It takes control

Tue, 05/29/2007 - 5:45pm
By: The Citizen

It takes control Warren “Buzz” Clarke 1: Warren “Buzz” Clarke sitting in front of the radar scope. Photo/Christopher Del Negro.

Voice of Atlanta Approach control to retire May 31

By Bobby Smelley
Special to The Citizen

They have no idea what he looks like and they don’t know his given name, but to pilots flying in and out of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, he is as familiar as the co-worker sitting next to them – maybe even more so.

So when Warren “Buzz” Clarke retires as an FAA air traffic controller this week, it will be something like the end of an era for the local aviation community.

“Buzz is famous,” said Mike Doyle, chief pilot for Delta Airlines, “and he’s gotten that way by the way he does his job. When you hear that voice, you know you’re in Atlanta and you know you’re in good hands. Doyle continued, “You always feel a certain amount of familiarity with the people you work with. You like working with the same people and feeling comfortable with them. That’s the way we pilots feel about Buzz. He’s part of the team around here.”

Clarke, who lives in Peachtree City, came to Atlanta Approach in 1986 with over 10 years experience with the FAA. He brought with him a distinctive baritone radio delivery and his signature phrase: “Good day, gentlemen!”

“When you fly international and you’re headed across the pond, it’s always good to get that ‘Good day, gentlemen’ as you’re leaving,” said Gary Pheasant, Director of Fleets for Delta. “Then when you’re coming back, you hear Buzz and you know you’re home.”

Clarke acknowledges his approach to air traffic control is a little bit disc jockey and a little bit snake-oil salesman. “If all they’ve got to go on is your voice, you better darn well sound like you know what you’re doing, whether you really do or not,” he said.

“His tone never changes,” Doyle said. “He doesn’t get overly excited. There’s never a hint of concern. It’s always very predictable and reassuring.”

But Clarke says there’s also a bit of self preservation to his approach as well. “I figure I’m not going to be perfect in this job. There’s going to be times when I’m going to need the pilots to really help me out to make something work. I figure if I’ve been nice to them and complimentary of the job they do, then when I need that help they’re going to give it to me.”

Clarke, who figures he’s held more than 30 jobs in his life, got his air traffic control start in 1971 in the U.S. Army. “I joined the Army for two reasons,” said Clarke. “They promised me an air controller spot and they only required a three-year commitment. Everybody else wanted at least four.”

He spent parts of 1972 and 1973 at the U.S facility in DaNang, South Vietnam, during the waning months of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

“We worked what was called ‘Panama Control,’ which covered the northern part of South Vietnam. It was pretty much like a regular job, but because the base was right on the South China Sea, I had to become pretty proficient in hand-to-hand combat. I mean, there were six guys on my crew and there were only three surfboards.”

Clarke was hired by the FAA in 1975 and was assigned to the tower at the Charlie Brown-Fulton County Airport, one of Atlanta’s secondary airports. Five months later, in April 1976, he received orders to report to the tower in Winston-Salem, N.C. Less than a year after that, he transferred to Charlotte where he remained until he came to Atlanta in 1986. (The radar facility for Hartsfield-Jackson was moved from the airport to Peachtree City in 2001.)

While in Charlotte, Clarke met and married Sandy, his wife of 27 years. The couple’s two children, Lauren and John, were both born in Charlotte.

“I would have probably stayed in Charlotte if the FAA hadn’t come up with something called the ‘hub concept,’” Clarke said. “They came up with a plan to move all the approach controls into the centers. It never came about, but we didn’t know that then. In Charlotte we worked with three centers: Atlanta, Washington and Jacksonville. Which one would they move us to? Nobody knew. I knew I didn’t want to move to Washington, and I knew I didn’t want to go to Hilliard (Florida, where Jacksonville Center is located), but I wouldn’t mind going back to Atlanta. So I figured if I went to Atlanta Tower, even if this ‘hub concept’ became a reality, I wouldn’t have to move again.”

Keeping his family stable and in one place was a high priority for Clarke because his family moved often during his school years. “From San Francisco to Ossining, NY, to Long Island to Miami to Carol City (Fla.) to Pensacola to Atlanta,” he said. “And it was never in the summer but always during the school year. I guess that’s what created the ‘Buzz’ part of my personality. Moving around like that forces you to meet people. I figured I had two choices – turn inward or adapt. I chose to adapt and to get out and meet people.”

While the “Buzz” personality exhibited in his radio persona was highly popular with his listening audience, such was not always the case with his employer.

“I remember the first day after I got checked out (certified to work on his own) in Atlanta. I don’t think I had been working 20 minutes before the supervisor had me relieved. He said, ‘What the heck was that? This isn’t some radio talk show.’”

He recounts another time when he was told that his “Good day, gentlemen!” transmissions were disturbing the other controllers because the phrase was becoming too repetitive. “You mean repetitive like ‘cleared for takeoff’ or ‘cleared to land?’” he countered.

His signature “Good day, gentlemen!” even drew the wrath of FAA Headquarters. According to Clarke, an inspector on a flight through Atlanta reported that Clarke was “single-handedly undermining every single program instituted by the FAA to enhance diversity. They said I was eliminating an entire segment of the flying public and I had to quit using that phrase.

“The FAA always seemed to think that I was trying to glorify myself,” Clarke said “But my reasons were all purely selfish. If you’re busy, the worst thing that can happen is missed transmissions. I figured if I could talk in a manner that caught their attention, I would have fewer missed transmissions and everything would run a lot smoother.

“Every time I had a run-in with a supervisor over it, I would always offer to make them a bet,” said Clarke. “I was willing to bet that if they did a little research, they would find that I had fewer missed or misunderstood transmissions than anybody out there. None of them ever took me up on it.”

Clarke and his family will celebrate his retirement by spending a month on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. After that, the Clarkes will retire to Destin, Fla., with the hopes of starting a deep-sea charter fishing business.

“I love the water and I love to fish,” he said. “I’m not looking to make money off my hobby. I’m just looking to hopefully have my hobby pay for itself.”

He hopes his contacts in the aviation community will help. “I’m thinking of putting business cards in the crew lounges saying, ‘I’ve spent the last 30 years telling you where to go. Now you can come down to Destin and tell me where to go.’”

Will he miss sitting at that radar scope? “I will and I won’t. I can tell that age makes a difference. After a grueling session with weather or something like that, you don’t have the recuperative powers you once had to come right back and do it again. I’ll miss the people, of course. The Atlanta airport has grown tremendously over the years and, while people are always a bit resistant to change, the people here have always adapted and made it all work. There’s really a can-do attitude here.”

He is concerned about what the next few years will bring to those controllers he leaves behind. “I’m afraid the next few years are going to be bad simply because of staffing shortages. Six-day weeks and 10-hours days are already common, vacation time has been cut back, and replacements won’t be available for several years, at best. It’s going to be very stressful and it’s not going to get better for a long time,” he said.

Clarke says he will take with him the satisfaction of knowing that Atlanta has a stellar reputation among pilots. “I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with a pilot who didn’t say how much they love flying into Atlanta. They can’t say enough about the professionalism of the controllers here. If I have had a little bit to do with that, then that’s all the better. I don’t care anything about personal accolades. The whole facility is deserving of praise. Everything we do is a team effort.”

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Submitted by monkeynuts on Mon, 06/11/2007 - 4:35pm.

It was a pleasure not just working with you for the past 20 plus years but just being around you when we weren't vectoring. Good luck to you buddy and I hope to see you in Destin.

Love, David (monkeynuts) Shealy

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