Eyes on the Skies

Air traffic controllers like Jack Bowers and David Brown are responsible for making sure pilots aren't flying blind. But on a cloudy day this winter in St. Louis, that's exactly what was happening.

A small-plane pilot in the skies above St. Louis had ice on his wings and had missed two approaches to the airport. He then missed two more approaches into a second airport as weather worsened.

With two hours worth of guidance from Bowers and Brown, the shaky pilot eventually landed at the third airport he aimed for.

"It was terrifying because it's very rare that a pilot says he cannot control the airplane," Brown said. "In 16 years, I would say this was by far the scariest situation I have ever dealt with."

Bowers, who has been an air traffic controller for 25 years and a pilot for 35, said he, too, has seen many close calls, but was nonetheless worried.

"I was concerned," Bowers said. "It wasn't dark yet, but the dark was coming. There wasn't a lot of better weather anywhere around."

Like many of his peers, Bowers plans to retire this year. He is at the tail end of a career that began when the Federal Aviation Administration brought in a slew of new air traffic controllers following a massive strike in the early 1980s.

Among those being honored tonight by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association for their "saves" — including Bowers and Brown — nine of 12 are veterans with more than 15 years of experience. The average amount of experience among this year's honorees is 16 years, according to NATCA.

Listen to the air traffic controllers being honored tonight talk down nervous pilots.

"Us old guys, we're retiring in droves," Bowers said. "You go to a facility and some of these kids have been there a year and a half, two years."

Anticipating retirements, the Federal Aviation Administration is revving up its hiring and aims to hire a couple hundred more controllers each year than are leaving. On Tuesday, the FAA announced it's on schedule to hire and train nearly 17,000 air traffic controllers in the next 10 years.

"We're on target, and our newly hired controllers are highly motivated," said FAA's acting administrator Robert A. Sturgell in a Tuesday statement. "Significant improvements in the way we recruit, hire and train people are helping us manage through this predicted transition period."

But as veteran air traffic controllers retire, many in the industry are concerned. They say there aren't enough up-and-comers to take their place, and argue that those left on the job are less experienced, stretched thin and overworked. And they say the trouble is that practice makes perfect when it comes to averting close calls.

According to the National Air Traffic Controller's Association, there are around 11,000 fully trained veteran controllers working nationwide, as well as about 3,700 trainees. That puts more than a quarter of the total workforce in training, up from 15 percent just one year ago, according to NACTA communications director Doug Church.

"You've got a situation now where so many of the veterans are leaving," Church said. "A lot of mistakes are being made and one of the major reasons for that is the relative inexperience now."

The FAA hired more than 1,800 controllers and plans to hire about 1,900 this year, including recent aviation school graduates and former military controllers. It has also recruited controllers from certain areas of the country to other airports where there is greater demand, started offering retention bonuses to keep people on the job, and reduced the amount of time it takes to fully train employees, now two to three years instead of three to five.

Meantime, as both air traffic controllers and the FAA prepare to meet the changes ahead, Oklahoma City air traffic controller Paul Hiel said 21 years of experience is precisely what got him through a close call last year.

With low clouds and lousy weather, Hiel recognized radio static as a sign that a pilot overhead was in trouble. Relying on a series of yes and no clicks instead the voice of the pilot, Hiel guided him to the ground, enabling him to land safely without a working radio.

"I basically 20 questioned him on what he wanted to do," said Hiel, also being honored this evening. "That's just a thing of experience."