October 26, 2008

Buckle up!

Now that summer has come and gone, the traffic has slacked a little, and the lack of thunderstorms makes everyone's life easier. Its amazing what we can do as air traffic controllers when we can use our entire sector, we can count on aircraft hardly straying from thier route of flight, and storms aren't randomly shutting down high-demand airports. It's fun running planes close together, knowing its smooth and clear out there.

Just when we're all settled in and comfy with our fall traffic flows, the wind picks up, the big cold fronts roll in, and once again, we're reminded just how crummy the weather can be, even if it doesn't involve convection. I think bad ride days take more of a phyical and mental toll on me more than tons of planes deviating around weather. It feels that way, at least, now that we've been thunderstorm free for a month or so.

It all started last Sunday morning. Normally Sunday mornings are slow as slow can be. A few VFR's here and there, a few departures early in the morning, and then we just take breaks until about 11am when the traffic picks up a little and the international arrivals come in through Albany sector. Even so, its still not weekday traffic by any means. I've even gotten through it without a D-side once or twice.

The winds over upstate NY and northern VT and NH were lightly blowing out of the north. This light breeze then got caught up in a blast of air flowing northeastbound over CT, RI, and out over the Gulf of Maine. This air speeding up and making a hard left turn at Harford meant only one thing...Severe turbulence. The worst of it was between FL230-270, with slightly less horrible Moderate turbulence above. Planes will fly through almost anything, but not severe turbulence. Severe turbulence hurts things: planes and people. So, pilots avoid it like the plague. Many of the departures from Boston and around New England that normally climb through that area above Albany sector declined any higher altitudes until they where really, really, really certain they'd stay out of the bumps.

So, there I was sitting at Albany sector, taking handoffs on the line of Newark arrivals, a Stewart lander, two Albany departures, two Manchester arrivals, a Bradley prop arrival, a Teterboro arrival, two Providence arrivals and an MD80 going BOS-Dallas at FL200. In trail of the Dallas jet was a Toronto arrival also at FL200. The Manchester and Providence arrivals are fine, they just descend to FL190 and are handed off to the BOSOX sector in Area C. They do interrupt a few times, asking about that severe stuff over CT they're heading towards. "You should be below it," I offer, and they seem relieved by my answer.

Getting the Stewart arrival below the Teteboro arrival who goes below all the Newark arrivals so I can get the Albany departures above them all is the normal task of this sector anyways. Its those two pesky overflights at FL200, cutting right through every one trying to go from FL240 to 12000, 14000, and 16000 respectively, that is forcing me to issue twice as many clerances as normal. The Albany departures get stopped at FL190 below the overflights until I can vector them out from under. Each arrival gets FL210 initially and I go over the top. Just then a Bradely jet arrival approaches from the west, descending out of FL260 to FL180 but aimed right at my two Albany arrivals climbing. I start the BDL prop arrival down to 13000 right away, and give him a little shortcut to go behind the two overflights. I ask my D-side to call Delancey, who is giving me the Bradely jet, and stop that plane at FL230. I put the two departures on a southwest heading and climb them to FL220. A second Bradley jet flashes to me next, and my D-side and I opt to go UNDER the departures with that one. I turn the Stewart arrival on the parallel heading between the Albany departures and the Newark/Teteboro flow. I get a quick two seconds between listening for a clearance readback and my next transmission to bask in the beauty of 4 parallel streams of descending and climbing traffic heading southwestbound.

As the arrivals clear the aforementioned overflights, I push them down under the second Bradley. One of the Newarks is still high, so I turn him south a little to give the Newark a few more miles to descend. My second Albany departure is climbing slow and might not clear either the Bradley or the Newark, so I turn him eastbound to give him a few more miles to clear, and then a LaGuardia arrival comes in from above. I have to get the LGA arrival "swapped out" below the second departure who is going to JFK. My D-side calls the high sector and gets control for me to turn the LGA arrival eastbound. That ALB-JFK flight is above his traffic now, turning south, and then I push the LGA down over the first BDL who is now descending out of FL230 for FL180. I managed through, and curse the bad rides in the high sectors.

Since then, the rides have just been bumpy. Nothing severe since, but its just been miserable flying. Today's dayshift saw lots of heavy precipitation, spurring icing conditions and very choppy rides. A few aricraft deviated around some of the heaviest rain, but it was all very random. I kept planes as far apart as I could, to allow them to slow down, speed up, descend at thier leisure, and devate around cells that looked unpleasant. There was no way out of it, and smooth rides where hard to come by. Even if the traffic is relatively slow, as a controller I am constantly asking planes how thier rides are, relaying previous reports, and making suggestions based on my overal feel for how things are developing. The pilots just can't get enough pilot reports and they always want to look for the greener grass at some other altitude. And God help you if you get ONE good altitude that is smooth. Every single airplane in your sector will want it. But they can't have it. Not if you want everyone to live.

Off to work the midnight shift....



Dan in ALB said...

Very interesting reading! I live here under that ALB sector. I assume that you are working 121.35 when you are on that sector? I listen in on the scanner sometimes but I usually can't hear the controller - only the aircraft.

Now we just need a radar video to go with your description!

Thanks for posting

deltamike172 said...

Thanks for reading. You won't hear us because the transmitters are up by Glens Falls.

ace said...

Ahh, that takes me back. Five years in ZJX, 25 years in ZAU. Been there, done that. Your description is excellent, but lay readers won't grasp the nuances of all those steps.

And yes, I agree, turbulence days took more out of me than thunderstorm days. And believe me, I got lots of thunderstorm experience in both ZAU and ZJX. World class type.

I've been retired 11 years, though, and don't miss it a bit.