Book Excerpt: The Controller

4 Jan

The Controller

by Roger White

cover design by Steve Willgren


The Controller

 ©Copyright 2007-10 by Roger White. Registered with WGA West.

All rights reserved.


“Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand.”

—Archibald Putt


Chapter One

            Ira Singer and his wife, Maxine, sat across from each other, the miniature oak-finished table top holding their cards and their drinks. Ira sipped at his whiskey and Coke. He smiled as he watched the v-shaped wrinkle play across Max’s forehead. Gin rummy was serious business to his wife, always had been. She studied her hand intently. It was not lost on Ira how very beautiful she still was, in her early 80s, how her apple-shaped face and ice blue eyes still took him back to their school days, how lucky he was she weathered his tribulations and mistakes through the years. She was more than a good wife. She was his companion.

            The cabin of the Gulfstream G200 was whisper quiet as the sleek jet cruised the skies above North Carolina. The Singers and three other retired couples from Lake City, Florida, chartered the jet as part of an early autumn package tour to the Poconos. The aircraft’s accommodations were first-rate: ample leather seats, plush carpeting, galley with a chef and fully stocked bar. A large-cabin midrange corporate jet, the slender G200 was a beauty, capable of speeds of nearly mach 1 and cruising altitudes up to 45,000 feet.

            The charter pilot, 42-year-old Leonard Dickey, wasn’t pushing her, however. He’d flown low and slow over the countryside to give his passengers an impressive view of the verdant hills and emerald lakes of far western Carolina. Although he was flying VFR —Visual Flight Rules — which gave him relative free rein of the milky blue skies, he was careful to avoid the restricted airspace above Fort Bragg.

            Thick fog immediately settled around Dickey’s craft as it approached the southern Appalachians. Dickey instructed his copilot to radio Atlanta ARTCC for a popup IFR flight plan. They would need to rely on their instruments, and radar guidance, to navigate the white blindness of the shrouded mountains.

            “Atlanta Center, this Gulfstream six echo niner, requesting IFR one-two miles west of Albemarle.”

            “Damn,” the copilot whispered as he unkeyed his mike. “Look at this.”

            Digital readout on both of the jet’s fuel gauges had gone black.

            “Gulfstream six echo niner, this is Atlanta Center, I have you . . .”

            “Gotta be a fuse, or a short,” Dickey said, cutting off the Atlanta Center controller’s reply.

            The copilot tapped one gauge, then the other.

            “What was our last fuel reading?” Dickey asked. He scanned his bank of gauges above him, looking for anomalies.

            “At least three thousand kg. That’s about half. Cross-bleeds off, I’m sure.”

            “Toggle it. Then check the fuses.” Dickey eyed the malfunctioning gauges. “Gotta be a short.”

            Dickey and his copilot focused on the problem almost a full minute before acknowledging Atlanta Center.

            “Gulfstream six echo niner, this is Atlanta Center, do you read?”

            “That’s a roger, center,” Dickey replied. “Six echo niner, with you, level at, uh, forty-nine hundred.” He unkeyed his mike. “We drifted a little low there.”

            “Gulfstream, say again altitude,” the controller instantly responded. “I show you at fourteen thousand nine.”

            “That’s a negative, center, I’m —”

            Before the controller could issue his urgent command, Dickey knew. He was too low.

            “Oh, shit.”

            As he pulled hard on the yoke, in a fraction of a second, a massive face of white-gray stone filled the cockpit windshield.

            Maxine Singer, with her back to the cockpit, pitched forward with the jet’s violent attempt to climb. She spilled over the small oak table onto her husband’s chest. Ira caught her, and the couple crashed to the floor. Throughout the cabin, cocktails and bodies, playing cards and magazines tumbled toward the rear of the plane.

            “Max.” Ira squeezed her, holding onto her as tight as he could.

            The very floor beneath them ripped away in a cacophony of furious sound. Maxine felt Ira’s arms slip from her. The cabin around them spun and tossed, an angry washing machine choked with shards of metal and fire.

            The jet’s tail clipped the mountainous terrain, sending the craft and its contents somersaulting through the Carolina pines. The Gulfstream burst into flames as it disintegrated. Everyone on board, including the flight crew, attendant, and chef, was killed instantly — except Maxine Singer. She was thrown through a narrow gash in the cabin wall, her legs severed neatly above the knees. She landed in a deep bed of pine needles twenty feet from the main debris field. Her eyes blinded by jet fuel, she crawled three hundred yards across the mountain. She died as she reached the stone outcropping known as the Devil’s Courthouse.

