"So, I hear this funny accent on the tower frequency," said Carlson. A lopsided smile twisted across his face. He wore a western-style shirt and string tie. Rumor had it that Norm Carlson kept a cowboy hat in his locker. "This guy sounds like Bela Lugosi, ya know? He says to me, 'Run-vay in sight,' somethin' like that."
We were standing in the cab -- "Business end of the control tower," Carlson had told me. A half-dozen controllers were on duty facing their windows, staring out into a murky evening. A balding man of medium build, Norm Carlson was nearing the top of his profession: deputy tower chief, a job he quite plainly loved. He had transferred to Idlewild from Tulsa where he grew up. Although he spoke with perfect grammar over the radio, he made full use of his down-home diction when spinning one of his yarns.
"It was stinkin'. Had to be 500 overcast and maybe a mile. About like today. Naah, ya couldn't even seem them buildings over yonder. Anyway, I give this guy his 'Cleared ta land,' and let it go at that. Well, he don't answer. 'Ya wanna land, or whut?' I ask 'im. And then whatever he says, I cain't understand. But I c'n tell one thing fer sure. This guy don't have no sense of humor."
Carlson paused for the snickering to subside. Somehow, the controllers were able to listen to his story while responding to radio calls. The slanted windows in the tower commanded a sweeping view of the whole of Idlewild Airport. Visibility was too poor for a glimpse of the city at sunset. Still, the cab was a better place to be than the radar room.
"Well, I'm waitin' and waitin', but he don't show," Carlson continued. "I'm askin' myself, whose goddam 'run-vay' does he think he's got in sight, anyway? I take the binoculars and focus all the hell over the sky. Now I'm startin' ta sweat. I grab the mike and just then look down there at this plane rollin' out on the runway, slicker'n duck shit. I heave a big sigh -- except now I seen how it's the strangest, dumb-lookin' sled since Kitty Hawk. It's all kind of bent metal bolted together, droopy wings and square tail. Reminded me of one of them little French cars -- whut're they called?"
"Citroen?" I offered.
"That's it. Except, this fella's gotta be from Transyl-friggin'-vania. So, while he's taxiin' along down there right past the tower, headin' fer the International Building, I come up on Ground Control, and just ta be friendly, I tell him, 'Nice plane ya got there.' He says, 'Think you.' -- just like that, 'Think you.' Then I ask him, 'What kind is it?' And he answers, 'Aeroflubbel' or some shit like that, which knocks me out. So then I say something really dumb. Might of got my ass kicked for it. I say, 'Did ya build it yerself?' "
Carlson was in rare form that evening. "Couldn't help it," he said over the laughter. The controllers in the cab struggled to recover the solemnity befitting their radio work.
Over the years since 1960, I have heard repetitions of Norm Carlson tales so many times that I have to wonder if he was the original source. For example, there is the one-liner that typifies the refusal of controllers to be put down by pilots:
"Hey, Approach, call me a taxicab."
"Very well, Captain. You're a taxicab."
I asked Carlson if some of his stories were apocryphal.
"How should I know? I ain't no Catholic," he answered quick as that.
When we discussed Idlewild's problem of having to control traffic in and out of satellite airports, Carlson squinted his eyes and told another whopper.
"One night, Bonelli had me down in the radar room, workin' Approach. I had ta vector this military guy all over hell's half-acre. Then I kinda lost track of 'im. The weather wasn't all that bad, so I ain't too worried about him hittin' somebody or nothin'. I look over the whole screen and ask the guy workin' the sector next ta me, 'You seen the C-47?' and he shakes his head."
Carlson put his fist up to his mouth as if talking into a microphone. " 'Uh, radar contact lost. Turn right heading one-two-zero for identification.' There's this long pause. And then I hear some guy's scratchy voice on the radio. He's laughin'. 'Unable one-two-zero. We're unloading passengers at Floyd Bennett.' "
Good natured as Norm's anecdotes may be, many share a common element: the antagonism between controllers and pilots. The same can be said of the tales told by pilots. Triumph, as you might expect, always goes to the side of the teller. For example, one of Norm Carlson's yarns took place in the enroute center where he worked for a time. It involved a Braniff pilot who hassled a junior controller over the radio.
