For the “Journeys” issue of Topic, Anna Holmes shares a reprint of a 1996 New York Times Magazine piece by Darcy Frey originally titled, “Something’s Got to Give.” The piece is a frenetic, testosterone-and-adrenaline-fueled ride-along with a fragile fraternity of New York air traffic controllers minding the busiest airspace in the United States. They’re charged with ensuring the safety of 7,000 flights per day using outdated and failing equipment while attempting to maintain their own sanity. “Every hour around here is 59 minutes of boredom and 1 of sheer terror.”
ALL THE WAY DOWN the bank of radar scopes, the air traffic controllers have that savage, bug-eyed look, like men on the verge of drowning, as they watch the computer blips proliferate and speak in frantic bursts of techno-chatter to the pilots: “Continental 1528, turn right heading 280 immediately! Traffic at your 12 o’clock!” A tightly wound Tom Zaccheo, one of the control- room veterans, sinks his teeth into his cuticles and turns, glowering, to the controller by his side: “Hey, watch your goddamned planes—you’re in my airspace!” Two scopes away, the normally unflappable Jim Hunter, his right leg pumping like a pneumatic drill, sucks down coffee and squints as blips representing 747s with 200 passengers on board simply vanish from his radar screen. “If the FAA doesn’t fix this goddamned equipment,” he fumes, retrieving the blips with his key pad, “it’s only a matter of time before there’s a catastrophe.” And Joe Jorge, a new trainee, scrambling to keep his jets safely separated in the crowded sky, is actually panting down at the end as he orders pilots to turn, climb, descend, speed up, slow down and look out the cockpit window, captain!
From the passenger seat of a moving airplane, the sky over New York City seems empty, serene, a limitless ocean of blue. But on a controller’s radar scope, it looks more like a six-lane highway at rush hour with everyone pushing 80. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving—usually the busiest air-travel day of the year—jets are barrelling toward Newark just 1,000 feet above the propeller planes landing at Teterboro. Newark departures streak up the west side of the Hudson River just as LaGuardia arrivals race down the east. And in the darkened operations room of the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control—the vast air traffic facility in Westbury, Long Island, that handles the airspace over New York City—the controllers curse and twitch like a gathering of Tourette sufferers, as they try to keep themselves from going down the pipes.
Then, for an instant, his mind wanders—don’t forget to pick up milk on the way home—and suddenly he looks back at the scope and it’s gone: no picture, no pattern, just a mad spray of blips (and more blips now than there were five seconds ago) heading—where? North or south? Climbing or descending? He can’t remember, and though he tries to catch up, he’s already behind, conflicts arising faster than he can react—one here, one there—jets streaking across the sky at 300 miles an hour, the controller’s stomach in knots because he knows he’s going down, nothing to do but leap from his chair, rip off his headset, and yell to his supervisor, “Get me out of here—I’m losing it!”
Sometimes it is the Federal Aviation Administration’s ancient equipment that messes with a controller’s head—a radar scope from the 1960s going dark with a dozen planes in the sky, or a dilapidated radio blowing out. A few years ago, a controller guiding ten jets in a great curving arc toward Newark suddenly lost his frequency just as he had to turn the pilots onto the final approach to the runway. Watching in helpless horror as his planes careered farther and farther off course, the controller rose from his chair with an animal scream, burst into a sweat, and began tearing off his shirt. By the time radio contact was reestablished—and the errant planes were reined in—the controller was quivering on the floor half naked, and was discharged on a medical leave until he could regain his wits.