“You can never go down the drain.” ~ my hero, Fred Rogers

(this is the Matterhorn, seen from the cockpit of a glider)


Bumpass, Virginia,
November 11
ENFJ - photographer, poet, grandma (of 6!), traveler - love my husband, love dogs, love retired life - former air traffic controller; Enneagram 4!


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JANUARY 15, 2009 5:45PM

Don't Be Afraid to Fly!

Rate: 22 Flag


Today's ditching of the USAirways Airbus in the Hudson River in NY was handled in a textbook manner by the captain and crew.  Everyone got a bit wet and cold, but they are all alive.  What a beautiful outcome! 


I'm a retired air traffic controller; before 9/11 we rode along with pilots in the cockpit for training purposes.  I've had many opportunities to see crew act professionally, not during this type of event, but enough so I really trust those flying the big iron. 


The thing to remember is that most situations are survivable if you keep your wits about you.  Looks like those on this flight followed their instructions, got their life vests on, and were relatively calm as they waited for rescue.  Thank goodness!


Bird strikes can cause horrific damage - it might be hard for most people to understand how running into a bird (of any size) that would then be obliterated could cause damage.  Aircraft are amazingly delicate in some ways - toss a pebble into a jet engine and that's all she wrote!  So many things have to function 100% for flight to occur.  Even a small bird ingested in an engine can cause fan breakage, can cut off the air intake, can be ingested deep inside the engine - any of which can cause shutdown or explosion.


I've seen a fighter jet take off and run into a flock of blackbirds - no crash, but upon the immediate return for landing, the crew found the underside of the jet coated with birds, and there were hundreds dead on the runway.  If any pilot suspects any bird strike, the procedure is to land ASAP to check for damage.


Airports take lots of measures to discourage birds (and other wildlife) from considering the runways and environs to be safe havens.  It just doesn't always work.  I worked at one small airport that was unfenced (more common than you'd think).  The airport authority rented out some of the land, even some close to the taxiways, out to a local farmer, who then planted corn.  In the afternoons you could see the deer peeking out from the corn, checking out the situation, then bounding across the taxiways and runways to the other side of the airport.  If you think a bird strike causes damage, imagine contact with a deer!


I hope none of you are put off flying because of this event.  It really is safer than driving!  I'm flying next week from the east coast to Los Angeles, and I'm OK with it.  Pilots, I trust.


The thing to worry about is the current retirement boom in the air traffic control profession (it's been 27 years since the current workforce replaced those lost in the '81 strike), and the FAA's failure to launch enough fully trained replacements.  It can take 1-3 years to train a controller, depending on the facility assigned. 


Under the guise of cost-cutting, there have been several failures to incentivize the profession.  To become a controller today, you'd have to really REALLY love the work (like I surely did) to hang in there, get trained, then put up with shift work and all the workplace bulls--t on a daily basis. 


And did I mention it's still a white male profession?  In all the years since I became a controller in '82, women have only comprised between 8-12% of the workforce.  Minorities fare a bit better, but not much.  Hey!  I'm on my soapbox here.  It's still a great job - miss it very much.  A profession where I was constantly amazed - "I get paid for this?"  I was someone who found that "Do what you love, the money will follow."  I can only wish the same for all of you.


For more info, check out www.natca.org and www.pwcinc.org.  For hiring info, www.faa.gov/jobs/.  Thanks for listening! 

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You couldn't grow enough trees to print enough money to pay me to fly again, ever.
it may still be safer than driving. but it does seem like Reagan's roosters may be coming home to roost in the lack of vitalization of the profession since he tamped down the strikers in the 80's...(who wanted better working conditions so they could get more sleep and better perform)...not to mention birds and engines, which I hadn't quite thought of in the way you describe before.

thanks for sharing this though!
Well! I thought I'd post something that might land me a few comments, but oh my!

Gordon and Yoga, I hear ya about the risks of flying.

Delores, I hope you're open to the idea that the strike wasn't all about more time to sleep. Poor management that continues today would be my nutshell explanation.

I was a witness to what can happen in even the most high tech planes piloted by the best in the world:

September 8, 1981: Lt. Col. D.L. Smith, commander of the Thunderbirds, is killed when his aircraft ingests seagulls and stalls while leaving Cleveland. Smith crashed into Lake Erie without attempting to eject.

I had a friend who was an air traffic controller in Miami and Oberlin who would regale me with tales of near misses, flame outs, ten thousand foot screams etc. but always said I was safer in the air than in the car on the way to the airport.

And people need to understand how highly trained and skilled controllers are. Frank told me his first day in Oklahoma City he and the other students were handed maps that mimicked what they would actually see on the screens.

They were told to have them memorized for the next day. The washout rate was something like 70-75 percent. Was that your experience too dragonlady?

I couldn't do it. Not a prayer.
Nice post, dragonlady, and look, you're on the cover of both Open Salon and Regular Salon. Next stop, the New York Times...
I realize it's probably rather stupid thinking, but couldn't a great big "bird sieve" in front of the engine absorb/deflect the birds? You know, like, a giant spatter-screen?
Not only are the controllers very well trained but so are the pilots. Flying on an airliner is much safer than driving your car. Ultralights and autogyros are much more dangerous in comparison.
If you wanted to be safe from injury you would stay out of the bath tub.

More people get killed each and every year from falls in their bath tub. The only reason you don't hear about someone dying that way is 300 people at a time don't fall in your tub.

