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No Reply on the Atlanta Northeast Arrival

Editor's note: Thanks to this real world Atlanta air traffic controller who prefers to remain anonymous for providing this purely fictional story, but captures the moment before every real "deal" occurs.

The shift was more than half way over as the weather was moving in. I had a request in for the last two hours off so that I could take my wife out for her birthday. When I saw the 4 state long line of thunderstorms on The Weather Channel moving through Alabama, I knew my chances for leave were dwindling. Three more hours, three more hours come on clock!

I arrived back to the control area from another lackluster “meal” in the cafeteria and prepared to plug in. How can you possibly mess up chicken that badly?, I wondered as I put on my headset and got my tools ready for the next dive into the deep end of the chaos pool. I’m getting to old for this. Hell, I was too old for this 10 years ago, I thought to myself. Bill started the briefing and I went back into the steely mode that had gotten me this far without dropping any jets into the dirt for 21 years. All external thoughts ceased, headset in place, concentration up to a level that God never intended. I was ready. At least I thought.

The sector was already up to its “safe” number of airplanes according to standards. There were 16 air carrier arrivals, five civilian over flights and a four aircraft military formation in a refueling track from northwest to southeast. I can handle this.

"Delta1259 contact Atlanta center 143.35". "Delta1259 roger…have a nice one". The line was looking pretty good. The first seven jets had 340 knots or greater with a tight five or six miles between them. The next three needed a tweak or two on the vectors to work and the last five were still waiting for a plan to put them in line for the feed. I decided to put the Citrus [Airtran's callsign] in front of the Lufthansa and let the rest chase the tail of the big Airbus. "Citrus1402 maintain 330 knots or greater, cleared direct Dirty". Read back was good. "Luthansa4545 maintain 260 knots turn 10 degrees right vectors for in trail"…. no reply. "Luthansa4545 maintain 260 knots turn 10 degrees right vectors for in trail" …….. "Luthansa4545??!"…. I heard a crackling noise with something that sounded like a speech from one of those old History channel shows about Germany in World War II. "Luthansa4545, Atlanta?" No reply.

No big deal, the Lufthansa was at flight level 320 and the nearest traffic was still eight miles behind him. I would get back to this later. I would work around the problem. I notified my two year veteran Front Line Manager that was making way more money after three months shuffling paper and answering phones as a Supervisor than me with my two decades plus service in the trenches. She came over to look over the situation and see if I was doing everything right. She pointed to the Lufthansa and told me that I needed to turn him out to get the in trail. I turned around away from the scope and explained to her that this was the aircraft that was not in radio contact and that I had just reported that fact to her. She had a blank stare on her face. She said "oh, well what about that Delta jet right there under him?"

I turned around to see what she was talking about and I immediately got that dry feeling in my throat. My heart rate tripled immediately and I went into total protection mode as I watched the Lufthansa descend through flight level 300 as this Delta jet had somehow gotten into the fray and was about 1.5 miles behind and below the Lufthansa at FL290. The Delta was doing 470 knots ground speed to the Lufthansa’s 360 knots. It was bad, real bad. My fight or flight instinct kicked in and I fought.

Everything around you blacks out and your peripheral vision and hearing goes away as you realize that you have an overtake situation with an aircraft you are not talking to descending down right through another passenger jet full of business and arrogant lawyers from Newark. Apparently the garbled German I had heard earlier was the Lufthansa reading back a descent clearance to flight level 260 instead of the intended speed reduction to 260 knots just before I lost radio contact. While I was turned around debating correct handling of the sector with my one year wonder supervisor, I had made the mistake of allowing my eyes off of the scope for about 90 seconds. Just long enough for this catastrophic situation to develop. I had about 30 seconds to implement a plan or I would surely be the number one story on Robin Meade’s show on CNN the next morning.

Training and experience kicked in. I calmed my voice as I knew that if I panicked on the frequency, the Delta jet would ask me to confirm it. I only had time for one clearance and it better be the right one. I got my best deep southern voice out and proclaimed sternly … "Delta65, traffic alert, traffic 12 o’clock 2 miles, same direction descending through your altitude and much slower. Turn left immediately to avoid traffic, descend at your best rate to flight level 240. I say again TURN LEFT IMMEDIATELY AND DESCEND…NOW! " The pilot knew exactly what I meant as I calmly but firmly used the terms “immediately” and “now” in my clearance. There was no argument. The demand compliant atmosphere of the job is understood as necessary to keep you alive as a pilot. The target started the turn on the radar scope at about .75 miles distance and 300 feet vertically. The pilot then read back "Delta65 roger, we have the airbus in sight responding to a TCAS resolution advisory and descending."

I, and everyone around me, suddenly fell quiet as the supervisor’s jaw bounced off the cheap government carpet behind me. She had never seen two targets that close and was in complete shock as we had no idea whether the two aircraft were going to miss or not. The targets were occupying the same point in space and 100 feet apart and closing. All the training and experience, all the multi billion dollar radar and radio equipment, all of the initiatives from management … none of that mattered one iota as this situation was completely in the hands of fate and chance. Maybe there would be four or five hundred body parts mixed with burning jet fuel floating down through the stratocumulus, maybe they would just miss and keep going. No one knew for that eternal 45 seconds. No one knew.

I got relieved and immediately went to the front desk to watch the replay. The 3rd level management was already there with my NATCA rep asking me if I was OK. Was I ok, what a stupid question this was. Of course I was not OK. I had just leaned over the edge of the dark chasm of a major air catastrophe. They and I had survived only because of chance and a little bit of experience in knowing exactly what to say and how to say it. Was I OK? I hated that question.

I replied “yea man, just part of the job. Those two were a little tight,, huh?” Everyone smiled nervously as I went outside to get some air. I spent the next 30 minutes shaking like a leaf while I smoked a half pack of cigarettes wondering how the hell I had gotten out of that situation.

Controller A
Atlanta ARTCC

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