# #

As Maxine Singer breathed her last on a rugged Carolina mountaintop, J.N. Teague peered out the vertical blinds at the rain falling urgently on Sycamore Canyon Road, one thousand nine hundred miles to the west, in Sedona, Arizona.

“Does it always come down like this?” To the southwest, he watched a small single-engine plane flying low on takeoff from Sedona Airport.

The woman’s apartment was ’90s contemporary. A glass block demi-wall cordoned the kitchen from the living room. Everything was negative-edge Scandinavian teak: table, chairs, hutch, even the salt and pepper shakers.

“No. It seldom rains here at all, actually. This is monsoon season.” The woman, late twenties, was an effortless beauty. Her hair was long and straight, a sumptuous raven accent to her cream coffee skin. In jeans and a low-cut chemise top, which fell open with her movements to reveal full breasts, the woman inspired a reaction in Teague he had not experienced in recent memory: nervous fear.

“You’re joking. Arizona has a monsoon season?” Teague accepted a rounded Riedel glass of Cornas Syrah the woman offered. He followed her to the living room sofa, seating himself at a careful distance, still gauging, interpreting.

The woman smiled at him, curious at this gorgeous man’s quaint uncertainty, and she scooted close. “So you played in college. Let me guess.” She looked him over appreciatively. “Linebacker.”

Teague laughed. “How did you know that?”

“My brother played at Arizona State. Always told me linebackers were the finest specimens on the field. So, naturally, I figured.”

“Naturally.” Teague laughed with her. “So what brought you to Sedona? I’ve been here three days, and I have to say you’re the first black person I’ve seen since airport security.”

“I lived in Tempe for a while when my brother played. I came down here for vacations and fell in love with it.” The woman put her glass on the coffee table and ran a slender finger up and down Teague’s forearm. “There are more of us here than you think. We’re in the nooks and crannies.”

Teague took a sip of wine. “I don’t know. I was in an old man’s souvenir shop today. He kept looking at me like I was Louis Farrakhan.”

“Well,” the woman said, “those types are everywhere, aren’t they?” She stood up and tugged on Teague’s hand. She towed him playfully to the bedroom.

“I am sorry,” Teague whispered as she kissed him. “But what is your name again?”

“Michelle.” The woman laughed, bending to pull off her socks. “And you’re M.J.”

“J.N.,” he corrected.

“J.N. Thank goodness. I figured M.J. was a sure lie. Are you really FBI?”

“I showed you the ID.”

“Could be fake.”

“I leave it up to you.”

The woman breezily shed her jeans and top. Clothed only in bikini panties, she lay back on the bed, voluptuous and smooth and willing. Her light brown skin shone in the low lamplight like flawless silk.

Teague stood staring, summoning, trying to imagine. Trying to relax. A nip of panic crept in, and he knew it was futile. The separation was six months old, as of yesterday. Hell, Melanie was even dating someone. Still he couldn’t allow it. This wasn’t part of the picture. J.N. Teague was a man of strict goals, of desires and aims that were measured only in the context of how they worked to achieve the ultimate outcome. It had always been so. It was how he lived his life. It was how he played linebacker at Illinois and made All Big Ten his junior and senior years. It was how he beat the odds at the Academy, one of only two blacks in his graduating class to earn FBI credentials. It was how he pursued Melanie, the mother of his son, the woman he’d convinced to share his life six years ago. The separation, however, presented Teague with an aching conundrum. Living the life of an agent’s spouse was too much for her to bear, a realization brought home when Teague narrowly survived a bullet in the neck. She needed time to determine whether she could live without him. In the meantime, the options Teague mulled over were maddening. Wait for her to come around? Forgo the Bureau and fight for Melanie? But then who would he be? Who was he if he were not Chicago’s best on the street? Teague hated wasted effort. His coach at Illinois always appreciated that aspect of his best athlete. Teague was always the most efficient player on the field, instinctively on top of the ball, at the crux of every play.

This rain-soaked evening in Sedona, Arizona, Teague discovered that his mind’s calculating efficiency knew no down time. This was wasted effort, illegitimate expense.

“What’s the matter?” the woman asked. She ran her hands lightly across her lovely breasts. “Don’t you like what you see?”

“God, I am sorry,” Teague said. “You are beautiful.”

