The plane's cabin begins to fill with thick white smoke. Within seconds, I can't even see the bright orange seat or tray table in front of me.
"Did you count how many rows you are from the nearest exit?" a voice asks me.
"Generally it's a good rule," says the voice, research scientist Jeff Marcus, as he turns on the exhaust fan to expel the theater-grade smoke from the cabin. "Because if you're hoping to see the red exit sign, forget it."
Point well taken. But this was not just an excuse to humble a visiting journalist. This was a rare look at the inner workings of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), an agency charged with keeping air travel as safe as possible. This is the place that all frequent fliers - myself included - blithely assume exists, acting in our best interests. Here, FAA scientists test and improve seat belts, observe the behavior of pilots, determine the causes of plane crashes, and train America's next generation of air-traffic controllers.
"There's a lot going on here that people don't really know about," says William Collins, director of the FAA's Civil Aeromedical Institute, one of several research groups located in the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City. "I've said this before, but I think we're the agency's best- kept secret."
Down the hall, student Ernie Robinson is practicing the fundamentals of an air-traffic controller. In front of him is a glowing pizza-sized radar scope, with 10-, 20-, and 30-mile rings around an airport in the center.
On the radar screen, a dozen dots are converging on the center. His job is to line them up for approach and landing and keep them far apart from each other.
"Academy tower to FedEx 210, maintain 3,000 [feet]," he says, breaking into a deep-voiced hum. "American 780, you're clear to approach." Across the hall, "pilots" type coordinates into a computer and the dots move according to Mr. Robinson's orders.
"It's kind of like a three-dimensional chess game," says instructor Doug Boyson, hovering over Robinson's shoulder. "He has to think several moves ahead. A C-130 [cargo plane] turns differently from a Piper Cub. And when one plane drops its landing gear, it starts to slow down, so he has to tell the plane right behind to slow down as well."
UNLIKE most of the 20,000 students who come to this academy, Robinson and his classmates have past experience at the radar scope. They are all rehires from the disbanded Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, the union that President Ronald Reagan fired en masse in 1981 during what he termed "an illegal strike."
But like all air-traffic controllers around the country, Robinson will soon have a new air-traffic technology to learn. Starting this summer, the agency will begin testing a $1 billion air-traffic modernization system at 20 major airport hubs around the country.
The display system replacement offers several refinements from the computer revolution, such as color separation for different altitudes, but it also has received its share of criticism. Chief among the critics is the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the new union, which argues that the new system is unsuitable for busy traffic conditions. FAA administrators say that the bugs can be worked out before full implementation.
By the end of the day, I have been confronted with some of the most perplexing problems facing air safety today, from human quirks to mechanical snafus. I have even helped fly a flight simulator over the mountains near cyber-Albuquerque. ("Let's hope we don't crash into that Dash-8 [aircraft] when we come back to the airport," jokes Dennis Beringer, who studies pilot performance when he is not at the wheel of his make-believe Piper Malibu.)
As for the flight home that afternoon, I counted the rows to the nearest exit (six).
Perhaps I'll make it a habit.