"The guy's flyin' a DC7 and had scud at 12,000. The stew's were about ta serve supper, and he wanted sixteen fer smoother air." As he spoke, Carlson slumped into a swivel chair, boots crossed atop a radio rack.
"Well, the controller was still shavin' only once a week and had slow traffic at 14,000 he couldn't do nothin' with. There was on-comin' stuff at thirteen ta worry about until they reported at the next mandatory. Anyway, he tells the pilot that he cain't climb him fer another 20 miles, and -- "
"Mandatory?" I asked, reaching for my notebook.
"Checkpoint," Norm answered. "Want me ta spell it fer ya? -- just kiddin'."
Carlson gestured with his hands, chopping the air into segments. "A plane clears airspace behind it by reportin' at fixes along the route, like a train goin' through signals. We didn't have no radar, remember. Anyway, I was swampin' that day... You know what that is?"
I had some idea but shook my head anyway.
"Workin' back-up fer the on-duty controllers. Stands around most of the time -- that's what the swamper does. Gotta be ready ta work any sector." Carlson waited for my nod before continuing with his story.
"Now, Braniff says somethin' snotty ta the kid about bein' stuck down in the clouds, and so I mosey over and jack-in with my mike. 'What seems to be the problem?' I ask kinda casual, and the Braniff pilot starts bitchin' at me about every enroute delay he's had since high school. 'I fly this route three times a week,' he says. 'I always file for 16,000 and usually get at least fourteen. Today, you won't even give me that. What's my traffic?' "
Carlson stubbed out his cigarette and lit another. His countenance darkened. "That's where Braniff made a big mistake." He pointed with his cigarette hand. "Don't nobody ask me fer his goddam traffic in a situation like that! I grabbed me a bunch of flight strips out of the wastebasket, keyed the mike and started readin' 'em -- all official soundin'. I gave each a phony altitude and fix, talkin' so fast, the Braniff pilot must-a thought he tuned in a commercial fer Lucky Strike. I winked at the controller, who's takin' this all in. The kid don't know whether ta shit or go blind."
"Aren't all the radio transmissions recorded?" I asked, not quite ready to laugh.
"You bet. But, I figure, as long as I'm keepin' planes separated -- " Norm shrugged. "Hell, so maybe I was mistaken about the extra traffic."
"How did the guy take it?"
"No way of knowing. He don't talk right away. The traffic at 13,000, meanwhile, calls in. I acknowledge his position report -- and with the mike still keyed, I ask the sheep turd, 'Braniff (whatever the hell), will you accept thirteen?' and he says he'll take whatever he c'n git. 'OK, Braniff,' I say with my voice down deep. 'You're cleared to 13,000. Uh, fly reverse course.' "
"Can you do that?" I asked. Norm Carlson sat up tall.
"I dunno," he replied with his crooked grin. "I just did it, that's all. The guy asks me, 'Did you say reverse course?' and I say again, 'That's affirmative, sir. Reverse course at one-three thousand, over.' He goes quiet, and I'm already on the floor, all doubled up. Figure he's fumblin' around in his flight bag fer the regs."
The tower cab shook with laughter. I waved both hands, a plea for Norm to let me catch my breath.
Norm delivered the denouement straight-faced. "A guy like that don't know how ta act when he's licked, so he comes back complainin' he cain't hear -- says I ain't modulatin' or some dumb thing. Game was over anyway. We had our 20 miles. I pulled out my mike jack and told the kid ta give Braniff whatever the hell he wanted."
Someone handed Carlson a time-sheet to sign. I was late for my scheduled visit with the controllers down in the radar room. Still chuckling, I stood up and indulged my eyes in another scan of the airport.
That session in the cab at Idlewild Tower was more than amusing. Norm's stories made me think about the air traffic control system in a new way. For safety's sake, pilots and controllers must cooperate. Yet their personal interests -- their egos -- put them on opposite sides of the net in a verbal tennis match. Norm followed me partway down the stairs.
One might do worse than act as straight-man for a story-teller of Carlson's class. "What do the regulations say?" I asked with a smile. Norm became suddenly serious.
"Legally, Braniff owned 12,000 on that leg for as long as he wanted it," he explained, dropping the hillbilly dialect. "I just gave him another place to fly. Until the pilot acknowledged reaching 13,000, though, I couldn't put anybody else at twelve. The system really works. In spite of us yokels."
Or because of them, I thought to myself.
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