Bring Your Kid to Work, ATC Style

By Robert Mark on March 3rd, 2010

JFK Tower Jetwhine When I saw the caller ID this morning with CNN’s address I figured something awful was up. Usually is.

“Can you talk about the Kennedy incident,” the producer asked me? Didn’t sound like she wanted me to talk about the impending runway closure. The young lady wanted my opinion on the kid controlling traffic at JFK last month (click the link below to listen). The father – a fully certified controller at JFK – and his supervisor were suspended for letting a young boy – the controller’s son – plug in to the tower radio with his dad and say “Cleared for takeoff,” and “Contact departure.”

Some callers on the CNN segment today were outraged that a controller would so thoughtlessly endanger the lives of so many people, while others thought a guy giving his son a taste for the job wasn’t a bad idea as long as dad was right there watching over things. And dad was doing just that. The kid never controlled anything. He said the words his dad told him to say, nothing more. And he sounded pretty good to tell you the truth which is why the pilots on frequency loved it.

No one at the upper echelons of the FAA or the controller’s union was laughing however and honestly, there was little else they could say. This looked bad for sure. In retrospect, this was surely a boneheaded thing to do, not because it WAS unsafe, but because it LOOKED unsafe to everyone. And PR is about the way things look, not the way things are.

First a few facts

The controllers at JFK are the Top Gun of their profession, as are the controllers at LaGuardia, Newark, Atlanta, O’Hare and dozens of other towers where controllers probably talk to well over a thousand planes every day. They are quite literally the best of the best. Anyone who’s flown an airplane into any of these cities will confirm that.

Now, would a controller try something like this to be funny … absolutely. Would a controller try this knowing full well he could override the boy’s transmissions in a heartbeat if anything looked even remotely concerning? Absolutely. Would a controller try a stunt they obviously knew would put people in danger on the ground and in the air? Nope … not on your life.

But that’s not how the public or anyone else in charge will see this. I’m sure there will be a rule soon in the controller’s handbook that says no one under 18 may even touch a radio, much less talk on it. This incident will also make it more difficult for regular pilots to visit ATC facilities, I’m sure.

In light of the incident when two NWA pilots blew past Minneapolis last fall because they were playing on their laptops instead of flying the airplane, I’m just not that worried about this incident. Sure it’s going to be embarrassing as a controller, but it is not unsafe. Was it a dumb idea? Yeah, if the controller had really thought about it. Did I ever do anything stupid when I was a controller, anything I’d ever be embarrassed about now? You betcha. In the heat of the moment though, with qualified people all over the place and the pilots playing along, it just didn’t look like that big a deal.

Am I endorsing what happened at JFK? No, not at all.

But I’m also not forgetting that some of the folks at JFK tower were probably on duty on 9/11 and watched those airplanes fly into the Twin Towers. And they also watched with widened eyes as their city burned like Hell on Earth had truly begun. So what I’m saying is that in a city that has had little joy in the past 10 years, maybe everyone might just agree to whack these controllers on the hand this time, give them a letter of reprimand if needed. But I’d vote to cut these guys a little slack on this one. I think we have many more important things to deal with in this industry.

Listen for yourself though. Here’s the recording.

Rob Mark, editor

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40 Responses to “Bring Your Kid to Work, ATC Style”

  1. Micah Says:

    Finally, an article that is well thought out!

    Thank you!!

  2. scottfmurphy Says:

    Rob,
    Great story – couldn’t agree more about the situation. Not only will this probably be blown way out of proportion, but it had no effect on safety at all.

    As a matter of fact, I think the kid did a damn good job, a heck of a lot better than **some** of the controllers I’ve dealt with at certain Chicago Executive airports – not to be named ;-)

  3. John Kosak Says:

    Wait, you’re telling me this happened last month? How sad that there are people in the media who would take this lighthearted, fully supervised moment and turn it into something it was not.

    It may be about how things look, but the media has control over that. They can use this recording and leave out the details and scare the crap out of people or they could report the entire story, thereby reassuring anyone who didn’t know any better that there was never any danger to anyone. I guess scaring the crap out of people sells more advertising because it generates more hits to a web site or sells more papers. Don’t journalists have a responsibility to report the entire story, like you Rob? Where is the accountability? Does the press get to pick the part of a story they want to report and then we have to spend days trying to convince our non-aviation friends that it’s not nearly as bad as the press says it is?

