Highlights from "Spinning at the Boundary: The Making of an Air Traffic Controller" by David Larson.
This month I’ll be continuing a series that highlights the interesting and entertaining memoirs from an FAA air traffic controller (one of the aviation-themed audiobooks that I’ve produced and narrated), David Larson’s “Spinning at the Boundary: The Making of an Air Traffic Controller.”
“Spinning at the Boundary” is an insider’s view—with lots of iconoclastic observations and irreverent opinions—from an experienced controller’s career path and the ATC happenings during that long (and often tumultuous) period in our aviation history. With the author’s permission, here are more highlights from his years in the Miami (KMIA) tower and radar facility.
The old airplanes that flew out of the northwest corner of the Greater Miami International Nuthouse hauled more than just pigs and chickens around the world. Sometimes they hauled race horses, and sometimes they hauled other exotic animals from one zoo to another.
One day we’re going about our air traffic control thing in the tower and the guy working local had rolled a DC-6 off 9L.
“Hey,” the controller said as he flipped his radio to speaker mode, so everyone else could hear it. “This guy keeps whispering to me. Can any of you understand him?”
“Say that again,” he said to the pilot, as we all listened intently to the radio.
“96BL needs to come back and land,” the pilot said in a voice so soft we could barely hear him with the radio on full blast.
“96BL, enter a left downwind, cleared to land Runway 9 Left,” the controller said. “What’s the nature of your emergency?”
“Cleared to land,” was the whispered response.
“What is the nature of your emergency? Say your fuel remaining, and souls on board.” (We always asked how much gas they had and how many people… or souls. There is a lot of speculation as to why we were required to ask that, but at Miami we assumed that it was because the fire department wanted to know how big the fire was going to be, and how many bodies and survivors to look for. Consequently, supervisors would tell the controllers to ask the captain for bodies and burn time every time they worked an emergency. We never put that out on the air.)
There was no immediate answer. “We are going to need an animal handler,” the pilot eventually whispered.
“What did he just say?” the controller asked. “Say again, 96BL.”
“We… will… need… an… animal… handler… Out.”
We all got that message loud and clear. He had no more to say.
We got everybody out of his way, called the fire equipment out, told them the “animal handler” thing, and sat back to see how things played out.
The DC-6 made a giant, slow, gentle turn to final and touched down on the runway ever so gently. Even as the plane turned off the runway he was shutting down all four engines. As the big silver dinosaur slid to an almost imperceptible stop, the escape hatch opened, ropes uncoiled down to the pavement, and the whispering crew climbed down to the ramp.
As the story goes, this particular DC-6 was taking a giant anteater—along with other cargo—to a zoo someplace in the Midwest. At some point as the plane sat on the ramp getting ready to leave, the Vermilingua extricated itself from the cage and ambled up front to spend some quality time with the crew.
Oddly enough, as soon as it got in the cockpit it crawled up on the pedestal (the console between the pilot seats that has the throttles sitting on top of it) and fell asleep. The crew was whispering because they didn’t want to wake up the giant long-nosed dog that had three-inch razor-sharp claws.
While we’re on the subject of flying wrecks at Miami, several stories come to mind. My wife, Christy, was working south local one day. The south runway on an east operation at Miami is usually only used for arrivals. Some of the cargo hangars were fairly near the approach end of that runway, and you might get one or two of these departures in the course of working that position.
One of the things that you need to know about the wonderful world of air traffic control is that almost all of the rules were written by lawyers after some type of heinous crash or screwup. Way back in the day, our rule book was known as the ANC, or Army, Navy, Civilian—and it was about 10 pages long.
Then a few years passed, a few pilots died along with a lot of passengers, and the ANC became the ATP or Air Traffic Procedures. This book was several hundred pages long. Today, this book is called the 7110.65. I keep a copy next to my bed to knock intruders unconscious.
Among other stupid things that have arisen from having bureaucrats make rules is the odd fact that we can’t tell a pilot what is happening to his/her aircraft without first saying “it appears.” That led to a hilarious story about a Cessna 402 that took off without having the door latched correctly. The copilot went back as they became airborne—and the door fell open just as the guy grabbed it, dragging him out into the atmosphere with it.
“Ah, it appears your aft door is open, and someone is hanging onto it screaming.”
