Chapter 7
Altitude Separation

Accepting Henderson's advice, I made the first of many trips up the Garden State Parkway, through the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and out the Van Wycke Expressway.  Idlewild International Airport was noisily a-building: scaffolds and concrete forms, jack-hammers and saw-horses were deployed along the rushing roads and ramps -- not unlike New York City itself ("Be a nice place whenever they finish building it," wags would say).

The radar room actually occupied a one-story building adjacent to the control tower, pale green and featureless.  Once inside the building, I might have been anywhere but in the middle of one of the world's great airports.

Tower Chief Vincent Bonelli, a big affable man with an easy smile, greeted me at the door and led the way into the radar room.  He made straight for a wooden table along the back wall.  Gradually my eyes adjusted to the dim light.  A dented percolator sat atop a hot-plate.  Paper towel in hand, Bonelli wiped the inside of a communal mug.

"Regular?" he asked.  Bonelli was in his early forties, with Brylcreem hair, and his speech, heavily accented like a Yonkers version of Mario Lanza, was an exaggerated English.  He poured me a cup of coffee and waited for my answer.

The room was a clutter of work tables and racks of gray and drab electronic gear.  A half dozen radar scopes, relics of World War II, lined the opposite wall.  I was transfixed by the scene: clusters of men in white shirts and ties, faces illuminated by the flickering traces, and the hubbub of aviation talk.

"No, with cream, please," I replied at last.

Bonelli laughed, then clarified the meaning of "regular" to his young guest from California.  "Here in Queens, we make it strong," he said, giving the word two syllables ("stroo-ung").  "Drink it black and you are likely to develop blisters in your belly."  He laughed again.  "Like Whitey, here."

Bonelli was referring to one of the radar controllers who had joined us at the coffee pot.  He was just coming on duty.  Bonelli introduced me to Ron Miller, calling him "Whitey," an obvious reference to the man's snowy hair, which curiously contrasted with his black eyebrows.

"Vinnie's the one with the belly," said Miller with a straight face.  He shook my hand.  "Since he made chief, the only blisters Vinnie gets are on his butt."

I doubt that Miller was much over thirty.  Of all the people I met at Idlewild, Whitey Miller was the one I came to know best.  But for now, I could not stop gaping past Miller at the radars.

Bonelli saw that I was preoccupied with the business at hand.  He strolled across the room toward the working controllers.  In a low voice, he identified the men by name and assignment.  Each nodded a greeting only briefly then resumed his bowed posture in front of the glowing screen.  A flow of jargon reached my ears.

"That's affirmative, Eastern 16, make that a right turn, heading 140 to intercept the localizer."

"Lufthansa 101, are you on frequency?"

"Clipper 55, radar contact, eight miles east of Point Pleasant; continue inbound."

I shook my head.  Bonelli grinned.  "Each blurry spot here -- 'blip' -- is an airplane," he said, pointing to a radar screen.  "Some have as many as a hundred SOBs -- souls on board -- up there hacking through the clouds really fee-ust."  Bonelli took a sip of coffee.  "We would like to slow them down sometimes.  Even stop them.  But we cee-un't."

For emphasis, he reminded me that there had been a recent collision between merchant vessels creeping along in the New York Harbor.

One of the controllers spoke over his shoulder.  "Vinnie's right about the speed.  The vessels we're workin' here are ten times faster'n any ship at sea."

I jotted in my engineering notebook.  "Never thought of that before, Mr. Bonelli."

"Call me Vince -- but not Vinnie."

"I could watch this stuff all day," I said.

"We do have something different to work with," he said.  "Altitude separation.  Ships don't have that -- until after the collision."

I took a swallow of coffee.  "How do you determine each airplane's altitude?" I asked, recalling that the blips on the radar display -- "plan position indicator" (PPI) -- provide only geographical location.

Bonnelli pointed at his temple.

"And if you forget?"

Bonelli sighed and changed the subject.  "You know, we never leave here during a shift.  Coffee break? -- what's that?   Takes too loo-ung to get back into it.  For lunch, most of the guys bring sandwiches from places of residence and dine upon them at the console, plugged in."

"Keeps your eyes adjusted to the dark, I guess."

"That, too," said Bonelli, trying not to contradict me.  "Actually, it's learning the set-up that takes time."

With as many as a dozen planes appearing on the screen in each sector, he explained, a replacement controller had to be "coached" before taking over.  Bonelli gestured toward Whitey Miller.

I stepped closer and watched.  Miller donned his headphones.  He took a chair beside one of the approach positions and plugged into the panel.  Sipping from his mug, he listened on the radio channel and watched intently for a quarter of an hour.  His predecessor pointed to each blip on the radarscope as he spoke.

"American 7, you're number three following company at your two o'clock, becoming one o'clock."

"OK, Continental 34, descend and maintain 7,000; report reaching."

"Trans-World 71 contact the tower now, good day."

Miller picked up his microphone and tapped the other man's arm.  The procedure required the operator going off duty to stay at the position long enough to assure a successful transfer of responsibility.  The man stood up, stretched, and lit up a Camel.  I watched as the controller stood there by the radar screen, arms folded, for another ten minutes while Miller worked the blips.

"Continental 34, depart Lido, heading two-zero-zero, delay vectors for traffic."

"Lufthansa 101, say again?"

"Negative, unable lower altitude."

"Clipper 55, expect to hold another four minutes at Point Pleasant."

Finally, the other man was officially off duty.  He pulled off his headphones and signed a log sheet on a clipboard.  The man gently punched Miller on the shoulder, and departed the radar room.

"I know what you're thinking," said Bonelli.  "The answer is yes.  Same procedure for bladder-and-bowel breaks.  That's how come we employ an extra controller -- 'swamper,' we call him -- for each shift."

Bonelli spent the next hour going over the details of the patterns and procedures of Idlewild.  I wrote copious notes, gathering vital data for the man-machine simulator we were building at NAFEC.  More than that, I found myself studying a reality of aviation that few people -- including pilots -- will ever know.

Over the next twelve months, whenever I could break away, I returned again and again to spend countless hours at Idlewild, fascinated by the extraordinary world of blips and vectors, Bonellis and Millers.  And the "swamper."

During one of those trips, I found out what the swamper really does.  It would cost me many a night's sleep.

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