    Sorry for the rant, but this hits a nerve with me. I know that not every reporter or journalist is like this, mostly because I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people like you who work in the media industry. But the ones that are, drive me crazy and there seem to be more of them these days.

    John Kosak

  4. Kent Says:

    Amen, Rob. When I first heard this recording a month ago and it was beginning to go viral, I was afraid the press would get a hold of it eventually. In reality, the kid did a great job, and Dad was in control the entire time. I don’t think it was dumb from any perspective except PR, and if we let PR run the world it’d be a horrible place.

  5. Jay Aho Says:

    Funny enough, while the adult made one verbal mistake, the kid was perfect. Here’s one vote to cut them some slack.

  6. Grant McHerron (aka Falcon124) Says:

    When I first heard this, I thought it was someone putting together a pretty good hoax. When it became clear it was for real, I sat back and watched the great reputation of New York area controllers taking a major step downhill.

    Given the recent exposure of the controller talking on his mobile while directing traffic during the collision over the Hudson corridor, this situation is just one more thing for loud mouthed, grandstanding, “cheap points scoring” politicians to use when they start demanding changes due to “dangers in our airways” and such.

    Now, imagine if it had been done with permission from above as part of a controlled experiment and a way to help introduce kids to the career opportunities of being in ATC. With the right PR spin, it could have been an incredible boost for controllers, aviation, etc.

    Oh well :(

  7. Kevin Says:

    Hopefully someday competent able people like air traffic controllers and pilots won’t be keelhauled for every little thing by the ignorant panicky masses (or by their proxies in management/PR). Sadly I don’t think that day’s coming until the masses aren’t quite so ignorant anymore, and at the rate that’s happening it will be a long long time from now.

    If ATC jeopardized anyone that’s one thing, but this seems well out of proportion.

  8. LRod Says:

    Manufactured outrage. Absolutely burns me up. Clearly, anyone getting upset about THAT has so little clue about air traffic control that they should immediately be disqualified from uttering a word.

    I’m pretty sure I had one or both of my kids deliver a clearance a time or two when I brought them to work to see what daddy does. It isn’t a stunt and it’s not done as a joke. It isn’t even about the airplanes.

    Anyone of those phony talking heads could go and do the same thing and see how “dangerous” it was.

    LRod
    ZJX, ORD, ZAU retired

  9. irie Says:

    It’s exactly the same way we train the new hires, who are not much older than that kid was…

  10. J.L.Lee Says:

    After 16,700 hours listening to some ATC people deliver rapid fire mush mouth clearances in some language, obviously from another planet; at least the kid delivered the clearance without the pilot having to ask for a repeat in something other than Pig Latin.

    The average person with NO aviation experience except as a PAX believes that the ATC is some kind of traffic cop. In 40 years I have never forgotten who is in command here! If I can’t understand a clearance, I will ask for an understandable repeat until until the system shuts down if I have to.

    FAR 91.3 The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for and is the FINAL AUTHORITY as to the operation of that aircraft.

    ATC is nothing more than an advisory service.

    PIC remember?

  11. Bill Says:

    Feigned outrage is in vogue these days in the major media.
    Thanks for trying to keep it in check.

  12. Traytable Says:

    Well said!

    I recall sitting in the cockpits of jets at that kid’s age and being allowed to press autopilot buttons and input waypoints into the computer… big deal- I was fully supervised the whole time.

    While it was a pretty dumb thing to do, I don’t believe it was inherently unsafe. Letting the kid give more complicated instructions would be silly. How hard is givinga takeoff clearance when Dad gives the ok? Media just love to make moutains out of molehills- how do they think student pilots learn?

  13. Kate Dougherty Says:

    Hi Rob!

    Great blog today. My goodness, it amuses me that the media will grab and run with the littlest thing, when the story of the airliner landing on the taxiway at Hartsfield disappeared in hours.

    Keep up the good work!

    Cheers,

    Kate

  14. AMP Says:

    I guess I’m in the minority.

    The guy was unprofessional. It may or may not have been an immediate safety issue. But, the controllers were distracted merely by the fact that the kid was in the tower.

