April 19, 2009
You wanna go where?
Pressure has slackened recently, at least in the news, regarding proposed FAA facility consolidation. For those not familiar with this term, the FAA claims it can save lots of money by combining a couple of small facilities into one large building in a city somewhere. Many attempts to do this have been thwarted, and rightfully so. There are told, and untold, safety benefits realized by keeping controllers close to to the airspace they work. The local knowledge gained by living nearby can be indispensable in assisting aircraft in trouble.
While most cases of consolidation are at the TRACON (approach control) level, the almost complete lack of awareness of what is going on below radar coverage has affected Center controllers since the dawn of ATC, offering insight as to what kind of service can be expected when you put all your controllers in one central place and they are trying to work traffic hundreds of miles away from their physical location.
My area in Boston Center is good example. I live in NH, but my airspace is over upstate NY. I've been to upstate NY many times, but I certainly can't call myself a local. While this doesn't affect day to day situational awareness while working a bunch of jets in the flight levels, every once and a while, some VFR pilot needs help finding a place to land in diminishing weather. The airlines, and the government on a mission to save money, will just turn their back on the lowly, lost, worried VFR pilot, but we're here for everyone, and they're an important part of the aviation world. People matter, regardless the size of the airplane, even if the penny-pinchers forget that part.
So when a VFR pilot trying to fly to Saranac Lake encountered unexpected IFR conditions, he made the smart decision to turn around and head back to Rome, NY. The problem was, some clouds filled in behind him, cutting off his route to Rome as well. He was stuck in no-mans land, as far as we Center controllers were concerned. There is nary a VOR or fix or airport for 80 miles in all directions. So the pilot punched "nearest airport" into his GPS (a brilliant feature, if I may say so myself) and found 'OLD FORGE'. Uh, ok. He claims he is heading towards it, according to his GPS. So, we call Griffiss approach at Rome, NY. "Hey, have you ever heard of 'old forge'?" "Oh yeah, its up there on the edge of my airspace, a small grass strip, private field."
So, we advise the pilot to look for a private grass field (he needs to get permission to land somehow, but that's not our problem), but make him aware that we're just relaying information via the approach control who only knows about it becuase he lives nearby. We don't display the airport on our scopes, there was no information in the Airport Facility Directory, and the information on the sectional chart is limited, as you can see above.
If we had access to www.airnav.com or other online resource (the legalities of using such unofficial, non-governmental sources for ATC purposes is scary) we could have offered more information to this precariously placed pilot. Airnav has coordinates, runway information (but not the present condition of the grass strip, maybe approach would know the conditions of the fields better?), a phone number to get permission to land since it's a private field, and it even has a nice picture of the fall foliage. The FAA supplies controllers with none of this information to assist pilots.
While consolidating controllers may seem great on paper, and may work out in the near term, the next generation of controllers will have never worked at the old facility, and will only learn what is necessary to work the normal flows of traffic. But some day over the horizon, the safety of a doomed flight will depend on the long lost knowledge of the local airspace, and there won't be anyone to call who will know the answer.
Till next time....