuardia arrivals race down the east. And in the darkened operations room of the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control—the vast air traffic facility in Westbury, Long Island, that handles the airspace over New York City—the controllers curse and twitch like a gathering of Tourette sufferers, as they try to keep themselves from going down the pipes.

That’s what they call it—“going down the pipes”—and though it has never led to a midair collision, just the threat of it leaves a controller damp and trembling in his chair. As rush hour arrives, his radar scope fills with blips—eight jets for Newark, say, five props for Teterboro, six LaGuardia departures climbing over northern New Jersey, and a traffic-watch helicopter over the George Washington Bridge. But that’s OK, the controller assures himself, he has what they call “the picture”—a mental strategy to avoid conflicts—and despite the quickening traffic, he’s commanding the pilots with rhythmic ease: “Newark jets maintain 2,500 feet … Teterboro props descend to 1,500 … LaGuardia planes climb to 6,000 …”


Then, for an instant, his mind wanders—don’t forget to pick up milk on the way home—and suddenly he looks back at the scope and it’s gone: no picture, no pattern, just a mad spray of blips (and more blips now than there were five seconds ago) heading—where? North or south? Climbing or descending? He can’t remember, and though he tries to catch up, he’s already behind, conflicts arising faster than he can react—one here, one there—jets streaking across the sky at 300 miles an hour, the controller’s stomach in knots because he knows he’s going down, nothing to do but leap from his chair, rip off his headset, and yell to his supervisor, “Get me out of here—I’m losing it!

Sometimes it is the Federal Aviation Administration’s ancient equipment that messes with a controller’s head—a radar scope from the 1960s going dark with a dozen planes in the sky, or a dilapidated radio blowing out. A few years ago, a controller guiding ten jets in a great curving arc toward Newark suddenly lost his frequency just as he had to turn the pilots onto the final approach to the runway. Watching in helpless horror as his planes careered farther and farther off course, the controller rose from his chair with an animal scream, burst into a sweat, and began tearing off his shirt. By the time radio contact was reestablished—and the errant planes were reined in—the controller was quivering on the floor half naked, and was discharged on a medical leave until he could regain his wits.

Every day that the controllers come to work, they ask themselves if this will be the shift of their unmaking, and on the Sunday after Thanksgiving they are performing the full gamut of rituals to ward off doom. One controller stands and paces in tight circles while issuing commands; one drops to his knee, his nose touching the glass; one taps the scope with a finger; one holds himself together by singing out loud. Because the traffic is so heavy tonight, they all take chow at their scopes—the 12 controllers who handle the airspace over Newark Airport shoveling takeout Chinese into their mouths while issuing their commands. “US Air 512, descend and maintain 4,000”—Hey, who's got the plum sauce?—“start down now, no delay!”

Just as the holiday traffic reaches its peak, Tom Zaccheo looks down the bank of radar scopes to see who’s closest to flaming out and spots Joe Jorge, the breathless trainee, falling dangerously behind in his commands. “Hey rookie, what’s wrong down at the end there, rookie!” Zaccheo jeers mercilessly. Jorge looks over and, emulating the veterans, gives a gruff, fearless chuckle. But he turns right back to his scope—“Jetlink 3723 turn left heading 080—traffic off your 2 o’clock!” He doesn’t have a second to spare.

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Almost 15 years have passed since the infamous Patco strike, which ended with President Reagan firing 11,400 of the nation’s 17,000 controllers, but the FAA’s system for moving airplanes safely across the skies has never been closer to chaos. Many of the nation’s airport control towers and radar rooms still have fewer fully trained controllers than before the strike, yet the number of flights they must guide through the teeming skies has soared in some facilities by 200 percent. Meanwhile the computer and radar equipment they must do it with has grown scandalously old and degraded. Last year, air traffic control centers—some with 30-year-old, vacuum-tubed computers—suffered more blank radar scopes, dead radios and failed power systems than in any previous year, according to Representative John J. Duncan Jr. of Tennessee, chairman of the House aviation subcommittee.

FAA officials say they are turning things around—hiring more controllers and replacing old equipment. In 1994, the agency embarked on a modernization program that they say will deliver 1,000 new screens and work stations to the busiest controllers beginning in 1998. Meanwhile, because of built-in redundancies, the current system is “99.4 percent reliable,” says Anthony Willett, an FAA spokesman. “It’s a ‘65 Mustang that we’re hellbent on keeping in great shape, polishing the hell out of the fenders.” Adds Monte R. Belger, associate administrator for air traffic services, “The Mustang is going down the road at 55 miles an hour, so any improvements have to be done while it's up and running.”

Equipment failures have not yet led to any crashes, but in the airspace over New York City, the number of operational errors—also known as near midair collisions—jumped threefold in 1994. And as the FAA lags further behind schedule and over cost in modernizing the equipment ($500 million and 15 years wasted on software that was never used), it falls to the controllers, handling half a billion passengers per year and working mind-numbing overtime, to keep the system from completely falling apart. “I won’t tell you what the ‘F’ in FAA stands for,” snarls one controller. “But the ‘AA’ is for again and again.”

Every day that the controllers come to work, they ask themselves if this will be the shift of their unmaking, and on the Sunday after Thanksgiving they are performing the full gamut of rituals to ward off doom.

