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Thursday, Oct. 14, 2004 07:48 pm

Grace about town 10-14-04

Fly girl

I'm looking for Lisa Pauley's office, and she is giving me directions on the phone: "Go three miles, past a brown house, and then, on Bruns Lane, take a right." I try to envision this, but for some reason, it won't compute. Lisa senses my confusion at once. "A right," she repeats in a firm but reassuring voice. "Oh, a right," I say, as suddenly everything became clear.

It's a good thing Lisa is so good at giving directions, because she spends her days telling people where to go and what to do in that same authoritative, friendly, and in-command voice.

Lisa is an air traffic controller at Capitol Airport, and I've been allowed to hang out with her at work. It's fascinating, educational, somewhat exhausting (just observing; nobody's allowing me to get anywhere near anything official-looking), and a little mind-boggling. Let me just say it's a good thing that it's Lisa, and not me, telling your pilot to slow to 210 knots and drop to 3,800 feet.

The air traffic control tower is near the airport, but not right there. I'm buzzed through a high-security gate with all kinds of dire warnings posted all over it: WARNING. RESTRICTED AREA. NO TRESPASSING. The most ominous: LOSS OF HUMAN LIFE MAY RESULT FROM SERVICE INTERRUPTION. I hope I won't do anything that will result in service interruption and then loss of human life.

The funny thing is, Lisa is cheerful and good-natured, with an infectious laugh. Her sunny disposition belies the razor-sharp focus and type A personality required to do her job.

First Lisa shows me into the TRACON, which stands for "Terminal Radar Approach Control." Did you see the movie Pushing Tin? It's a great film starring Billy Bob Thornton and John Cusack. Lisa says it's a pretty accurate portrayal of an air-traffic controller's job, and the TRACON room reminds me a lot of the one in the movie, except that the one at Capitol Airport is very dark.

Lisa gives me a headset so I that I can listen as she talks to the pilots. She stands in front of a radar screen and watches the little blips as they move around. Each is labeled with a bunch of letters and numbers, which tell you the plane's call sign, altitude, speed, and type. Springfield's airspace, which goes up 10,000 feet, covers an area from Logan County to Jacksonville, to just north of Litchfield, to Taylorville. When Lisa's working TRACON, she's queen of all aircraft in the Springfield airspace. As I pelt her with questions, she stops midsentence every now and again to talk to the different pilots. They have to get Lisa's permission to enter her airspace, and she's always polite about letting them in. She tells them to slow down or fly higher or move to the right a little bit, all in rapid-fire code. There are lots of rules in air-traffic control, as one would expect and hope. When you're sitting there on an airplane, you may think the pilot is in control, but, really, it's the air-traffic controller who is making sure that everything goes smoothly.

Lisa's supervisor, Kendall Mitchell, shows me the manual of air traffic control, which bears the catchy title 7110.65P. The book is page after page of rules, guidelines, and procedures, and Kendall assures me that Lisa (like all of the controllers) knows every single thing in the book. She has to.

I watch the radar screen as a Learjet and a plane from the Illinois Department of Transportation approach the airport, each one's pilot wanting to land. Lisa quickly and carefully has one slow down and tells the other to steer a little to the left, making sure both successfully come in. She makes it seem so easy, except it mostly sounds incomprehensible.

After about an hour of this, Lisa and I go upstairs to the control tower. What a view. Here, the controller is in charge of air traffic within a five-mile radius of the airport and 3,000 feet up. The radar controller sets the sequence for the planes to take off and land, but in the tower, the controller creates the plan for actually getting the planes in and out.

Lisa says it's all about making a decision and sticking to it -- and at the same time having backup plans B, and C, and D. By asking a pilot just one question, she can accurately judge his or her skill level. On the basis of one response I hear, Lisa tells me that the pilot in question is relatively new and will therefore slow way down, as opposed to the seasoned pilot about to land his small private plane. She adjusts their landing sequence accordingly, and it all runs like clockwork.

Air traffic controllers must be full of self-confidence and able to make quick decisions, and they need that all-important focus. You don't see any family photos up in the control tower, and nobody's chatting on the phone. The only reading materials are the hefty manuals, and the only stuff lying around are great big binoculars, which are used to make sure that the landing gear is down as the planes come in and to watch out for things that are sometimes on the runway, such as stray deer and coyotes.

In Lisa's spare time, she runs; she just finished first in her age category in the Alzheimer Association's Unforgettable 5K. Lisa also acts - she recently appeared in Sunday in the Park with George at the Springfield Theatre Centre, although she had to do all kinds of juggling to fit rehearsal time into her fluctuating work schedule. She did it with the greatest of ease, of course, and I have no doubt that Lisa can handle absolutely any kind of challenge that will come her way.


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