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Transcript: Archie League Medal of Safety Award 2020, Federal Contract Tower, Brad Burtner

Controller:  51780-010 take off all–.

Pilot:  10 at–

Controller:  Go around; go around. Your gear is up; go around.

Pilot:  Copy. We’re going around.

Controller:  Okay; you’re following a Cessna. He’s approaching the shoreline out there.

Pilot:  I got it.

Controller:  780–.

Pilot:  [Inaudible]


Doug Church:  That was the voice of Brad Burtner, an Air Traffic Controller at Pompano Beach Federal Contract Tower in Florida and a Charter Member of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Hello everybody, and welcome to the NATCA Podcast. I’m Doug Church, Deputy Director of Public Affairs at NATCA. This year for the first time in the 16-year history of the Archie League Medal of Safety Awards, NATCA is honoring a member from a Federal Contract Tower.

NATCA represents 116 of the more than 250 Contract Towers in the United States. Brad Burtner is this year’s winner and will be honored with the other 2020 Archie League Award Winners in August at our biannual convention in Houston.

Brad retired from the Federal Aviation Administration on January 3, 2008 after three decades of working traffic at four different facilities. Like many other retirees, he headed to Florida, but he didn’t hang up his headset or put away his Union membership card. Instead, two days later, Brad started a new chapter at Pompano Beach.

Four years later, he worked to organize the Controllers to choose NATCA to represent them.

In late 2019, it was something Burtner did on the job that has earned him a new round of respect and admiration. It was that save you just heard, alerting the Pilot of an approaching Beechcraft Bonanza that his landing gear was up with just seconds to spare.

Here’s my conversation with Brad about his save and his career.


Doug Church:  Before we talk about the save itself, which happened in December 2019, I just wanted to kind of introduce a lot of our members to you that don’t know you and don’t know your career, especially since we have so many young members in the Union over the last 10 years, and many of them may not even realize how many Contract Towers we represent and where they’re located.

So, I wanted to kind of talk about that a little bit before we talk about the save itself, which was quite nice of course.

You spent all of your career in Cincinnati, is that correct, all of your FAA career?

Brad Burtner:  Well, I started off in New Orleans Lakefront and was there for–well up to the strike actually. And after the strike I transferred over to New Orleans on [Inaudible]. And I was there for a year or so, and then I went to Lake Charles. I was at Lake Charles for a couple of years. And then I transferred to Cincinnati, and I was up there from I think like ’86 until I retired in 2008–’84 to 2008, excuse me.

Female:  You’re right; it was ’86.

Doug Church:  What was it like working there? What was that facility like? What was the camaraderie like between Controllers and other FAA employees?

Brad Burtner:  At Cincinnati?

Doug Church:  Yes.

Brad Burtner:  Oh, everybody got along very well. It was a nice facility. When I was there, I think when I transferred there, this was you know the old ATC grades, and they had like one through five, and they were an ATC three and they got upgraded to an ATC five over about an eight-year period. The facility grew. Delta, you know grew there and [inaudible] there, and then it was very nice, all the way up to the White Book.

And I retired about a year later.

Doug Church:  So, that was the final straw then for you?

Brad Burtner:  Well, I–

Doug Church:  And of course, you reached 56 of course, too, of course, right?

Brad Burtner:  Yeah; I wanted to max out my retirement, my CSRS, so I matched it out and then retired on January 3, 2008, and on January 5, 2008 I started work at Pompano Beach Federal Contract Tower, RVA.

Doug Church:  Was there any doubt in your mind that you wanted to continue working at that level, at the Contract Tower level, or did something happen and the stars aligned a certain way and the opportunity presented itself when it did?

Brad Burtner:  Well, I enjoyed my job, and I really didn’t want to retire at 56, but you had no choice. So, I also wanted to go to Florida. And I figured, we kept our house here; we sold, we bought a condo here. Sold our house and bought a condo here, and I figured if I go down there and work six years or so, I could pay off the condo down there, also, so I could have two residents which has worked out very–.

Doug Church:  And Pompano Beach, how long has that been a NATCA represented facility?

Brad Burtner:  There was no meetings. There’s no–you don’t get any input in anything. They just do everything. There’s–they don’t have–they don’t really have – there’s no convention. You can’t bring up–you can’t even make an amendment to anything. They just took care of everything and you were a non-participant.

So, I told the guys, this is bull. We need to get out of here and get into NATCA. When we quit, we didn’t quit; we had to get out of the Dental Unit. That was tough, but we–we figured out how to do it. And we took some other Towers with us that left the Dental Unit also, because they had changed the rules and things and they never even told us about it. And it was an open contract where you could leave at any time. And they changed it to where you couldn’t, and we didn’t know about it.

