One of my favorite scenes in Scrubs is when Dr. Cox explains to Turk why doctors make jokes about death in order to distance themselves from the tragedy that surrounds them and allow themselves to get back to work.
So I watched a guy die today, which is to say that I watched the radar target that represented his airplane slowly spiral into the ocean. He was flying a Cirrus from Wisconsin with a scheduled destination of Manassas, VA, just south of Dulles. Cleveland said he was slurring his words and sounded hypoxic so they descended him from FL210 to 13,000. They then tried to get him down to 9,000 with no response which is about when he entered my facility’s airspace. He clipped the south side of the DC FRZ which surrounds the Washington DC Metro area and two F-16’s scrambled off Joint Base Andrews to track him. They reported he was slumped over in his seat and unresponsive to their attempted intercept.
The plane flew straight and level until it was about 40 miles off the coast of Salisbury, MD when it, presumably ran out of gas and began a slow spiral into the ocean. I was working a slow sector at the north end of my area’s airspace so we zoomed out a flew clicks and watched the mode C returns slowly tick down, about 300 feet per radar hit, as the flight of fighters spiraled down with him until he impacted the ocean.
I felt a profound sense of sadness and uselessness as I sat there and watched it all happen. But we were left with no choice but to keep working as the planes were still coming. The whole time this was going on we were working our usual metro traffic, which isn’t very busy on a Saturday afternoon, but was steady nonetheless. After the radar track went into coast, signalling a loss of radar contact, we simply zoomed the scope back in and went back to work. The guys flying the fighter jets turned back around and made for their RTB to Andrews. The rest of the world kept on going as if nothing had happened. By this point, before the wreckage had even sunk, people on break had already googled the tail number, found the registration, figured out the guy’s name, googled that, and found out his age, occupation, etc. Technology, huh? I don’t know what we hoped to accomplish by that but it actually only made things way worse, at least in my own head.
Nobody cracked any jokes. But we did go back to work.