Mention air traffic control and most people think of those glass-enclosed airport towers, but the real frenzy takes place in the FAA’s 175 Terminal Radar Approach Controls, or Tracons, some of them miles from the nearest runway. Once a plane takes off, an airport controller “hands it off” by computer to a controller at a Tracon, who uses radar and radio to guide the plane through the swarming metropolitan airspace. Once the plane has climbed to 17,000 feet, the Tracon controller hands it off again to a controller at 1 of 21 Air Route Traffic Control Centers, which guide flights across the high-altitude expanses between airports. All FAA facilities are challenging places to work, but the New York Tracon—which handles up to 7,000 flights a day into and out of Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark, as well as 47 smaller airports, all within a 150-mile radius—is considered the most hair-raising control room in the world.

Monitored by 24-hour-a-day guards, surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, the New York Tracon is a white, aluminum-sided, two-story compound with a jumble of radio antennas and satellite dishes on a nearby tower. Upstairs, in the vast, windowless operations room, it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the dark. But soon the outlines of some 40 controllers begin to emerge, sitting at banks of luminous radar scopes, while in the center of the room traffic managers scurry about on a lighted platform, monitoring the flow of airplanes into the New York region, coordinating runway configurations at the three major airports so that flight paths don’t conflict, and calculating how to work the maximum number of aircraft without bringing any one controller to his knees.

Although the LaGuardia and Kennedy controllers work the more famous airports, it’s the Newark controllers (47 of them, predominantly male and deployed in shifts of 12) who handle the most volume, work the most complex airspace, clock the most overtime, and live under the greatest threat of going down the pipes—a situation all controllers may soon face if the system doesn't improve. In the Tracon’s other sectors, the controllers look inert, hunched toward their scopes and muttering quietly into their headsets. Meanwhile, the Newark controllers—perhaps in anticipatory dread—are screaming at their pilots, yelling to their supervisors, denouncing the FAA, placing wagers in the sector’s football pool, sumo-wrestling behind the scopes, and, in the case of one controller, gliding around the operations room on Rollerblades. “Every hour around here,” says one Newark controller, “is 59 minutes of boredom and 1 of sheer terror.”

“Hey, bro, what’s up?” Tom Zaccheo shouts, striding into the Newark sector for the start of the 3-to-11-p.m. shift on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, grabbing some of his buddies by the neck and planting a loud kiss on their cheeks, putting others in headlocks and honking out greetings to all in a hoarse, booming Brooklynese.

“Hey, could we have some quiet?” another controller yells from his scope. “I’m working live airplanes here!”

“I gotta talk loud,” Zaccheo yells back. “I’m from Canarsie—I got a reputation to uphold!” Then Zaccheo goes over—fist raised—and kisses that controller too.

Darkly handsome, powerfully built, with combed-back hair in the style of the Fonz, the 40-year- old Zaccheo is also known as One-a-Day Zack for his frequent showdowns with other controllers. One colleague remembers the first time he saw One-a-Day: Zack was standing at his scope and yelling at a controller through his headset, “I’m gonna come over there, and then I’m gonna rip your lungs out!” But Zack, who did four years in the Navy before joining the FAA in 1982, has accepted the challenge of self-improvement. “They made a rule you can’t threaten another controller on the job,” he says, bringing his fingers to his enormous chest. “Somebody like me, I had to change my operating way.”

So far, the day has been sunny and mild around the New York region, but if anything the good weather has increased the traffic as the skies, already filled with back-to-back holiday flights, have become further clogged with “pleasure” pilots hoping to catch what may be the last good flying day of the year. Just after 3 p.m., Zack straps on his headset (or “helmet,” as the ex-military jocks call them), leans over the controller he will replace, and listens as his colleague swiftly briefs him on the status of each plane on his scope. Because traffic is already heavy, the transfer occurs like a baton pass during a relay race, with Zack fairly jogging in place and then, still settling himself into his chair, emitting a tongue-twisting barrage of instructions to catch up for lost time: “Continental 301, eight miles from the outer marker, turn right heading 190, maintain 2,500 feet until established on the localizer, cleared ILS runway 22 left approach.”

Between issuing commands, Zack listens for each pilot to read back his instructions; asks a nearby controller if he can “borrow” some airspace for one of his planes; coordinates, over an outside telephone line, a tricky landing with the Newark tower, and writes down on individual “flight strips” every altitude and speed he gives to pilots. If Zack’s radar goes down—or he goes down the pipes—those flight strips are the only way a supervisor, running to bail him out, can figure out which way his planes are headed.

“Every hour around here is 59 minutes of boredom and 1 of sheer terror.”

Some controllers, ever fearful of going down the pipes, work only the minimum number of planes before asking their supervisor to hold new traffic. But Zack won’t surrender. “I can take it! I can take it!” he yells as the planes stream onto his scope until the supervisor himself decides he’s had enough. “Around here, I’m the Man,” Zack says, punching his chest. “That’s ‘cause I’m not afraid of the airplanes. I always tell my supervisor, ‘Put me where the action is.’ ‘Cause I want it. I want the traffic.” Zack emits a percussive, high-pitched laugh. “We call the weak controllers the Papier-Mâchés. You know—it used to be, guys were made of steel, but now they're made of papier-mâché. Ha, ha!”

Zack turns back to his scope, and once again it’s filling with jets: five from the south, two from the west, three from the north—all heading toward Newark International. Of the sector’s six radar scopes—one for Newark arrivals, one for departures, two for the satellite airports, and two that feed planes to the other scopes—the Newark final scope is the hardest, for the goal is to take those ten jets, arriving from wildly divergent angles, and actually point them at each other so they will converge in a tight line leading to the runway. According to FAA rules, the Tracon’s controllers must keep jets separated by at least three miles laterally or 1,000 feet vertically. But because the skies are always filled to capacity, the FAA allows controllers to reduce the space between two planes if one pilot confirms he has the other plane in sight.

