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Thick As A Brick
on November 22, 2007
Given the number of glowing five-star reviews this book has drawn, I bought it thinking it would be a fascinating exposé of the US ATC system. After reading the book I went back and discovered that the vast majority of the highly positive reviews of this book are also the sole reviews written by those individuals: some of the reviewers admit to knowing and working with the author, rendering their judgment biased at best. In retrospect, I should have been substantially more wary of all the hype displayed in these reviews for what is a vanity press offering for all intents and purposes.
As a professional pilot who has flown into Chicago O'Hare many times, I really wanted to understand the inner workings of the tower. I was primed to hear the "secrets." In fact the only secret seemingly involved a plot to delay the aircraft of sports teams that were playing local Chicago teams, in an attempt to deny rival players sleep and alter the outcome of games. What is clearly not a secret is Bob Richards' unusual personality and behavior, which he attempts to spin as being a cut up, but which actually comes across as boorish immaturity that is neither endearing nor entertaining.
If you are interested in Air Traffic Control, this is not the book for you. This is an overly dramatized autobiography of an issue-laden controller; he is no doubt a very high-energy individual, but he seems to need to be the center of attention at all times. In the process he comes across as a manic narcissist who struggles with inner demons throughout his life. The key problem is that he presents himself as so self-absorbed that I just didn't care about him or any of the other characters in the book. He had a particularly difficult time relating to women. He spends a great deal of time on several of his relationships, but I was especially confused by how he dealt with his first wife (and mother of his two boys). She is very casually mentioned and even more casually cast aside in the text. Reading about his subsequent relationships (he later remarried) made him, if anything, a less sympathetic character in my view. There are always two sides to any relationship, breakup, or divorce, and I couldn't help but think that the women's stories would be very interesting to read by way of comparison.
The anecdotal information presented about ATC was of occasional interest, but I found it difficult to take seriously a man who closes his book with a section called "'Save the Airlines' Top Ten List," and lists as his number one desire "Put the radio back in the tower, Bruce!" His complaint is not a lack of modern ATC radio equipment. No. His complaint is that an upper level FAA wonk (Bruce Johnson) mandated removal of music from control towers. Despite Richards' views that listening to his beloved Jethro Tull (et al.) enhances his working environment, human factors professionals do not necessarily agree with him. Certainly with all the shortcomings of the US ATC system, I found it petty and trivializing of the real problems to put this at the top of his list.
The book is generally organized chronologically, but there are conspicuous timeline questions which confuse the actual order of events in some cases. I disliked the excessive use of musical lyrics sprinkled throughout the book: I understand his love for music (I share it), I just don't think it added anything to what could have been a more interesting (and more concise) story. Trippy quotes from Jethro Tull, Blind Melon, and many more were an annoying distraction, nothing more.
In summation, I was disappointed with this book not because it was poorly written or pompous, but rather because it didn't deliver on its central premise: there are no secrets from the tower, and there are no revelations of any major sort, at least none that pertain to the intricacies of ATC in America. Perhaps with the clarity of hindsight, Mr. Richards could put out a second edition that is both insightful and entertaining. Until then, I have to award the book one star based primarily on the lack of insight into the ATC system, coupled with an immature self-centered worldview that is alienating in extremis.