He wheeled around and quickly left. He jogged through the pouring rain to his rented car.

# #

            Amid the subdued urgency of dozens of low-voiced commands in the broad, cavern-like room that was O’Hare TRACON Sector Four, Deborah Vaughn twirled the thin pencil in her right hand, keeping one eye on her bay full of flight plan strips and the other on her primary and the low emerald glow of the Aircraft Situation Display screen to her left. ASD monitors were the latest in air traffic control hardware, lightning fast and more proactive than anything before them. They were being tested in pilot facilities nationwide, including O’Hare, Denver ARTCC, Atlanta ARTCC, Seattle, and a select number of general aviation fields. The promise the ASDs held for controllers was no less than liberating; they would act as a third pair of eyes, another calculating mind. But there were the rumors. Rumors of glitches.

            Vaughn knew about the Gulfstream G200 crash in Carolina just days before. Everyone in the ATC community knew about it. “Controlled descent into terrain” was the official terminology from the FAA’s initial investigation, which meant simply that the pilot flew the plane right into the ground. Transcripts from the cockpit voice recorder, however, indicated an unbelievable discrepancy between the controller and pilot. Just seconds before impact, the controller identified the Gulfstream jet as being almost fifteen thousand feet in the air. The pilot responded that he was at only 4,900 feet — thirty feet below the elevation of the mountain he slammed into.

            The Atlanta Center controller’s ASD screen had been cited, and reportedly fixed, for two previous incidents of indicating erroneous altitudes and airspeeds.

            As Vaughn’s partner for the shift, one Kyle Lomas, worked the primary controller position, Vaughn consciously fought to keep her fidgets to a minimum; she was never completely comfortable sitting in the assistant’s chair. Although the rules of air traffic control required specific degrees of minimum separation among aircraft, just how that separation was achieved and maintained was left largely to individual controllers’ discretion. A two-man team of controllers worked a screen like a quarterback and his backup — one calling the plays and directing traffic, the other keeping things tidy, suggesting moves when needed. Vaughn liked calling the plays.

            “Southwest two-eleven, climb and maintain . . .” Lomas paused uneasily, unkeying his mike, glancing over at Vaughn and the bay of flight plan strips.

            “Sixteen thousand,” Vaughn snapped, tapping the strip labeled SW211 with her pencil. “Midway perimeter, remember? Always one-six before the fix.”

            “Right. One-six before the fix.” Lomas smiled and winced, lightly smacking his forehead. Young and green, only two months out of the academy, Lomas was in his first week in the primary chair. He was scared to death, and it showed.

            “Come on, Kyle. You have a pilot waiting for commands.” Vaughn nodded toward the screen.

            Lomas keyed his mike. “Southwest two-eleven, climb and maintain one-six thousand. Report crossing the Midway tracon,” Lomas instructed.

            “Vortac,” Vaughn corrected, trying not to smile.

            Lomas keyed his mike. “I mean vortac, Southwest two-eleven, crossing the Midway vortac.”

            “One-six thousand, report on the vortac, two-eleven, roger,” a chuckling voice crackled through their headsets.

            Vaughn took the position of controller quite literally; she enjoyed being in control. An eight-and-a-half-year veteran of the boards, Vaughn was a natural for the venerable old Chicago facility. O’Hare, once the busiest tower on the planet (and still the world’s second-busiest), directed more traffic per controller than any facility anywhere. It wasn’t even close. A total of approximately 90 controllers at O’Hare TRACON commanded the more than 6,400 square miles of airspace in and around O’Hare International Airport, directing 1.3 million aircraft operations annually, responsible for 86 million passenger lives on an average year. O’Hare controllers had to be keen, unflinching, fast — and fearless. And Deborah Vaughn was every one of those, and more. She was what other ATCs deemed the quick among the quick. Her instincts were flawless, her decision-making pragmatic and by the book. She was an ice cube with fiery red hair, slender face and legs, and large, penetrating brown eyes.

            “Northstar five echo papa, climb to one-six, your discretion. Altimeter two-niner-niner-two,” Lomas instructed.

            “Five echo papa, roger.”

            “Don’t forget about your Southwest,” Vaughn said. “He needs to hook up with J-121 in a few. What do you do?”

            “Vector him there about, what, five miles out?”

            “Only if there are no inbounds. If you have an inbound coming from Sector Six, you’ll cross him right in front of him.” Vaughn paused, seeing if the light came on for Lomas. “Do you have any inbounds coming from that sector?”

