Air Traffic Controller, World Traveller and Novelist R. Doug Wicker
interviewed by Matt Posner
Introduce yourself. Then, where do you live and how do you like it there? How would you compare your present home to the many other places you have lived?
I’m a retired air traffic controller who served in both the U.S. Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration over a total of 34 years, 5 months. I currently live where I spent my entire FAA career — on the U.S.-Mexican border in El Paso, Texas.
Both my wife Ursula and I love it here in El Paso, which is why we chose to stay here after I retired. Previously I have lived in Sacramento, California; Enon, Ohio (outside Dayton); Columbus, Ohio; Roswell, New Mexico; Rome, New York; Okinawa, Japan; Clemson, South Carolina; San Antonio, Texas; Biloxi, Mississippi; Lakenheath, England; and Tucson, Arizona.
You have been around aircraft your entire career, mainly as an air traffic controller. What do you think has drawn you to work in this environment?
I’ve been around aviation all my life. My father was a career U.S. Air Force officer and pilot, so my earliest memories are of watching airplanes fly overhead. Indeed, I wanted to be a pilot as well, but pilot slots were being cut by the Air Force in the wind-down from Vietnam. When that avenue became closed to me (I also did lousy in college — it bored me to distraction) I chose the next best option — air traffic control.
I have always envisioned the professional life of the air traffic controller as alternating between high stress and sleep-deprived boredom. Is there any truth to that? What was your job like day to day?
There’s a lot of truth to that. We were definitely sleep deprived because of the rotating shifts. A typical 5-day, forty-hour work week was a 2:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M shift, a 1:00 P.M. to 9:00 P.M., a 7:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M., and on the last day a 5:45 A.M. to 13:45 A.M. followed just over eight hours later by a 10:00 P.M. to 6:00 A.M. shift. It’s hard to command your body to sleep under those conditions.
As for the stress, we definitely saw more than our share of that — Thunderstorms, emergencies, heavy military traffic on Fridays and Sundays. You name and I’ve probably seen it short of a hijacking situation.
By the way, do you know how a controller differs from a pilot? When a pilot makes a mistake the pilot dies, but when a controller makes a mistake the pilot dies. Yes, controllers are indeed known for their morbid senses of humor.
You have been writing for a long time. How did you get started doing it? What makes it fulfilling?
I got started for several reasons. I’ve always loved the written word. I’ve always felt I could spin a good yarn. What I lacked was motivation and confidence. Then in 1988 I met a charming man by the name of James A. Michener. We were on an Alaskan cruise and I attended all his lectures. Then one day Ursula and I ran into him on an upper deck. He was there with his handler/assistant, out in the cold enjoying nature on an isolated portion of upper deck away from the passengers. We chatted for quite a spell and he seemed genuinely interested in my air traffic control career and the post-strike conditions under which we had to operate. Afterward I got to thinking that perhaps I should give writing a shot.
But what makes writing fulfilling?
That’s a great question.
I guess I just love sitting down in front of a blank computer screen and filling it with words. I love the research involved. I love developing characters. I love inventing new, intriguing and challenging situations for those characters to overcome. Most of all I love dialogue — wordplay, idioms, regional dialects, malapropisms, bad grammar, good grammar — it’s all fascinating to me because it is how most of us communicate on a daily basis in everything we do.
You wrote a book for kids about one of the most famous acts of terrorism in history, the bombing of Pan Am 103. What was the genesis of this project, and what response have you gotten from kids who have read it?
I was hired by Rosen Publishing to write that after I was recommended to them by one of their contributors. The Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 was but one volume in an entire series on terrorist acts. I was also asked to write the volume on United Flight 93, but I had to decline because at that time all controllers nationwide were forbidden by the FBI from making any public comment on the September 11, 2001 attacks.
I know Rosen Publishing was pleased with the book, but I’ve not had any personal responses from any readers. I assume any such letters would have gone directly to Rosen.
Your novel Decisions has been compared to Agatha Christie. Do you agree with the comparison? Was Agatha Christie a favorite of yours to read at some time in your life?
