March 29, 2008

Its beginnging to feel alot like the summertime-without the summer.

This past week was definitely the busiest of the year around here. For the first time in a long time, I had a tracker (3rd set of eyes, either does all the talking or does all the typing) on one session, and then became the tracker the next session. Its all very exhilarating for the most part. The atmosphere changes, the little side conversations end, and the tension gets a tad thicker. Everyone starts concentrating a little more.

This first busy session wasn't THAT bad, really. Utica was combined with Watertown sector, as normal. Each sector has its own frequency, so we continually listen to, and transmit on, both. This causes aircraft to talk over each other sometimes, but we learn to deal with it. Utica's main frequency site was down for maintenance so we were using the backup, which conveniently became unusable right as a bunch of westbound overflights started checking in. I couldn't hear anyone, so we got everyone on that frequency to switch to Watertown's, and then spread the word to all the surrounding sectors to use the one good frequency only. For whatever reason, all the IAD landers were coming over SYR, and I had 30 miles in trail. Nothing a few vectors wouldn't fix. I turned a few CLE arrivals for spacing as well, and then said goodbye to everyone. The third issue were the rides. No one liked FL320, 340 or 360. So, while I would have gotten all the IADs down to FL300, the DCA would have stayed at FL280, and everyone else would have just gone over the top, instead, everyone wanted FL280 and FL300. That obviously wouldn't work, and it was hard to tell where the IAD vectors would take them in relation to the westbound overflights, so a lot of guys just had to stay at FL240 and FL260, in the interest of air safety. The rides were smooth, so they didn't complain much.

The second part of our fun afternoon came at Delancy(DNY)/Hancock(HNK) sector combined up. The frequencies worked, so that was good. We needed them. I had never been the actual tracker before. I had always been there as the radar controller already and done all the talking, standing behind the tracker sitting at the keyboard. This time, I got to sit and type. This is fine by me, I can hold my own on the keyboard. I have heard other controllers recall that back when we used strips all the time, they knew when they couldn't take it anymore if they didn't have time to write on the strips as they talked. I have come to realize the new generation will find our limit when we can't type fast enough to keep up with our own words and thoughts. As the tracker, I quickly realized that it was MY job to take hand offs, something I hadn't really pondered before. I figured my radar controller would yell at me when they couldn't take it anymore. This presents a problem in relation to how we're trained to take hand offs. As a controller, anytime you take a hand off from another sector, we know what we have to do with that airplane. Then we have to figure out HOW we're going to accomplish it. Either: 1- we don't have to do anything. 2- it'll be no problem or 3- how on earth are we gonna make this happen. Should I just start talking hand offs with wild abandon!?

As I sat there, the three of us all collectively contemplated how ugly this could get. Delancy's issue is that all the planes have to descend at either other or parallel to each other, and we often require high rates of decent to make it all happen. Its very disconcerting when you have to start descending a plane from FL260 to FL220, but the plane that is going UNDER that plane is still out of FL330. But if you don't start the first one down now, they'll never get to FL190 once the second one is level at FL180.

So, the situation is this: Get the SWF lander down to 17000 now and then he can cross DNY at 11000 at his leisure. Then get the EWR lander down to FL180 but not before the AVP guy gets down to 16000, over the SWF lander. The HPN arrivals also need to step down over the EWR and AVP down to FL180. They all need to get under a PIT going against the flow west over HNK at FL260. Then the PHL needs to somehow cross them all on the way from FL260 to FL190. That's the MAIN issue, as we also have ALB arrivals not really getting in anyones way, and a LGA arrival that we'll just leave above the PHL. There are a few other props slowly moving at 15000 just to keep the scope adequately cluttered. The radar controller does a fine job, and 20 minutes later, I'm off to relieve the RKA radar controller. Its a nice little warm up to what promises to be a long summer of brutal traffic.


March 23, 2008

Down In A Hole

Happiness is:

Sitting in the back corner of the area, one-holing Albany sector after all the Newark overseas arrivals are gone. The area is dim to begin with, but where ALB is situated back there seems to encourage the eyes to continue its scan elsewhere. Don't mind me, I'm just quietly letting the rest of my day finish off back here, alone.

Some would call me crazy, some would agree with me, and are willing to pass breaks to preserve solitude.

I THOUGHT I was all set. Saturday afternoon, steady traffic but nothing crazy. Nothing going on that makes the supervisor take notice enough to give me a D-side (one-holing means its slow enough to not require the second person, the Data-side controller, leaving the radar controller to handle the radios AND the flight data aspects of the sector). The Albany departures are climbing well above the BDL arrival flow, I give a BDL departure a shortcut to SYR to avoid the MHT arrival crossing eastbound, I turned a PVD arrival direct BDL to avoid the BDL departure, and a biz-jet heading to Teterboro is safely pushed under all of them. Life is good. But wait...

Here comes the supervisor, its "skill-check" time. Four pm, and there is the usual rush of east bounds coming into the Rockdale (RKA) sector. One of the night-shifters shows up to relieve me so I can move over to RKA to show I have "skills" with actual airplanes. That last scenario at ALB was all done and I had nothing but a blank scope to show for it. He happily sits down to a traffic-less sector. I plug in along side a supervisor, pen and paper waiting to fully document any and all discrepancies. I am a recent graduate of the training program, so expectations are high. While RKA is busier this time of day than ALB, it is much less complex. I few descents, a few shortcuts, one turn for spacing, speed assigned to keep it, and 30 minutes later, I live to see another day. I sign my name on the dotted line indicating my receipt of the critique, and its off to the break room for a little ping pong.

Happiness is getting paid to do this.


March 13, 2008

Delays, get over it.

I promised this blog was going to start deviating drastically, so I'll keep this one short. Its just a thought.