So, we went to the NLRB and complained about it. And they agreed with us. So, they let us go, and then we couldn’t be in NATCA because you had to be unrepresented for a couple years before they can join NATCA.

Doug Church:  Sure.

Brad Burtner:  So, we went in with [PATCO], Inc., just so we’d stay in there. And they’re not AFL-CIO so that didn’t matter. And we told Ron, we joined [PATCO], Inc., we’d stay there. You know we were going to stay there, but we want to join NATCA. And when we became eligible, we’re going to leave [PATCO], Inc., and he said sure. But, when I reminded him of that after a couple of years was up, he wasn’t very happy with us. [Laughs] But we left [PATCO], Inc., and joined NATCA. And we’ve been in NATCA since 2000–I think it was like ’12.

Doug Church:  Did that experience–did that experience–

Brad Burtner:  I’ve been with that facility from the day we joined until now.

Doug Church:  Excellent. Did that experience sort of spur your interest in continuing to work with the Union in terms of the Organizing Committee?

Brad Burtner:  Oh definitely.

Doug Church:  Or did you always have the organizing background as well?

Brad Burtner:  Well, I legislated back–the whole time I was in the FAA. When I retired, I was on the NL–I had always been a Legislative Rep over at Cincinnati and then for the State of Kentucky. And then I ended up getting on the NLC. But after I retired, when I joined–when we joined–when we joined NATCA, John [Blanchard] you know contacted me and they said they had an opening, and I talked to Victor, and I put in for it. And I–and then I was on the Organizing Committee probably six years or so. It had been a while.

Doug Church:  And for our members, Victor Santora, the previous Southern Region RVP, yes.

Brad Burtner:  Right.

Doug Church:  So, tell us about Pompano Beach. How many other employees do you work with there and what is that experience like both before and during now this pandemic in terms of traffic complexity and volume?

Brad Burtner:  We–we slowed down a little bit from COVID, but not much. Our airport is probably 95-percent flight school traffic. We have four or five flight schools on our airport, probably six or seven counting the helicopters. But there’s in Southeast Florida, there’s Towers everywhere. Like just in the Greater Miami Area, besides the International and Ft. Lauderdale International, there’s Executive, Tamiami, North Perry, Pompano, Boca Raton, and there’s even a lot of little airports where they don’t have Towers there right around there, Lantana, North County, so there’s a lot of flight schools. And they pretty much ran through the whole–the whole–they didn’t slow down at all.

We maybe lost 15–20-percent of our traffic, but that was about it.

Doug Church:  And how–what are the operating hours?

Brad Burtner:  Right now, we’re–when I got there, it was 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., which was really nice, but now it’s 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Doug Church:  And so obviously to accommodate the demand.

Brad Burtner:  Uh-hm.

Doug Church:  For services, so–

Brad Burtner:  Yeah; well, the more we’re open, the more traffic comes there, and the City doesn’t like the noise complaints. And we keep telling them, you know you make us come earlier, the traffic is going to come earlier. [Laughs]

Doug Church:  How about total number employees?

Brad Burtner:  We’re authorized four Controllers and a Manager. And the Manager works like from 7:00 a.m. until Noon on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. He fills in a line. And we actually have seven Controllers, because we have the job share with–and on a job share, it’s two people sharing a line, so basically with a job share you work a week, off a week, work a week, off a week, or you’re actually–it’s work five days, off nine days, work five days, off nine days with your weekends.

So, even though we have four people, we actually have seven because we have two lines at our job share, which people really enjoy, too.

Doug Church:  Okay; that’s excellent. And as I alluded to a few moments ago, NATCA now represents including Pompano Beach, 115 Federal Contract Towers out of the 250 or so nationwide. And obviously, I think the majority of them are in the Southern Region, with the Southwest Region probably being a close second.

Brad Burtner:  Right.

Doug Church:  Let’s talk about that just for a moment as far as the importance of what NATCA has done to represent those Towers, and how that’s made the working conditions better for all of you who work in them. If you can kind of talk about how NATCA has played a role in expanding our Federal Contract Tower Region and what that has meant to safety.

Brad Burtner:  Oh definitely. I think you’re correct. The Southern Region is the largest. I think we have 52 I think Towers now. Jim [Marinetti] has done a great job as RVP. He’s very responsive to everybody. And to tell you the truth, RVA was–there’s three– Federal Contract Tower employers. There’s RVA, [Serco], and Midwest. And RVA by far is the most labor-friendly.