    We’re in an industry that’s under constant scrutiny from the media, elected officials and the public. Look at it like this:

    We have pilots that sleep in the cockpit. We have gaps in security that lead to a constant threat of terror. Airlines draw the ire of everyone because of outrageous charges and bad service. Business jet operators are foolishly viewed as a tool of the rich costing thousands of jobs. And now we have controllers that treat there duties like a game.

    Each example doesn’t exist on its own in a vacuum. It paints a negative picture for the entire aviation industry.

    We should all be outraged that we let a few bad apples paint this picture. The controller and his supervisor should be fired.

  15. Bill Says:

    I think if AMP was in charge of firing people for every transgression that could possibly be embarrassing, there would be nobody left in this country that was employed!

    It was not only “an immediate safety issue,” it was not a safety issue at all!

  16. LRod Says:

    > “…the controllers were distracted merely by the fact that the kid was in the tower.”

    Obviously has never spent a second in a tower. Maybe we better get the women out of there, too. Don’t want any professional men who are unable to focus on their jobs be distracted by a babe (the argument to the converse can be cogently postulated, as well).

    When I brought my kids in, everyone, and I mean everyone, greeted them warmly, welcomed them to ATC, and asked if they had a memorable visit when we left. Much like we/they always did when pilots came to visit, or reporters, or congresscritters, Cub Scout groups, and all manner of other PR visits.

    Among the standard acts was to give them a headset and plug them in with a working controller. I’m not saying everyone let them talk to airplanes, but they could have, and in many cases did.

    What happened to the FAA’s mantra, “safety was not compromised?”

    LRod
    ZJX, ORD, ZAU retired

  17. Robert Mark Says:

    Dear AMP:

    You are absolutely right about the way the world sees this. It was a stupid thing to do and one that average airline passenger won’t soon forget I bet.

    I’m not going to sit here and try and convince people this was OK in my eyes, because it wasn’t.

    But what the people who are not directly involved in aviation need to take a way from this discussion is that what the controller did not do was endanger any lives. The kid was on for 15 seconds of air time.

    The reason it is even an issue now is because the media turned it into one, as they do with even the most insane topics these days. Of course, that’s their job.

    I know I’m probably in a minority when it comes to the rest of the world on this, but I just don’t think firing people every time they screw up solves anything.

    No one got hurt. The pilots weren’t worried about the situation so enough.

    On the PR side though, yup … looks bad.

  18. B-Rad Says:

    Job Well Done! Period. Not only was it very understandable, it was done with enthusiasm. Come on, FAA!! You have much more knowledge than the media and should insure us the situation was in complete control. Which it was!

    As you have said, the kid was clearly repeating what the father said. Since when does the government bow down to shoddy reporting? FAA don’t give the controllers a break. Stand behind them as the professionals they are and the professional position you put them in. Only apologize for the media for making the story bigger than what it is.

    I agree with Grant, this should have had a positive spin. How can we get the media to understand flying when the government agency in charge of it apparently doesn’t “get it”?

    Until then…….. Adios Amigo!

  19. ken Says:

    Nicely put Rob thanks for bringing a little sanity to this story. One item i would like to add is that the very same personality disorder that causes this controller to have the nerve and arrogance to put his kids on the radio doing the parrot act is the exact personality disorder that gives this controller the nerve and arrogance to control planes at one of the busiest most complex towers in the world. Fire him and you might as well fire the rest of us!

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  21. jeff Says:

    To quote a text from my son about this nonevent…….

    “I remember doing that”

  22. Carolina B Collins Says:

    I am not associated with the industry at all, however am as outraged as many of you who have posted here seem to be.

    In fact, I spent my morning looking for “support” type websites for Mr. Duffy before the current administration burns him to the ground ….. so to speak.

    I have listened to the tape several times. My smile gets bigger with each listening as I become familiar with the lingo. The kid(s) I never struggled with understanding. They were great! “Adios Amigos”!

    I am proud of them. I believe their parents are doing a fantastic job of raising America’s “Future Greats” …. & God knows, America cannot afford to lose a pair of “young greats” to the wheels of the Mainstream Media bus.

    The tape is considered “old” in this age of immediate information. Had the event been in any way dangerous, the world would have known about it’s existence immediately.

    Instead, I believe the hoopla “break” of this story serves the 1 specific purpose of distracting we useful idiots’ attention away from other, very real critical matters.

