NEWSCLIP-2009-12-22: FAA VP Bruce Johnson to Retire in January

FAA loses another ATC leader

Posted by Adrian Schofield 3:32 PM on Dec 23, 2009

Another of the FAA’s veteran senior officials, Bruce Johnson, is retiring from the agency in January. Johnson has served in a number of roles, including the Air Traffic Organization’s vice president for terminal operations. He is currently the ATO’s VP for mission support integration. Here is an interview with Johnson from an FAA website – a really well-done piece that gives a great insight into Johnson’s distinguished career as a controller and then one of FAA’s ATC leaders.

December 22 —
A well-known ATO executive plans to retire next month after a 35-year FAA career that was sparked by a dinner conversation at the home of a college friend whose father worked at the Tulsa Flight Service Station.

Bruce Johnson was so intrigued by the depiction of the FAA’s air traffic control program that he took the FAA’s entrance exam a short time later while he was still in college.

“I didn’t think much of it after that,” recalled Johnson, who after graduation became a high school teacher and football coach. But two years later, he started receiving letters from the FAA about becoming an air traffic controller. He was apprehensive about changing jobs, but a trip to his future facility and an exciting brochure sold him on a new career.

“There was always this mystery with air traffic control, after I got into the industry that intrigue never stopped,” Johnson said.

The 59-year-old Oklahoma native will retire Jan. 1 after a career in which he started as a controller and rose through the managerial ranks in the field. In 2003, Johnson transferred to FAA headquarters in Washington, where he soon became director of air traffic services. Later, as the vice president for Terminal Operations, he played a key role in the formation of the ATO. He currently is vice president of Mission Support Integration.

After earning a degree in education from Northeastern State College in Tahlequah, Okla., Johnson was living in his hometown of Lawton, Okla., when he was contacted by the FAA.He remembers receiving a brochure about becoming an air traffic controller.

“It was a picture of a controller at a radar screen, the room was dark, the lights were bright, there were images of the planes on the screen, and I thought it looked so cool. I thought, ‘Wow! Wouldn’t that be neat?’” Johnson recalled in a recent interview in his memento-filled office.

He passed a physical exam and other tests and was ordered to report to the Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center. But until he toured the Albuquerque facility, he still wasn’t sold on quitting his teaching job and leaving Lawton.

Johnson, once the star quarterback of his high school football team, had married his high school sweetheart, Vicky, the homecoming queen.

Their move to Albuquerque “was hard for our families. We were the first ones to move away. If you were born in Southwest Oklahoma, you were expected to stay in Southwest Oklahoma,” he said.

Johnson began his training as an air traffic control specialist in 1974.

“I don’t think you can become a controller and not love it. Everyday you come to work you know you’re going to come across something you haven’t seen before,” he said. “We have an occupation where it is our job to keep the flying public safe. We have people’s lives in our hands.”

Johnson’s parents lived through the Depression and instilled a strong work ethic in him. “I was taught to do whatever it took to be successful, I had a lot of determination to make it,” Johnson said.

During the 1981 controller strike, Johnson was a supervisor assigned to work at the Fort Worth ARTCC, where additional help was needed. “I thought I was pretty good. I was pretty cocky,” he said.

Dallas/Fort Worth Airport had four corners and eight sections, and during Johnson’s second or third training on one of the corners, things quickly got out of control.

“I got so far behind. There was a big gaggle of airplanes that needed to be lined up. I had them turning and looping and in the wrong lanes. I had never worked that many planes. For about an hour I fought and fought to get everything back under control,” Johnson remembered. “By the end of the hour I had worked everything out but literally I had sweat from armpits to my belt!”

The supervisor observing Johnson hadn’t said a word during the entire ordeal.

“I was thinking in the back of my head, ‘this is so embarrassing, they’re going to send me back to Albuquerque,’” Johnson said.

Afterward, the supervisor walked up to Johnson, wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to him. It said “Recommended for Certification.” Johnson was stunned.

“Anyone that can mess it up that bad and not have an operational error deserves to be certified,” the supervisor told him.

Johnson said the event was a “good learning experience. It whetted my appetite to know there was more to the air traffic system than just Albuquerque.”

Johnson became an area supervisor at the Fort Worth Center. From there, he moved to the Houston ARTCC as an air traffic manager. He served as the assistant air traffic division manager in the Great Lakes Region and was the air traffic division manager at the FAA’s Northwest Mountain Region, where he provided oversight air traffic policies and operations in seven states.

Not long after Johnson accepted a headquarters job, the director of air traffic services left and Johnson was selected for that senior position.

“I had literally gone from walking in to Albuquerque, not knowing how planes got from A to B, to becoming the director of all the controllers,” Johnson said. “It was one of the proudest moments of my life.”

A little later Johnson played an important role in the formation of the ATO as the vice president for Terminal Operations. Johnson says when the ATO was formed the overriding goal was to maintain system safety and efficiency. And it was important to control costs and “become good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”

“The massive reorganization was huge. It was satisfying to pull it off,” Johnson said.

Now vice president of Mission Support Integration, he sees the Next Generation Air Traffic System transforming the national airspace system. When Johnson started in 1974, his facility still used “shrimp boat” markers to keep track of the identity, altitude and other data of aircraft because the radar scopes only showed the position.

“Now we’re going into NextGen, that’s pretty cool. For me, that’s when I knew it was time to step aside and let the new energy run with it,” Johnson said. “I’m a little envious and jealous of the controllers just starting. They’re coming into the greatest career field. The changes they’ll see, it’s going to be great.”

Looking ahead, Johnson says he is excited about taking some time off and learning new crafts. He plans to volunteer and take courses in gardening, photography and woodworking. He also will help his youngest son and grandchildren move to the area.
Johnson and his wife have two sons and two grandchildren. Vicky Johnson works at FAA Headquarters as the acting manager of the Business Management Group for Technical Operations.

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