With RVA, all we have to do is if we can get more than 50-percent of the people say they want to join, you go to the NEB and you submit a–you know a charter proposal. They accept it. We just tell RVA that there’s 50-percent plus 1. They call it a card check. And they call up and schedule the NLRB–excuse me–to come by for a vote. The Department of Labor comes in and they–they carry out a vote.

[Serco] and Midwest actually fight us, like some of the other–like some of the others have in the private sector, too. They actually send people out to talk–try to talk and pressure the people to not joining the Union. RVA doesn’t do that. So, that’s the nice thing about RVA as an employer. But NATCA has been great. You have protection.

It’s said that there’s three–if you’re a non-Union employee–a non-Union Tower, there’s three reasons they can fire you for. They can fire you because they don’t like you. They can figure you for the clothes you wear. Or they can just fire you–period, with no reason. They don’t even have to give a reason to fire you. But if you’re represented by NATCA, they can’t–I mean they can fire you, but you had to do something to you know to deserve being terminated. It has either–the discipline has to be progressive. They just can’t come down the first day, if you were late for work one day, and go you’re terminated, because discipline has to be progressive. They have to look at it. Has has he had a record of being late for work? Has he been talked to, first of all, verbally? And you know under–does he understand it? Has–has he been you know–had–you know did he get a letter of reprimand? Did he get a day off? That’s how–that’s how it works with a Union Tower.

With a non-Union Tower, again, they can fire you for no reason whatsoever. And it does happen, not–not with NATCA, but it does happen. NATCA has got one Controller I’m aware of that he was terminated, and we got his job back for him.

Doug Church:  Oh, that’s fantastic.

Brad Burtner:  Uh-hm.

Doug Church:  So, let me ask you one more question before I turn the attention to the event itself. And you alluded to it earlier, but I’m just kind of curious, and not to–to expose your age, but you know I understand you just had your birthday last month in February?

Brad Burtner:  February, correct.

Doug Church:  And turned 69 years-young?

Brad Burtner:  Yes. [Laughs]

Doug Church:  So why do you keep working? What drives you? What’s your passion that you want to continue doing this work?

Brad Burtner:  I still enjoy my job, and I like the camaraderie at work. Everybody gets along great. We really get–we get along fantastic at work. It’s fun to work there. And I enjoy the money, too.

Doug Church:  All good reasons, absolutely.

Brad Burtner:  Yeah.

Doug Church:  So, let’s talk about the event because these are the kinds of bang-bang really quick things that you have seen in the Tower your entire career and you’re trained, and you’re experienced to notice them. But let’s go through the particulars of what happened on this particular day and this particular aircraft, which was a Bonanza, a BE35.

Brad Burtner:  Right.

Doug Church:  And, so, he set up to land on Runway 10, December 9, 2019. Do you remember what time of the day it was that this occurred, and weather conditions?

Brad Burtner:  I think it was like midday and the weather was nice. The weather was no factor, whatsoever. That time of the year is dry season down there, so we’re almost always blue skies and mid-70s, upper-70s.

Doug Church:  Okay and so walk us through how this aircraft arrived in the pattern and what the traffic load was like and then seeing his approach, and then what you did to–to intercede and notice, yeah, his wheels–a problem.

Brad Burtner:  Okay; I’m not sure how many I had in the pattern. There was traffic in the pattern, you know touch and go(s), taxi-backs, which is fairly normal for us. Three or  four in the pattern, just doing pattern work, and then we get itinerary traffic coming and going. And this Bonanza, he comes in–he comes in and leaves once or twice a day and goes up to the Northwest. And most of the–see, most of the flight schools, it’s fixed wing Cessna(s) and Cherokees, so that’s no issues with that, whatsoever.

Occasionally, we get some Twins in there, you know from the flight schools, but much–much lower density of those. You have to watch for gears for them. And the Bonanza was coming in, and again, you just–you sit in the Tower for you know a year or two, there’s no events, and you’re busy with traffic, but it does get–still get to be–I don’t want to use the word boredom, but routine. Routine is much better. It’s–it’s fairly routine.

And the Bonanza was coming in and got down to final. He was within a half-mile, maybe a quarter-mile. And I looked up there, and it didn’t look right. I put binoculars on, and he didn’t have [inaudible]. So, I just you know sent him–he was over the approach line, and that’s when I sent him around. I told him to make left traffic and sequenced him. And he came back and landed. And then I asked him, you know if he–I said I didn’t see your gear down. I don’t know if it was up, but I didn’t see it down. That’s why I sent you around. He goes oh no, thanks. And he contacted the Manager and was–he told me I saved his airplane. It would have totaled out that Bonanza.

And he was very grateful; gave me a present for it.

