© 2019 CR Britting
The heavy steel door at the bottom of the steps closed with a metallic thud, leaving the airport control tower in unusual silence. After the normal babble of voices, the sudden quiet was a bit unnerving. All of the equipment was the same, but somehow the atmosphere was different. The silent, red digital clock on the console read 0002, two minutes past midnight.
Several people normally staffed this glassed-in area at the top of the tower, called the "cab", with a further group in the radar room downstairs. But not on the midnight shift. Because there were so few flights, usually less than a dozen the whole time, the whole tower facility was manned during the night by only one person. And tonight by Melanie Bradford, a little nervous at pulling her first solo shift since becoming a qualified air traffic controller.
"It's no big deal, Melanie," the tower chief had told her when he informed her of the assignment. "The graveyard shift is pretty slow, and your main problem will be trying to stay busy. It's a really good opportunity for you to solo in a situation that isn't too demanding. Your work so far has given you experience in everything you might have to do; the only difference is you'll have the responsibility. I'm sure you'll be fine, and it's time you pulled a shift by yourself."
Yeah, right, Melanie thought as she remembered the conversation. She had arrived at the Akron airport just over a year ago, a fresh-faced rookie right out of school. Akron was located just south of Cleveland, Ohio, near the Great Lakes, and she had found the Ohio weather a marked change from her home in Texas.
Walking across the cab, she glanced at the radarscope. All clear, as she expected. In fact, there were several "blips" on the screen, but they were not "her" aircraft. The Akron control area she was responsible for extended from the ground to up 9000 feet. Aircraft above that altitude belonged to Cleveland Center, the regional air traffic facility, and her computer had been told to ignore them.
Her first scheduled activity was about thirty minutes away, a corporate jet coming in from Chicago. Until that time she had some paperwork to take care of. She filled her coffee cup, sat down at the desk, and started on the stack of clearance forms for the next morning's flights.
Twenty minutes later, she got her first phone call from the Center. "Akron, Bradford," she answered, a bit nervous.
"Morning, Melanie. Bill Stevens." Relief flooded through her, how good it was to hear another voice, especially a friendly one. She and Bill had been classmates at the school for controllers in Oklahoma City.
"Hi, Bill," she said, trying to keep the relief out of her voice. "How's it going up there this morning?"
"Not bad," he replied. "I've got West Arrivals tonight and I'm ready to hand off Lear Two Bravo Quebec."
Melanie got up as he spoke and checked her schedule board. Sure enough, it was the corporate jet she was expecting. Moving to the radar display, she could see the blip, with the flashing symbol "L35 2BQ" attached to it. The L35 told her the aircraft was a Learjet model 35, a high performance, twin-engine executive jet. 2BQ was its identification number. The symbol was flashing to indicate the center was ready to hand her control of the plane. Quickly Melanie used a video arcade-style trackball to position a cursor over the flashing symbol, then pressed a button, telling the computer she accepted responsibility for the aircraft.
"Thanks, Bill. I've got him."
"Okay, Melanie." Bill's quiet confidence was contagious. "Talk to you later."
Melanie put on her headset and waited for the Learjet to call. Right now Bill was telling the pilot to switch his radio to the Akron approach control frequency.
"Good Morning, Akron," said the voice on the radio. "Learjet Two Bravo Quebec is with you, out of eleven for eight." The pilot was telling her he was descending through 11,000 feet to 8000 as he entered her control area.
Melanie thought the voice sounded familiar. "Lear Two Bravo Quebec, Akron approach control. Good morning," she replied. "At pilot's discretion, descend and maintain 6000. Vectors for ILS one-nine approach."
With those words, the pilot would understand he was being given directions for an instrument landing on runway one-nine, the north-to-south runway. Runway numbers are always compass headings with the last digit removed. So a runway with a heading of 190 degrees, almost due South, is called 'one-nine'. The same runway approached from the other end, going North, is runway 'zero one' because it's compass bearing is 010 degrees.
"Two Bravo Quebec, roger," the pilot replied, acknowledging her instructions, "Now of ten-five for six."
As she watched the business jet move from left to right across the top of the radarscope, Melanie saw that Bill had the plane lined up nicely. She would have to turn him only once, onto the final course to the runway.
"Two Bravo Quebec," she told him a moment later. "Turn right, heading one-niner-zero, descend and maintain 3500. Clear to land, runway one-nine."
"Roger," the pilot confirmed. "Right to one-niner-zero, down to 3500, cleared to land on one-nine." A pause. "That you, Melanie?"
