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excitement in a very small place
they just didn't pay me enough for this.
by scott n. gaines

There is an old saying in the disaster investigation community, "no disaster happens because of one big thing. It's many little mistakes that add up to one big hole in the ground."

This is a truism that I would put to the test one sunny day in South Georgia at Moody Air Force Base. I had been assigned to Moody as a trainee air traffic controller, and was there for about four months when this all happened. I was going to earn the ninety dollars a week the government was paying me that day.

I was working at the final approach control position in the radar facility. Final approach radar (which is being phased out) consists of a very short range, 10 miles, very high resolution radar set that can put an aircraft down on a runway at a precise spot even if the pilot can't see the runway, indeed even if that same pilot can barely control his aircraft. The final controller, which seems like a harsh way to put it, is generally the last radar controller that a pilot talks to before landing. And since about 95% of all air crashes happen within 5 miles of a runway, the final controller is often the last person the pilot ever talks to, period.

This day things were going well. My trainer had his headset down around his neck and was chatting it up with the crew chief, the two of them describing how they were the best. Not that this was a worry for me, since technically I was a trainee, I was qualified to work the final approach position unsupervised. This was not the case of the "approach" controller. He was another trainee, and had been at Moody AFB for about three months longer than me, but was unfortunately not progressing well. But this was a "light" flying day so the approach trainee's supervisor was also taking part in the chat by the crew chief, also with his headset down around his neck. These were some of those "small things" that I described earlier. They were going to add up very quickly.

The approach trainee, I'll call him Dave, had lost the "bubble". What this means is he was looking at the radar screen, but he wasn't making any sense out of it. Since this was back in the late 70's we didn't have the computer aided equipment that is so important now. All we saw were small targets, or blips to the general public, and two small slash marks to represent an aircraft under our control. It was easy to lose the picture, and Dave had done so in a spectacular way. He was "tubing", or going down the tubes, and was too proud or to confused, to call for help. Another small item.

Aircraft that approach an air base follow either air traffic instructions, as in final approach radar, or a published approach, such as a TACAN (TACtical Navigation) approach. Through a quirk in the system, the TACAN approach and the final approach radar paths were identical. The only difference being that an aircraft flying a radar approach did so at about 160 knots airspeed, and a TACAN approach at about 290 knots. Normally this isn't a problem, however this wasn't a normal day. More of those little items piling up.

I was controlling an aircraft on final approach, we'll call him Ranch 21, and everything was going well. Ranch 21 was about five miles out and coming right down the groove, no problems. The aircraft in question were F-4 Phantoms, the military's attempt to prove that even a boxcar will fly if you put big enough engines on it.

When the F-4 flies one of these approaches they are going slow, their landing gear is down, and the pilot and his backseater are concentrating on getting on the ground. They ahead of the aircraft, mentally on the ground. They know that air traffic controllers are watching so they relax. Another item.

I noticed a target come onto my radar scope at 10 miles out. It was moving at what looked like double the airspeed of Ranch 21. My guy was at about three miles from touchdown and this other target was eating up the distance at an alarming rate. I thought it was an electronic ghost at first, as the radar sets we were using dated back to the Korean War and were prone to glitches. I looked over at Dave and asked him if there was anyone else on approach. No answer from Dave.

An F-4 shooting a TACAN approach is supposed to keep it's nose radar on until it is on the ground, this to warn of a possible collision. This was important since the F-4 flew this particular approach in a somewhat nose-high attitude making it difficult to see anything directly ahead and slightly below the aircraft. This second aircraft had experienced a failure of it's nose radar, but that wasn't cause to declare an emergency, or even to mention the problem to anyone. Another little thing that piled up.

"Dave, do you have anything on approach?" I was a little tense, but not overly worried just then, although I should have been.

"Uh, yeah, six or seven of 'em out there. All around the dial," but the way he said it clearly indicated that Dave had no idea who was where.

The targets on my screen were now too close. The rules say three miles horizontal or one thousand feet vertical separation between aircraft at this distance from the base. Ranch 21 was at about one and a half miles, and the second target, later identified as Erotic 99 was just crossing three miles. Too close, much too close and there was no time for help from the supervisors.

I reached up to my radio console and switched on the "Guard" or emergency frequency that every aircraft monitors. There was no time for niceties now, things were getting ugly and it was going to be close.

"Ranch 21, immediate right turn to heading 090, climb and maintain 3000! Break, unknown aircraft on approach to Moody at two miles traffic you twelve o'clock low, less than one mile. Immediate left turn heading 270, climb and maintain 3000. Execute, do not acknowledge!"

Ranch 21's pilot knew there was no more immediate command than an 'immediate'. So he wrenched over and headed out due East and trying to climb. The second aircraft, now being yelled out to me by Dave as Erotic 99, was turning to the West and also trying to climb.

Now the F-4, while a fine aircraft, is not the nimble fighter we see on TV today. They took time to clean up the landing gear and such, and it took time to climb. Ranch 21 went East over the Okefenokee Swamp, disturbing nothing more than some alligators. Erotic 99 however went West, at about 800 feet and trying to climb, with afterburners going full, directly over base housing.

I had watched the targets come danger close, then seperate. Now I heard Erotic 99 go over the radar facility and literally rattle loose the windows. The phone started ringing immediately.

Everyone wanted to know what happened. Wing commander was pissed, the Chief of Air Traffic was pissed, and I was scared pissless. I knew what had almost happened.

Dave ended up back in more intensive training. His supervisor and mine, who were supposed to be watching us, each lost a stripe, a big deal for a sargent. The crew chief was busted back also and transferred.

I got an air traffic "save". Sort of an attaboy for controllers. And I never, ever relaxed behind a radar screen again. In fact it soon became more than I wanted to do, but that's a story for another day.


Born in Brooklyn NY, escaped to Long Island. Military service in the USAF (they thought I'd be a great air traffic controller. they were wrong). Became a New York City cop in the 80s when it was still fun. Interested in science fiction and country music, go figure. Interested in almost everything and knowledgeable about almost nothing, but I keep trying.

more about scott n. gaines


report from ground zero
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topic: general
published: 12.30.99

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by scott n. gaines
topic: general
published: 12.30.99


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