TJ Henley's Personal Air Traffic Experiences in Alaska

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Last updated 03/18/17

Personal history written by TJ Henley

TJ Henley's personal story of her experiences
as an air traffic controller in Alaska.

November 3, 2007

 Many excuses are made as to why one person leaves another person.  Usually, the leaving is done at ground level.  One person decides he/she no longer wants to be married to another person, and the decision is made for one or the other to depart the fix.  However, when a man is flying an airplane and his air traffic controller decides to “leave him” because of “standard operating procedure” the decision can cause dire effects.  Thus begins the story of Jack.

 If any readers of this story know anything about Kodiak, Alaska, they will understand what TJ (I write in third person) writes.  Kodiak is the most beautiful, gorgeous, marvelous, grandiose, maternal, interesting, loving, giving, forgiving, and fascinating place in the Universe.  She was TJ’s world.  Not only was she TJ’s world; but She was the world of the aviators who made Kodiak home.  Unfortunately, as Mother Nature often shows just who exactly is in control, Kodiak, at times, is a callous, mean, stormy, fog-infested, and turbulent chaotic totally out of control bitch. 

 This story takes place during the early 70’s.  At that time, there were no RCO’s that worked properly.  The communication resource between the airplanes flying from Point A (being Anchorage - ANC) to Point B (being Kodiak - ADQ) was Anchorage Center (ZAN) and Kodiak Tower.  The FAA can try and substantiate all day and all night long about how much advanced the air traffic system is today.  The days of HF radios were the days when the FAA shined its brightest.  Trust me, deterioration because of technology is the main factor in problems in the air traffic control system.  No amount of money or technology can take the place of the emotional relationship between a controller and a pilot.

 Let TJ diverse a bit.  TJ has a habit of wandering along a particular airway often not on an assigned heading.  Besides, there is only one way to get to know TJ and that is for her to explain to the readers this very strange creature—TJ.  If the opportunity presents, she will relate the story of how she became a tower controller in the first place.  Suffice to say, pilots and only pilots taught TJ to talk to airplanes.  Of course, according to one of many of TJ’s theories, in order to be an air traffic controller, the controller has to have the gut instinct and dedication to do the job.  Money doesn’t matter only the profession matters. A controller’s job is to assist a pilot on a flight from one point to another point in the safest, most expeditious, and most comfortable manner possible.  If the pilot’s ass arrives at his point of destination in one piece usually the passengers, airplane, and freight also arrive in one piece.  Now, as the passengers depart from the airplane they may all line up for the nearest bar where each can get the strongest drink possible (even Mormons), but at least their asses are in one piece.

 Jack, dear, dear Jack had piercing eyes.  TJ has talked to lots and lots of airplanes and had personal and professional relationships with lots and lots of pilots, but Jack’s eyes could literally put the fear of God (if TJ believed in whatever God people believe in; she, however, believes in Alaska) into their souls.  When Jack looked into a person’s eyes he literally looked into that person’s deepest being. 

 The night was stormy.  The time of year was spring.  The weather included a low ceiling and below minimum visibility.  The wind shear was formidable.  The turbulence was beyond belief.  The icing was heavy, wet, and thick.  Jack was flying from ANC to ADQ.  He departed ANC after dark but about an hour and 20 minutes before the Kodiak tower closed at 10 p.m.  After leaving Homer (HOM), he was able to communicate via radio with TJ in the tower or with ANC Center.  At a particular altitude he lost communication with ANC Center.  He was basically on his own unless TJ stayed in that tower waiting for him. 

 Jack called about 20 miles north of Kodiak.  TJ had an inbound strip on him and his ETA was going to be close.  Really close.  She gave Jack the weather and the wind and altimeter information.  He said, “Roger.” 

 Now TJ knew (after all she has the gut instinct of an air traffic controller) that Jack is thinking TJ is going to stay there until I get this flying piece of shit on the ground at Kodiak.  Unfortunately, TJ’s personality and dedication to duty to her pilots had caused a particular difficulty the week before.

 Another airway, another diversion.  The Chief (in this day and age these people are now called Air Traffic Managers) was a complete and total asshole.  He was from a South 48 state whose philosophy was that there were two places for women:  the kitchen and the bedroom.  Unfortunately, TJ wasn’t, isn’t, and will never be good in either location.  So this jerk arrives and, of course, as soon as he plods up the stairs to the tower from the Administration Office at the base of the tower, he takes one look at TJ and she can see in his eyes his every thought—son of a bitch I’ve met the devil and she is a woman and worse a red head.  TJ was an Alaska Regional golden child.  She was a local hire, married to a local pilot, whose father was a professional Alaska pilot, and whose brother was a professional Alaska pilot, and had lived most of her life on Kodiak Island, and had been trained by all those Kodiak pilots.  TJ could see in his eyes that there was nothing he could to do except make her life as miserable as possible without pissing her off to the point where she put his ass into a crab pot. 

 So, the week before the Jack incident, a C130 was due to arrive ADQ just after 10 p.m.  TJ decided to wait for the airplane to land before turning the facility over to Kenai AFSS (which could no more communicate with a pilot from Kodiak than TJ could lose 100 pounds in a week.)  The Chief lived across the street (directly) from the tower so he kept an eye on every move by the air traffic controllers.  He knew what time they arrived and what time they left, etc. 

