Okay, so he clashes with my airplane with that pink shirt of his.  BUT that’s not just any pink shirt!  That is the uber cool shirt that denotes “I’m an Oshkosh Air Traffic Controller” so that those on the field can genuflect as someone in a pink shirt walks by, sweaty and sunburned after a shift of standing out on the runway to get our errant butts down safely.  You think it’s stressful and difficult being a pilot who flies into Oshkosh?  Think about being a controller dealing with thousands of those in one shift!  We’re thankful that they’re crazy enough to put themselves through that kind of stress so we can enjoy ourselves drooling on various rare aircraft all week.

This week, I’m lucky enough to have my good friend Brian “Porkchop” LaFleur with me to answer some questions about what it’s like to be an Oshkosh air traffic controller.  Brian normally works at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International, so I’m often graced with his skill and smooth, clear voice while flying around New Orleans.  He’s an ambassador of pilot/controller relations, always glad to give a tower tour and answer our stupid questions, and he was kind enough to give me a tower tour of both Louis Armstrong AND Oshkosh, two of my favorite places on earth.

Now on with the questions.

ES: How long have you been an air traffic controller?

BL: Since ’99, so 13 years.

ES: How do you get to be an Oshkosh controller?  Do you apply for it or are you invited?

BL: Anyone can put in for it.  They select mostly controllers who have been there before based on satisfactory performance, but every year they try to pick up at least 16 new controllers for their first year or their “rookie” year.  How they select those 16, I’m not sure.  I think they get more than 16 applicants.  And maybe by word of mouth or maybe just pull a straw.  You put in your name, you fill out a sheet with your name, your facility, if you’ve been to Oshkosh before, and if so what years, and that’s it.

ES: How many controllers total are on the Oshkosh team?

BL: Four per team, 16 teams, so 64.

ES: Do all the controllers come from Bravo {high traffic volume} facilities?

BL: No.  We’ve got controllers from even Delta facilities.  They’re better in some ways because they’re used to spotting the smaller airplanes, and a lot of times they’re better with aircraft recognition.  The United States is divided into regions, and right now Oshkosh is located in the Central service area.  So only those controllers in that Central service area are eligible to put in for it.

ES: So you can’t have Western or Eastern controllers?

BL: Correct.  Now the Eastern service area can bid on Sun ‘n Fun, so they’re restricted within the service area.  Before, the country was divided into regions, and Oshkosh was in the Great Lakes region, and that’s where the controllers came from.  And we {New Orleans} were in the Southwest region.  We had no prayer of ever working Oshkosh.  So a few years back when they restructured, the Central service area became active, so now we’re getting announcements for Oshkosh, and I was like “What?  New Orleans controllers?  I’m puttin’ in!”  So we have controllers from New Orleans, Houston, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Roswell, Dallas, all these places that were never able to go before.

ES: Since there are so many Oshkosh-specific procedures, what kind of training do you get as a controller when you get up there?

BL: One day, a whole day.  We’re sent the information in advance, and we’re expected to study and be familiar with the procedures and have the frequencies pretty much committed to memory.  And then we spend a whole day in the classroom being taught and discussing the procedures.  That’s our first day up there is an entire day of classroom.

ES: During the week of Oshkosh, the airport is the busiest airport and, therefore, the busiest control tower in the world.  Can you compare it to other high-volume airports for reference, like it’s X times London or X times Paris?

BL: Atlanta is the world’s busiest airport.  They do more in a day than Oshkosh does, *but* Oshkosh Airport is not open 24 hours either, so as far as per hour, Oshkosh is the busiest airport in the world.  {Note that Oshkosh Airport opens at 6:00am, closes from 2:30pm to 6:30pm for the afternoon airshow, and closes for the night at 8:00pm during the week of Oshkosh, so it is only open a total of 10 hours per day.}  So Atlanta is number two during those days.  I believe O’Hare might come in third.

ES: Can you describe a typical day as a controller at Oshkosh?

BL: I’ve controlled Oshkosh for four years and am still waiting for a typical day.  We remain with our assigned team during the duration of the event.  The team of four functions as one controller normally would at our home airports.  An entire eight-hour shift is spent performing one of four possible functions: 1) Oshkosh Tower – clearing planes to land at Oshkosh from the control tower; 2) Another itinerant “Tower” function – clearing planes for takeoff from Oshkosh from a workstation on the edge of the runway; 3) Fond du Lac Tower – a nearby satellite airport that is uncontrolled the rest of the year; 4) Or you work at “Fisk” – a VFR entry point used to divide the majority of inbound aircraft between the two arrival runways.  During the nine days we control, we are off two, therefore work seven.  That’s typically (but not always) divided into three days in the tower, two next to the runway, one at Fond du Lac, and one at Fisk.  There are two tower positions and two itinerant positions, one for each runway.

ES: What is your favorite thing about controlling Oshkosh?

BL: The airplanes.  Seeing all of the unique planes.  Sometimes there is one of a particular type in the world that is flying, and it’s there.  Like the B-29 Fifi I’m told is the only one flying.  So when that comes over the top {does a good impression of the sound of Fifi flying}, I mean that’s it!  You’re lookin’ at it!  That’s my favorite.  Definitely.

ES: What’s your least favorite thing about controlling Oshkosh?

BL: The heat.  That’s the only thing I don’t like is the heat.

ES: In all your time at Oshkosh, you’ve been there for a few years, what’s the craziest thing you’ve seen, good or bad?

BL: I’d say being in the tower during a lull in your position’s traffic and being able to look around trying to absorb all of it at once.  To see all of the procedures come together successfully, from the uncontrolled ultralight runway, to the uncontrolled helicopter tours, to the arrivals, departures, overflights, overhead breaks, blimps.  And the flagmen stationed at the dozen or so intersections sorting through the taxiing aircraft.  All of these gears turning correctly in a giant aviation machine that has been fine-tuned over the years.  The tower may be the only place to see it from that perspective, and it is among one of the most impressive things I’ve ever witnessed.

ES: What is the most difficult thing about controlling Oshkosh?

BL: The learning curve.  As I described, we work any given position only one to three shifts during the event.  Although it takes about five years to become “seasoned”, I remember my second year I had two rookies on my team. They’d ask questions, and I felt like saying, “I don’t know, I just got here, too.”  But I couldn’t.  I had to step up.  Grabbing the bull by the horns is a great analogy.

ES: How did the whole colored dot concept on the runway come about?

BL: I’m not exactly sure where it originated, but there’s a waiver for reduced runway separation where you can have 1,500 feet between Category 1 landing aircraft and departing aircraft, so there had to be some reference point.  Big colored dots, I don’t know if it was through trial and error, but it seems to work pretty well now.

ES: Any parting or last words?

BL: Welcome to Oshkosh!

Thank you again, Brian, for talking with me this week and agreeing to be put under a bare bulb for the betterment of the pilot community.  We appreciate your time here, there, and everywhere!