With all the problems, flying is still safe.
I remember doing a couple of FOD walks while in the Air Force. The condoms really got to me.

I can't fly anyway because my sinuses started puffing up. But I fret every time a loved one flies anywhere.
Thanks for your comment, Keith G. Yep, OKC in '82 was crawling with would-be controllers, washout rate in the 30-60% ranges. Women only about 10% of applicants. They were running so many thru the hiring and training phase then that the background checks hadn't been completed on many - a guy in my apt. bldg. murdered a prostitute one night (dropped his wallet near her body in the bushes), was caught, and hopefully never became a controller. But ya never know. I am thinking of writing a post about my experiences over the years. Nice to know there are a few aviation buffs out there!
thanks for the inside view! I'm always amazed how safe flying is, statistically, since as you say, so much can go wrong.

I do worry about the retirement of pilots who had experience flying planes without autopilot and in adverse conditions - I guess those guys are pretty much gone now anyway, and then again, they will probably get replaced by military pilots who get out post-Iraq. I think there have been some famous crashes with casualties averted due to the pilot's skill -- other than this one, of course. And...that pilot today didn't look young!
This was a really fascinating read, thank you!
Yeah, but is it still safe for Arab-Americans to fly?

Thanks for inside insight.
Great post dragonlady, although not that reassuring in the end. EEK!

I have not flown since 2002 and have no desire to do so anytime soon.

I would LOVE for you to write more about your experiences as an ATC. Especially from a woman's POV.

And I had the same thought as Verbal...can't screens or something be installed in front of the jet intakes? I know that you didn't work for Boeing or anything like that...but it just seems so LOGICAL.
i did work at boeing. and delta. and the reason a screen can't be put in front of the engine is that when something hits the screen, more often than not the screen just becomes additional shrapnel. consider that the plane is moving about 150 knots at takeoff. in order to withstand the force of impact of an object even just a few pounds (say, a medium sized bird) the screen would have to be far to massive. not to mention that you've just placed a rather large point of failure directly in front of your engine.

consider too that catastrophic occurrences of this nature are extremely rare, given that there are approximately 15,000 commercial flights a day in the u.s. alone.
Thanks for a reassuring post. I do think though that more should be done about the birds. If a flock of Canadian Geese are found to be the problem, let's look at their increasing numbers and bad effects on the environment. I am for expanding the hunting season to cut their numbers down. And, I am a friend of wildlife but just think any particular species (including humans I might add) shouldn't be allowed to grow to unsustainable numbers. I guess that's a different take on this incident.
I, too, would like to hear more about ATC. A childhood friend came down to OKC during the brief time I lived there to attend school. She's in Alaska now, has been for over two decades, and is nearing retirement. I've never asked her about the sexism, guess I'll have to.
Great post! I'd love to read more about when you were an ATC. When I read how part of the training is getting to ride with the pilots I immediately thought: wow! That'd be a cool job!

I didn't realize until someone informed me yesterday, how pilots of aircraft and large seacraft can't just "steer around" obstacles. It's so sad to think that they might know they are going to crash for a long time before they do! Yikes!

I'd still fly. Not put off at all by such accidents.
"You couldn't grow enough trees to print enough money to pay me to fly again, ever."

"I flew to Europe in 2004 and that is the last time I will be flying"

Which is ludicrous. But whatever makes you feel better at night.
"And I had the same thought as Verbal...can't screens or something be installed in front of the jet intakes? I know that you didn't work for Boeing or anything like that...but it just seems so LOGICAL."

It's not. A bird going 300mph into a screen is just gonna be four pounds of minced bird being hucked into the turbine rather than four pounds of very-shortly-to-be-minced bird going into the turbine. It's still gonna be four pounds of meat hitting thin steel blades rotating at thousands of RPM, and it'll still cause issues.
My husband thinks my deep loathing/irrational fear of flying is silly. He claims that he feels safer in an airplane than when he himself is behind the wheel driving, not to mention how exponentially much safer he feels than when I am driving. I, on the other hand, feel safer with my teenage daughter behind the wheel in a snowstorm on the pass without chains, surrounded by big rigs, than I do even thinking about flying. Ugh.

As if the mere prospect of hurtling through the air at 50,000 feet in a tube filled with frail, farting, strangers who are mostly in deep denial of their own flight terror isn't bad enough, there is the horrendous shit down on the ground in the airports one has to endure... shuffling in lines with your shoes in a bin, unable to even make a joke to lighten up the situation... sheesh, who in their right mind would want to do this? Add in some jet lag and shoot me now. I'll take my chance on the roads, thank you.
Thank you all for your comments! I love OS!

Re the bird screen, thanks for the right-on responses. The more you learn about aircraft, the more amazed you will be that they fly at all. Incredible inventions, all.

I'll post more about ATC life, and the challenges faced, soon. I'm flying off to my hometown, Los Angeles, on Tues (gotta go visit granddaughters instead of attending the inauguration 2 hours from my house in VA). Love that Jet Blue!
i'm a little late getting to this post but i like it. for the record plane crashes or disasters don't bother me that much, it's still far and away the safest way to travel. i was in boston when 9/11 happened and flew back to kansas city on one of the first flights they allowed out of logan field. i was a little nervous but it beat riding a bus home.
Thanks for this post because I'm one of those who is afraid of flying! Your post was indeed encouraging.