Everyone always rants and raves about how horrible the delays are. Or they're on TV, claiming to have invented a wheel of a different shape, which apparently will rid the world of pesky delays. Instead of taking more time to set the record straight, ponder this: If we were able to mystically eliminate delays in the aviation industry....I'm pretty sure we'd be the ONLY form of transportation that wouldn't have any delays.

Next time you're patiently waiting your turn at a traffic light watching the cars cross in front of you, or you're the pedestrian also waiting for the light to change, so you can sit on the bench to wait for the bus to arrive, or next time it snows and the train runs late, or there is a gale force wind making a quick trip across the bay less than desirable at that moment, just slough it off. Get over it. For some reason, we think that aviation, and the airlines in particular, can somehow be void of common nature. To run late. If anything, the reason its such a big deal in aviation is because the airlines aren't always forthcoming as to why. Since "ATC delays" are the main "cause" of delays, we seem to think we can simply do something, anything to the ATC and make the delay go away. Bzzzzzzzzz.


March 12, 2008

More Confusion?

I have decided to turn this blog in a different direction.

While past blog posts have focused on a more technical aspect of ATC, the future of this lowly blog will be centered around a more informal, day-to-day narrative. The most recent post, "The Mid Flick", is an example how I hope to change the writing style. Don't expect too much, because I am never afraid to let things get a little out of hand!

The idea behind this change is simple: If I take specific snapshots of traffic situations during the upcoming summer traffic season, the journey though the land of ATC can be both more interesting and more informative for all of us.


March 9, 2008

The Mid flick

Now that I am fully checked out, done with training, on my own, left to my own devices, creating my own havoc over upstate NY, I am also working the occasional "mid" shift. I like the overnight mid shift for two reasons: First, I have weird sleeping habits, and they are willing to pay me to be awake in the middle of the night. The second reason is the traffic. There's hardly any. This is not really why I enjoy the mid, however. There is SOME traffic, but it's different. It is really quiet so everyone is direct somewhere they normally can't go direct to during the day. This creates new and still-interesting (to the new guy) conflictions.

It still amazes me, and irritates the pilots, when two planes are going to hit unless I take 4:30 in the morning. So I take action, as I am trained to do. The pilots often question the turn off their direct routing, or a descent from their optimal cruise altitude. After all, they act like they're the only plane in they sky at 3 in the afternoon, imagine their dismay when they realize they're not the only ones flying at 3 in the morning!

So, there I was, working the mid, its 4:30am, and I have 3 airplanes. Cleveland Center is still on their back-up system (the main computer is reset for maintenance at night sometimes), so I only find out about my next airplanes when they call on the line for the hand off with flight plan information. 5am is often a "busy" time, as all the trans-con red-eye flights are approaching BOS and BDL and NY from the west. I am already talking to the first jetBlue Airbus at FL350 heading to Boston. There is another following about 30 miles back at the same altitude. I had just taken the clock off the wall above the headset boxes to skip an hour for daylight savings, so half the planes are running an hour later than normal. Its not nearly as "busy" as it could be. I get an Air Canada full of sleeping vacationers heading north to the crummy weather in Ottawa, also at FL350. The high sector in Montreal Centre also has a United flight from Kuwait to Dulles at FL400 direct Syracuse.

Normally, even at this late hour, New York still needs the IAD arrival descending to FL300, as they also have a large eastbound rush of red-eyes that are traffic for this crossing Triple Seven. I have three, potentially four planes that are crossing just south of Syracuse. Three of them are at FL350, and the fourth needs to somehow get from FL400 to FL300. So I start the Air Canada down to FL330, and the United down to FL340. The winds are strong out of the southwest, so I figure I'm only doing the United jet a favor by getting him out of the strongest headwinds. Apparently not. He firmly lets me know that by starting down now (an hour from his destination) he is wasting 2500 pounds of fuel. Just then, Cleveland calls with the second jetBlue, so I tell the United to just maintain FL380 for now, standby with your sad story, and I pick up the line to take the hand off. Cleveland takes a point out on the United with control for lower if I need it. This covers me all the way down to FL300 if NY can't take this guy at his current altitude. I call NY next and give them the United hand off, including approval for FL380, since most of her red-eyes are running late tonight. I spring the good news to the United and explain to him that we don't enjoy descending him through all of our traffic to meet that restriction, but we don't really have a choice most of the time.

Now that all my traffic is safe, I take the hand off on the third Boston, call Montreal to hand off the Air Canada, and then, as often happens at 5am, I am left with nothing to do. So, I thought about how much gas I just saved United Airlines. 2500 pounds. A gallon of Jet-A weighs about 7 pounds, and its costs about 7 dollars a gallon, so the math is easy. I saved United Airlines about 2500 bucks by making a phone call.

Granted, my first though was that since we're running the FAA like a business now I should be able to claim some of this profit as my own. UAL Corp should be mailing me a check for like 10 percent of their savings since we're technically business partners.

It also made me remember what a retired controller from my area once said. He always thought that the union has been going about this contract/non-tract strife the wrong way. We are not in the business of saving money for anyone, or making money. We are in the business of making sure airplanes and their passengers arrive safely at their destination. We go out of our way to get airplanes up to smooth, fuel efficient altitudes. We go out of our way to give airplanes shortcuts so they can save time and money. The FAA, the flying public, and the airlines take the safety aspect for granted. Airlines try to make flying more efficient and cost effective for themselves. Perhaps if they added up the combined cost benefits of every shortcut we issue every day, someone would realize that we're not the enemy in this game of money and power. We're here to help. The difference is that we don't put money first. We put safety first. Saving money is pretty pointless if you can't get to your destination to spend it.