ATC’s Bob Richards Heads West

By Robert Mark on August 20th, 2018

Everyone at PWK tower thought Bob Richards was interesting, in a rather curious way, when he began his air traffic control career back in the early 1980s. Not weird, but more quirky, like a guy holding back some part of his personality, at least at first.

I was one of the controllers assigned to train this new guy and early on he impressed me with how quickly he caught on to the practical side of air traffic control. Bob knew when to simply let a tough day go at our busy airport and when to laugh. At the time, PWK (now called Chicago Executive Airport) was running about 160,000 takeoffs and landings a year, so it was not the kind of place where every trainee succeeded.

As I came to know Bob better, I remember razzing him about how his parents must have spent a fortune on his dental work since he had such a perfect smile. Some of the PWK started calling him “California Bob,” because of that big smile. He just seemed Hollywood-like to us. And of course once the folks you work with begin poking fun at you, you’ve pretty much made the grade.

Richards – officially Robert Paul Richards – died earlier this month at age 61 from heart related problems, leaving behind his wife Kim, five kids and eight grandchildren.

Bob’s personality is what people remember most about him. He was a tough guy not to like or laugh with. He always managed to remain cheery in a profession that back then, not many years after the 1981 PATCO strike, was still pretty gloomy. Most of the controllers left were tired from working 10-hour days, six-days a week.

After spending a few years in the old tower at KPWK, Bob went on to a distinguished career as an O’Hare tower controller in Chicago, from which he officially retired a few decades later. During his time at ORD, Bob gained his famous “Calvin,” nickname, one I originally thought had something to do with Bill Watterson’s old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Bob called me one day to tell me just how far off I was, explaining the ORD controllers had tagged him Calvin because he like to wear Calvin Klein jeans. Unofficially he told me, “I needed to get the flick,” one of those insider ATC memes. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn years later that one of his grandchildren was named Calvin.

But Bob Richards didn’t disappear after his retirement from ATC. Our paths often crossed since we were both regularly called upon by TV networks for opinions about ATC or aviation issues in general. He went on to pen a successful insider’s guide to air traffic control called “Secrets From the Tower,” that he never failed to remind me at AirVenture every year was still selling like hotcakes. My books of course, weren’t selling nearly as well as his. He told me an L.A. production house even bought the screen rights to the book, although the story never made it quite that far in the end.

I just couldn’t be jealous of Bob and his success of course. The guy was too darned nice. Even when I’d tell him he was being kind of a jerk, he’d flash that big California Bob smile at me during AirVenture and say, “c’mon Rob, let’s go have a beer.” That was Bob. I’d kind of lost touch with him over the past few years, but looked for him at the AirVenture’s Author’s Corner this year, completely unaware of the state of his health.

On a side note, I also remember Bob as one of the early advocates for more air traffic controllers. Sadly, the FAA’s staffing shortages, mostly of the agency’s own making, have these days again created pretty lousy morale at many large ATC facilities by working controllers six days a week.

So keep em separated up there buddy, You’ll be missed. I just realized I never did find out if California Bob ever had braces as a kid.

Rob Mark, publisher

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One Response to “ATC’s Bob Richards Heads West”

  1. Stan Mitchell Says:

    I officiated high school basketball with Bob for over 10 years. Hexes one of a kind & we fondly called him the Clown Prince. I was very sad to find out of his passing.

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