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At Amsterdam's Schipol airport in the Netherlands, air traffic controllers oversaw 386,000 takeoffs and landings last year. (Mark Brouwer)

Heroes in the Tower

Stories about air traffic controllers that you probably didn’t see on the evening news.

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THEY HAVE GOTTEN some bad press this year, but there’s a lot to love about air traffic controllers. While pilots get big credit for feats like landing airliners on rivers, air traffic controllers are tasked with keeping these pilots, literally, in line. From one month to the next, the 15,500 controllers of U.S. civilian air traffic regularly make countless little saves, and some big ones. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association recognizes some of these saves annually with an award named for Archie League, who became the nation’s first air traffic controller when he was hired by the city of St. Louis in 1929. But the details of most controller achievements don’t get much news coverage.

From This Story

Perhaps the stories here will get you thinking, the next time you’re on a flight, about who’s looking out for you down below.

LET'S IMPROVISE
In the late summer of 1952, Bob Tracy, a 23-year-old U.S. Air Force technical sergeant, was manning the tower at Thule Air Base on Greenland’s northwest coast, 695 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The sun hadn’t yet set when he received a call from a Royal Air Force Lincoln bomber flying over the ice cap from Scotland. The crew were lost.

At extreme latitudes, a compass is useless. “The magnetic north pole was actually southwest of us about a thousand miles,” says Tracy, now retired in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. For navigation purposes, the region was divided into a grid. “Each runway up there had a grid heading,” he says, “and you just got out on the runway and set your gyro[scope] on that grid heading. So that’s how you oriented yourself. With the maps.”

The crew had drifted off course, or thought they had. Tracy seems to recall that their gyro had failed. Once night fell, they’d be flying blind. They spoke of bailing out, or, if they could find the edge of the ice, ditching.

Tracy told them to drop those ideas. He had just written the standard operating procedures for Thule, and the number-one rule, he says, was “You do not bail out unless the airplane’s on fire. Your chances of survival were almost nil before you froze to death.”

Thule was half-completed, and had only a low-frequency, non-directional radio beacon. The range of its ground control approach radar was just 30 nautical miles.

But Tracy knew the Air Force was building a powerful radar station about four miles north, part of the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line. Stretching across the far north, from Alaska to the Faroe Islands, these stations were intended to detect a Soviet air strike coming over the pole. Tracy had heard the station was in its test phase.

He made some calls. “You’ve seen in the movies where they operate these field phones, where you turn the crank?” he asks. “That was our phone system, and all the wires were just lying on the ground, on the permafrost, all over the base. They weren’t even on telephone poles. It was a real hootie-cow operation.”

He reached some technicians who were able to operate the new station. “They got in their jeeps and went up there and fired up that radar.”

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