"Sure is," she replied, a smile coming to her face as she recognized the voice. "Is that Mitch Jackman?"
"Affirmative," said the voice on the radio. Jackman was chief pilot for a well-known aerospace company. "But I'm just playing co-pilot tonight," he told her. "Dave Simson's in the left seat, doing his check ride." All pilots are required to take a "check ride" periodically with a senior pilot, to demonstrate they are up-to-date on their flying skills and procedures.
"Understand, Mitch," Melanie called. "Morning, Dave. Good thing you all are getting back early. We've got a weather front due in here in a couple of hours, and a lot of the airports to the southwest are closing with poor visibility."
"Yeah," Jackman agreed. "We heard that Dayton and Columbus are below minimums already. Actually we weren't scheduled back until tomorrow morning, but the boss finished his business and wanted to get back, so we left early."
Normally controllers and pilots did not engage in such long-winded conversations, but it was late and there was no other activity, so Melanie relaxed a little. She knew both pilots well; having talked to them often on the radio during her training, and on several occasions had met them for coffee after her shift was over.
A few minutes later, the Lear landed safely and taxied to its hangar, allowing Melanie to return to her paperwork. During the next four hours she handled six more arriving or departing aircraft. As the tower chief had predicted, it was easy. During her training Melanie had actually handled six aircraft simultaneously and had proven over time that she could do it competently.
The weather, however, had turned bad. With a change in temperature and humidity had come a thick fog that had gotten steadily worse. From the tower cab Melanie couldn't even see the ends of the runways, and at 0430 conditions fell below the 300 foot ceiling and 1/2 mile visibility required for even instrument landings. In other words, the airport was effectively closed for almost all inbound aircraft.
Melanie informed the Center of the status of the airport and checked her schedule board. Fortunately, there were no further arrivals and only two scheduled departures before her shift ended at 0600. Having nothing further to do for the moment, she returned to her paperwork.
But at 0510 the phone rang again. "Melanie, Bill. We have an emergency in progress. An air force plane is in trouble and must land immediately. You're the closest airport with a long runway, so we're giving him to you."
"But I'm below minimums here, Bill," she reminded him as she glanced at the scope. The air force plane was south of the airport, its tag also showing a '7777' distress beacon.
"I know that, Melanie," Bill replied. "But he's got to land immediately. Give him a P.R.A. and let's hope his fuel holds up. I'm ready to hand him off now."
"Okay, Bill," she said, taking a deep breath. "I'll take him."
"Akron approach, Air Force 1704," the aircraft called a moment later. "Out of twelve for eight."
"Air Force 1704, Akron approach," Melanie replied. "Understand you're requested a Precision Radar Approach?"
"Affirmative, Akron," the pilot said. "I've got an electrical failure of some kind. All my navigation equipment is down and I'm almost out of fuel. We tried air-to-air refueling from a tanker, but something's wrong and I couldn’t get the probe to extend. I'm almost dry and it's imperative I land as soon as possible."
"Understand 1704. Turn right, heading 020. Descend and maintain 6000. Vectors for P.R.A. runway two-three." Runway two-three, the 8200-foot northeast to southwest runway, was the airport's longest, and the only one equipped for a Precision Radar Approach.
Melanie glanced at the tag again. What kind of plane was it? The tag said F117, which got her attention in a hurry. A stealth fighter? Goodness, gracious. He must have some electronics working or I wouldn't see him at all.
She watched the screen and saw the blip move slowly up the right hand side. Quickly she turned up the runway lights to maximum intensity and double-checked to be sure the strobe lights at the approach end of two-three were turned on. The high intensity flashing lights would be the first thing the pilot would see in the fog.
"Air Force 1704, Akron," she called. "I'll be out of touch for a moment, the P.R.A. scope is downstairs. Call you again in 45 seconds."
"Roger, Akron," the pilot replied. "Now out of 7800 for six."
Melanie hurried down two flights of stairs to the radar room. This area, about thirty feet square, was always kept in semi-darkness. Along one wall were five big twenty-inch radarscopes and their control consoles, situated so they could all be manned at the same time during busy periods. The controllers in this room handled all aircraft in the Akron control area, except for planes on the ground or actually landing or taking off; those aircraft were handled by the controllers upstairs in the cab.
Tonight, of course, she was doing both jobs. Sitting down at the console, she plugged in her headset. It should be about time to...wait a minute. What the...? The scope was empty. There was no sign of the air force plane.
"Air Force 1704, Akron-Canton," she called. Where was he? There was no answer. The seconds ticked by. "Air Force 1704, Akron-Canton," she repeated. "Do you copy?"