That’s what distinguishes the Men of Steel from the Papier-Mâchés. A weak controller, spotting two jets six miles apart, won’t agonize over the unused airspace. But Zack sees that gap as a chance to push more traffic, looks for a third jet to slide between the two, and then—by using visual separation—packs the jets even closer in the sky. On the final descent toward Newark, planes travel one mile every 11 seconds; Zack can’t hesitate or miss a turn, or the entire chain of jets will collapse. But he doesn’t. Like a shrewd billiards player, Zack calculates the angles that will transform his ten random jets into a 30-mile chain, then commands the pilots with unassailable authority. “Pilots are like dogs,” he says under his breath. “They can smell fear in your voice. But if you sound confident, they’ll do whatever you tell them to do.” He pauses to appreciate his handiwork—ten blips, each three miles apart, heading like geese toward the Newark runway. “Now that's crisp vectoring! Make a plan, make it work, but don’t think about the plan. Real educated people, somebody with real smarts, can’t do this because they’re always pondering. I don’t have time for that.” A criminal smile lights up his face. “With this job, you will get yourself cornered. The question is: How good are you at getting yourself out?

“The key is picturing the scope in three dimensions,” he goes on. “Can you picture these blips as airplanes, all making the turn in the sky? If you can’t picture it, you can’t do the job.” Zack points to one blip. “Look—that’s a 737. It’s got two engines, two pilots, four attendants, and probably 150 passengers reading the paper and drinking their Bloody Marys. You can actually feel the power of one of those airplanes, and you know what it’ll look like if it crashes.” Zack appraises the scope, filling once again with blips. “Jeez, airplanes everywhere—two here, four there—you gotta love it!”

After an hour of holiday traffic, Zack is finally relieved by another controller and hands off authority, albeit reluctantly. During their two daily breaks, most controllers go straight to the lounge, where they stare slack-jawed at the large-screen television. But Zack is still pumped up, biting his cuticles, flexing his back muscles and strutting around the operations room looking for something to do. “Come on, let’s get the hell out of here,” he says, grabbing his jacket and heading toward the parking lot for a quick trip to Dunkin’ Donuts.

Outside the Tracon, everything along Westbury’s commercial strip—cars, pedestrians—is overexposed in the bright sunlight and moves at half-speed, or so it appears after watching Zack at his scope for the last hour. At Dunkin’ Donuts, Zack’s booming voice and machine-gun laugh turn the heads of several patrons, as does his order for 12 coffees, each with different milk and sugar requirements. “If I don’t come back with 12 coffees, the guys look down on me,” Zack explains. As the young woman behind the counter fills the cups, Zack stands impatiently, shifting from one foot to the other and watching as she loses track of which coffees get which supplements. A panicked expression comes into the young clerk’s eyes. “Look!” Zack whispers gleefully. “She’s losing the picture! She’s going down the pipes!”

Around 4:30 p.m., Zack reenters the operations room with his usual restraint—head-butting one controller, almost coming to blows with another for stepping on his toes. “C’mon, Zack,” says one of his buddies. “Don’t start now.” Standing behind the Newark scopes with his trayful of coffees, Zack is surrounded by other controllers who pick the tray clean, then start guzzling their coffee at their scopes. Although most of America has been on vacation this weekend, the bleary-eyed Newark controllers have worked six days this week, as they have for the last year and a half. Ever since Reagan busted their union, in fact, controllers have gone through several cycles of mandatory six-day workweeks while the FAA tries desperately to rebuild its ranks.

The Government now employs 17,000 fully trained controllers around the country, about the same as before the strike. But in New York, the controllers are working twice as many flights as their Patco predecessors. “We are at our required staffing levels on a national basis,” explains James H. Washington, an FAA administrator, “but we may have to play catch-up at various facilities.” Catch-up means the FAA, unable to hire and train enough fresh bodies, must call on its exhausted regulars to work more overtime. The New York Tracon leads all FAA facilities in overtime clocked. (“We call it the Hotel California,” Zack explains. “You can check in, but you can’t check out.”) And the controller who leads all others at the Tracon—the national overtime champ, with 328 hours so far in 1995, a pair of red, watery eyes and his own oversize plastic coffee mug always within reach—is one Jim (Jughead) Hunter, sitting down now to work Newark departures.

Nicknamed thus because his initials remind everyone of the Archie comic-strip character (and also because he reported for work one day wearing a cardboard Burger King crown), Jughead—fair-haired and baby-faced at 33—has a surprisingly sanguine manner for a guy who has had two days off in a row only seven times in the last year. “The first day back and the sixth are the hardest,” Jughead says cheerfully. “It’s like somebody hit you.” During his workweek, Jughead is usually called on to perform a Quick Turn (a 3-to-11-p.m. shift, followed the next morning by a 7-a.m.-to-3-p.m. shift); or, if the Tracon is really short-staffed, the dreaded Iron Man (a Quick Turn plus an extra midnight shift). After finishing an Iron Man, Jughead reports: “I drive home and barely remember the trip. I’m on the couch. I look around: Wow, I’m home! How’d that happen?

Wearing his customary Notre Dame sweatshirt and baseball cap, Jughead is a natural—a smooth and effortless controller—and he sits at his scope like a schoolboy devilishly gifted at some video game that confounds his elders. “You got to have two mentalities,” he explains confidently. “One, these aren’t lives here; these are just dots. And, two, even as bad as you can mess up, it’s a big sky; the planes won’t hit. Otherwise, the stress is too much, you’d have a heart attack, you’d be done.” As he issues orders to pilots—giving them meticulous directions on an imaginary clock face, always according to their perspective—Jughead moves his head and hands in circular gestures, as if he’s conducting an orchestra. And he greets new pilots onto his radio frequency with eternal good cheer. “Jetlink 1050, how ya doin’!” he says when that plane enters his airspace. Then, when handing off another plane: “Have a good trip to Richmond!”

