December 26, 2008

Back to the basics

Thanks all for not missing me too much. I know its been a while. Between the crappy weather, holiday hooplah, and just an overall lack of inspiration, sorry for not updating more lately.

My month has been all mixed up. The center of the mayhem has been OJTI school (On-the-job-instructor). Yes, I can train other humans to be controllers now. Be afraid!

The OJTI class isn't as much about training air traffic controllers as it is about teaching strategies, learning how different people learn different things, and, most importantly, learning how to fill out the training department forms. As a group, my class took part in a multitude of exercises to make us realize how complicated our job is and how not to assume a trainee knows as much as you think. I spend a lot of time on this blog documenting some of the overly-complex situations that happen in Boston Center, but at a level that hopefully most of you can understand. I think this will help me be a decent instructor.

One session at Rockdale D-side a few days back made me realize that maybe this training thing is more difficult than it seems:

Rockdale D-side doesn't talk to airplanes (or any D-side for that matter). Rockdale don't coordinate with Canada. Ninety percent of the traffic flows west to east. Half the planes leave the sector out the bottom of the sector descending into Delancey sector. The other half are either left at altitude or descending to FL290. JFK arrivals are handed off to Kingston sector(Area E), the rest to Athens sector in Area B (BOS, MHT, PWM, CON, PSM, and most overseas overfights). The Rockdale D-side is only staffed about half the time, if that. It serves mainly as an extra set of eyes and ears, and to perform the occasional point-out to the few surrounding sectors. The D-sides in general is usually less stressful, and Rockdale's D-side is considered the easiest position in my area.

Those planes ENTER the sector in a few different ways. Almost all planes enter from either Cleveland Center to the west or New York Center to the south-southwest. They enter at altitudes as specified by our "Letter of Agreement" with each facility which dictates which altitudes and routes airplanes should be handed off to us depending on destination.

In most cases, as long as Cleveland and New York Centers meets their agreement with us (and we do the same in return), airplanes are safe. At the very least, we'll have enough time to fix any issues well within our airspace.

Certain traffic situations require a phone call to make sure planes don't hit near the boundaries of our sectors, and if there is a D-side around, the D-side will make the call as much as possible so the R-side can keep talking to the airplanes.

It was early evening, and traffic was building quickly. My Radar side (R-side) was keeping up nicely, although he has a tendency to forget to switch planes to the next sector's frequency once they take the handoff. There was a big bunch of airplanes all clumped together heading eastbound, as they always do at Rockdale, and the wind was strong out of the west, as it usually is. Planes move quick here. With the wind especially strong, my R-side literally only had about 5 or 6 minutes to get planes in the sector, sequenced in a line with other planes going to the same place, and descended to the appropriate altitude for the next sector. Then he has to remember to get them off frequency.....

As the blob approached the eastern boundary, my R-side was very focused on that one area, as he had a few different situations that required his immediate attention. My job, as the second set of eyes and ears was NOT to watch what he was doing in the east, but to watch over the rest of the sector and make sure nothing sneaky would ruin our day.

So, I took two handoffs from Cleveland. One of them was a Toronto-Bermuda flight at FL350 that was cruising southeast along J522 (high altitude airway). This airway runs parallel to our boundary with New York. New York starts flashing a Bradley lander to us about 15 miles from our boundary. The datablock shows FL370 as the current altitude, and FL330 as the assigned altitude. Their agreement with us is to deliver these BDL arrivals at any altitude below FL370 DESCENDING to FL330. That Bermuda flight is right in his way. So I call New York.

"Elmyra(NY sector), Rockdale, 30 line"
"Rockdale, FLG2945 enter my airspace level FL330 for traffic"

Those two are separated now. I look back to the east and make sure there isn't anything obvious my R-side is missing. Athens has taken the handoffs on all our airplanes, so I look back west. Cleveland is trying to hose us over with two Boston arrivals that are tied. I guess they just figure we'll take care of it like we'd normally do, but I call them up and have them turn the second Boston 30 degrees right to get him out of the wind a little and get control from them to turn back to Albany in a few miles. I tell my R-side what I did and he gives me a quick head nod to indicate receipt of my message. I take another two handoffs from Cleveland as the two Boston's check in on the frequency. A few minutes later, we're back to normal. My R-side continues his normal scan of the sector and I go back to a semi-comatose state waiting for the next break.

At the time, all of this happened in a matter of 3 minutes. As a team, we both did what we needed to do. Now the hard part do I teach someone how to do that?

Till next time...