Saturday, December 22, 2012

TRACON by Paul McElroy

Thank you one and all who have made recommendations for books I might enjoy. I have added a lot of books to my queue and will begin interspersing them with my usual fare (once I get through the stack of five I just got from the library).

I'll apologize in advance for no not always being able to match recommendation with recommender. But you'll know who you are. Oh, and please don't take offense if I don't enjoy your favorite authors. I will always enjoy the discovery of reading and isn't it grand that there are books for every taste?

by Paul McElroy
2001 Ippy Award
5 stars - highest recommendation 

This one is getting five stars (even though I have some reservations about the writing) because I consider it an important and overlooked book.

Let's start with why 5 stars.

The novel is about air traffic controllers. It is incredibly well researched and there are forwards and afterwards detailing the book's authenticity as well as the 1981 walk out of air traffic controllers.

To be honest, before reading this book, I hadn't given the job of air traffic controllers much thought. Not any more. Imagine a job where thousands of lives are at stake and the only time anybody will notice your work is if you screw up. We're jamming the air with more and more flights and yet our airports are woefully inadequate to handle the traffic. 

The author provides chilling descriptions of what goes in to managing planes at Chicago's O'Hare airport (one of the busiest hubs in the U.S.). 

The main character, Ryan Kelly, otherwise known as Rain Main, is one of the best controllers. He's got it down, sure, but it is an all consuming job.

"Let's run through them again. Number one on final is Delta 1172, then American 1650 behind him. From the northeast is Coastal 540. Or is it Continental 267? His stomach twisted a notch. Christ, that better be Coastal. Over there is Prairie... Oh yeah, Prairie 838. His eyes flicked back and forth between trips and scope, darting among the cluster of targets that blinked and danced with each sweep of the radar. Look away an instant too long and the whole house of cards would collapse."

The first half of the book deals with the challenges of managing traffic. Halfway through, there is a mid air collision and the second half focuses on the aftermath. At the center of the investigation is a software tool called TRAC which is intended to be faster and swifter than humans at avoiding collisions. Guess what? The software has bugs in it. Not only that, but awarding the TRAC contract to the government was so tied up in politics that the authoring company has little incentive to get the bugs out. Not very far fetched at all. 

TRACON is an acronym for Terminal Radar Approach Control. The TRACON team is housed in an underground bunker, out of visual contact with what it going on around them. Hour after hour, they manage the blips on the screen that represent aircraft. Trying to keep things moving despite weather, over booking of runways and faulty equipment.

Here's a TRACON photo I found on the Internet (just google TRACON if you want to learn more). Looks pretty scary to me. 

I noticed the book bore a "science fiction" stamp which means the library that sent it to me had it tucked away in the Sci Fi department and despite being over ten years old, it was in almost pristine condition. That indicated to me that the book wasn't getting a lot of circulation. I sent them an email inquiring why it was in Sci Fi and encouraging them to give it a try on the "must read" table. That's how important I believe this book to be.

I remember the air traffic controller walk out of 1981 and am embarrassed to say that in the naivete of youth, I cheered when President Reagan fired them all and restaffed with non-union workers. I would take a different stand now. There are some jobs that, sadly, require unions to protect the health and well being of their employees and to do as much as possible that their jobs are carried out in a safe, responsible way. Do you really want the person guiding your 747 onto the runway to have worked a staggered week (alternating night and day shifts - the easiest way to cloud the brain) or who is on day six of a six day work week?

Now, a bit of a caveat. The overarching plot and character writing is a bit thin. It was no effort to predict what would happen with each character as they were introduced, but don't let that deter you. If anything, it makes it easier to focus on the technical aspects.

Find it, read it, and if your library, like mine, has it in Science Fiction, make a fuss. Nothing futuristic or fantastical about this thriller (I wish that weren't the case, but it is all too real).


  1. After flying twice this year after not flying for a long time, this is a bit creepy. Both times there were technical issues that made me a bit uncomfortable, and I went through Chicago both times! Yikes!

  2. Something tells me this is not a book I should let my wife see if I ever want to get her on an airplane again!

  3. This is a must read. Sounds like the perfect complement to the PBS "Frontline" show last year on the outsourcing and consequent decline in civilian aircraft maintenance and safety in the U.S. I have no plans to ever get on a plane again.