Spotting one of his buddies returning from the television room, Jughead calls out for an update on the afternoon football scores (sports is his passion), then turns back to the scope. “An old controller once said to me: ‘Let me tell you what makes a good controller: If a pilot messes up, he dies. If you mess up, the pilot still dies.’” Jughead shrugs. “It sounds cold, but you have to take that kind of outside perspective. Otherwise you’d be wacko in a year.”

“You got to have two mentalities. One, these aren’t lives here; these are just dots. And, two, even as bad as you can mess up, it’s a big sky; the planes won’t hit. Otherwise, the stress is too much, you’d have a heart attack, you’d be done.”

Jughead’s eerie composure, it must be said, often alarms his supervisors. When the computer projects that two planes are about to fly closer than three miles, a Conflict Alert buzzer goes off and the two blips begin flashing on the scope. Whenever the Conflict Alert—or as the lavatorial- minded controllers call it, the Caca—flashes on Jughead’s screen, his supervisor rushes over. “What’s with the Caca?” he says urgently. “Those two guys see each other?”

Jughead smiles serenely. “The jetlinks? Oh, yeah. Everything’s under control. Don’t be scared.”

The supervisor rolls his eyes. But if Jughead blew his cool over every Caca, he could never keep up such a punishing work schedule, week after week. Other Newark controllers, fed up with the overtime, have devised tricks for getting time off. They call in sick or they “fish for a tone,” the deafening feedback that can come through a controller’s headset, which promises two weeks of recuperation time if he fails a hearing test. (“How can you not fail?” says one controller. “You just tell the doctor, ‘I don't hear that!’”) Or they listen for pilots in distress calling for help on the emergency radio frequency and quickly volunteer their services, knowing if there’s a crash, they can get up to 45 days on mental-health leave. But Jughead shows up day after day, pushing the traffic and clocking his overtime with merry abandon.

“I’m sure there’s long-term effects of working so much traffic,” he says, perhaps unaware of one he already exhibits: despite his relaxed manner, Jughead’s right leg twitches uncontrollably when he’s on the scopes. “But right now I don’t see it. I always say, ‘There isn’t enough traffic out there to put me down.’” He smiles sheepishly, leg still jiggling. “Actually, I get a buzz off it. It’s true. Most guys, they come back from their breaks a couple minutes late to get an easy position. I come back five minutes early to get the busy scope, but Zack usually has it—that jerk!” Jughead chuckles. “Or I’ll tell my supes to combine two radar positions for me. At the end of a busy shift, I’ll be, like: ‘I did an hour and 20 on final! They shut off the overflow runway! I was crushed with traffic!’” He raises his hands in ecstasy. “‘It was great!’”

By 5:30 on Sunday afternoon, the Newark controllers are in full swing, coordinating the holiday traffic like short-order cooks on speed—throwing flight strips around as they hand off aircraft to one another, requesting permission to “climb my guy to 6,000 in your airspace,” trying to divert traffic around the controllers who are getting crushed and performing the so-called blow-by maneuver, in which a faster jet overtakes a slower one. Half the time they are on their feet, screaming over one another’s heads and bounding around to point out stray planes, their headset wires wrapped around their ankles. Supervisors are pacing back and forth behind the scopes, barking at the controllers like drill sergeants.

“The trick is to not let it get away from you,” explains Bob (The Wheel) Marsh, who is supervising today and earned his nickname because, though he’s been off the scopes for years, he can’t stop wheeling and dealing. “The guys in this building have been making it work for so long, unless they’re on the edge of going down the pipes, they’ll always take another handoff.” That’s when the supervisor must step in and slow down the traffic, even take over the scope if things get too wild. “Otherwise, controllers being controllers, they’ll just keep going and going until there’s nowhere to go.” Surveying his troops, The Wheel smiles affectionately. “No wilding allowed.”

Around the Newark sector, they like to say that working heavy traffic irrevocably changes a controller’s personality. “If you’re not Type A when you start out,” goes the aphorism, “this place will make you Type A.” Put a mild-mannered controller in front of a radar scope, pump him full of traffic, caffeine, and adrenaline, and pretty soon he’s acting like Zack and Jughead, practically begging for more planes. But the job can change a controller in other ways, as is painfully evident whenever Gary Graswald shows up for work.

Graswald—alternately known as Graz, or The Grizzled One—has been working Newark traffic for ten years, which makes him the senior controller in the sector. Only 37 (“but an old 37,” as Jughead puts it), Graz is thin, with old-fashioned bangs, a droopy mustache, and a hang-dog look that carries the imprint of every plane he has ever controlled. “I’ve taken a pounding for years,” Graz says one day, slouching in front of his radar scope as he recounts his tale of woe. “The new guys say it’s a great job and not so much stress, but there is. Yeah, sure, Jughead can do it now. But let him be in the Newark sector for ten years! After that he’ll say, ‘I’ve had enough.’”

“I’m sure there’s long-term effects of working so much traffic. But right now I don’t see it.”

Quiet and sweet-tempered, Graz seemed more like a high-school music teacher than an air traffic controller when he came to the Tracon ten years ago. From the start, his plan was to learn radar controlling, then transfer to a less-stressful facility somewhere in New England. For years Graz applied for other jobs, but when he finally got accepted at another facility, the Tracon refused to release him. Desperate for a break, Graz has also applied for the Tracon’s management positions whenever they open up, and four times the job has gone to someone else. “I never asked why, but I’m pretty sure they just don’t want to lose a Newark body, since the sector is already doing so much overtime,” Graz says forlornly. “Back when I started I was told, ‘Put in your five years and you can go anywhere.’ But that was ten years ago and I can’t get out!”