I did enjoy Agatha Christie in my youth. However I think the Agatha Christie comparison was a bit over the top (but I’m not complaining, mind you — thanks, Publishers Weekly). It is a cozy mystery in her style, but the characters, the humor, and particularly the language (Don Grant is a New Yorker, after all) make the book pretty much unlike anything in her extensive body of work. I think those who’ve compared it to Nelson DeMille or Carl Hiaasen are probably closer to the mark.
The Globe is about a ship offering housing to the super-rich, great for them until a serial killer becomes active within their ranks. Where did you get this idea? Do you think the book appeals more to those who would like to be super-rich, or those who feel anger against the super-rich?
I got the idea from the real-life cruise ship The World, upon which The Globe is modeled. I’ve also cruised extensively, with close to thirty cruises (including a 54-day cruise) under my belt, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to want to play with such a setting.
As for whom the book appeals, I think most people have a fascination with the super-rich and super-famous. We all aspire to be them. As for those who feel anger against them — get over it. You know you’d change places with them in a heartbeat if given the chance. Save your anger for the super-rich super-crooks on Wall Street or in the Mega Banks, the ones who actually robbed you blind and got away with it . . . with bonuses. Or the socially irresponsible super-rich, such as the Sam Walton heirs who apparently believe that their positioning on the annual Forbes list is more important than paying a living wage to their employees. Those are the super-rich who’ve earned my disdain, not the Bill Gateses and the Warren Buffets of the world.
Your blog features your very diverse interests. What can readers expect to find there? How do you get ideas? And how do you manage to update it three times a week?
I blog mostly on aviation safety, aircraft, driving and sports cars, humor, technology and new stuff, handguns, concealed carry, photography, travel, movies, books, foods and wines, and of course writing. Other topics may crop up as the mood hits me.
Ideas come to me fairly easily . . . most of the time! Updating thrice weekly can be a chore, but I just have to use a bit of discipline to make sure it gets done.
Tell an interesting story from your career.
Oh, I have a lot of those. Far too many to choose a favorite. Well, okay, perhaps one:
We had a Continental airliner diverting into El Paso because of a bomb threat against the aircraft. The caller had specified that the bomb would detonate at precisely 2:00 P.M. local time. I was working ground control (responsible for all aircraft taxiing to and from the runways), and I was also the Controller-in-Charge of the tower at the time. Annie was working local control (runway operations and airspace within 3 ½ nautical miles of the airport). We got Continental on the ground well in advance of the threat time and taxied the aircraft to the bomb threat area, whereupon the passengers and crew were evacuated.
As the clock ticked toward 2:00 I noticed Annie getting markedly more anxious. She kept glancing over to the Continental, apparently anticipating it going up in a huge ball of flame. Around five after the hour she started to ease, and by 2:10 she was completely relaxed. An obvious hoax, right? That’s when I covertly blew into the brown paper sack and popped it loudly between my palms. She must have jumped two feet out of her chair.
Did I mention that controllers are known for their morbid sense of humor?
Tell an interesting story from your writing life.
Well, there was the time my Hollywood agents all but assured both me and my literary agent that my second novel was a shoe-in for a big movie deal. But, as you can see, I’m still a relative unknown, so that never happened. I blogged about the whole sordid affair in a post entitled A Tale of Woe and Misfortune Unlike Any Other. (Do click through to this link: it is a morbidly funny story of big-money doings in Hollywood. – Andre Jute)
What would you like to say to readers to close this interview?
Well, first of all I would like to publicly thank you for the opportunity to connect with people unfamiliar with my works and my blog. This has been a really kind thing for you to do, and I truly appreciate it.
Secondly, I’d like to thank those who took the time to wade through this interview to arrive at this point. Those who did persevere must have found at least a little of what I had to say of interest to them, and a writer certainly can’t ask for anything more than that.
Visit R. Doug Wicker’s Blog
Matt Posner is a novelist and teacher
See also Part 2: R. Doug Wicker on Guns in Novels and Gun Control in Real Life