June 30, 2009

Holy Crap!

OK OK OK. Its been a while. I got back from my vacation and I haven't posted for a month. This is not to say work has been boring, or that I haven't had anything to write about. Summer is well underway, and the situation has actually been more like "WHICH craziness should I write about today?" followed by indecision and then slacker-itis. There has been alot of angst around work to deal with, as well. Our next contract is on the horizon, thunderstorms are in full bloom, and there is a long laundry list of other gripe items that I won't get into on an administrative level.

We have daily overtime assignments, infrequent breaks, and when returning from those breaks, you better have your game face on. We've staffed a Tracker (3rd set of eyes, maybe does the keyboard entries, also) almost all night this last week on one sector or another.

A few days ago, we had a very typical looking line of thunderstorms build over upstate NY. All the flows of traffic from the west into New York approach were cut off, so we rerouted them north and east to Albany and then south into the NY Metro. The northern edge of these storms were on the boundary between DNY and UCA sectors. DNY sector normally works the eastbound descending aircraft into the NY Metro, and UCA sector (adjacently north of DNY) works all the westbound departures from all the New England airports into Cleveland Center via SYR. This lateral sector separation is key to safely climbing the departures to their cruise altitudes.

At first, I just took pointouts from DNY sector, meaning I'll watch his planes deviate into my airspace a little and I promise not to hit any of them with my own planes. After about 15 minutes, the storms grew and some of DNY's planes encroached into my sector to the point they would never reenter DNY's airspace before turning direct ALB where they would get handed off to the ALB sector. Instead of a pointout, I called radar contact and had them transferred to my frequency.

So, I had about 20 planes going westbound, most of them also deviating a little to the right (north) while climbing towards SYR. I then get this slew of eastbound planes going to places like TEB, EWR, LGA, BOS, PVD, MHT, ALB, and JFK. A bunch of them need to be descended to at least FL210, if not lower, yet I have departures stuck below them trying to climb above the weather. I have a TON of datablocks on the screen, and my tracker is doing his best to keep them apart so we can read them. My eastbound planes are at FL210, FL220, FL230, FL250 and FL270 stacked pretty close together. A few departures come out of ALB and they get 16000, and FL200 respectively. There is a BDL departure westbound at FL240, and I force a BUF arrival to FL260 or I'll never get him down later. All 9 planes are within 5 miles of UCA VOR at all those altitudes at about the same time. I double check my altitudes and move on to other tasks. I switch some planes to another sector, approve some other deviations, descend a Montreal arrival, and then get back to those planes over UCA. I need to get my eastbound traffic down, and my westbound traffic up, but I can't get carried away with either because there are a lot more planes coming my way in a similar fashion. I turn my guy at FL260 30 degrees right to get him out of the way. Planes start passing and the transmissions start up like rapid fire. My 200 goes to 240. The 210 goes to 170. My 220 goes to 210... No response. Oh wait, that one was still a pointout. "Hey! Descend that guy!" So, DNY's 220 goes to 210... The 240 crosses the 250 and goes to 320..negative, 280. BOS arrival deviating at 290. The BUF lander gets 240 now and back on course. The JFK arrival at FL250 accepts direct IGN (southbound), so now my LGA at 270 can get 230.

If that all doesn't make any sense, well, too bad.... I was just trying my best not to kill anyone and was thinking and talking as fast as I could.

Here is what SHOULD have happened from the start, and what we did the rest of night:
Westbound planes either come to us on a northwest heading (or routed over a fix to the north, like PAGER or BRUIN or ART or MSS) to keep them well north of the weather, so that the eastbound planes can fly right along the edge of the storms but not have westbounders in their face getting in the way. That creates lateral separation from opposite direction traffic that need to climb and descend.

Don Brown, while writing for Avweb once said, "The busiest chunk of airspace in the world is about five miles away from a thunderstorm ... everybody wants to skirt right along the edge. Well, guess what? Everyone can't. Not if you want everyone to live." Well, holy crap if I didn't have one of those moments. This time, thankfully, everyone lived...

Till next time...



ace said...

As I mentioned to you before, I have the T-shirt many times over.

Gone 11½ years and all that still makes perfect sense to me. I was getting a knot in my stomach just reading it.

ZJX, ORD, ZAU Retired

Frank Van Haste said...


Was this last Friday evening? I feel your pain...I was flying from KBDR to KVKX (DC area) from 2115Z to 2345Z. Very entertaining. If your are interested the FLIB perspective, have a look here.

Enjoyed the post -- have I mentioned that I love you guys?


Dave said...

Is ZBW under ATSAP yet?

Jeff said...

I've mentioned this before, but I love reading your posts. I AM that guy deviating through your sector. It's really cool to hear what it's like from your side. Some of the guys I fly with bitch and moan when we get 20 right for the descent, or a reroute to some weird fix. I just smile and nod, because I have some clue what's going on and why.


deltamike172 said...

Dave, we're not ATSAP'ed yet, but they plan on taking 3 people off the floor per day in the middle of august to train us on it. I can't think of a better time... Well, maybe this last week...

Frank, Nice recap. This busy session occurred about an hour before you left I think, when the top of that line was just west of UCA.