Pyke: How traffic controllers rebounded after Aurora sabotage
At 5 a.m. Sept. 26, 2014, a disgruntled FAA contractor saunters into the Chicago Center air traffic control building in Aurora, rolling a suitcase with knives, a wire cutter and a gasoline can.
An IT expert, Brian Howard heads for the rainbow of wires that transmit information about thousands of U.S. aircraft.
A few floors above, air traffic controllers shepherd jets bound for O'Hare, Midway and elsewhere.
"AC 4686, have a nice day, you can now contact Chicago's approach on one niner point zero," a controller drawls, referring to the Elgin air traffic frequency.
"There's a heavy cross wind at one zero thousand (feet)," a controller tells a pilot.
Abruptly, a shriek of static rips into the chitchat.
There's silence, then, "we just had a major loss of power," a controller barks. "November 715 Lima Mike?" he asks, trying to locate a small Jetprop plane. "November 715 Lima Mike, are you here?"
Downstairs, "lines are being cut and fires lighted," Toby Hauck, a veteran controller at Chicago Center, explained in an interview last week. "Thousands of lines go in there -- so (Howard) wasn't able to cut all the lines at one time."
As the basement burns, controllers keep transmitting.
"AC 4991?" a controller asks. "I just lost radar contact. AC 4991 ... maintain direct 12,000 (feet), 300 knots ... I need to evacuate here shortly."
"Good luck," a pilot says.
"Lima Mike 715, we have a fire in the building," another controller explains. "But I'll try to find a frequency I can give you."
"Call Chicago, let them know your (coordinates)," a controller tells a pilot. "I've got no way to call them -- all our lines are dying."
The last transmission is: "Attention, all aircraft ... this is Chicago Center. We are evacuating the building because of a fire. If you need any assistance, contact the nearest FAA approach facility."
Across the U.S. thousands of planes are grounded as a result of the sabotage that destroyed computers and communications lines. More than 5,700 flights are canceled at O'Hare and Midway, and $350 million is lost by stakeholders. Howard, of Naperville, was sentenced in September to 12½ years in prison.
This week's column uses exclusive interviews and live audio for a behind-the-scenes look at Chicago Center's comeback.
On the day Howard disabled the facility as part of what authorities said was a failed suicide attempt, Hauck rushed in around 7 a.m. ready to troubleshoot and get planes back in the air.
But "we didn't get to see the damage until 4 p.m. When I went down, it was still a federal crime scene. There was blood on the floor, crime scene tape," said Hauck, Chicago Center facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
"I thought, 'Holy cow.' It was no longer, 'When do we resume operations on Sept. 26?' It was, 'How do we rebuild the system and keep it running at the same time?'"
Chicago Center guides about 9,000 high-altitude flights a day over six Midwestern states.
At the Elgin Terminal Radar Approach Control that handles low-altitude aircraft in the region, National Air Traffic Controllers Association facility representative James Hall starts talking about the unimaginable -- reconfiguring the nation's airspace -- to controllers in Kansas City, Cleveland, Minneapolis and Indianapolis.
"No one knew what our capabilities were," Hall said.
Controllers started pushing the envelope on what slack their radars could pick up while continuing to operate safely.
"There was a lot of 'Can you see this far? Can you see this airplane?' There was a lot of trial and error to figure out how far our equipment would let us go," Hall explained.
Meanwhile, controllers scrambled to compensate for the loss of computers that transmit automated flight plans. The Band-Aid solution? Using paper and pens to transcribe the data and relay it by phone.
"Their job was to be human computers. It was the biggest phone-tag game you've ever played in your life with thousands of airplanes and thousands of pieces of information," Hauck said.
Within hours, the FAA begins a massive deployment of more than 200 Chicago Center controllers to other facilities that will pick up the lost territory.
Father and son controllers who had never spent a shift together went to Kansas City to work side by side. Husband and wife controllers were dispatched to Peoria. Several Quad Cities natives headed back home. And a squad of Aurora controllers squished into the Elgin TRACON, making for a lot of Type A personalities with limited headsets under stress in close quarters.
"It was out of the ordinary and unorthodox," Hall said. And it worked. "Everyone was willing to jump in and do whatever."
Ardent Blackhawks fans, the displaced controllers adopted the hockey team's mantra of "one team, one goal."
And when the going got tough, the tough started cooking.
"People on their days off would bring in food for everyone working," Hall said.
Chicago Center was back online Oct. 13, 2014. "Eleven out of the 17 days (of recovery) O'Hare was the busiest airport in the country," Hauck said.
Some time after, Hauck jokingly asked Hall, "Do you miss us?" To which he replied, "It's really quiet right now."
Recently, Hauck accepted an award in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the facilities that assisted in the recovery. A tearful woman thanked him for the efforts that enabled her to fly to California for her grandfather's funeral.
"It took me aback," he said.
"We didn't really comprehend what we'd accomplished until after it was over," Hall said.
Just in time, the CTA kicks off its annual Holiday Train, this year sponsored by Sprint. The six-car train decorated with lights also includes a Ventra-card carrying Santa. The train runs on all CTA lines. For information on schedules, go to www.transitchicago.com/holidaytrain/.
• Got a transportation opinion or question? Drop Marni a line at email@example.com.