Have you ever flown over New England or New York? Have you ever sat 30,000 ft in the air and wondered how your pilot knows how to stay a safe distance from other aircraft? Or maybe you’ve gripped your seat during a rough bout of turbulence and said a prayer of thanks to whoever navigated your pilot out of the bumpy air.
If you’ve flown on one the 1.7 million flights that zoom over New England each year, you were on an aircraft being guided by an air traffic controller sitting in Nashua’s own FAA facility, Boston Center. And it was one of these controllers who guided your flight safely home.
Don’t let the name fool you – Boston Center is actually in Nashua, NH. Originally based at Logan Airport, the facility moved to Nashua in 1963 amid Cold War fears that a nuclear bomb might be dropped in a major city like Boston. If like me, you drive by it on your way down the highway and wonder why the building is so… industrially ugly… you can just remember it was the 60’s – great for music, bad for architecture. The creation of the FAA center in Nashua was a boon for the local economy as the city saw the influx of highly paid controllers move to the area, and it remains an important part of the city’s development.
For most people, the job “air traffic controller” conjures the image of a man with glowing sticks directing a plane on a tarmac or at an airport tower. In Boston Center however, controllers work low altitude, high altitude, or super-high altitude. It’s actually the 14th busiest FAA center in the country, handling over 1.7 million flights annually. John Cusack might help you picture it better:
Being a controller is generally considered one of the most stressful jobs in the world. On top of the massive responsibility and high pressure of juggling several aircraft at the same time, quickly making decisions and ordering instructions, controllers work irregular schedules. Imagine working two days shifts, two night shifts, and one midnight shift; your body never gets used to any of kind of sleep pattern.
“Every hour around here,” says one Newark controller, “is 59 minutes of boredom and 1 of sheer terror.” – quote from the NY Times 1996 article “Something’s Got to Give”
“You got to have two mentalities. One, these aren’t lives here; these are just dots. And, two, even as bad as you can mess up, it’s a big sky; the planes won’t hit. Otherwise, the stress is too much, you’d have a heart attack, you’d be done.” – NY Times
Boston Center was also the site of great heroism amidst the unimaginable tragedy of 9/11.
The first people to become aware of the hijackings of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines 93 were the flights’ controllers in Nashua. During the early confusion of that morning, Boston Center alerted other controllers in different centers about the hijacked flight and then notified the Northeast Air Defense Sector to scramble jets, all while controllers continued in vain to try to make contact with the planes. (The Pilot of Flight 11, Capt. John Ogonowski, had the presence of mind to bravely press a “push-to-talk” button so that controllers on the ground could hear the terrorists in the cabin.)
After the second tower was hit, the FAA gave the unprecedented order to clear the entire airspace over the United States, or “air traffic control zero.” Controllers in Nashua and around the country safely landed nearly 4,000 planes in under 3 hours. Can’t imagine the scale of it? Here’s a graphic NASA made to show you the remarkable feat:
That nightmarish morning extended to the lives of Boston Center controllers. A false report led the staff there to believe a hijacked flight was also heading for Boston Center. With FBI swat teams circling, the entire building evacuated, but many controllers stayed in the building to continue safely passing off their planes before leaving. You might remember that Exit 4 signs used to point the way to the FAA building. Following the attack, all directions to the facility came down as a safety precaution.
Boston Center controllers also stepped up to support a co-worker whose life was horribly changed that day. A controller whose wife was on a plane that had departed Logan Airport that morning rushed into work to find out if the flight number of the hijacked plane was the one she was on. Tragically, he learned at work that it was. His co-workers pitched in their leave and sick time until he was able to retire without having to step foot into the building again.
In 2013, controllers rallied in support of another co-worker, Patty Clark, who has amazingly worked in the facility since it opened in 1963 and has NEVER TAKEN A SICK DAY IN 50 YEARS. According to controllers, the Management and Program Assistant is the “rock” of the facility. Congresswomen Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter introduced legislation to re-name Boston Center “Patricia Clark Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center.” Matching legislation passed the Senate after Senators Shaheen and Ayotte introduced it, and now it heads to the desk of President Obama to be signed into law.
It’s easy to neglect the importance of air traffic controllers because they work in a dark, windowless bunker, without flashy uniforms, and when they’re doing their jobs right you don’t even notice. But the next time you’re cruising 30,000 feet up in the sky, be glad of the people in the ugly 1960’s building that is Nashua’s Boston Center.
P.S. The FAA is facing a critical shortage of air traffic controllers. If you’re under 31 and this important job interests you, check out this link on how to apply: https://www.faa.gov/jobs/career_fields/aviation_careers/ You do not have to have any kind of aviation experience to apply. It’s a pretty amazing opportunity. Check it out.