Saturday, December 1, 2007

Chatter in the Night Sky

I was flying home last night. The skies were clear down the entire East Coast. The cabin entertainment system let me tune in to the air traffic control channel for our flight. For over an hour, I sat and listened to the chatter on the airwaves as I watched the lights of the cities drift by. Instead of a silent sky, I heard the night filled with the voices of air traffic controllers and pilots talking to each other about altitudes, routes, flight track crossings points, weather and flight conditions.

"Atlanta, United 1521. You may climb to three eight zero and maintain vector one eight zero."
"United 1521, roger Atlanta, climbing to three eight zero."
"United 1521, hand off to Jacksonville ATC. Frequency one three three point two seven."
"Roger, Atlanta. One three three point two seven. Goodnight."

There was a clear sense of competence and professionalism even in these brief cryptic remarks. At one point, I heard a pilot comment that he had been flying up from New Orleans and had to make the trip at the (relatively low) altitude of 27,000 feet to avoid turbulence. The air traffic controller responded dryly, "You took the scenic route."

Air traffic control as a technology grew up with the airplane and especially, the airline industry. Like most new systems, it started out privately, built by those who wanted it most, the airports and the airlines. By World War II, it had moved under the control of Federal Government's Civil Aeronautics Administration. But it was the advent of commercial radar in 1960 that revolutionized air traffic control. Advances in technology over that last 50 years have allowed relatively safe flights in an evermore crowded sky.

But behind all this technology are the people I listened to last night: the pilots and air traffic controllers who make a relaxed, safe flight possible. I trust these people to get me to my destination in one piece. But it is always this way with complex technology systems. In everything from hospital operating rooms to nuclear power plant control rooms, we demand trained professionals to run our technologies for us. And day in and day out, they do just that. In our complex world, we cannot live any other way. But the voices and the chatter that I heard last night tells me that these are still people. People I can trust.

We landed without incident right on schedule. When I went outside to get my car, the sky seemed strangely quiet.

By the way, if you want to listen in live to the ATC chatter, you can do it here.

[Image of Washington, DC Air Traffic Control from Wikipedia]

1 comment: said...

Good point Gregg.

Too often I think we all forget that technology isn't simply stuff doing our work, but people keeping an eye on the stuff to make sure it does what it should