Take ARTS 6.05, the latest software installed--and removed--at the Elgin Tracon. Controllers complained that the software was causing ghost images that resulted in several apparent near misses. Granger recalls an incident last October in which a controller told the pilot of a corporate jet ten miles east of O'Hare to take evasive action to avoid colliding with a United plane. It turned out that the United plane was a ghost image--the real plane was ten miles west of O'Hare. The ghost images "just pop up," Granger says. "They're there for a sweep or two sweeps." A sweep of the radar that refreshes the screen takes about five seconds, too long to wait for a controller guiding planes traveling hundreds of miles an hour. "You can't question yourself--'Is this real or not?'" Granger says. "If [a ghost image] shows up at the wrong place at the wrong time, you don't have time to say, 'This is not real.'" The new software was taken off-line for testing in November and was scheduled to be reinstalled in late March.

ARTS 6.05 was also taken off-line at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport after similar ghosting complaints. Last November, San Diego controllers watched in horror as their screens froze--and remained frozen for 11 minutes. And a year ago in March, a plane disappeared from New York controllers' screens for 36 seconds. It was Air Force One.

And then there's the Y2K bug. The FAA's challenge is enormous--638 computer systems, 18,000 subsystems, and 65 million lines of software code. Despite concerns expressed by the General Accounting Office, among others, FAA administrator Jane Garvey vows to fly on January 1, 2000.

Skies are clear and sunny on this Thursday afternoon at Tracon, and that means Bob Hocking is--in controller parlance--about to get his butt kicked. Hocking, 51, is working eastbound and northbound departures from O'Hare, and at this time of day, around 1 p.m., there is typically a big rush of planes leaving the airport. After deregulation in 1978, airlines discovered the benefits of the "hub" system, in which waves of planes would be flown to a company's hub airport, where passengers could make their connections to the many planes then leaving the airport.

At least 26 planes are waiting to take off--a coded electronic list of departures on Hocking's screen is filled A to Z. Controllers at the O'Hare Tower get planes off the ground, then hand them off to the Tracon departure desk. The handoff is verified when a computer spits out a printed flight strip at a controller's workstation. Hocking is getting buried in flight strips. Seven, ten, a dozen--the station keeps spitting out the strips. With blue skies overhead, the tower is sending off as many planes as it can.

A supervisor and a couple of controllers walk over to help out, all the while swearing at the tower for flooding Hocking's piece of sky. What's more, the tower is launching northbound planes to the west, requiring Hocking to turn them around in one sector as he keeps his eye on the rush in the other. The gridlock produces another rare moment of tension at Tracon.

Finally the supervisor picks up the direct line to the tower and huffs into the phone: "Knock it off!" All eastbound departures are halted until Hocking can clear up the sky.

Though planes within 40 miles of O'Hare have to be separated by three miles, once outbound flights reach the 40-mile mark--and get handed off to the Chicago Center in Aurora--regulations require a five-mile separation. So Hocking must speed up some planes and slow down others to create some distance immediately after takeoff. All the while, Hocking instructs pilot after pilot, all on the same frequency and all aware of the mess he is in. And yet, Hocking's calm tone never changes, even when the pilot of an American Eagle fails to respond to his calls. The Eagle is flying in the middle of the pack, but mysteriously it's not in contact with any controller. "Eagle 57, make radio contact," Hocking politely insists every few seconds. He puts planes above and below the Eagle's altitude--he can't talk to the Eagle, so he must keep all other planes clear.

Finally, the Eagle 57 pilot checks in. "Got him!" Hocking says with a bit of relief. He doesn't bother to ask the pilot why he wasn't in contact. He doesn't have time and it's not important anymore.

Hocking clears 49 flights in half an hour, 30 of them in just ten minutes. The last American Airlines pilot out tells Hocking, "That was a beautiful ballet."

"You can't possibly think those airplanes are full of people," says Hocking later. "It's just you and the pilot. If you thought those airplanes were full of people, it would drive you nuts."

The air traffic controllers' union's national newsletter, The NATCA Voice, runs a serial of the fictional Matt "Tsunami" Armstrong, "the biggest, baddest kick-butt-and-stack-'em-ten-high, take no prisoners Air Traffic Controller to ever stalk the halls of government bureaucracy."

Tsunami Armstrong is a kind of cartoon incarnation of the way many controllers like to see themselves. And though most of the controllers in Elgin appear--at least to a casual observer--to be far from the Armstrong mold, they share the long-time controller's disdain for management and government. Indeed, the hostility between the union and the FAA is stunning. "They have a mentality of 'we versus they,'" insists Granger, referring to the FAA. "Their job is to support the controllers," he grouses. "They think it's the other way around."

Tony Molinaro, public affairs officer for the FAA's Great Lakes region, disputes Granger's charge. "The relationship between the FAA and NATCA is the best it's been in years," he says.

Even so, hostility shows up in unexpected ways. Don Zochert, the FAA's former regional public affairs officer, was angered to learn that the union had given clearance for controllers to be interviewed for this article before the FAA had given its approval. "The controllers work for the FAA, not the union!" Zochert bellowed to me. The NATCA Voice runs items such as "A List of the Top Ten Reasons You Know That You Are Ready for a Career in FAA Management." Reason number one: "You're tired of having to work for a living."

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