August 17, 2008


My sources indicate there are some more eye popping weather pics on the horizon. Until then, here are a few shots I took en-route to Denver last month. No weather per se, just a little experimenting with exposure times over Chicago.

August 10, 2008


Saturdays are supposed to be slow. Especially after 8am. There is little weather over NY today, so all is well, although a spinning low approaches from the west.

After the morning push of New England departures bound for the Midwest subsides, a second wave heads for the west coast. These aircraft are filed over Lake Ontario into Canada to miss the low pressure aforementioned. A mental red light comes on when Toronto Centre doesn't have any of these flight plans in their computer. A quick mention to the supervisors sets off more red lights, and CAATS (Canadian Automated Air Traffic System, or close to that) is deemed busted.

While CAATS calls itself automated, it still is not completely linked to our computers here in the US. We still have to call the receiving sector for every hand off in a manner similar to an old-school manual hand off:

ZBW "Valley, Watertown, on the 75 line, hand off"
YUL "Valley"
ZBW "Hand off two zero miles east of Watertown, Air Canada 966 Flight Level 280, your control for lower"
YUL "Air Canada 966 radar contact, check my control"

For the ATC folk out there, you'll notice there was no beacon code or other information passed that would normally be apart of a true manual hand off. Items like route, type aircraft, beacon code, and equipment on board is automatically passed to Canada through CAATS.

Before CAATS, flight plans were passed to their computers, but only initially. Any further amendments that were made to the flight were coordinated 15 minutes in advance by the D-side controller on the dial phone line (we actually dial a number and it rang in their heads annoyingly). The 75 line mentioned above is used for hand offs, and we simply key up and "shout" to them in their overhead speakers to ask them to pick up the line. They answer with their sector name (Valley Sector). Flight plans sent to us were handled in a similar way. Departures off Ottawa would have to be manually departed by the controller with a Departure Message. Incoming flights from Toronto and the Montreal High sector would be activated with an message to the computer to activate the flight over a certain point at a certain time. Either way, the flight plan would be in the pending departures list.

With this particular CAATS failure, incoming flights where either automatically acquiring (as if CAATS was working as designed), pending departure like the old system, or, all too often, there simply was no flight plan anywhere to be found. I found myself sitting at Watertown D-side, and I would have to write down the flight plan as read to me on the data line from one of the Canadian sectors, and then type it into the computer myself, so the the rest of the US would know who this plane was.

This, of course, is VERY time consuming, especially compared to what we have become accustomed to regarding workload. To add to the fun, all the overseas IAD and ATL traffic was routed over ART..SYR..PSB due to the winds aloft (I'd be the first US sector to work them all). Most of them were not in the computer at all. In addition, we get a lot of arrivals from Toronto Centre around this time period (again, we're the first US sector to work them). So the phone started ringing off the hook. I pick up the first call:

YYZ "Do you have any info on Cathay 830?"
ZBW "uh.....negative..go ahead..."
YYZ "Cathay 830 is a heavy Boeing 772 slant Quebec, off Hong Kong for Kennedy at FL370, estimating TULEG at 2126, then direct Kingston, Kingston 8 arrival....code is...1432"
ZBW "Roger I got it thanks" (after writing furiously on a blank strip)

Then its time to enter it, as a phone line from Montreal Centre starts ringing. They'll have to wait a minute:

FP CPA830 H/B772/Q 1432 450 TULEG E2126 370 VHHH..TULEG..IGN.IGN8.KJFK ENTER

Now to pick up the next call. Two inbound IAD arrivals from Aylmer sector in Montreal, which goes similar to the last call. Only this time, the routes are a tad longer, and I ask them to issue the appropriate arrival route into IAD. ZNY just won't take PSB direct.

FP UAL930 H/B763/Q 3534 450 YOW E2133 400 EDDM..YOW..ART..SYR.J59.PSB.PSB2.KIAD ENTER

Then repeat for company traffic in trail.

Call Valley sector with two arrival estimates to Montreal. Call Toronto for a hand off on a previously passed flight plan. Make a point out to Delancy. Valley calls back with a departure off Ottawa.

DM 493 ENTER (Departure Message, Computer ID number, Enter)

Two more flights from Toronto that I copy down, I give two to them, plus another one of them is in the computer already. Valley calls to hand off that departure I departed before. I start typing in the two flight plans from Toronto, and the phone rings from Montreal with three more. I call out for an A-side (flight data assistant). I think everyone thinks I'm joking. Am I!? Meanwhile, as I type the flight plans I just got into the machine, I'm getting heckled for not picking up the next phone call, bearing 2 more inbounds. Good news is on the line when I'm finally done typing:

ZBW "Watertown, thanks for waiting"
YYZ "Any joy on a COA88"
I check and find it! Its waiting to be activated! Whoo hoo.
So I get the estimate and activate that flight.
YYZ "How about China Eastern 981?"
ZBW "DOH!, I got nothing"

And back to the frantic writing and entering flight plans yet again, for another hour of hell...


August 9, 2008

My head hurts.

Ok, Ok. Its summer, we get it. Between moving into a new place north of Manchester, to working 6 days a week, I haven't had much time to spare to update the blog here.

Its been a rough couple of weeks. The weather has gone from anything between solid lines of tornados to huge areas of dreary embedded thunderstorms. I can't remember the last time it didn't rain around here. The toll collected from the controllers around the center has been steep. We've had 12 operational errors in the last 14 days, with 9 days in a row at one point. Somehow, my area has escaped without one during this time. We've had a few close calls though, and with hardly a day off to recover, its a struggle to keep the focus level high.

Its been so busy I can't pick out one good session to write about.

Instead, in the theme of this headache of a post, I'll explain some of the things that cause such mental turmoil.

Last week ended with a few long lines of weather that didn't have any breaks to speak of. So, with no way to get from one side of the squall line to the other, airplanes just wait on the ground for the storms to pass their destination. This is fine, until the storm passes around 10pm, and everything is done with their shift. Some people have to stay late on OT, and help the midnight shifters work all the traffic that we didn't work during the daytime. The supervisors go home, Traffic Management goes home, and here come all the planes. Fantastic.

The squall line situation is better than what we had this week. With a squall line, everything is cut and dry. Either planes are going through on certain routes or they're not. They don't depart unless they're on a route that is going to keep them away from the line of storms. The main variable is the actual location of the line, and when it passes though the NY Metro area. Those two factors decide how crazy it will get late at night.

Lately, we've had widespread overcast IFR conditions with embedded thunderstorms. Small individual storms are dotted all over the landscape at random intervals. The kicker is, pilots can't see them visually and they don't always get a good look on the radar, due to the low visibility and rain. There is no sure shot way to get out of the center and on course. The best anyone can do is just try to space departures out enough so we can let planes deviate as best they can around the cells. Delays were routinely up around 3, 4, even 5 hours long to get out of New England airports, from what I understand. Meanwhile, the scope is filled with our crummy Nexrad display and data blocks flying all over the place, looking for holes. As planes slowly climbed though layers, they would see a new buildup and ask for a deviation. Then they'd go around that cell and see the one behind it and want to turn the other way. On and on for each plane for hours on end. We normally use 2 frequencies for Watertown/Utica, but we asked the sector around us to only use Watertown's frequency, so planes wouldn't talk on two transmitters at the same time. This made it a LITTLE better.

Its hard to convey the type of brain cramping you get when you're working 25 airplanes, and they're all deviating in different directions (although they're all trying to go west in general). There is no pattern. That's why summer traffic sucks. I'll leave it at that.