La Verne Magazine
Controllers Clear Skies for Brackett Fliers
by Allison Moore
photography by Matt Wright
Five stories above ground, veteran flight controller Ramon Valera, 53,
gives vital landing information to planes ready to land and take off. Flight
controllers at Brackett manage between 800 to 850 flight operations a day.
Trying desperately to recall how his friends challenged his manhood
enough to convince him to fly, he tightens his safety belt around his already
creased waist. Sweat beads, then streams down his brow after realizing that
taking in the view, 700 feet above sea level, was not the calming effect
he needed. Wringing a hanky with his girl friend's delicately embroidered
initials around his trembling thumb, he longs to be with her, firmly footed
on the ground.
Despite the pilot's calm demeanor when receiving his landing instructions,
his passenger tucks his head between his knees and prays a rambling prayer.
Approaching the runway, automobiles and pedestrians advance in what looks
like a snail's pace. Neighborhoods, buildings and parks resemble the layout
of a board game. Descending upon the runway, the pilot secures a routine
landing and salutes the air traffic control tower while taxiing the runway,
thanking them for a safe landing. The anxious passenger straightens his
wardrobe and wonders what he was so worried about. From the tower, where
safe landings are secured, the air traffic controller calmly hails back.
While the external view of the Brackett Field tower has an unimportant
presentation, the interior operations of the tower are, in fact, one of
the pilot's most essential resources.
After ascending the spiraling steps of the five-story tower, one emerges
into a circular room that is slightly smaller than a moderately-sized family
room. A view from windows that outline the entire room extends across the
green slopes of Mountain Meadows and provides an additional incentive to
Brackett's air traffic controllers already satisfying occupation.
Within the control room, a dash of puzzling buttons and controls border
most of the perimeter. Swivel chairs glide controllers across the room allowing
them to interact quickly with co-workers.
Flight students from Mt. SAC often use Brackett Airport to train in their
landings and takeoffs as they perform continuous "touch and go's."
On this particular day, ground controller Joe Starks helps guide the beginning
aviators in their training.
Intercom headsets crown the heads of the controllers, giving them two-way
communication with the pilots. Speaking close to the speed of planes during
lift off, the controllers give precise information to pilots while landing,
taking off and taxiing the runway.
Peering through binoculars, Ken Evans, an air traffic control specialist,
confirms that a descending aircraft's landing gear is functioning properly.
Evans sums up a controller's job qualification by saying, "Basically
what this job does is manage stressful situations, and creates order from
Controlling 800 to 850 operations a day, Brackett Field is one of the
nation's busiest general aviation airports. Maintaining safe operations
on a regular basis requires certain skills. They must visualize a clearly
detailed map of every scenario occurring inside the limits of Brackett Field.
John Paiva, veteran Brackett Field controller for 10 years, interprets
the required proficiency, "You have to be able take the movement [of
the planes] and project where they need to be, and if you can't do that,
then you can't do the job safely."
Paiva attributes much of his success as a controller to the mastery
of skills used while playing a childhood game, "Dungeons and Dragons."
The game created abstract events where Paiva attempted to maneuver through
scenes from verbalized, step-by-step instructions.
Evans, like most other controllers, gained his technical knowledge of
air traffic controlling from his four-year enlistment in the military in
1972. He estimates that 80 to 90 percent of controllers come from the military.
In the past, college preparatory classes that specialized in air traffic
control were rare.
Today, controllers are required to pass a rigorous training school in
order to work in national towers. Stationed in Oklahoma City, the trainees
are placed in situations that simulate the complexity of an actual day's
work in a tower. Evans spent four months training in a mock tower with screens
that project scenes of an airport.
"It's just like a video game," Evans remarks. "It simulates
the real world, the best that they can create it."
The trainees are required to solve 23 problems with different levels
of complexity. Evans was among 14 of his fellow classmates who passed the
course in which 114 entered.
Art Yarnell, air traffic control supervisor, explains that controllers
must be able to think abstractly in a 3-D sense. "If plan A doesn't
work, and you don't have a plan B to get you out of trouble, then you're
going to have an operational error."
These plans must not only be formulated one right after another, they
must also be done within a matter of seconds. Thinking quickly is of the
essence. "You don't have time to second guess yourself," says
Unlike most jobs where minor mistakes occur daily, air traffic controllers
live up to different standards. "We basically have to hit it 100% all
of the time."