Still no answer. The rotating trace on the scope went around two more times. Where did he go?
"Oh, Dear God," she exclaimed as the thought hit her. He said he was almost dry. Could he have... The trace on the scope swung around again. And again. Melanie stared at the empty display. What should she do? She pressed the mic button again. "Air Force 1704, this is Akron. Do you copy?" She mentally shifted through the emergency procedures she'd learned. Who should she call to report...
"...ron...Air...1704." The radio sprang suddenly to life. Relief surged through her.
"Air Force 1704, Akron. Your transmission is broken." No answer. Just static on the radio. She glanced again at the scope. It was clear, as before.
"1704, I had you there for a second," she called. "Try it again."
"Akron, Air Force 1704." The radio boomed to life. "I'm on the backup radio now. How copy?"
"1704, I’ll got you now," she answered. "You had me worried there for a minute."
"Roger," the pilot replied. "I had another power hit of some kind. I've lost the primary radio, the transponder and a bunch of other stuff." A transponder is a device on the plane that broadcasts the aircraft's speed, altitude, and identification. And in the case of a stealth aircraft, it enables the plane to be seen on radar. Without it, a stealth is invisible to radar unless it very close.
"Ah, 1704," Melanie called. "Negative radar contact. I'm not seein' a thing on the scope." And if I can't see him on the radar, I can't talk him down.
"Yeah," the pilot replied. "I'm working on it. I've tried resetting the circuit breakers, but they keep tripping again."
The seconds dragged by. Melanie could feel her heart beating rapidly. He's almost out of fuel. He has to land...and quickly. If there was only some way I could...
Suddenly she had an idea. "Air Force 1704, Akron," she called quickly. "Roll your aircraft up on one wing for 15 seconds. You're pretty close to the airport. I might get a skin paint that way."
Looked at from a side view, an F117 is almost invisible to the eye at any distance. But if he stood the aircraft on one wing, so that it was perpendicular to the ground, she might just get enough return for the radar to see it.
"Roger, Akron," came the reply. "It's worth trying."
She waited impatiently for the rotating sweep of the scope. There! A very small blip appeared on the screen. There was no tag, of course, since the transponder wasn't working.
"1704, Akron, radar contact, you're eight miles northeast of the airport. Turn left heading 340. Descend and maintain 3500. I'll turn you on final in four miles."
"Roger, 3500," the pilot replied. "That was a good idea there, ma'am. I'll do it again every so often." The aircraft moved slowly across the scope. About every third sweep, she'd get a blip and could follow the crippled plane's progress fairly well.
"1704, anything else you can shut down?" she asked. "Maybe you can get the transponder back if you can turn off some other stuff."
"I'll take a look," he replied dubiously. "I tried that once before."
"Try again, sir. I don't think I can talk you down with just a skin paint." For a long moment, there was silence. And then, amazingly, the transponder was back. Yes! All right! Melanie ran her fingers through her hair and let out the breath she'd been unconsciously holding. They were back in business!
"You got it now?" came the call.
"You bet, 1704. Big and bright."
"Okay," he replied. "Let's get this bird on the ground. The fuel gauge is below the empty mark."
"Roger, 1704," she replied. "Turn left, heading 230, you are ten miles from the end of the runway. Clear for the PRA approach, runway two-three."
"Roger, Akron, two three zero," the pilot replied. "Pardon me, ma'am, but are you all by yourself over there?"
"Affirmative 1704. We're always on single controller from midnight to 0600."
"Well," he said, "I'm just glad there's somebody there. By the way, my name's Pete. What's yours?”
She laughed as she keyed the mic. "My name's Melanie, Pete. Nice to meet you. You get that black bird on the ground in one piece and I'll buy you breakfast."
"Not on your life, Melanie," he retorted. "You get me back on the ground and I'll buy you the whole restaurant!"
She laughed again. "Well, let's get it on the ground first, Pete. Then we'll settle up, okay?" She took a deep breath. "Start your descent down. I'm gonna keep you fairly high for a while, we've got some radio towers and power lines you want to stay away from."
Melanie monitored the aircraft's progress. Unlike the regular radar, the special P.R.A. scope had a glide slope superimposed on it. As long as the pilot kept the aircraft on the glide slope, he would touch down right at the end of the runway, even though he would not see it until just before he landed. "Air Force 1704, you are slightly high. Increase your rate of descent. You are seven miles from the end of the runway. You need not acknowledge further transmissions."
She continued to watch the scope intently. "1704, now on course, on glide path. Continue your approach."
"Akron, King Air five seven eight delta is with you at 7000."