The FAA’s difficulty persuading new controllers to move to high-stress facilities like the New York Tracon is one reason they can’t afford to lose Graz. (“Why kill yourself here when life is a lot easier at another facility,” says Loretta Martin, the Tracon air traffic manager.) Another is his mastery of the Newark airspace, which has grown so convoluted over the last 15 years that only a few dozen controllers in the country know how to work it. Until the late 1970s, the Newark sector was actually the slowest in the Tracon, with only three scopes, eight controllers per shift, and an airport nicknamed Sleepy Hollow. But with the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978, everything changed. Among other things, airlines were now able to operate from just a few hub airports, which meant that dozens of connecting flights, or jetlinks, would stream into an airport in one “arrival push,” followed shortly by a stream of simultaneous departures. In 1981, People Express made Newark its hub. Newark—and Graz—have never been the same.

Newark in the early 1980s was aviation’s Wild West. Faced with an endless stream of People’s jets (even flights from Houston to Chicago passed through Newark), and pressured by the airport, the airlines and the FAA not to put planes in holds, controllers used all their legal tricks—and occasionally some illegal ones—to pump the surging traffic through a constricted airspace, often going home at day’s end to vomit from all the stress. Some pilots complained about the flying conditions, but mostly they went along too, playing jet jockey, maneuvering their 737s as if they were Cessnas, and taking a tight, overhead approach to the airport and “teardropping” onto runway 29, where they could land and taxi straight to the People Express terminal. “You got your head busted in back then,” says one controller. “But everyone was making money—People’s, Newark—and our job was to make it happen.”

And that, more or less, is the way things remain, since the New York airspace has never been successfully redesigned to absorb Newark’s tangled growth. What makes the Newark airspace so challenging is not just the volume of traffic—50 percent from Continental, which acquired most of People’s routes—but also its complexity. Bounded on the east by the Hudson River in order to stay clear of Kennedy and LaGuardia traffic, the Newark airspace is fed by 27 different arrival routes from the south, west, and north. And it is used by every imaginable aircraft—commuter jetlinks rushing to make Continental connections at Newark; corporate jets flying in and out of Teterboro, a small airport ten miles to the northeast; pleasure aircraft cruising the Hudson River, and dozens of eastbound jets passing overhead on their way to Kennedy and LaGuardia.

Over the years, the Newark airspace has grown so Byzantine that it takes two years for new controllers to learn its many dangerous shoals and eddies. (On one route toward Newark, planes—in order to avoid traffic at Morristown, Teterboro, and Caldwell airports—must circle an extra 15 to 20 miles to the northwest, a path Continental pilots have dubbed the “OPEC-1 arrival route” because it burns so much fuel.) And fully half the trainees flunk out during their training. The FAA thought it had found a quick fix for its staffing problems when President Clinton reversed Reagan’s ban on rehiring Patco controllers, allowing some of the fired controllers to reapply for their old jobs. Four old-timers came to the Tracon’s Newark sector, but all were stunned by the new chaos in the skies, and two have already washed out—terrified by their first bursts of rush-hour traffic and never able to regain their stride. “They just spoke too slow,” says Jughead, who tried to help them improve their reaction time. “I was, like: ‘Spit it out! Let’s go!’”

All of which means that Graz—who after ten years of sitting in darkness can’t walk in bright sunlight without his eyes hurting—is caught in an exquisitely cruel predicament: the crazier the Newark airspace gets, the more invaluable he becomes to the Tracon; but the longer Graz works Newark traffic, the crazier he himself gets. Of all the Newark controllers, Graz is the most visibly tense, craning his neck at acute angles when traffic gets heavy and snapping at pilots or other controllers if they don’t follow protocol. Gone is the mild-mannered controller who arrived at the Tracon long ago, eager to learn radar controlling. “Ten years!” he moans, gripping the sides of his head. “Ten years! It’s like I’m in a room, a box, and there’s no opening. I want off the scopes!

It’s break time again, so Zack and three of his colleagues—Tom (Fitz) Fitzgerald, Bobby (Brains of Stone) Pryor, and Bobby (Vic Zulu) Clarke—climb into Fitz’s Mitsubishi and start cruising around suburban Westbury, looking for fun. “We’re known as the Boys,” Zack explains one afternoon as they head down the town’s commercial drag. “You’re either in with the Boys or you’re not.”

The first stop is Dunkin’ Donuts, of course, so that Zack can get more coffee and make fun of the clerk (“We handle 18 airplanes at a time—this guy can’t do four coffees! Ha, ha!”), and so that Fitz—a barrel-chested, red-bearded former marine—can squeal out of the parking lot, pretending to leave Zack behind. That’s good for a few laughs. Then Zack and the Boys drive past the Westbury golf course, wait for someone to lift his club, and blow the horn just as the poor sucker takes his swing. “I could drive around like this all day,” Zack says, roaring with laughter. “That’s one thing about being an air traffic controller—you don’t have to act your age.”

Few do. Consider the controller who sent all his departures on alternate climb-out routes so their jet engines wouldn’t drown out his sister’s barbecue in Queens; or the controller who overheard an El Al pilot welcoming his passengers on board for their flight to Tel Aviv, then got all the other pilots on his frequency to order rum and Coke, please, and maybe a bag of those little pretzels, using Israeli accents; or the controller, a serious Rangers fan, who took the plane carrying the wives of the Vancouver Canucks and made them circle in the sky so they wouldn’t land in time to see their husbands play for the Stanley Cup Championship.

