May 24, 2008

Failed and Forgotten

Another busy week has passed. Albany claimed our area's first operational error in the last 290 days. We had the longest running streak in the center. Now to begin another one, though they seem to happen in bunches.

The only other hubbub of note involves a little airport in upstate NY. The story begins when someone realized that Massena (MSS) VOR was unreliable at low altitude. Approaches to MSS, Malone (MAL, the airport in question) and Cornwall in Canada were immediately deemed unsafe and made unavailable. The FAA sent in flight check aircraft to survey the scope of the limited use of MSS VOR. Flight check concluded that MSS was unusable below 10000 feet (we only own 6000 and below) and they shut it down to supposedly fix it. Then they sent us a notice that SOME of the airways around MSS would have a minimum en route altitude of 10000 when MSS came back on the air, an increase of 5000 feet in some places. Meanwhile, MSS is still broke and shut down.

There is a little used rule in the 7110.65 that is outdated and needs revising. In a nutshell, it states that any aircraft that is non-radar (in this case, below radar coverage) and/or does not have a GPS/FMS to navigate by cannot be cleared anywhere it can not receive a ground based radio aid signal. The rule is complicated, and very inconvenient. Someone upstairs in Saftey Assurance has started cracking down on this rule being used when we give clearances out of MSS, PTD, OGS, and MAL. Since MSS is dead "indefinitely", we are forced to clear ALL aircraft departing these airports to navaids that are within range of the airport when the aircraft enters controlled airspace (about 1200 feet about the ground, give or take). OGS has the OG radio beacon; PTD has an associated beacon as well. MSS has MISSE outer marker. All of these beacons are issued as clearance limits on departure, with no delay expected, and the radar controller must then clear the aircraft beyond the beacon once the aircraft is radar identified. This increases workload significantly.

MAL doesn't have a beacon. No other VOR or beacon is close enough to be used appropriately. Keep in mind, when these aircraft are forced to be cleared short to these beacons, they are mostly all equipped with GPS, and subsequently cleared to far off points via direct routing, as if to spite the very rule we're so concerned about breaking. The rule shouldn't apply to GPS equipped aircraft, but the rule hasn't been updated lately.

So, after considering all options, we decided that we were unable to issue an IFR clearance off MAL airport in any direction. Aircraft would be forced to depart VFR and then receive clearance once airborne. When the weather is marginal, this is widely considered much less safe than having an IFR clearance before taking the runway for departure. In addition, there are mountains to the east and south of MAL airport. The preferred procedure would be to clear aircraft direct MSS (northwest of the field) and then on course (away from the higher terrain). Keep in mind, an actual VOR signal is not required to navigate to a VOR with a GPS. All the fixes are stored in a GPS so that it can be overflown regardless of its operational status. This is allowed in radar coverage, but for some reason, flying direct to a broken VOR isn't allowed below radar coverage.

We haven't cleared an aircraft off MAL airport in months, so all of this was brushed off with a "don't worry, this won't ever be a factor anyway, no one flies out of MAL". Lo and behold, no less than an hour after this realization that we can't clear anyone out of MAL, an aircraft needs a clearance because the clouds are low enough that the pilot can fly VFR east over the mountains. "Unable" is the reply. So Safety Assurance scrambles for a solution. They decide that Plattsburgh (PLB, about 40 southeast of MAL) is usable for this departure procedure rule (officially known as Nav-aid use limitations). Montpelier sector is called to block for the departure, and they note that Burlington approach control owns about 15 miles east of MAL. Our sector doesn't have a line to ask them to block either, so we ask around and figure out a way to dial their number. They begrudgingly approved the block and we issue the clearance.

A few hours later, another aircraft requests IFR clearance from MAL to somewhere in Wisconsin. We get Montpelier and Burlington to block for the departure, and issue the clearance "cleared via revised routing, direct Plattsburgh, direct London (Ontario), then as filed, etc etc". The pilot of course is scratching is head why he has to fly eastbound towards mountains instead of flying westbound towards low terrain and his destination. Ultimately, it becomes more of a climbing right turn loop departure, as the jet is quickly radar identified and turned on course. While the rules are being followed, and the staff folks are happy upstairs, its hard to believe breaking the rules wouldn't make the world a safer place for the pilots departing westbound out of MAL.

The next day, Burlington refuses to block all the way to PLB, and we have to refuse IFR clearance again. I never found out what happened, as it was right before my time to go home. I'm sure he's safe, somewhere.


May 15, 2008

Wednesday is the new Monday.