            “Yes. United coming in from Canada.”

            “Right,” Vaughn coached. “So?”

            Lomas thought a moment. “I have to vector the Southwest hard left after the vortac.”

            “There you go.”

            When Vaughn was promoted to sector chief the previous fall, a few jokes were murmured among the men about the dubious ways the redhead must have earned her stripes. Nobody took the jokes seriously, of course — no one who watched Vaughn work. And certainly no one in Sector Four had a quibble with her; you didn’t mess with Deborah Vaughn. Behind her wide smile and flashing eyes, she was uniquely intimidating.

            College educated, with a pair of degrees — psychology and English literature — from Northwestern, Vaughn was in the minority of active controllers. Most of her peers on the boards came straight from either the military or the Academy at Oklahoma City. Vaughn didn’t bring up her university past much, especially now that she was a sector chief. She could always pick up a tangible sense of unease in other controllers, especially the men, when they learned of her background. And in that regard, she was in the minority, as well. Males outnumbered females in the ATC society better than three to one. Vaughn accepted her minority status in stride; in fact, she reasoned, she’d been a minority of some kind or another practically her whole life. She’d been the only white kid in her elementary school class the two years her father served as trauma surgeon at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Barbados. Her senior year in high school, she was the only female student to win scholarship honors in the UC-Davis National Calculus Competition. And, much to the dismay of her excruciatingly professional parents, she was the only Vaughn in a meticulously detailed family tree to engage in civil service.

            Vaughn briefly pictured her father in her mind’s eye, a still photo of the young, commanding ER surgeon she knew as a child. He was sick now, soon to undergo coronary bypass surgery.

            “Miss Vaughn?” Lomas broke into her thoughts.

            “Vaughn,” she corrected. “It’s Vaughn, Lomas. I don’t call you Mr. Lomas.”

            “Sorry. My Southwest is spotty. Part of the ID tag winked out for a second.”

            “Call him for voice verification,” Vaughn instructed.

            Lomas keyed in. “Southwest two-eleven, O’Hare, please state position and heading.”

            “Two-eleven. We’re reading twenty-four miles before the vortac, square on heading oh-one-oh.”

            “Thanks, two-eleven.” Lomas breathed audibly. “Will advise when we can vector you to J-121.”

            “Two-eleven, roger.”

            “I’ve seen those spotty tags before,” Vaughn said, eyeing the radar display control dial at the bottom right of the screen. She dialed it down to its lowest level then back to high intensity. The radar screen before them dipped into darkness, then swelled to a bright green glow. “I don’t know what’s causing them.”

            Vaughn’s and Lomas’s headsets crackled. “O’Hare, this is Atlantic Air six-twenty with you at fourteen, climbing pilot’s discretion to nineteen on J-4.”

            “Atlantic six-twenty, roger,” Lomas responded. “Altimeter two-niner-niner-two.”

            A brief snap of static indicated Atlantic Air six-twenty’s acknowledgment.

            Immediately, another voice broke in. “O’Hare, PSA Jumbo four-ninety-four, vectored from the tower on radial one-two-five, with you at eleven and climbing.”

            Lomas took a sharp breath. Traffic was building. “PSA Jumbo four-ninety-four, O’Hare, that’s a roger.”

            Just as Lomas unkeyed, Vaughn reminded, “Altimeter.”

            “Altimeter two-niner-niner-two, PSA.”

            “PSA, roger.”

            As both Vaughn and Lomas watched, the tiny green blip that was Southwest Flight 211 suddenly disappeared.


            “My God, did you see that?” Lomas whispered.

            Vaughn was already in action. “Southwest two-eleven, O’Hare, verify pos, altitude, and heading, please.”

            “Southwest two-eleven, we read nineteen miles before the vortac on J-1, climbing from thirteen.”

            “That’s a roger, two-eleven,” Vaughn began, “maintain voice—”

            Before she could finish the command, Southwest 211’s marker popped back into view, separated neatly from the two dozen other blips crawling at myriad angles and speeds across Lomas’s and Vaughn’s screen.

            “What the hell?” Vaughn fumed. “I’m calling the fac chief on this. This is ridiculous.” Vaughn keyed her mike. “Two-eleven, had a couple of spotty readings on you. I may be calling for pos periodically. Will advise on vectors.”

            “Two-eleven, roger.”