For a job with few educational requirements, air traffic control offers power, freedom, and enviable pay—the average base salary at the Tracon is a sweet $72,000. But in other respects, controllers are—and have always been—treated like hired help. They are government employees forbidden by law to strike (and on April 1, depending on the outcome of Congressional legislation, they may lose their right to form a union). They must drop everything to work overtime, no matter what they had planned with the wife and kids. And as soon as they sit down at the scopes, they are at the mercy of lousy equipment, absent-minded pilots, reckless colleagues, bad weather, or maybe just the traffic getting heavier and heavier, like a hand constantly pushing at them from behind.

And every year as the traffic, the equipment and the hours get worse, so, too, does the threat of operational errors—the ultimate emblem of a controller’s lack of control—which the FAA defines as a loss of the requisite separation between two planes, but is more terrifyingly known as a “near midair collision.” In 1994, operational errors at the Tracon jumped threefold, from 16 to 50, most of them in the Newark sector. Operational errors occur for many reasons—a pilot turning his plane too slowly or a radar screen going dark. All are stressful, but none more than the error judged to be a controller’s fault. That, in the local argot, is called a “deal.” Three deals within two and a half years means the controller is pulled off the scopes, sent back to the lab simulator for retraining, and must get recertified, a process that can go on for months.

At the Newark sector, there’s actually a deal a day—sometimes a deal an hour—but unless a pilot or supervisor files a complaint with the FAA within 15 days, the incident escapes inquiry; controllers, spotting a deal on their scopes, just look around to see if they were caught. “We don’t get loud about it here,” says one controller. Jughead’s one deal—a loss of separation that, he insists, occurred because a pilot turned his plane too slowly—was caught only because the then-head of the New York Tracon happened to run into that same pilot. The pilot mentioned a close call he’d had, the Tracon manager promised to look into it, and did so—on the 14th day. “Everybody was howling,” Jughead says, still peeved at his luck. “He looks into it on the 14th day, and I have to eat the deal! I don’t think that has ever happened in the history of the FAA!”

Eating a deal is not a tasty experience. If it’s caught immediately, the controller is pulled off the scopes and sent “downstairs,” where Tracon managers examine the radar and radio data to determine whether the pilot or the controller is at fault. “It’s always them against you—they’ll use any little mistake against you,” complains Graz. “That’s why I always tell my trainees, C.Y.A.” He smiles apologetically. “Cover Your … Rear End.”

Zack, for his part, has little patience with by-the-book controlling, considering it his right—by dint of his talents and the strain the FAA puts on them—to have some fun on the scopes. He regularly flirts with female pilots, picks fights with unresponsive captains with Southern accents—“Hey, you’re in New York buddy! I need you to descend in a New York minute, not a hillbilly minute!” But Zack is no stranger to the terrors of a bad deal himself. A few years ago, he assigned the wrong flight code to a small propeller plane, which meant that his radar scope was misrepresenting the prop’s actual location in the sky. Zack didn’t know that, however, so he vectored the pilot directly into a line of oncoming jets. Boom—Zack had one near midair collision. Frantic, Zack descended the prop away from the jets and into the path of another propeller plane. Boom—another near midair collision. Flailing helplessly, Zack had racked up two near midair collisions in less than 30 seconds. “I’m not one to give up,” he sighs. “But after that, I told my supe, ‘Man, you better get me off this thing right now.’”

Over time, the constant threat of deals preys upon a controller’s sanity, and for a few years the Tracon even referred their shaken employees to a nearby psychiatrist, who possessed a relaxed couchside manner, listened thoughtfully and ended most sessions by pulling out his prescription pad. “Maybe a little something to help you sleep?” But what’s short-term therapy going to do when the chaos in a controller’s head is merely the normal human reflection of the chaos in the skies?

For a job with few educational requirements, air traffic control offers power, freedom, and enviable pay. But in other respects, controllers are—and have always been—treated like hired help.

Recently, Zack was sitting next to a colleague—let’s call him Wayne—who had been working too much traffic for too many years and was nearing the end of the line. When Zack saw that he and Wayne had planes heading toward each other at 4,000 feet, he called out, “Which way’s your guy going?” Wayne said nothing.

“Tell me which way you’re gonna turn him,” Zack demanded, and still Wayne was silent.

“Hey, descend your guy to 3,000!” Zack yelled as Wayne started shaking at the scope. “Come on, Wayne, don’t mess around!”

“I don’t give a damn what happens to them!” said the trembling Wayne.

“Jesus! Descend your—”

“Don’t care!”

And the planes roared past each other, missing by less than 500 feet. Wayne took a medical leave, went into counseling, but for months couldn’t come near the Tracon. “He just went onto the dark side, that guy,” Zack says.

Alas, Wayne is not alone. Several years ago, another controller was working Newark departures. The planes were shooting off the runway like a burst of startled pigeons, the controller scrambling to keep them separated as they climbed into the sky. At some point he reached saturation, couldn’t take another plane entering his airspace. He froze at his scope, actually moved his cursor to each blip, and deleted them from his radar screen. Then he turned to his supervisor and announced: “No more planes. Time to get off.” He, too, was sent to counseling, and after a couple of months tried to return, but he could never bring himself to work traffic again. A new nickname entered the lexicon: Dr. Freeze.

So the question that haunts the Newark controllers is: Who will be the next Wayne, the next Dr. Freeze? Who is so burned out—“toasted,” “a crispy critter”—that he’s destined to go down the pipes?