Another story is that a cargo DC-8 taxies to the approach end of 9R, and calls ready to go. Christy waited for a gap in the arrivals on the final, and then puts the DC-8 into position, telling him to be ready to go. Once the runway was clear, takeoff clearance was given, black smoke rolled up behind the big jetliner, and it slowly started creeping down the runway.
Just past the tower the wings on the big DC-8 generated enough lift; the nosewheel lifted off the ground, followed closely by the main wheels, and the eager craft was committed to the commerce of aviation.
That was when one of the engines fell completely off the aircraft, slammed into the runway, and slid down the centerline like a Japanese torpedo at Pearl Harbor.
“It appears you’ve lost an engine,” Christy told the pilot as she watched the engine lazily come to a halt on the runway.
“I know,” said the pilot. “We’re trying a restart but we want to come back and land.”
“No,” she said. “I mean, it appears you have LOST an engine.”
“I know that!” he said, obviously irritated. “We’re coming back.”
“Roger,” she said calmly. “Cleared to land Runway 9L; Runway 9R is blocked by your engine. I suggest you look out the window.”
The scary part is that when the airplane got back to the ramp they found that when the engine flew the coop, it hit the engine next to it, knocking that one loose from its pylon, and it was swinging freely in the breeze just waiting to make a break for it at the earliest possible moment.
Here’s another story. As I said before, we worked a lot of really old airplanes back then, and one of the biggest examples was the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. I admit that working this flying museum was pretty cool, and there was no place else in the United States that you could actually see this many working examples of this type of aircraft moving in and out of a major airport.
The downside was that these aerial crates were really starting to show their age, and anytime you saw one crank up on the ramp, you knew it was just a matter of time before you had some type of emergency on your hands.
This was the case late one night—well, actually, early one morning—on the midnight shift. An inbound B-377 called the approach controller, and shortly after that declared the not-so-surprising emergency of having one of its engines out of service. The radar controller got the “bodies and burn time” numbers from the pilot and passed the information on to the tower controller.
At some point prior to the aircraft getting to the airport, the crew tried to lower the landing gear. Aircraft with retractable gear have a series of lights (usually three) that show green when the gear is safely down, and red when the landing is going to be really noisy and the pilot will need full power to taxi to the ramp.
The indicator lights in this aircraft showed the crew that the nosewheel was being timid and refused to come out of the safety of its little house under the flight deck. The pilot informed the approach controller; the approach controller informed the tower controller; and the tower controller informed the crash equipment, which immediately raced out to the runway and waited.
The pilot lined up his eager craft on final approach to the runway, and the approach controller instructed him to change to the tower radio frequency.
Now, the guy in the radar room was a little… high strung, so he kept calling the guy in the tower on the override feature asking what was going on with the inbound emergency.
The guy in the tower was very laid back, and kept trying to work the emergency, feed information to the crash and fire chief, work other traffic he had, and answer the radar guy’s incessant questions.
Finally, just before the Boeing touched down, the radar guy called again and the tower guy said something to the effect of, “Get XXXX out of my ear!” Shortly after that, the Boeing touched down safely with what was apparently a faulty light in the cockpit, and taxied to the ramp with crash trucks in tow.
Unfortunately, at some point on final the captain had asked one of the crew to go down a ladder in a trap door that was in the floor of the flight deck so he could check the nosegear with a periscope that was installed there for that purpose.
The crew member verified that the nosegear was actually down, and was on the way back up the ladder as the Boeing touched down. The shock of the landing jarred the crew member’s grip loose from the ladder, causing him to fall back down the trap door—and breaking his arm and a few ribs.
This single incident turned a nonevent into an “aircraft incident with injuries,” which in turn got the NTSB involved.
In the course of the NTSB investigation, they requested all of the pertinent data from all air traffic facilities that had worked the ill-fated Stratocruiser. That included the interphone transcripts from Miami tower. Both of the controllers got some time on the beach for that one.
The full story is available in print and e-book from Amazon, while the audio version can be found at Amazon, Audible and in Apple’s iTunes Library. (Note: this book contains a measure of salty/profane language—be forewarned if you prefer not to hear/read that sort of thing.)
Next time: Some final incidents from DTW and MIA.
Editor at large Thomas Block has flown more than 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, and a best-selling novelist. Over the past 30 years he has owned more than a dozen personal airplanes of varying types. Send questions or comments to .