Melanie was startled by the call from an unexpected new aircraft. A glance at the other scope showed a new blip, with the tag "KA 578D" next to it.
"King Air 578 Delta. We have an emergency in progress. Remain south of the airport."
The other pilot was slow to respond. "Oh...okay, sorry, Akron. We'll stay south of the airport."
Melanie turned her attention back to the P.R.A. scope and gasped. The Air Force plane was dangerously low!
“Air Force 1704," she called quickly. "You are too low. Pull up immediately. You are four miles from the end of the runway."
She held her breath as she waited for the aircraft to respond. A moment later, she breathed a little easier as it came back on the glide slope.
"Air Force 1704, you are now on the glide slope. Correct your course two degrees left. You are two miles from the end of the runway.” "1704 now on course, slightly high, increase your rate of descent, one mile from the runway...1704 now 1/2 mile from the runway, course and glide path are good...Now 1/4 mile from the runway, you should see the strobe lights shortly."
”I've got 'em!”came the excited reply from the pilot.
"Roger, 1704. Clear to land." Melanie tried to stay calm in spite of the excitement she felt. "You're almost home. Don't forget your gear, Pete."
Sometimes in the tension of a P.R.A. pilots forgot to put their landing gear down.
"1704 has the runway in sight," the pilot called. "I've got three green lights. Gear down and locked."
"Nice and easy, Pete," she cautioned. "Let's do one this by the book."
Melanie snatched her headset plug out of its socket and ran back upstairs. When she reached the cab, the aircraft had already landed, and she could see it’s landing lights moving swiftly down the runway. As the plane passed the center of the airport, she caught the briefest glimpse of the midnight black plane before it disappeared into the fog.
Seconds later, she heard the muted thunder of its engines at the pilot kicked in thrust reverse to slow the plane down. Melanie took a deep breath as she plugged in her headset.
"Air Force 1704," she said, breathing a sigh of relief. "Welcome. Glad you made it okay."
"Thank you, Melanie," the pilot called back. "I've got to get this aircraft under wraps as soon as possible, but after that breakfast is on me!"
Melanie laughed. "Roger that, Pete. If you can wait 'till 0600, I'll take you up on it. I'm starved!"
"Akron, King Air 578 delta is still with you."
"Oh, my gosh!" thought Melanie. "I forgot all about him." She keyed the microphone. "Ah, good morning seven eight delta, sorry for the delay. Say your intentions."
There was a chuckle in the pilot's voice. "Understand, Akron, I've been listening. Sorry to call at a bad time earlier. I'm heading up to Toledo Express Airport."
Melanie handled the propeller plane quickly, and then turned her attention back to the black jet. The US Army Reserve had a helicopter squadron based on the other side of airport,. She called the squadron duty officer and made arrangements for F117 to be kept in their hangar until a repair team could arrive.
Then, with scarcely a break, she handled the last two departures, and before she knew it her shift was over, and the day crew started reporting in.
The fog had just begun to lift when she drove up in front of the army hangar thirty minutes later. Two alert-looking soldiers in battle dress and carrying M-16's eyed her suspiciously, but just at that moment an Air Force officer stepped out of the building, still dressed in his flight suit.
Pete was about 30, tall, and his boyish good looks reminded her of Tom Cruise in the old “Top Gun” movie.
"Hi, Melanie," he said as he came up to her. "I'm Pete Peterson. Before we go to breakfast, come inside for a minute, I want to show you something."
Melanie went with him and as they rounded a corner she stopped dead in her tracks. The aircraft was solid black, with only the white tail number 1704 clearly visible in the dimly lit hangar. The plane was somewhat boxy in appearance, and the twin tail section, instead of being vertical, sloped up and outward. The engine air intakes were not long round tunnels like many jets but were mere slits near the wing roots.
"Sorry I can't let you see the cockpit," Pete said, "but almost everything in the bird is classified. The repair folks will be here later this morning, but for security reasons, we'll probably wait 'til dark to fly it out."
"Ooooh," breathed Melanie in awe. "I've never seen a stealth up close before. It's fantastic!"
"The crew chief checked and found less than thirty gallons of fuel remaining," Perkins said. Then he turned to face her. "Melanie, I owe you. Big time. If you hadn't talked me down, I would have had to punch out in the dark, and we'd have lost the aircraft. You just saved your country about sixty million dollars."
Author’s note: Air traffic controllers are unsung heroes in my book. They work long hours filled with stress and their obsolete equipment makes their life and death job even more difficult. Thanks, guys and gals, for keeping us safe as we fly.