Graz, his colleagues agree, could go at any time. He’s been working Newark traffic the longest, never had the proper appetite for fear, and recently was turned down for his fifth management bid at the Tracon. “Yeah, he’s got the short fuse now,” Fitz warns.

“We’re trying to get him off the boards before it happens,” Zack says gravely.

Jughead is a supremely gifted controller, but Zack, for one, argues that he’s practically asking for it—what with his 318 overtime hours and casual attitude, like a young athlete who hurls his body around, certain that the ravages of time will never take their toll. “Has he told you about the Big Sky Theory?” Zack says. “You know, ‘Don’t worry, they’re not going to hit’? Man, that’s a crazy saying. You got to worry.”

As for Zack—well, Zack believes that as long as he does worry, sitting in front of his radar scope and chewing his cuticles, like the glass itself is about to shatter in his face, he’ll be all right: “The strong survive,” he declares.

In the Tracon’s other sectors, when a controller goes down the pipes, his colleagues often back away and avert their eyes, as if at the scene of an ugly accident. But in the Newark sector, where the threat of spectacular flame-out is as inescapable as the overtime and the greasy Chinese food, the controllers not only prepare for it but participate in it—eagerly—as if they were performing some ritual sacrifice. For a while, the controllers even had a doll, shaped like a witch, that they stowed in the panel above the intimidating Newark final scope. When someone went down the pipes on final, the controllers would pull a switch and down came the witch on a string. All the controllers would circle around the victim, cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West, jeering, “You’re going down!” and maybe pinching him from behind as he went down in flames.

Because the controllers’ code of conduct permits no show of weakness or fear, sometimes this hazing ritual has a salutary effect. A few days ago, Fitz—who by his own admission tends to struggle on the scopes—was working a busy final sequence. The planes were streaming into his airspace one after another and, though he was trying to maintain three-mile separation, he was feeding the planes to the Newark tower for landing with too little room in between. If one plane follows another too closely, the one in front won’t have time to land and taxi off the runway before the second is ready to touch down, and that second plane will have to “go around”—abort its landing at the last possible moment and circle back for another attempt. The tower controller called Fitz over the intercom to complain.

“How about you try doing your job!” Fitz yelled back, knowing of course the man was right. Then Fitz shouted over to his supervisor: “I suggest you call the tower and tell that guy to go fuck himself.” Then, when his supervisor told Fitz to just calm down: “I'm goddamned pissed!”

Sensing a potential flame-out, several controllers gathered behind Fitz: “Yeah, Fitzie, way to keep those emotions in check!”

“You want us to send Zack over to the tower to take that guy out?”

One guy reached for the intercom, pretending to be the tower controller: “Hey, Newark, could you send us some more planes?”

That pushed Fitz over the edge. He started cursing, thrashing about in front of his scope, and screaming at the pilots: “Reduce speed now to 180 knots!” “Expedite descent to 3,000!” “Turn right heading 090 degrees, and give me a good rate on that!” Silent now, the other controllers exchanged looks. Fitz was controlling those 747s like a lion tamer with his chair. He had a perfect three-mile final. For tonight at least, he was a certified Man of Steel.

By 6:30 p.m., the holiday traffic is reaching an absurd frenzy, the blips crawling around the controllers’ radar scopes like swarms of angry ants—Newark and Teterboro traffic crisscrossing the airspace west of the Hudson, and Newark and LaGuardia jets whizzing past each other over the river. The scopes look so cluttered, in fact, that controllers are having trouble distinguishing one blip from another, and when the Caca goes off, it takes them a second just to figure out which planes are in conflict. It’s one of those days when the equipment always seems to go haywire: real planes vanish off the scope; “ghost returns” of planes appear 50 miles from where they ought to be, or the entire scope goes blank, leaving controllers scurrying around the darkened operations room with their flight strips, trying to keep a mental picture of where their planes are headed.

Zack, watching with pent-up rage as the controller next to him keeps invading his airspace, rises halfway to his feet, as if he’s going to put his fist down the man’s throat. The Wheel rushes over to hold Zack back.

“This guy,” Zack sputters. “He keeps—”

“Yeah, you’re right,” The Wheel reassures him, pressing down on Zack’s shoulder. “You’re absolutely right.”

“I’m just saying—”

“Hey, I know. We been working together a long time, right?” And The Wheel reaches out to shake Zack’s hand, which temporarily calms him down. But as soon as he has extinguished that fire, The Wheel sees another: Joe Jorge, the trainee locked in mortal combat with the mighty Newark final scope, is having some sort of problem communicating with his pilots. The Wheel runs over to investigate.

Jorge has seven jets flying east toward the Hudson River, which he must turn south for their final descent to the airport. But when he tries to reach the aircraft in front, he gets no response. Jorge repeats his command. Again, no response. Now Jorge is several beats behind, and as he tries to catch up, other pilots—wondering why they haven’t received their turn-and-descend orders—start contacting the Tracon. Because the FAA’s creaky radio technology can handle only one transmission at a time, the incoming calls are preventing Jorge from issuing the commands they need.

“Everybody stand by!” Jorge barks. “US Air 512 turn right heading 160.” No response. “US Air 512 turn right heading 160.”

No response. What the hell is going on?

As The Wheel yells up to the traffic-management podium, ordering a hold on all new planes heading toward Newark, Jorge looks frantically toward his instructor, Steve Marotta, who has been standing by his side. “OK, everybody, listen up, please,” Marotta announces, taking over the mic. Twice Marotta gives orders to the US Air pilot, and twice he gets no response. Then three more pilots—starting to panic as they race toward the west bank of the Hudson and all the LaGuardia traffic over the river—try contacting the Tracon, blocking Marotta.

