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An Air Traffic Controller Speaks

While the public indicts an entire profession over a few bad apples, former air traffic controller Bob Richards says acts of routine heroism—and extreme stress—define life in the tower.

04.30.11 9:05 PM ET

While the public indicts an entire profession over a few bad apples, former air-traffic controller Bob Richards says acts of routine heroism—and extreme stress—define life in the tower.

At 2 a.m., shattering the calm of what had been an otherwise uneventful overnight shift, came the words every air-traffic controller fears: “Tower, we just lost all our generators,” the radio crackled. “We’re going down.”

I grabbed my binoculars. The UPS Boeing 727 cargo jet was about five miles from the airport, on final approach for runway three-two at O’Hare—and now, dropping like a rock. It’s trajectory had it headed straight for the huge, glass International Terminal. Then, a few seconds later, the UPS suddenly lit up again, gained power, climbed to hopscotch over the terminal, and, with the help of the controllers, landed right on the numbers.

After the pilot landed I asked him if he was OK. I was shaking like a leaf. He paused a moment and then said, “We just need a few minutes.” I told him to take all the time he needed. When I looked over at the controller next to me, it was clear he needed a few minutes, too.

Turn on the news lately, and you could be forgiven for thinking that air-traffic controllers spend most of their time falling asleep on the job, allowing their kids to talk on the radio, and endangering the first lady. But do a handful of incidents represent the 15,700 controllers currently employed by the FAA? Is your commuter flight or your trip to Hawaii in the hands of a distracted, sleep-deprived loose cannon?

I’d like to give the naysayers a chance to guide dozens of speeding jets carrying thousands of people through a congested airspace.

Hardly. We are living in one of the safest periods in the history of commercial air travel. In the two years leading up to the Colgan air crash in Buffalo in February 2009, 3 million U.S. flights took off and 1.5 billion people made it to their destinations unscathed. Since then, controllers have enjoyed a near perfect record. There were zero U.S. commercial airline fatalities in 2010. Today, the chances of dying in a plane crash are one in about 10 million. I spent nearly 25 years as an air-traffic controller, 22 of them at one of the world’s busiest airports, Chicago O’Hare International (ORD). And I can tell you that people who become air-traffic controllers are not the people being portrayed in the media. My colleagues and I made life-and-death decisions minute by minute for five to six hours a day, five to six days a week. Few occupations carry the unique sort of physiological assault that air-traffic control does.

Which is why I cringe when I hear some of the so-called pundits calling controllers lazy, overpaid prima donnas. That type of comment shows no understanding of what controllers endure every working day of their lives. I would give anything to drag one of these naysayers up to the tower, strap a headset on them, and give them a chance to guide dozens of speeding jets carrying thousands of people through a congested airspace. In a thunderstorm. At 2 in the morning.

Or maybe I could just take them to visit the cemeteries where my coworkers now reside: four dead of sudden cardiac death, two others of pancreatic cancer, which counts stress-linked pancreatitis as a risk factor. All of them were under 50 years old; one was 30, and another, 29. And this doesn’t include the countless controllers who endure all manner of stress-related health issues, including ulcers, GERD, and abnormal cardiac rhythms. In just the last four years since I retired, I attended wakes for four more controllers.

I chronicled these people in my book, Secrets From the Tower. My friend Danny, for example, would sweat bullets while sitting at his position. One day when we were leaving the tower Danny turned to me and said, “I love this job, but man, it takes a lot out of you.” He died that night of sudden cardiac death, alone in the house with his newborn son. His wife found him when she came home from work. Danny was 30 years old.

It’s no coincidence that there’s an age requirement for this vocation. You have to be 30 years old or younger to sign up unless you have previous military experience. It is a known fact that the more years of experience a controller has, the higher his proficiency. At O’Hare, for example, a controller with 15 years of experience may be able to work up to 20 airplanes in a two-minute period on ground control, while a controller with five years experience can only work half that number.

In a busy control tower, the drama runs high. While I was working, planes waited 30 at a time to go from the gate to the departure runway for takeoff. I spoke quickly and efficiently, keeping all the departure runways in use. The job demanded 100 percent of my effort and awareness. There wasn’t even time to let a pilot acknowledge the instructions I gave because there was no limit to the number of airplanes that could taxi for takeoff. When an aircraft called ready for taxi, it was time to go. Working at O’Hare Tower, controllers talked for hours at a time while hardly taking a breath. It was thrilling, fulfilling, and utterly exhausting.

At no time did I ever see a controller fall asleep at his position at O’Hare. Once you put on your headset, that was it. When the time came for a break, controllers devised their own strategies for coping. Many simply headed for the couches to relax, watch some television, even close their eyes. But when a controller went back up to the tower, their batteries were recharged and they were ready for the next two hours of mental gymnastics. The notion of napping on the job is, for virtually all air-traffic controllers, preposterous.

Life was great for years at O’Hare, and like many controllers in their prime, for a long time I thought I was invincible—I was dodging the bullets that had struck and felled so many of my coworkers. But as my years there wound down, I started having some issues with my heart. By the time I was 42, I was experiencing atrial fibrillation, which developed into full-blown congestive heart failure a year after I retired in 2007. It turned out all those years of keeping the flying public safe had exacted a physical toll on the one guy not on the radar: me.

Hope you have a safe flight.

Richards is a retired air-traffic controller who spent 22 of his 25 years at Chicago O’Hare. His book, Secrets From the Tower is currently being developed into a TV series.