Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Truth

“Delta two twenty three, turn twenty degrees left, vectors for traffic.” I said something like that a million times when I was a controller. Maybe 10 million. I wasn’t counting. And 99.99% of the time the reply came back without hesitation, “Atlanta Center, Delta two twenty three turning twenty degrees left.” It’s so routine -- so ordinary -- that we often don’t think about the deeper implications behind it.

Pilots and their passengers trust air traffic controllers with their lives. It isn’t a completely blind trust on the pilot’s part. Pilots always pay attention to their situation and try to remain alert to any possible mistake a controller might make. But to a degree which most people couldn’t imagine in their daily lives, our relationship is based on trust.

Implicit in that trust is one truly simple concept; Controllers will speak the truth. Not half the truth. Not what we think is the truth. No shading of the truth. Controllers are expected to tell the clean, pure, you-can-bet-your-life-on-it truth.

This isn’t something that is taught in ATC school. You can look in the controller’s “bible” and you won’t find a dissertation on the subject. We don’t take an oath before we plug in our headsets, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth...”, everyday when we sit down to work. This is just something that “is”. It’s just understood. Our word is our bond.

As a matter of fact, I fully expect some controller somewhere will write me after reading this and say something to the effect of, “I never thought of it that way.” Which is part of the point. Young people don’t tend to think in these terms. It just “is”. The only controllers that talk about these things are old guys like me that think too much. (You might be pleasantly surprised how many of us there are, though.)

Imagine working in a place where speaking the plain, simple truth was a given. Can you ?

If you’re the kind of reader that tries to think ahead you might be wondering where I’m going with all this. Well, here’s a curve ball for you. I’m not going anywhere at all. I decided a long time ago that honesty really is the best policy. I also found out it wasn’t simple. And it was hard. Aren’t most things in life that are worth doing ?

I think about truth a lot. Here are some random thoughts about the subject. Let them take you where they will.

Chiseled into the marble at the CIA’s headquarters is the inscription, “You Shall Know The Truth, And The Truth Shall Set You Free.” Spies. Deception. Lies. Yet they seek the truth.

Do you expect politicians to lie ? Could you handle the truth if they told it ? More to the point, would you reelect them if they told you the truth ? Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan. George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton. George W. Bush. Tell the truth. Do you ? Could you ? Would you ?

In a truth-telling contest, who would you believe ? A politician or a controller ? A scientist or a business executive ? A reporter or a lawyer ?

It’s hard. But it’s worth it.

Don Brown
March 11, 2007

1 comment:

C Test 714 said...

Hi Don,

Was a fan when you wrote for AvWeb. Didn't know you had written anything since you quit the monthly column there.

I've flown a tiny bit in the flight levels and a lot in lower altitudes. Generally speaking, I would doubt or at least wonder if a government employee is telling the truth. But now that you mention it, I have rarely even considered whether a controller is.

That is, a USA controller. In my limited exposure to European or Indian controllers, I can say that their denied requests and issued restrictions brought that good old doubt in a government employee. There isn't a way to define why, but many times I just felt those were either just too lazy to grant a request or else too ready to emphasize who had power over the other.

So hats off to the USA controllers for earning that trust from the pilots.