    Purposely wrecking a family for the distraction value?? Such is the level journalism has sunken I’m afraid.

    Another observation. I don’t like to fly. (Quite a statement considering my audience I know.) Even so, I have been a frequent flier aboard a wide range of planes since I was the Duffy Twins’ age. As I’m ’40-cough-AHEM-something’ now that’s a considerable length of time in the air. The reason I continue to walk the plank into the belly of the beast over and over is my absolute trust in pilots.

    Though aware of the awesome responsibility, these people step off Mother Earth into the Wild Blue Yonder anyway, holding 100s of other souls safely tucked in their coat pockets. They do this thing on purpose. They ask permission even …

    With that in mind, I firmly believe it is the Pilot’s assessment of an event that matters & none that I heard conversing with the children at Kennedy assessed danger dead-ahead. I did however hear “Awesome Job!” being offered up as praise for job well done and that’s good enough for me.

    Was a rule broken? apparently …… but please allow me to say that, during those instances where my control-freak posterior is locked in a tin can that’s gone airborne, I prefer the more flexible school of “adapt and overcome” management against blind rule following – it has a better chance of producing the best possible outcome for all concerned.

    And let’s face it …. it takes a village to successful fly 1 person & their clothes from destination to arrival. I want the likes of Mr. Duffy in town when I come to visit or I might just revert to driving my clothes to their final destination myself.

    Thank you for the soapbox. This morning I read those two young children are now blaming themselves for getting their Daddy in trouble. What they should be are two happy kids a little more confident in their abilities for having spent a moment taking in a whole new world under the watchful eye of their father.

    I am disgusted the FAA willing joined this media manufactured witch hunt. Their acts have insured the children will be the major casualties. Personally, I can think of many other targets more worthy of their attention.

    Sincerely,

    Carolina Collins

    PS If anyone believes pasting a copy of my letter to other boards could possibly be of benefit, even if only to show support, I would greatly appreciate the effort undertaken.

    Thanks greatly,
    CBC

  23. Carolina B Collins Says:

    Sorry to the group ….

    I had lovely paragraph breaks all throughout my post that tragically disappeared once I hit the submit button.

    As someone who conned her way through college writing papers & filling up entire essay test booklets by the 1000s, I am simply horrified with what I see before me ….. “What this?! No Paragraphs?! WHAT DO YOU MEAN NO PARAGRAPHS??!! ”

    Thanks …..

  24. LRod Says:

    Carolina Collins is my new hero. If I was still working, I’d be proud to have you plug in with me anytime.

    By the way, that’s what it’s called–“plugging in” It’s not some kind of potty mouth euphemism.

    LRod
    ZJX, ORD, ZAU retired
    (for non-aviation types, that’s Jacksonville ARTCC, O’Hare TRACON, Chicago ARTCC)

  25. Robert Mark Says:

    Energetic comments I must say Carolina as LRod said.

    One comment I’ve heard about the pilots comments is thet they too should be reprimanded for going along with the prank.

    Perhaps a gallows installed just about anywhere anyone might say or do something stupid would be a better idea. Then we could sumarily off these goofs right on the spot and save everyone a great deal of work agonizing over it all.

    Thanks for your note. And BTW, I fixed your formatting since I know you spent so much time at it. Sorry my software ate some of your work.

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  27. Brian Jones Says:

    I think the FAA has some blame in how they handled the press release to the media. If they chose different words, then the public probably would not have been as concerned and this story would have ended up as the Friday feel good story of the day.

  28. Norman Says:

    Put a kid in a tower with a mic in his hand or sit him where he can peer around a control column to look at a bewildering array of lights and instruments – you will have him work his tail off to follow his dad and the rest of us. Inspiration does tend to grow from startling perspectives doesn’t it?

    So what is the world giving us now, a bunch of mouthy ‘instant experts’ wailing the minute they think that someone has steered off a line they draw with their ignorance in the full arrogant expectation that the planet will align to it.

    All we need for a small but very personal disaster for this controller and his family is for a manager to lack the courage to stand up and say, “This happened on my watch, he has been judged by his peers to be a worthy professional – he stays exactly where he belongs, on my watch.” Can we have some of that please?

    Sadly the crack of umbrellas is often the first thing you hear after an incident like this – fingers crossed.