 The next morning, the Chief meanders up the stairs and informs TJ of about 100 different FAR’s and FAA regulations she had broken because she didn’t transfer the facility over at the appropriate time.  TJ flat couldn’t believe the tirade.  He then told her that “It better not happen again.”  OK.  Wrong!!!!!!!!!!  The worse thing an outsider can do is deliberately piss of an old time Kodiak girl who was raised on a ranch.  I was his worse nightmare.

 Jack is continuing inbound; TJ gives him the latest weather that is beyond shit on a shingle.  He was fighting weather, turbulence, deteriorating conditions, and icing—and he didn’t have minimums.  However, she knew he couldn’t make a missed approach.  He was committed.  That is what pilots did without fancy modern technological equipment.  Even with instruments, pilots flew by the seat of their pants. They committed to a flight and completed the flight come hell, high water, or Kodiak weather. 

 Unfortunately, TJ blames most of this on her upbringing, when someone in authority tells her to do something she does that something.  So, she turned the runway lights on step 5, turned on the strobe lights, broadcast in the blind that the tower was closing, and closed the tower.  She didn’t hear from Jack so she knew he was on another frequency. 

 TJ left the tower.  She knew she shouldn’t have left that man out there in that horrid, shitty Kodiak weather…but that is exactly what she did.  While driving home, she passed the approach end of Runway 7 and looked east.  She could barely see the strobe lights 7,500 feet away.  She knew she needed to turn around, go back, take the frequency, and do what she could to get Jack on the ground.  But, no she couldn’t do that.  After all some jackass jerk from Texas had told her that her job was on the line.  So, she went home, fretting and worrying at every tire rotation.  Disheartened and disillusioned she arrived home, climbed out of the car, climbed up the stairs to the house, undressed, and got ready to climb into bed.

 Then the telephone rang.  TJ answered, “Hello.”  This voice said, “I have a drink waiting for you at Solly’s.”  She said, “OK, Jack, I’ll be there in a minute.  She got dressed again---thinking shit Valium is the most important drug needed at the moment.  TJ drove to Solly’s.  By the way, if you haven’t been to Kodiak since 1980, Solly’s was a drinking hotspot.  She arrived, parked her car, walked in the door and there sitting at a table is a man with piercing eyes, his arms crossed on the table with a drink before him and across the table was TJ’s drink.  He looked at his controller.  She sat down. 

 He looked at TJ for a long time.  She didn’t say a word.  She just sat there and waited for this pilot, this man whom she respected and trusted and adored to give her whatever hell he was going to give her.  He said six words.  “Patricia, why did you leave me?”    She would have rather been pole axed.  She just looked at this man.  What was she supposed to say, what excuse was she supposed to come up with?  That according to some ridiculous procedure implemented by some imbecilic idiot in a place 6,000 miles from Kodiak and forced down her throat by some bottom-dwelling idiot from Texas who couldn’t talk to an airplane if his stupid life depended on it, TJ was supposed to follow the instructions?  Jack knew her better than that.  He knew this tough little broad sitting across the table from him.  He knew there was nothing she couldn’t do once she made up her mind to do it.  And he knew that only Alaska could within Herself make her do something she didn’t want to do.  So, she took the only way out she could think of.  She looked into those piercing eyes and asked, “Because of stupidly?”  He said, “You ever going leave another flying pilot including me.”  She said, “No.”  He said, “Lets dance.”

 TJ never left another flying pilot.  She turned off a lot of recorders and used a lot of telephone lines after operation hours.  She talked dozens of weather forecasters into giving minimums for special VFR conditions, she logged off a position at the legal moment and then continued briefing for 30 minutes, if she had a pilot in route from Dutch Harbor (DUT) to Cold Bay (CDB) she talked to him the entire way with the sweet (TJ has a sweet voice) every three minutes and told him that if she didn’t hear from him within the assigned three minutes that she was sending out Search and Rescue.  Those pilots never missed that three-minute time limit.  They knew that TJ didn’t follow the SOP and whatever ridiculous FAA rule and/or regulation created by a group of Washington DC idiots—TJ did the job her way—the Alaska pilot’s way.  With the help, assistance, understanding, intelligence, and dedication of an insurmountable number of Alaska pilots TJ learned to talk to airplanes and never, ever left one flying alone in the darkest part of an Alaska storm with only her as a communicative outlet. 

************

 Jack didn’t make it.  Sometime after the above story, he departed out of CDV and hit a mountain.  But, he taught TJ the most valuable lesson of an air traffic controller.  She will forever be grateful for his insightfulness and his forgiveness.  He with just six little words gave her the opportunity to grow up, develop her technique, and not give a rat’s ass how the job was done in the South 48.  In Alaska, pilots fly airplanes.  Flying airplanes is their job.  Our job is to give them the best chance to successfully complete that flight—with ass intact.   Even if the job is accomplished for free and even if the envelope is pushed far beyond the acceptable. 

 TJ Henley


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