Flying the System
It was late in 1981 or maybe early
in 1982, because that's the only time in the history of O'Hare that the
draconian departure restrictions in this tale were used. To understand how
those departure restrictions fit into our story, you need to know a little
about how IFR departures work at the world's busiest airport.
Everybody gets the same instrument departure procedure (currently the O'Hare
One), which routes them over one of more than a dozen standard departure
fixes, depending on requested altitude and direction of flight. If you're
eastbound at high altitude, you can file whatever you want but you'll get the
O'Hare One over either Keeler (ELX) or Gipper (GIJ). These fixes coincide
with a letter of agreement between Chicago TRACON and Chicago
Center, specifying that
the TRACON ensures all high-altitude, eastbound departures are handed off to
Center in two single-file lines, one destined to pass over each fix. Similar
agreements cover high-altitude routes in other directions. The radar
separation minimum for most Center operations is five miles, but in order to
allow for margin of error (and these days, to keep the computer
"snitch" quiet), the actual in-trail spacing on these routes is
closer to seven.
Ideal vs. Reality
Chicago O'Hare (KORD) Airport Diagram (click here for
On ideal days, tower controllers launch departures with only three miles
in-trail separation between airplanes going over the same fix. Departure
controllers increase that spacing to at least five miles. Doing so isn't
difficult: The speed differential between a departure three miles off the
airport and one just breaking ground is substantial, so spacing naturally
increases. More space can be obtained via speed control and/or vectoring if
On less-than-ideal days, when thunderstorm activity requires that the Center
allow pilots leeway to make course deviations, or when controllers must
provide radar vectoring to avoid big, black clouds, more spacing is required
for all the zigging and zagging. The call goes out to Chicago TRACON, and to
O'Hare Tower, with a restriction that will put fewer airplanes into the
affected airspace. Such restrictions can involve more in-trail spacing, the
combining of multiple routes into one, or a combination of both. A
restriction such as, "Treat Iowa City (IOW) and Dubuque (DBQ) as one
fix, 20 miles in trail," is common during thunderstorm season. The
result is two airplanes in the airspace where, previously, there were eight
Since even the best departure controllers have a hard time making 20 miles
out of the normal three, it's up to the folks in the tower to make up the
difference, via the oldest method of separating airplanes ever devised:
holding takeoff clearance until the in-trail will exist. If there's only one
way to access the runway, the delay affects not only the aircraft in
question, but every aircraft in the line behind it. Consequently, ground
controllers at O'Hare put a lot of effort into providing a split --
separating like-fix departures from airplanes going in a different directions
-- to avoid such delays.
Hurry Up and Wait
Now go back to 1981 and the months and years immediately after the PATCO
strike. The five-mile minimum all but disappeared. Center controllers were
stretched thin; many were working multiple sectors simultaneously, and they
needed more than five miles. Twenty-, 30- and 60-mile restrictions became
standard. The slightest problem with weather, of course, would exacerbate
things. The result was an airliner traffic jam on the airport, pretty much
all day, every day, for months after the strike.
On this particular day, I was working south Local (Tower controller), with 50
or 75 jetliners lined up for my three departure runways: 22L, 27L, and 32L
from the T-10 taxiway. The line for 22L stretched over a mile down the cargo
taxiway and the 27L parallel taxiway was solid with nose-to-tail jets. The
32L departures stretched out from the departure intersection at T-10 up into
the terminal area. Fortunately, arrivals were being vectored for landings on
the north side of the airport, where a different local controller dealt with
them. My only job was to roll departures, and comply with the in-trail
restrictions between airplanes cleared over the initial same departure fix.
It was sometimes a slow process.
Enter the FLIB
I received a landline call from an Approach controller in the radar room 20
floors below me who knew my reputation for being "FLIB friendly."
(FLIB is an unofficial controller acronym for ... um ... "Friendly
Little Itty Bittys.") He wanted to get a Cherokee out of his hair, and
off his frequency, just a little sooner.
The Cherokee was southeast of O'Hare, IFR to Schaumburg
airport, located nine miles to the west. The problem was that while
Schaumburg was VFR, the Cherokee was in IMC at minimum vectoring altitude and
Schaumburg had no instrument approach. The
pilot needed to make an instrument approach somewhere to get out of the
This wasn't unusual, and the normal procedure was vectors to Dupage airport
(eight miles southwest of Schaumburg) where
the pilot could make an instrument approach, break out, cancel IFR and then
proceed VFR to his original destination. The question for me from the Approach
controller was this: "Howzabout, rather than vectoring this guy all the
way out to Dupage, we put him on the ILS to 32L at O'Hare? When he breaks
out, give him a clearance to exit the O'Hare airspace, VFR to the west."
"Sounds good to me," I said, and a few minutes later I spotted the
radar target of the Cherokee inching down the 32L final approach course.
As I perused the flight strips representing the jets at my departure runways,
it became apparent that, despite everyone's best efforts, the in-trail
restrictions were about to take their toll. When the Cherokee was about a
seven-mile final, I ran out of rollable airplanes. The next aircraft in line
at each of the three departure runways was subject to a delay and, with the
traffic jam, there was no way to get any non-restricted aircraft to a runway.
I made my brief, and somewhat routine, explanation on the frequency of why
departures were stopped and for how long, and then sat back and waited for
the Cherokee pilot to call.
The Cherokee driver was not enthusiastic about his O'Hare adventure. He
nervously announced JOCKY inbound on the ILS. I asked him to report canceling
IFR. He did a minute later and requested a VFR departure to the west.
With two-and-a-half miles of empty runway in front of him, and me with no one
to use it for the next few minutes, I couldn't resist: "Unable. Cleared
for touch-and-go on three two left, then your westbound VFR departure is
You Gotta Be Kidding!
Better make it a greaser. Half of O’Hare airport has nothing better to do
Silence, at first. Then, a stammering explanation of how all he really wanted
to do was go to Schaumburg and that it
hadn't been his idea to make an approach to O'Hare in the first place.
Clearly, he thought he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and that the
touch-and-go clearance was some sort of controller code relating to his
"No problem," I replied. "Cleared for the option -- low
approach, touch-and-go, whatever you like. At midfield, you can turn
westbound." I didn't want him going westbound from where he was. That
would put him in conflict with the 22L and 27L departures that I planned to
start rolling shortly. I needed him to come to the runway first, and then
start the turn to the west.
He finally grasped that he was being offered a rather unusual opportunity.
"Oh! OK, I'm cleared for a touch-and-go! I won't start my turn until
midfield! Wow, thanks!" Creeping down final he spotted all the jets
lined up for takeoff and asked, "Uh, Tower, all those airliners aren't waiting
for me, are they?"
Before I could answer, someone said, "Nah, we just heard there was a
Cherokee coming in here to do a touch-and-go, so we all came out to
watch." The bewildered Cherokee pilot touched down softly, then lifted
off and began a turn to the west.
After that, each pilot seemed in a particularly good mood. Many offered some
wry comment. "Thanks for the half-time show," said one. Another
observed that the Cherokee pilot would have a logbook the rest of them didn't
-- their O'Hare landings were always to a full stop. He sounded a little
The pilot of the Cherokee was effusive in his thanks as he departed the
O'Hare airspace. I assured him that it was all part of the day's work, and
not to worry, he hadn't delayed any airliners. As I approved his request for
a frequency change to UNICOM, he acknowledged, then made the comment that has
stuck with me all these years: "Man, the guys back in Columbus
aren't going to believe this!"
They probably didn't. I hope that now they do.
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