Doug Church:  Bottle of bourbon I believe, right?

Brad Burtner:  It was, and a good bottle. He asked the Manager what I liked, and he got an exclusive bottle by that bourbon company.

Doug Church:  Fantastic. You know the rapid nature of it, the quickness, the–that you displayed in catching it was remarkable. And–

Brad Burtner:  Thank you.

Doug Church:  Can you talk about other events similar to this that you may have had in your career and how this compared to them in terms of you know the ability to kind of spot it?

Brad Burtner:  Well, I’ve sent several around for not having gear. It started when I first got hired over New Orleans Lakefront. I had it once over in Cincinnati happen and it was a jet–you know a Charter Citation. And he was on short final there, inside the approach line, in the flare, and I caught him and sent him around. And when he pulled up to go around, I found out later that he had knocked the antenna off the back of his–the rear of his aircraft. And he went over to [Lonkin] and landed over there. And that’s when they called over and said when he went around, the [inaudible] the pit from the airplane knocked the antenna off of it when it hit the ground.

But it’s–you don’t see it a whole lot. I haven’t seen a whole lot of gear up-landings. The second one I’ve had over–over at Pompano.

Doug Church:  And, as you mentioned, the recognition is certainly nice. The Pilot, the RVA gave you some nice recognition, the facility itself. That’s got to make you feel really nice as well to have that–other people recognize your work.

Brad Burtner:  Sure, it does.

Doug Church:  What about this award, the Archie League Medal of Safety Award? There–we haven’t received a lot of nominations over the years from Federal Contract Towers, and that’s something that we’re–I’m literally working on with Kelly Richardson and the Safety Committee currently. We want to get more nominations in and show our members at Contract Towers that you know hey, you’re part of the NATCA family. We want to recognize your great work, as well.

What does winning this award mean to you in terms of your career and your time at NATCA serving this Union?

Brad Burtner:  Well, it’s always nice to be recognized and very–I work for–I’ve been working for NATCA now, gosh, I’m a Charter member actually. And I’ve been working on Committees or something since about my third or fourth year as–into NATCA’s founding. And it’s always nice being recognized for things by your Union, know people appreciate your work, and know you’re still doing a good job.

Doug Church:  Is there anything you want to add that I didn’t ask about?

Brad Burtner:  You know there’s one thing I didn’t put on there when you asked about FCTs and one of the difference between the FCTs and the FAA is I bet you–I hate to use percentages here, but I’m just going on an educated guess, I’m thinking about two-thirds of the Managers in the FCT world are former–well, they’re Controllers. And lots of times the RVA pulls them out of–out of our–out of our Union membership. Like, my–my Manager right now–I wouldn’t want to be a Manager; I have no desire to. But they asked me when our last Manager–the last two times, the two Managers left, they asked me, and I said no, I’m not interested at all.

But they’ve taken other Controllers from–from NATCA right at our facility and they’re still–I mean they’re obviously not represented by NATCA because they’re a Manager, but they’re extremely–there’s like still being NATCA members. But my Manager, we have–I have a very good rapport with him, as about two-thirds of the FCT, the–the FCT reps do, best of friends. We collaborate about everything, anything, and all that’s a change where–he comes–he calls me up first. Hey Brad, look at this; I got this from RVA. How do you want to implement it? He goes, do you guys agree with it? Do you have an issue with it? Do you want me to see if I can change something? And we talk everything out. And ’ll tell him; here’s what I’d like to see changed. Here’s what I really need to see changes as a NATCA member. What do you need to have for yourself to keep you out of trouble with RVA, so they think you have–you’re a good Manager?

And we discuss it back and forth. He calls Bruce [Bivens], who is now our Area Manager that does the entire Southern Region. And Bruce was–prior to that, he was our Manager at Pompano. And I have an excellent working relationship with him. And we can talk everything out. We may not agree 100-percent, but we come back where everybody is satisfied that they got what they could out of it. And that’s not very–in the FAA I was never aware of that. Everybody hated Managers. They were jerks.

Doug Church:  [Laughs]

Brad Burtner:  And there are some of those. Don’t get me wrong. There are some of them in the FCT world, but it’s not that many of them. When I first got hired, the first thing my Manager said, it was John [Dumiller]–he came out of SCT, and Southern Cal TRACON, and he told me, he said, hey, this isn’t the FAA, Brad. Forget about all that stuff. We’re al buddies here. There’s no wars going on. [Laughs]

Doug Church:  Excellent. Well thank you so much.

Doug Church:  Thank you for joining us today on the NATCA Podcast. I’m Doug Church, and we hope to have you join us again real soon.

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