Air traffic control - 'chess at high speed'
Even in the middle of winter, when the Martha's Vineyard Airport handles only a handful of flights each day, air traffic controller Pete Rogers chatters out a confounding array of acronyms and abbreviations, a dialect that seems to equate to the speed of the aircraft landing on the runway in front of the control tower.
"Traffic at your 11-O'clock, two miles, a Cessna.
"Kare 3-eleven ident.
"Wind is 2-8-zero at 1-niner, gust 2-niner.
"Kare 3-eleven, make the 1-eighty.
"Departure aircraft, runway 3-3 cleared for take-off."
On such bewildering communication rests the safety and orderly operation of approximately 52,000 landings, take-offs, or over flights each year. Of course, most of those flights happen within a 12-week period in the summer. "In the winter, it's like the roller coaster ride," Mr. Rogers said. "You're going up the hill and it's clicking and clicking and you're waiting for the rush on the other side. It takes a certain mind set to want to do this kind of stuff. Any controller can do this in the winter, but not many controllers could pull this off in the summer."
Mr. Rogers's fondness for Martha's Vineyard dates back to his teenage years, when he would fly to the Island and spend the entire weekend at Katama Airfield. That included sleeping in the hangar. He learned to fly, joined the Air National Guard, and took a number of management positions with local airlines over the years. But he kept coming back to the Island. "The Vineyard is like coming home," Mr. Rogers said. "It's the place I always ran to when I wanted to get away and have fun." Nine years ago, he became an air traffic controller. After short stints at several small New England airports, his seniority allowed him to take an assignment at the Martha's Vineyard Airport. He lives in Providence, but spends his work week here, staying in Vineyard Haven between shifts.
"Air traffic control is like playing chess at high speed," Mr. Rogers said. "You have a set of rules, and you start thinking about your options. There's no computer that can emulate what we do." While computers offer support, it is the human element, working in close coordination that keeps the whole operation running. "Teamwork is the very essence of how we get this done," Mr. Rogers said. "There's so much information."
Among the many intricate puzzles the controllers must fit together are many aircraft, flying at different speeds, on approach to the airport. A high performance corporate jet 15 miles away might arrive before a single-engine plane just three miles out, for instance. "You have a lot of fast moving jets that can't slow down," Mr. Rogers said.
A large part of his job does not involve guiding jets through the air space. Part of it involves keeping them safe once they are on the ground, where a lot of mishaps happen. "No aircraft is allowed to cross any runway without my permission," Mr. Rogers said. There are also ground vehicles that must be accounted for. During the winter months, there are may be work crews doing maintenance and construction projects on the airfield. One recent day, as work crews repaired a taxiway, the construction vehicles posed a particular challenge. "I talked to more vehicles than I did aircraft," Mr. Rogers said. "For a controller, that's no fun."
Controllers are also responsible for reporting the weather, critical information to every pilot. Though there are lots of sophisticated weather instruments on site, controllers must visually confirm conditions before broadcasting them. "We're trained to determine cloud height, determine visibility," Mr. Rogers said. While they record the weather data every hour, they are responsible for awareness of the changing conditions every minute. "We have to make sure we don't launch somebody into a thunderstorm," Mr. Rogers said.
There are no snow days for controllers. Even if the airport is closed, they must remain on duty to monitor the weather, and handle any flight emergencies. "You don't pack up and go home, we still have to be here," Mr. Rogers said.
The profession of air traffic controller is notorious for a high rate of burnout. The constant stress is a serious occupational hazard. The profession also draws people who may be more prone to burnout."
"Controllers are all type A personalities," Mr. Rogers said, adding that any gathering of air traffic controllers is, "almost like a mini-convention of type A personalities."
While it is more stressful in the summer, when a plane takes off or lands once a minute, the winter offers a slower pace, much like the rhythm of many other professions on the Island. There is time to recharge, and shed the stress. "For me it's a life decision," Mr. Rogers said. He is happy to let others take the higher stress that comes with higher pay at big city airports. "It's okay to some to make less, but to have longevity. If I'm at some other airport, it probably would lead to burnout."
The Island itself is a safeguard against burnout. After a stressful shift, Mr. Rogers sometimes heads to South Beach to unwind, or to Katama Airfield to hang out.
Cool under pressure
Because he has made so many contacts in the aviation world, Mr. Rogers is a familiar face, and familiar voice, at New England airports. But outside the aviation world, he is mostly anonymous. Until December 8, when he was leaving his apartment near the Waterplace Complex in downtown Providence. All of his training, and his ability to stay cool under pressure, helped save a life.
"I heard the screams." Mr. Rogers said. "I knew something wasn't right. I ran 250 yards just as fast as I could, while calling 911." He made his way down to a floating pier, and found an adult man thrashing in the frigid water. Reaching as far as he could, he managed to grab the end of the man's finger, and pull him toward the dock. Others came to help, but they were having trouble lifting the man out of the water. Just when it looked like things couldn't get much worse, they did. "The life just went out of him," Mr. Rogers said. It took three people to get the unconscious man out of the water. He was taken to a local hospital by ambulance, and is reportedly recovering well. Ironically, just four hours earlier, Mr. Rogers was in a class for first responders, learning first aid.
"Everything kicked in," Mr. Rogers said. "The mindset I was applying is very comparable to the mindset you use in handling air traffic.".