  29. Laurence Audenaerd Says:

    I completely agree with your perspective on this event as mostly a non-issue, however I think you miss a crucial point.

    Throughout my life, I look back to realize that it is the individual events that touch our lives and guide us along our future paths. Surely we all have those polarizing events we can look back on that inspired us to this field.

    This controller, through a single memorable instant, may have just inspired his son to be a future ATC or pilot. In an era when talent is slowly draining from the system, and science and mathematics curricula take a back seat to Sponge Bob, any positive influence should be an lauded effort.

    Understandably, as both a regulatory body and a service organization, the Federal Aviation Administration, is left with a quandary of adequately handling this situation balancing the safety, security, and operational elements with employee morale and human capital aspects.

    Perhaps this episode can be chalked up with a “stern talking-to” and a few “lessons learned” and serve as a wake up call to find more structured ways of encouraging fresh talent, instead of relying on the creative ideas of individuals, however good-natured.

    Laurence Audenaerd, PhD Candidate
    Dept. of Civil and Env. Engineering
    Northwestern University
    Center for Advanced Aviation System Development
    The MITRE Corporation

  30. Norman Says:

    Laurence,

    Couldn’t agree more. A ‘slapped wrist’ and the less said the better.

    We used to have flight deck visitors years ago and occasionally offered them an opportunity to move the heading selector and watch the aircraft react. The look on their faces was a picture – it gave a measure of sense to the complexity which may have helped the nervous. Another example of gross negligence no doubt and an indication of our total unsuitability to do the job. Let’s all pray for an enlightened public and their contiued trust that the snakes on the plane are rubber and a crew wearing a red plastic nose doesn’t mean that they are in the hands of loonies. It’s just Comic Relief week.

  31. Norman Says:

    http://www.comicrelief.com/

  32. Robert Mark Says:

    I must admit that when I began reading your comment I really thought you were headed somewhere else Laurence.

    Inspiring youth. That’s a really interesting point. I like it. Of course the people that are calling for this guy’s head – especially when they learned he let his daughter talk on the radio too – might not agree with us.

  33. Norman Says:

    As for the crucial point, I am sure the FAA could find the right form of words in front of a microphone to put the incident into context. To do so would show leadership.

    (Rob/Scott – could ya edit these to reduce the comment count for me please. Ta!)

  34. Carolina B Collins Says:

    Robert Mark & LRod,

    Thanks for the kind remarks …. & for my paragraphs! … Don’t think it’s your software but foregoing double spacing on my part – either way, I appreciate the effort.

    On “installing gallows” – laugh out loud stuff until it occurred to me some official somewhere just might be hard at work building up same said contraptions as we speak … “coming soon to a local airport near you” … shivers

    LRod – I’m honored, truly. Thank you. I must admit my imagination had a field day with the notion of “plugging in”, lol. Shrewd thinking on your part to also include the saying’s proper translation! “Thanks I needed that”

    As to working at O’Hare, would that not be Dante’s hell on earth? On behalf of passengers everywhere, thanks for braving it out –

    That anyone has considered punishing the Pilots in this case re-ignites the rage I spent all weekend tamping down. Arrrg!

    I bet it’s been a little 5 foot-nothin’ dateless wonder responsible for this power play ….. someone who thought he had a sliver of opportunity to get “even” with the real men who’d forever highlighted his “shortcomings” to the world just by being themselves.

    Dude wants to fire a cannon to kill a gnat- overkill & waste of a perfectly good ball on a target so small as to be nearly invisible. If successful, Dude will also be piling ‘stupid’ on top of his heap of no-win attributes dateless & vertically missing. Ha! Unintended consequences are such nasty little things …

    Thanks for letting an outsider crash your forum

    Carolina

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  38. aviador Says:

    I think it was not unsafe at all, his dad was right there telling him what to do, and it didnt seem as the pilots minded it at all, some of them were evem laughing. It was pretty stupid to suspend them from work nothing bad happened, and the kid got to see what his dad’s job was like. i wish when i was a kid i could have done what the kid did.

  39. Rick Says:

    A few years back I did exactly the same thing with my daughters at a well known military base near London; Rob we were there last week!! At no time was safety breached, they were a mouthpiece for my controlling saying only what I told them to say. Maybe I too was stupid doing it, however one has already applied to be an ATC.

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