YEARS AGO, IN AN environment that sounds so harshly foreign to many of my work colleagues today, I worked in an organisation as a K-level employee, in some ways like a Formula One driver. More than 350,000 people worked in this organisation but in my specialism, fewer than 350 of those people would be qualified to sit in my seat. No day was and less than 12 hours long. Some days overlapped. The phones would trigger a crescendo of different pulses, ring tones and flashing lights and you decided how high up the console to squelch the noise. For nearly three years, I endured that job and then resolved to get out of it, never to return to the top of my game.
To my right elbow at the moment, a clear blue sky shows a plane full of holiday makers overhead,flying ahead of contrails towards a summer sun destination. As a K-level controller, I would be the voice at the end of a phone call that would turn planes around or direct them into safe havens. By using exceptionally powerful HF radio transmitters, I could throw my voice around the world, under the sea, and into the belly of concrete bunkers where other K-levels would respond to familiar requests with no questions asked.
I failed to take enough time off when working in a K-level environment years ago and that cost me health and happiness. Today, some readers of these words will bundle off the family into a two-week holiday while packing office gear and communications dongles to keep them abreast of their K-level compatriots. And that's often the way you stay at the top of your game--by dipping your toes into the flow even while you're supposed to be relaxed and away. I have done that too.
But today, under clear blue sky in the real world and talking virtually to K-level supervisors in another part of my laptop screen, I wonder if I should have stopped sooner. For as much as I love the cut and chase, and for as thrilling a ride that I enjoyed while racking up 3500 hours of accident-free instructor aircraft commander sorties, I know now that I'm less likely to be the subject of an obituary this year or next. I can tell from a little text bubble that keeps cresting out of my laptop's system tray that a K-level controller I knew and respected has passed away, years after he passed me in the competitive stacks as a professional K-level operations controller.
I'm glad I downshifted in the 90s. It feels like I'll outlive my entire generation of K-level professionals. In the meantime, all you guys who enjoyed our ride together, feel free to reach out and visit if you're at the edge of western Europe.