Asleep At The Switch
April 18th, 2011

In defense of all those narcoleptic air traffic controllers, let me say this: whenever one’s job entails a sacred obligation to safeguard the lives of others, it’s surprisingly easy to fall asleep.

I know from personal experience. The three summers I worked as a lifeguard, each day was an ongoing struggle to keep my eyes open. Thank goodness for dark glasses! Then there was the time, fifty years ago, when I was often the only person on duty at the Carbon County Airport, nowadays known as Buck Davis Field. My boss back then was none other than E. L. “Buck” Davis.

Whenever Buck was in the office, I could be found polishing airplanes, washing windows, sweeping the hangar, dusting off the fuel pumps or darning the windsock. From all appearances, I was the most industrious assistant he’d ever had—and industrious assistants were hard to come by, considering that the job paid only one dollar per hour. Before I came along, Buck had routinely returned from town to find his chair occupied by a napping teenager. But not this guy! Nope, I was a whirlwind of adolescent energy.


What Buck didn’t know was that I had learned to recognize a particular signature on the office unicom. Turns out that whenever Buck came within a mile of the airport, I’d pick up static generated by the unshielded spark coil of his ’56 Oldsmobile. By the time the boss pulled into the parking lot, I’d be hard at work, my only worry being that Buck would notice that his favorite chair was warm and pull a Papa Bear.

Occasionally, Papa Bear and his wife Frances (Mama Bear) would load up the Cessna One Eighty and fly away to Nebraska, where years earlier Buck had been a star football lineman, one of the fabled “four immovable blocks of granite.” Which left me in charge of everything, including the unicom. But very few pilots ever called in. Typically, an airplane would just appear out of nowhere. If anyone did call, I was usually able to work the conversation into whatever dream I happened to be having at the time.

I wasn’t certified to give landing instructions of any kind. All I was allowed to do was state the wind direction and then repeat the mantra “no known traffic.” How would I know if there were any other aircraft in the vicinity? We didn’t have radar, and the only traffic I regularly monitored was the boss’s Oldsmobile.

However, late one afternoon, just as I had bestirred myself and was about to lock up for the evening, an urgent call came in. It was DeWayne Barker, locally famous for having landed his airplane on Highway 6 and then again at the county golf course. However, now the highway and the golf course and the country club were all socked in. Desperate, DeWayne had opted to make an emergency landing at the airport. Problem was, he was flying VFR under IFR conditions. Now, what with the Book Cliffs to the north and the Wasatch Plateau to the west, flying blind in Carbon County is very dangerous. Descend through the cloud cover before you clear the mountaintops and your trip will end most abruptly.

“I’m not permitted to give landing instructions,” I radioed back. “And you know we don’t have radar.”

“Well, I’m in a big fix,” DeWayne radioed back. “Tell you what. Can you go stand outside and listen for my engine?

I stepped outside onto the tarmac. Pretty quiet. TOO quiet! Then came a faint buzzing, which steadily grew louder, then softer. I ran back to the unicom and picked up the microphone.

“Yes, I heard you. I think you just passed overhead.”

“Which direction?”

Long pause. What kind of an idiot would trust his life to an adenoidal seventeen-year-old kid with a sleep disorder? But there was no time to worry about that. DeWayne’s life was in my hands!

“I…I think you were going south,” I answered. At least I certainly hoped so, because if he was headed north toward the Book Cliffs, he’d be dead in approximately twenty seconds.

A few anxious minutes later I was greatly relieved to see DeWayne’s airplane touch down. Now at last I could punch out, lock up and go home—but not to bed. For once in my life, I was very much awake.

-Richard Menzies