“Nobody check in on the frequency please,” Marotta says, moisture forming on his brow. “Stand by, everybody.”

While Jorge sits mute and helpless, Marotta spits out a new set of commands. “You’re very weak, New York,” one pilot calls back.

That’s when they realize what the problem is: their own radio isn’t working properly; half of Marotta’s commands aren’t even leaving the building. They’re losing their grip on the jets.

With his primary radio broken, Marotta punches a button that sends his voice onto a backup frequency. But when he tries to transmit over that one, a pilot calls back: “Was that heading 130? We can barely hear you, New York,” and the controllers realize, to their horror, that their backup radio is failing, too.

Zack and the other controllers look down the row of radar scopes at Jorge, fairly shaking in his chair, and Marotta, leaning nervously toward the scope. Could two guys go down the pipes together?

Marotta and Jorge glance at each other. When they look back at the scope, they see a TWA jet, at 5,000 feet, heading east toward the Hudson. Meanwhile, an American Airlines jet, having departed from LaGuardia, now at 4,000 feet, is climbing west straight into the path of the TWA. The two planes are three miles apart when the controllers spot them, but with each jet converging on the other at 300 miles an hour, Marotta calculates they’ll be nose-to-nose over the river in 30 seconds.

“TWA 32, turn right heading 220,” Marotta says, trying to betray no fear. “Good rate of turn, please.”

“Unreadable,” the pilot calls back.

“TWA 32, turn right heading 220,” Marotta repeats swiftly.


“No response. Jesus!” Marotta thrusts his head toward the radar scope and realizes he no longer has time to turn the TWA jet to the right.

“TWA 32, turn left, turn left heading 360 now. Turn left to 360!”

Jorge and Marotta take in breath, their eyes grow wide, and their stomachs give way to that horrible bottomless falling feeling of losing all control. Then, over the crackling backup frequency, comes a faint “Roger” and they watch as the TWA blip moves left and away.

Suddenly Zack’s voice comes booming over the PA system: “No chance, rookie! You got no chance!” While Marotta switches to yet another frequency—this one actually works—and starts bringing the line of jets back under control, Zack explodes over the intercom: “It’s all Jorge’s fault! I could eat and work through a frequency outage like that! But this guy’s jumpin’ up and down! That’s the difference in experience level! Ha! You should have given the pilots a cup with a string! Woulda worked better than this goddamned equipment!”

That’s when they realize what the problem is: their own radio isn’t working properly; half of Marotta’s commands aren’t even leaving the building. They’re losing their grip on the jets.

As soon as Marotta has the jets back on course—miraculously, though half a dozen planes have strayed, only the TWA is forced to circle and land after the others—The Wheel puts a new controller in to relieve Jorge and Marotta. The two shaken controllers remove their headsets, laughing hysterically and backing away from the Newark final scope as if they can hear it ticking.

“I’m a little moist,” Jorge admits, trying to keep himself from trembling. “Not wet, but moist.” Marotta, a veteran of countless equipment failures, pats the rookie’s back. “Hopefully you got your plastic underwear on.”

Quickly, Marotta and Jorge are joined by Zack and a gang of other controllers, furious as always with the FAA. “You know why that failed?” says The Wheel. “This stuff is 20 years old!”

“And the whole system is predicated on flawless equipment,” says Marotta. “One glitch, and in 30 seconds those planes are together!”

“I’m writing this goddamned thing up,” one of them declares, referring to the Unsafe Conditions Reports the controllers file constantly to get the FAA’s attention. “Goddamned bastards!”

Jorge, lifting a can of Coke to his mouth, still can’t steady his hand, but otherwise an antic carnival spirit has swept through the sector. The Chinese food has just been delivered, and Marotta starts ransacking the bag. “OK, where’s my goddamned wonton soup!” he roars. “I got fried rice coming out my ears. Zack! Gimme 50 cents for the soda machine!” Zack, giddy from all the traffic and the chance to watch his buddies dance nimbly away from the abyss, grabs another controller, and the two start jitterbugging across the floor, their arms and legs flailing wildly. Jughead has just returned from the television room and announces the results of the day’s football games. One controller is already cursing out some new pilots. Another is serenading himself at the scopes. And The Wheel is on another rampage as the traffic streams again toward Newark.

With the sector so harried, there’s no time for much of a break, so the controllers head back to the scopes, Chinese food in hand. Zack, still laughing, straps on his helmet and sits down to work the Newark final. “You think people on an airplane have any idea what we do here?” he exults, digging fiendishly into some roast pork egg foo yong. “Eating Chinese? Or pinching a guy’s butt while he goes down the pipes? But if we didn’t act this way it would be a lot worse.” Indeed, in the gladiator world of air traffic control—where six-day workweeks are the rule, the FAA posts signs warning that LOSS OF HUMAN LIFE MAY RESULT FROM SERVICE INTERRUPTIONS and most of the equipment belongs behind glass in the Smithsonian—what better way to cope with the stress than to own it, embrace it, turn the heart-stopping terror of it into some fraternity game?

Zack looks around at his colleagues, these controller-magicians who keep the skies safe by coming to work, day after day, and pulling rabbits out of their scopes. “This whole job is an endurance test, from the first day until you retire. And you know who holds the whole thing together? We do. We don’t do it for the FAA, and we don’t do it for the airlines. We do it for ourselves. We just keep pumping tin.” He turns to his scope and watches as it fills once again with blips—six jets from the south, four from the west, four from the north—American 1438, turn right heading 260! Traffic off your 3 o'clock!—planes and then more planes, no end in sight.

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