Becoming an air traffic controller never crossed my mind when I entered the Air Force shortly after college in 1967.
Apparently, through numerous Air Force tests and interviews, several of my interests, skills and talents stood out. These included a strong interest and experience in working with aircraft, public-speaking and organizational skills.
Acquiring the air traffic control skills involved learning through rote exercises, pressure situations and training with real aircraft. Many air traffic control students bail out early in the program because of the pressure involved.
It was very challenging to me to eventually be able to multi-task.
Eventually, I learned how to write down flight-plan information from an earlier radio transmission while providing another pilot specific flight directions, altitude change clearances and radio contact information. Nowadays, I can’t even write down a 10-digit telephone number without asking the other party to repeat it.
After three years of leading air traffic control crews in the U.S., I volunteered to become a lead air traffic controller in Vietnam. Even though most of the population had strong negative feelings about the war, I wanted to contribute to the effort and do my part in serving my country. I was proud to be an American.
My year-long assignment was at Binh Thuy (pronounced “Bin’-Two’-ee”) Air Force base, a few miles from Can Tho (pronounced “can’-toe”0 near the Mekong River south of Saigon.
My job had two parts: train Vietnamese Air Force officers to become effective air traffic controllers, and supervise a USAF air traffic control crew.
Teaching the Vietnamese officers was a challenge simply because of the language barrier: I spoke little Vietnamese, and they spoke little English. As the months went by, both parties would become more knowledgeable in each other’s language, and several lasting friendships developed.
Sometimes surprises popped up, and I would have to quickly think of a way to deal with them.
One such surprise occurred at the end of a very tiring and long day controlling aircraft and teaching an inexperienced Vietnamese Air Force air traffic controller. At the end of his shift, he suddenly stopped talking to aircraft in the skies, took off his headset and started to leave. I quickly asked, “Whoa, Captain, where are you going?”
With a grin and a shrug of his shoulders, he replied in broken English, “I go home now. My shift over!” I pointed out that his relief controller was not there yet.
He grabbed his lunch bag. “No worry, Captain! War will still be here when he gets here. War be here when I get to work in morning. So, no problem!”
I explained to him that air traffic controlling regulations did not allow this. Pilots were relying on him to keep them separated and provide vital information. Our job was a critical mission in a war zone.
After a few minutes he reluctantly sat back down at the radar scope and started working. Fortunately, 15 minutes, later his Vietnamese relief reported for work. There was a sharp exchange of words in Vietnamese (which I did not understand) and exchanges of gestures (those I understood).
After about six months, there I was slowly learning some key Vietnamese words and phrases. What I did not know was that their language is very tonal. In Vietnamese, you can say the same phrase but they can have different meanings because of different voice inflections.
Many Air Force personnel hired housekeepers, and four of us living in an apartment on the base hired one. One day as I left our apartment our elderly housekeeper was sweeping the walkway. I noticed that a thunderstorm was moving in and I pointed to it and asked her about it in Vietnamese, raising my voice at the end of the question.
She laughed and shook her head. “No, no, Captain! No can do!” she said before telling her friends what had happened. They all laughed. I couldn’t figure out what was so funny. Finally, another housekeeper told me that by raising my voice at the end like of the question, I had asked the housekeeper to have sex.
After about nine months in Vietnam, I was gaining confidence in my ability to speak the language. But, as I found out, I had much to learn.
One day, I had lunch at a local restaurant that was highly recommended by several of the Vietnamese Air Force. Outside was a sandwich board that had “Soup of the Day and Salad” printed on it. But the type of soup was written in Vietnamese — “Cho’.”
I ordered the soup and salad. Both were good, although I couldn’t make out what kind of meat was in the soup.
When the waitress delivered the bill I asked her what kind of soup it was. “Cho” she said. Then she asked a Vietnamese Air Force man to translate. He told me it was dog soup. I settled up and then rushed for the bathroom, as the soup started coming back up.
Another lesson learned, this time the hard way.
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