            “Vaughn.” Lomas subconsciously bit his lower lip. “I have a full grid. And with the Southwest winking out, I’m not sure if . . . you may have to take primary.”

            Vaughn smiled at the nervous young controller. “You’re doing fine, Lomas. I’m here if you get in a jam. Just keep working it. Calm down.”

            Watching a rivulet of perspiration trickle down the right side of Lomas’ face, Vaughn remembered her first year out of the academy. She could never keep her legs still then, but she wasn’t a sweater. But this job produced them. Every sector had at least one heavy sweater. Each controller’s physiology had its own unique reaction to the palpable stress of ATC: some fidgeted, some paced, some rocked, some cursed, some clenched, and some sweated like government mules. Vaughn squinted at the memory of one of the heaviest sweaters she’d ever seen, a classmate of hers at the academy. He was the only one in her class to graduate with a higher overall grade average than hers, and he had been recruited to O’Hare the same as Vaughn. She couldn’t recall his name. Acuff. Agnew. Austin. Something like that.

            She did remember, however, what an odd bird he was. Rambling on about improving protocols, ranting to no one in particular about reducing separation minimums. And, she remembered — he’d asked her out once. His shirt sopping, standing so close to her that she couldn’t get any air, he interrupted her in mid-vector to ask her if she wanted to have dinner with him some time. She didn’t remember exactly what she said, but it wasn’t yes. Within the month, he’d been fired by her old chief, old man Payton, for insubordination.

            Vaughn allowed a whisper of a laugh. The only male of her species who didn’t feel threatened by her was a borderline genius headcase with overactive apocrine glands.

            “Oh, Jesus.” Lomas jerked, hitting his knee on the control panel. “Oh, Jesus.”

            “What is it? Lomas?”

            “Southwest two-eleven, turn right, uh, heading zero six five immediately,” Lomas spat. “Southwest two-eleven, immediately.”

            Vaughn scanned the screen and picked up Southwest two-eleven’s marker, a good fifteen miles west and turned an astounding forty-five degrees from its location only seconds before.

            “God.” Lomas rocked in his chair. “Deborah, the United is right there! They’re on top of each other. My God.”

            Lomas keyed his mike again. “United one five four —”

            Vaughn grabbed Lomas’ hand, squeezing hard. She keyed in. “Southwest two-eleven, O’Hare. Belay those instructions, repeat, disregard ATC command to turn. State your heading and position immediately, sir.”

            “Southwest two-eleven, we’re flying heading oh one oh. Transponder has us square on J-1, six miles before the vortac. Do we have a problem?”

            Vaughn let herself slowly breathe out. “Have a bad reading on you again, two-eleven. Radar has you off course and off radial. Maintain voice verification, if you would.”

            “Southwest two-eleven, that’s a roger.”

            Less than two seconds after the Southwest pilot responded, his aircraft ID marker winked, disappeared, and blinked back into place, clear and on course on J-1.

             “Christ, how does that keep happening?”

            “O’Hare, this is United one-five-four, with you at fourteen,” the United pilot broke in. “We clear for inbound?”

            Vaughn, still catching herself in huffs, looked over at the saucer-eyed Lomas. “Well? You’re the primary.”

            “Roger, United. Maintain heading,” Lomas managed. He unkeyed, shaking visibly. “How did you know?”

            “Think about it, Kyle. There is no way a 737 is going to turn forty-five degrees on a nickel and scream fifteen miles off course in a split second. No way. If he’d have turned on your command, you would have had him crossing the J-6 inbounds. It was a bad readout.”

            “Bad readout.”

            His senses coming back, Lomas looked at Vaughn with an increasingly squeamish expression, then he slowly lowered his head to look down at his crotch.

            “Lomas? You okay?”

            “Jesus. I have to go change.”


4 Responses to “Book Excerpt: The Controller”

  1. Jenn @ You know...that Blog? January 4, 2011 at 4:45 pm #

    Wow… had me hooked at the first paragraph! Fabulous writing!

    Stopping by via a mention on our mutual friend’s blog. You know the one! I’ll be back, for sure.

    Happy New Year 🙂

    • oldspouse January 4, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

      Hey, thanks! I’ll be posting more soon, especially seeing as how my so-called well-connected NYC agent has done absolutely nothing for me in over a year.

  2. Theodora Schuner January 13, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    I usually get bored easily and close the tab but i think you have a unique blog. Cheers !

    • oldspouse January 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

      Thank you, Theodora. Best to you!

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