Yarnell says that living up to that standard requires having confidence
in oneself. "You have to have a pretty strong ego to be an air traffic
controller. You actually don't find many that don't have a pretty strong
While having an ego is often seen as negative characteristic within
the average workplace, air traffic controllers feel that a healthy ego is
important. "This is a job where you have to know that you can do it,
otherwise you can't. Your self-confidence is your main resource here. If
you have any doubts of whether or not you can do it, it's going to be in
the back of your mind and it's going to slow you down, and you can't make
slow decisions," Paiva adds.
Achieving 100% accuracy takes more than an individual effort. "All
of us are a little niche. We're all putting together one piece of a puzzle,
and if all the pieces don't fit then it doesn't work," illustrates
Paiva. Charles Register, air traffic control manager, agrees with Paiva
about the importance of teamwork saying, "It's the corner post of what
Under normal circumstances, there are four to five controllers in the
tower: one working ground control, local, flight data and a controller in
charge. Together they form a team. "We listen and watch what the other
controllers are doing. Each should be aware of what the others are doing.
They should each have a picture of what the others have going on,"
Yarnell explains. He adds that "part of the teamwork is that if somebody
makes a mistake, someone else is there to catch it and correct it before
it becomes a problem."
In light of the fact that Brackett Field has been the departing point
for about nine airplanes that have crashed, including a recent Sylmar accident,
the crew has never been the wrong party in any of the situations. Paiva
adds that it is rare for horrific accidents to happen. The most common problem
occurs when an airplane skids on its body as a result of landing gear malfunctions.
Such situations only occur about two or three times a year.
Paiva says that controlling is exciting everyday. "It's totally
different circumstances all the time. You never know exactly what's going
At a recent air meet, Paiva says that the controllers were maneuvering
almost double the amount of airplanes of a normal day's worth of work. He
agrees there is a higher potential of dangerous situations developing during
busy days, but says that maintaining a steady work ethic is important.
The days in which hundreds of airplanes are not crowding the runway
are those when routine activities need to be fine-tuned. "It's all
about the habits that you make. The standard of what you do when you're
slow, is what you'll do when it's fast," Paiva says.
In addition, Register explains that many of the flight schools train
foreign students without a command of English. This results in pilots not
having a good grasp of the instructions they are given. Register experience
has been that language conflicts have not gotten to the point of absolute
Mutual respect lies between the relationships of the air traffic controllers
and the pilots in the aircraft, but Reigister admits that the controllers
are often seen as authority figures. A controller has the ability to suspend
the license of a pilot if the controller feels the pilot lacks the skills
to fly safely.
Students especially feel threatened by the controllers. To avoid being
perceived as monsters in the tower who gobble up piloting licenses, Register
encourages an open door policy with the pilots. "We try to make the
students come up and visit, and to let them know that we're here to provide
a service and to help them. If they have any questions that need to be answered,
then they should be over here talking to us about it," he says gesturing
with open arms.
Evans agrees and feels that mastering the art of piloting came easier
for him because he understood the air traffic control element.
Other air traffic controllers, like Joe Starks, prefer to keep their
distance from airplanes. "I like planes enough to watch them from the
ground." Starks confesses that he has a tendency to become dizzy. He
gave friends a good laugh when, while flying, his face turned several colors.
Paiva shares that often new pilots are not exactly sure what the controllers
are asking them to do because they are still learning. He says there is
nothing the controllers can do about it at that point but just give them
a little more attention. "There have been a couple of times when a
student found that he wasn't really ready to do what needed to be done,
but when you're flying, you can't just stop like you can in a car; you've
got to keep going." Paiva also adds that some, who have been having
trouble in the air, will break down and cry once they reach the ground.
Part of the pilot's inability to understand the commands of the controllers
is the fact that controllers use a phonetic language to give orders. The
universal aviation language is English, no matter where a pilot is in the
world. The difficulty level rises for the pilots from training schools who
are from different countries.
"If you're not familiar with the lingo, it might go over your head,"
points out Register "We use phrases instead of conversational language.
Conversational language is inefficient."
Unlike many young controllers who have aspirations to move on to other
facilities, Paiva has found his niche at Brackett Field. He has become comfortable
with his surroundings and lifestyle there. "I'll be here until they
close the place," Paiva confirms.
Cruising onto the runway, the pliot of a Cessna P32 taxis slowly and
steadily, maneuvering the two-ton piece of machinery onto the runway. Then
the pilot waits for his command. Gaining speed, the plane races down the
runway, then reaches into the clear blue sky. Guiding these metal birds
is all in a day's work for the air traffic controllers at Brackett Field.
In the situation where a plane is unable to communicate with the tower
through radio, light guns are used to communicate tower instructions to
the pilot. Greg Leathley, who has worked in flight control since 1965, mans
the light gun.