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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Controller Helps Make Skies Friendly for Pilots

On the Job: One in an occasional series

August 06, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMARILLO — From his all-window office, with a 10-mile view of Ventura County on every side, Michael Marcotte fits a constantly moving, sky-size jigsaw puzzle together in his mind.

He speaks a stream of orders into a headset. He scans the hazy horizon. He tries to see into the head, or at least the flight plan, of a student pilot.

Marcotte, an air traffic controller wearing black shades and perched in the Camarillo Airport control tower, is in charge of his own slice of sky.

And if this suburban airport doesn't see the level of activity of Los Angeles International or even Van Nuys, it's still a big responsibility. In his tower, with an eagle's nest vantage point over the fields of the Oxnard Plain, he and nine other controllers do without extensive radar and top-of-the-line equipment to guide often inexperienced pilots back to earth--some 190,000 times a year.

Marcotte's workload is constantly increasing, his schedule changes daily and he lives with the knowledge that every decision he makes has to help people get back to the ground safely.

He cannot make mistakes.

"You gotta be able to make a decision really fast, but you have to be able to switch to Plan B," is how Marcotte puts it. Unexpected things come up--controllers have to react quickly.

The former military airfield opened to general aviation in 1977 as an uncontrolled airstrip, where pilots radioed their takeoff and landing plans to one another. Air traffic control operations began in July 1989, directed from a temporary 30-foot tower that consisted of a house trailer atop two metal containers. A $2-million tower, opened in 1992.

Since then, it has become the busiest of the county's three general aviation airports--including Santa Paula and Oxnard--thanks to a regular buzz of small personal and corporate planes, students from the San Fernando Valley taking on the less-crowded Ventura County skies and locals out for an easy day of flying. With as many as 800 takeoffs and landings a day, it's busier than Burbank Airport, even with Burbank's "heavy metal"--commercial passenger planes.

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The local airport handles a triangle of traffic between Oxnard Airport and the Point Mugu Navy base. "We divide the sky up," manager Jim Swain says.

What Marcotte does is relatively simple in concept: He talks to pilots and ensures there is enough "separation"--room to maneuver--when they take off and land. The trick is in visualizing the big picture, sometimes in bad weather, sometimes with limited information.

"Two or three, that's really easy," Marcotte says. "Fifteen or 16 [planes] waiting to take off, you have to prioritize. Because they can't see each other."

Control operations are anything but high tech at the one-runway airport. There is a 1970s-era radar relay from Point Mugu, which mirrors what the Navy controllers see. But for the most part, pilots are relying on the eyes of Marcotte and his colleagues.

Marcotte's eyes have 15 years of practice. He floated into the profession in the wake of the 1981 airline strike that prompted President Reagan to fire thousands of controllers.

Marcotte, who had been the manager of a pizzeria and hadn't given much thought to flying, spent four months at the Federal Aviation Administration's training facility in Oklahoma City. Since then, he has spent his professional life perfecting that training.

Some of his talents are God-given. It takes a special person to deal with the intense organizational demands, to have the ability to juggle the whereabouts of faraway planes just by talking to their pilots.

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He is good with spatial relations. He has a propensity for pushiness. He is a little bit obsessive.

This, Marcotte says, is how he knew he was becoming a career air traffic controller: At a Thanksgiving dinner, there were four cars in the driveway, but--clearly--six could fit. So he marched into the home of his host, turkey in hand, prepared to call the drivers outside and reorganize the driveway traffic.

"You're not in the tower now!" his wife reminded him in what has become a familiar refrain around the house, Marcotte says.

Air traffic control is not really a growth industry. The Federal Aviation Administration only hires about 200 new controllers across the country annually, which according to the industry union won't even account for the 250 to 300 controllers lost to attrition by burnout or forced retirement at 56.

"It's a young person's game. The older you get, the more [your talents] decline," says Randy Schwitz, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn.

The Golden State is one of the areas most in need of additional controllers, according to Schwitz.

"The California area needs a lot of help," he says. "Most of the smaller airports need some help out there. They haven't hired to replace the backfield."

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