For me at least. Whether or not I like my new schedule, one thing is for certain: My first day at work is a lot busier now than on my old schedule (Saturday night). I can't ease into my Monday anymore. I gotta bring my A-game. This Wednesday was no exception.

There was lots of training going on (5 different positions) and I ended up rotating through all positions except Albany D. I never worked anywhere for more than a half hour because there was always training resuming or ending somewhere that forced me to switch around. This does make the night go pretty quick. I spent lots of time on position, but I was always changing things up, keeping things new and exciting.

A weak front passed through the area during the shift, so the rides where crappy everywhere, and it was pretty busy (not a good combo). Pilots keep complaining, and then all the traffic gets forced into using only a few available, relatively smooth, altitudes, which makes things very complicated. Speeds get assigned when normally a different altitude would allow normal speeds. The hardest part is all the questions and lack of answers, or lack of good answers, depending on the location. Its hard to get everyone to just be quiet. The turbulence has to go on the back-burner occasionally so we can separate the aircraft first, and then worry about the rides second. And then we have to teach all the newbies how to communicate in this crazy environment.

Soon they'll learn you gotta tell the pilot as much as possible when they check in, so they don't interrupt with questions later: "United 1234, Boston Center roger, expect light chop ahead most altitudes, and I'll have lower in 15 miles clear of traffic." "United 1234, Roger thanks sir."

This long speech is required for everyone as they check in, lest the conversation goes something like this: "United 1234 with you FL350" "United 1234 boston center roger" "How are the rides ahead at 350 and lower for United 1234?" "United 1234, they're a little better down lower" "Roger, United 1234, can we get lower then" "United 1234, expect lower in 15 miles" "united 1234 thanks." Do that times 20. Or loose your mind. Its up to you.

Other than the rides, the highlight of the shift came at Rockdale high sector, when an aircraft was westbound at FL400. There was converging traffic at FL400 coming from NY Center, so I took the aircraft down to FL390. There was a bunch of traffic eastbound at FL370. Another jet was climbing just north of them on a heading to miss everyone climbing to FL390. Just then, as Cleveland Center takes the hand off on the westbound at FL390, that aircraft advises that their primary autopilot has malfunctioned, and they are no longer allowed to use 1000 feet separation (Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum, or RVSM). While this doesn't pose a threat to my aircraft in MY sector, there is traffic at FL400 about 20 miles ahead (the reason I went to FL390 in the first place). This jet is now required to get out of RVSM airspace (FL290-FL400) as soon as possible and certainly can't get within 5 miles of the traffic only 1000 feet above at FL400. So I stop the eastbound climber at FL370, I turn the non-RVSM biz-jet hard right to the north, and coordinate with Cleveland, giving them control to descend this guy once he's clear of all the eastbound traffic he just gave me at FL370.

Its amazing how a simple problem can get tricky at just the right/worst time. I've been fully checked out now for 4 months, and I've seen 2 emergencies, 2 rapid decompression descents, a few medical issues, this RVSM issue, and one aircraft had a collapsed gear on the runway after I cleared him for approach. I'm starting to think I should call in sick more...


May 3, 2008


Its been a slow and rather boring week. I was scheduled (I use that term lightly, as my "schedule" changes weekly and often changes with little notice at the last minute) to help out in the simulators on Wednesday, running radar for two D-school students who are coming to the area to start training next week. I can't say I was impressed by their performance, but luckily we're not paying them anything to not do well. That last part was meant to be bitter and sarcastic at the same time, a new skill I'm learning....

Back on the floor Thursday night, I worked mostly as a D-side, since there is real radar training going on at two of the four open sectors most of the time. Traffic has been light due to the cloudy weather and thunderstorms in the Midwest. Once Memorial Day hits, I'll gladly take a D-side position, but until then, I'm just struggling to stay awake. There have been a few interesting moments watching the trainees attempt to separate airplanes, but nothing spectacular. The rides have been crummy lately, and the new radar controllers often have trouble keeping control of the frequency, with all the pilots constantly asking how the rides are. With that said, experienced radar controllers can have the same problem, but we don't get nearly as flustered for the most part.

I was able to off-load my Mid shift on another controller (at his request, so he can go to the Sox game on Sunday), and when all was said and done, I had three day shifts to end the week (ooooo...ahhhhh).

The highlight of my last few days was one of the few sessions I actually got to talk to airplanes. There wasn't all that much going on at DNY sector, but I did have to hold 3 LGA arrivals over RKA. Enjoy the results here, here and here.