The Master Woodbutcher's
Aviation Story

If you read any of my other bios, you know that my father flew 35 missions in B-17s as a radio operator/gunner during WWII. He wanted to fly from the beginning, and tried to get into the Cadet program, but a variety of circumstances prevented that. After the war he took advantage of the GI Bill and took flying lessons, eventually earning his Private Pilot's license. Due to the economics of the postwar years in a small town in Western New York, there was no money available for recreational flying, so the license was put away.

I graduated from high school in 1964 and like most of the young men of the time sought ways to decline the opportunity offered by the government to visit Southeast Asia. I was fortunate enough to be able to get a student deferment, and with my interest in electronics, began to pursue electrical engineering at the local junior college.

After eighteen months of gen-eds and not yet having had a soldering iron in my hands, I was wallowing in academia, with alternating semesters of acedemic probation. In a watershed event, and after having briefly visited with an Army recruiter, I went to lunch with my father and had our first man-to-man talk about my future. I told him about my lack of direction and motivation, and about my chat with the recruiter, and somehow aviation crept into the conversation. He told me of a program at another junior college that he had just read about that trained students in aviation with a goal of airline flying.

We looked into the program and I enrolled, and my tattered logbook shows a first flight of 17 January, 1967; .6 hours, Familiarization. Over the next eighteen months I turned, climbed, glided, landed, stalled, chandelled, and flew blind, eventually emerging with Certificate #1686067 Commercial Pilot, Airplane, Single Engine, Land, Instrument. According to the article my father had read me after that fateful lunch, the airlines were hiring pilots with 200 hours, Commercial, Instrument. By June, 1967, as the ink was drying on my 200 hour license, they were hiring pilots fresh from Southeast Asia with 1500 hours of jet time.

I sent lots of resumes, but they all seemed to get the same response:

Thank you for your interest in XXX Airlines. Although your experience doesn't meet the standards of our company at this time, we will keep your letter on file should circumstances...etc.
They must have used an airline industry boilerplate for those letters.

While I wallowed for six months working for the school system, my mother, a high school librarian, brought home a circular from the FAA about Air Traffic Control. I had always been intrigued by the guys in the tower; even visiting Opa Locka tower a couple of times. I remember taking an IFR cross country and working a young sounding controller at MIA TRACON and thinking how neat that sounded. So, I filled out the application and sent it in. I took a test (yawn, another standardized test. I always did well in those.), got an interview, and then toward the end of March, 1968, got a call that changed my life. Would I be interested in a position in Jacksonville Center starting on 8 April?

There were several bumps along the way; a draft physical in January (failed, bad ankle), Greeting in May (they couldn't read their records), “just come on in and take the physical; if you fail it, you'll be out,” move back home, induction physical (failed, bad ankle), move back to Jacksonville, another draft physical in 1970 (failed, bad ankle), but I got through it all, got a 300+ number in the lottery, and became a fully certified radar controller in May, 1970. In June, I met my best friend and we married in October.

I spent five years in Jacksonville, and in a quest for more challenges, bid on the New York Common IFR Room (the Common “I”) and O'Hare. I was selected for O'Hare, and SWMBO and I moved to Chicago in February, 1973. After five months at ORD, it was clear that my high-altitude center experience didn't fit a terminal environment, nor did my attitude that I was an FPL, not a trainee, so ORD and I agreed to part company and I was transferred to Chicago Center.

Over the years, I added another 200 hours to the logbook, and maybe I'll do some more flying, but it's brutally expensive. Frankly, I've had a good time, and aircraft ownership isn't for me, so I may not fly again. I took my father up the day after I got my private, and he hadn't flown since 1947. It was enough to get him back in, and he eventually bought his own plane. I flew the family to my mother's parents' 50th anniversary, and I flew my wife and kids around. I had lot's of experiences that I can fall back on, so to never fly again won't be the tragedy for me that it might be for others. It's like my father said when he had to give up his license and sell his airplane due to health. I was consoling him for that and he said, “what's the problem? I always wanted to own an airplane and I did.” It taught me a valuable lesson.

SWMBO and I ultimately built a house in Aurora, had two great kids, one of each, and I survived 30 years of high density air traffic control. People have asked me how I handled the stress, and honestly, I never felt stress. I have analyzed it over the years, and I am convinced that the stress in the job is a function of how blessed one is with ability for it. I was very fortunate.

What's it like? It's the world's greatest video game. It is awesome. The day before I retired I was working the Bradford, IL, high altitude sector when Kansas City Center lost their power. I got my butt kicked for nearly an hour, and it was absolutely, positively the most exhilerating way I could possibly have imagined to go out. It was better than Jordan, better than Gretzky. Here's the odd part: I almost never think about it. I never think of the people I worked with or the job. Two weeks after I left I happened to drive by the center and I looked at it and couldn't imagine having put 25 years in there. It was as if I had never been there.

I knew three years before I left I wasn't going to miss it, so I was okay. I had done almost everything I wanted to anyway. I worked enroute, high altitude, airport control, flow control, taught, trained, quality assurance, supervision, and I went out on top…at age 51. What's to miss?

Last updated: 27 January 2009

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