Not that the lives-hanging-by-a-thread idea was entirely absent. I asked Dobkin about the famous burdens of the work, the toll on controllers in shattered health, divorce, and drink. "Sure," he said uncomfortably. "It's hard sometimes—I've known guys who had to get out."
Another controller joined in. "Me, I always picture the children. Nightmares, you know."
I may have smiled.
Dobkin indicated me with a tilt of his head. "He's a pilot." He meant it as a caution. The other man turned away, saving his emotional pitch for someone else.
Earlier a controller had said to me, "Stressed out? If you're the type, sure, but then it's the freeway traffic when you're driving to work that will really do it to you."
The View From the Air
PILOTS do not believe that air-traffic control is in the business of keeping them alive, or that it needs to be. This is a matter not of principle, or of bravado, but of simple observation. The surrounding sky is so large that even when another airplane passes nearby, it remains by comparison very small. I talked to a controller involved in research with radar simulations, who said, "You'd be amazed how hard it is to vector two airplanes into each other."
Air-traffic control does have an immediate technical presence in the cockpit, but moment by moment it has less to do with the safe operation of the airplane than with the forward progress of flight. From tower control to radar to tower again, a procession of voices accompanies each airplane across the map. Their presence is humanized by accents, moods, and informalities, and by a shared sense of accommodation and competence. Good controllers are neither automatons nor traffic cops. At the start of a trip they deliver a "clearance," assigning the airplane a computer-generated route to the destination. In an uncrowded sky such a clearance might stand alone as a guarantee of traffic-free flying, eliminating any further need for controllers. In the actual sky it serves instead as a fallback plan in the event of radio failure, and as an approximate prediction of the actual flight path.
The details fill in after takeoff. Controllers thread the departing airplanes through the first busy altitudes with headings and climb restrictions. Pilots are expected not to comply blindly but rather to judge and agree. They distinguish between the controllers' wrongs and rights. Often they can even predict their instructions.
Eventually the pilots are turned loose to proceed high and fast on course, either along the airways that zigzag across the grid of navigational stations on the ground or, more commonly, in airplanes equipped with independent long-range navigational devices, directly toward the destination. Over the continental United States the airplanes cruise under the surveillance of "centers"—en route radar facilities whose role, despite the increase in traffic, remains less interventionist than passengers might imagine: across a sky so deep and wide, "control" consists mostly of monitoring flights as they proceed by routes and altitudes that have been approved by the computers but that remain essentially the pilots' or airlines' choice. With controllers' routine approval, pilots cut corners, deviate around thunderstorms, ride good winds, slide above or below reported turbulence. Controllers intervene if they see a conflict developing, or if other controllers elsewhere ask for delays or route changes. The respective roles are clearly defined: controllers may separate airplanes, but pilots still navigate them.