Air Traffic Controllers

My last missive may have come off as a bit dismissive about air traffic controllers.  So in a contrapuntal vein, I offer the story of Phil Aune, the nation’s (and probably the world’s) oldest air traffic controller.

VAN NUYS – The nation’s oldest air traffic controller made his final approach Thursday from the world’s busiest general-aviation airport.

Phil Aune, 70, the “Voice of Van Nuys Airport,” stepped down from the control tower after tracking his last plane, a single-engine Cherokee.

Throughout his 47-year career, the soothing voice of “Papa Alpha” had guided millions of planes in and out of Van Nuys Airport.

“I’ve been crying; it’s very emotional,” said the gray-haired grandfather and FAA veteran just after his last shift ended at 1:40 p.m. “My last airplane.”

Before dawn, Aune (pronounced awe-nee) hoisted Old Glory for the last time outside the six-story box of glass west of runway One Six Right.

At the top of rush hour, three Los Angeles television and radio traffic aircraft and four traffic choppers flew in tribute past his capacious glass window.

Midmorning, two engines from the Los Angeles Fire Department “crash crew” at VNY – the FAA designator for the airport – stopped before the tower to let fly honorary streams of firefighting foam.

After noon, actor and pilot Patrick Swayze called Aune from London to wish him a fine farewell.

“Phil is sort of the Vin Scully of Van Nuys,” Dan Katz, president of Hollywood Aviators, a flight school in Van Nuys, said while dropping off a basket of farewell cookies. “He really is the voice of VNY.

“He’s just amazing. He’s such a fixture here. It’ll be sort of funny not to be able to hear him on the radio.”

Aune signed on at Van Nuys Airport in 1959 when it was surrounded by fields of corn and wheat. He was among the first hired by what was then the newly founded Federal Aviation Administration.

Over the years, Aune would track Hollywood celebrities from Bob Hope – who used VNY for his ’round-the-world USO tours – to pilot-actors Danny Kaye, Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

I had known about Phil before he was featured in the documentary One Six Right, but wasn’t aware of the amazing record of longevity he’d set at Van Nuys Airport.  He’s been working at the VNY tower for as long as they’ve had one.  Or to put it another way, he’s been a controller for as long as the FAA’s been in existence.

It’s a testament to his skill and patience that he served so long at what is renown as the world’s busiest general aviation airport.

Since we’re on the topic of air traffic controllers, I must admit I’m fascinated by the individual personalities they foster at GA airports.  For example, at John Wayne Airport, the controllers are as good as they come.  Helicopters, airliners, student pilots, hot shot aerobatic gurus, experimentals, spam cans, and more mix it up over SNA, but the controllers rarely get flustered.  I know their voices and when coming home it generates a sense of comfort to know they’re there.

They are on top of the situation and it shows.  If a student’s soloing, they get a watchful eye over them, something I appreciate when it’s my guy up there flying by himself for the first time.  The controllers know the airplanes I fly, and they know my voice.  After a while, you can almost anticipate each others thoughts.  It’s an amazing partnership.

On the other hand, I avoid Camarillo on the weekend if I can help it.  Especially in the morning.  The tower operators there often seem to be right on the edge of overload whenever the airspace gets full.  Several controllers have strong accents, and I get the feeling the place might be a training location for controllers.  I don’t begrudge the CMA controllers their classroom — after all, pilots have theirs, right?  But there seems to be a higher level of stress with a lower level of traffic at Camarillo.

Chino is another place where you can find some interesting personalities in the tower cab.  Some are sharp as a tack, others seem to miss a lot of things.  I’ve been extended downwind and forgotten about on multiple occasions at Chino.  Try as I might, I’ve been unable to get a handle on individual controllers there.  They all sound the same to me.

Brackett Field in Pomona is one of my favorite places to observe ATC behavior, especially during the holidays.  The tower folks there seem to be quite talkative, almost festive in mood.  In fact, they even string up a huge strand of green and red lights on the side of the tower, creating a massive Christmas tree.  You can almost smell the Douglas fir branches.  At least a couple of the tower controllers are pilots.  You can always tell the ones who are pilots — when something new or different shows up, they take an interest.  The other guys are only asking questions so they know how to address the airplane.  Is it “Experimental” or “Vultee”?

The really huge airports don’t seem to have much personality.  I’ve been into LAX, SFO, LAS, and PHX, and I can only assume that the plethora of airliners sucks some of the personality out of the airwaves.  No classic biplanes, no mix of aviators.  Just an endless stream of seven-something-sevens coming down the ILS.

Airports are nothing in and of themselves.  Just patches of high-strength concrete.  It’s the people that give airports their personality, and a controlled fields, the guys in the tower cab go a long way toward dictating what sort of feel the airport will have.  They do great work, and those of us on the other side of the radio appreciate it.

  6 comments for “Air Traffic Controllers

  1. GC
    July 2, 2006 at 4:44 pm

    Another good post about Phil!

  2. July 2, 2006 at 9:05 pm

    That’s a great story. I can’t imagine the wealth of knowledge that he has learned during such a long career.

  3. Abuddy
    July 6, 2006 at 11:30 am

    What Phil did best was make you feel safe. I’ve flown out of VNY for over 30 years, right from student pilot days. Back then there would be 30 planes in the pattern on a weekend day and it would sound like chaos on frequency. When you reported in from anywhere, and it was Phil answering, everything would just fall into place. Other controllers sometimes just add to the confusion, but Phil just controlled things comfortably for everyone. He still made us feel the same way last week. I don’t think the Feds allow controllers that good anymore.

  4. AW
    July 30, 2006 at 9:40 am

    You left out my alma-mater. Santa Barbara airport which on the weekends can challenge any airport for precision and complexity. The controllers who have come and gone as well as those that have hung out and enjoyed California at its finest have all played a huge role in getting bug-smashers to and from, safe and sound. Anyone who has had a cross country (Usually thier first) have all visited SBA. From the North and from the South SBA is the perfect place to fly into and have lunch at the Elephant Bar then join the masses and head home before the fog rolls in.

    Great article on Phil.

  5. Wayne Vallevand
    August 24, 2013 at 8:45 am

    I am an Air Traffic Controller at Anoka County Tower. Blaine Mn We have 3 controllers that are all aged 76

  6. Helen Rogers
    September 23, 2013 at 11:12 am

    My brother is 78 years old and is an active controller in Florida. He worked at Miami for quite a few years and now is at a smaller airport in Florida.

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