October 31, 2009

So close yet so far...

When it comes to Air Traffic, I am always on the lookout for new information to learn. Controllers in my area will give me a lot of crap for knowing too much about things I have no business knowing. Last week someone was angered about another area's move and yells out to no one in particular, maybe the wall, "Hey, don't be short cutting guys when there's an EDCT for construction..." I blurted out "To Minnie?" "Uh, yeah, how the *#&^ did you know that?" Shrug, "this buddy of mine was writing about it in HIS blog..."

Anytime I go to a new city, I try to get a tour of an ATC facility there. Most facilities have their little quirks and oddities that never cease to fascinate me. Four years later, I think I have finally found Boston Center's quirk.

Boston Center has 5 areas, A-E. In training, we would just randomly go and spend time in other area's to see traffic from their perspective. I personally spent time in Area B and E a few times, and occasionally stop and talk to people in Area D. Until today, I had never stepped foot inside Area C. They are one of the busiest areas in the Center, if not THE busiest. My area only works with one of their sectors (BOSOX) directly. The rest, while only 40-50 miles from my area, is a mystery. I know they work JFK arrivals from the northeast. They work more BOS arrivals than we do and about half the BOS departures. The Hampton Sector goes crazy in the summer. Boston High works tons of overseas departures. Other than that, that's it.

So, I had the distinct pleasure of being RM's special guest as I was sidetracked on my way out of the control room to go on break. How could I turn her invitation down!? I got a quick overview of PVD sector, which works all the BOS arrivals, and BOSOX, which works the departures and takes PVD arrivals from the ALB sector (my ALB sector!) and descends them into PVD approach (hey! I just worked that guy!). They weren't very busy, so we chatted about nerdy controller stuff. They use 3 mile separation in a big chunk of their area. Area A doesn't use 3 mile separation...YET. They're working on it.

About 99 percent of En-route Center airspace requires 5 miles separation and 1000 feet vertical below FL410. This 5 mile requirement is necessary because we combine numerous long range radar data into one "mosaic" display on our screen. There is no radar sweep or anything like that. There are a few places where the computer will only use one radar site at a time, and as long as the plane is below FL180 and within 40 miles of the single radar site being used, we can use 3 miles, just like an approach control. Boston Center has more 3 mile separation areas than any other Center. At least, that is what they tell us to make us feel special.

The same 40 mile rule applies to approach controls. However, since approach controls are centered around their radar, only small portions of their airspace exist beyond the 40 mile bubble. Thus, 5 mile separation is considered more of an exception to their 3 mile, 1000 foot rule.

The Providence (PVD) sector in Area C descends Boston arrivals to cross PVD VOR at 11000, who are then handed off to Boston Approach. PVD sector uses 3 mile separation within 40 miles of PVD airport's radar site. Providence, RI is more than 40 miles from Boston (42.7 according to Airnav), so the approach control they hand off to requires 5 miles at that point of transfer. While the Center can allow planes to get within 3 miles as they descend into Boston, they must take action to regain 5 miles again before handoff to Approach. This seems to be the only instance in the US where the En-route Center requires less separation than the approach control taking the hand off below them!

If anyone around the country or the world has any examples of this occurring elsewhere, please comment!

Till next time....


Thanks as always to SkyVector.
Light Blue shows the Boston arrivals.
Dark Green shows the PVD arrivals that descend under the Boston arrivals.
Boston Departures go out over LUCOS, BOSOX to BDL and GLYDE to BAF. Consider it a Where's Waldo of fixes!

October 17, 2009

IFR at O90

My area has 6 sectors. We generally only have 4 of them open. In this case, the ART/UCA sectors are combined 90 percent of the time. Most of the planes that traverse the ART sector end up conflicting with planes in the UCA sector, so it really works out pretty good. Most planes are flying into the wind, so there is plenty of time to think about the imminent death that potentially could happen over SYR, the main confliction point. If there was any sector that I like the least, it would be ART/UCA. Sometimes it is really fun, though!

These two sectors, when combined, are, from a mental task standpoint, three sectors. UCA sector is the main westbound J547 route leaving ZBW. ART sector works alot of military operations (the MOA stuff on the chart above), coordinates with the Canadians from Canadia, and also sees alot of transient traffic going to eastern Canada and points east. Then there are all the "satellite airport" operations into OGS, MSS, PTD, and MAL. That action tends to take place below 10000, and can really create a headache if coupled with lots of in-trail in the UCA sector. For the most part we can't do any vectoring to approaches, although if I can throw down some ILS approach phraseology, I'll pass breaks!

We generally only see one or two operations at a time into these 4 airports we own up along the border, if any at all. Due to their proximity to each other and our lack of control towers and radar, it is one-in, one-out when the weather is bad. No, we don't get to line 6 planes up on final like Boston Approach. There are times when we get a big bunch of inbounds all at once, and we joke that we become Ogdensburg Approach instead of Center controllers. I will now coin the term "O-90" for this third segment of our sector; the part below 10000 between Wheeler-Sack approach to the west, Ottawa Terminal and Montreal Centre to the north, and the Montpelier sector to the east. Controllers may appreciate my attempt at witty aviation humor, or not. Either way, let's get on with the story.

Last weekend was Columbus Day, and everyone was flying up north to see the leaves change colors. Unfortunately, for those spending their hard earned money flying up to see them, the weather sucked (Ok, I think Sunday was nice!). Allow me to recap Friday evening. I had been at ART/UCA D-side for most of the afternoon, and had left for a break with one slow moving PA32 inbound to OGS from the south. I returned 35 minutes later to fully entrench myself back into ART/UCA D-side... A biz-jet had come screaming in from the west and gone into OGS first, and only now was the PA32 finally getting an approach clearance. The UCA portion of the sector was heating up with westbound jets, and my radar controller was initiating some DTW and CLE spacing.

Two Cape Air C402s departed ALB, one bound for OGS and the other for MSS, as normal, and the MSS inbound offered to slow down and hold for their company to get into OGS first, since we can't run simultaneous approaches.

Flight service calls and requests IFR clearance for two aircraft out of OGS, a SR22 and the biz-jet Citation that had just landed before.
"Uh, I'm still waiting for a cancellation from a PA32 at OGS"
"Oh, I have that, yes, he cancelled IFR," says the FSS
"Ok, who is ready to go first, is one of them number one for the runway?"
"Yeah, the Cirrus (SR22)" ...Great....

I turn to my Radar controller and ask her if I can launch a departure or two ahead of the Cape Air inbounds. She stops the OGS arrival at 6000 and clears him to the OGIVE beacon on the Localizer approach to hold awaiting departures. The MSS arrival gets 7000 and direct the MISSE beacon on the ILS approach to hold, as well. We only own 6000 and below along the river so I'll have to point him out to Montreal Center at some point. The SR22 filed some random route to HYA, so I cross it out and write a better route underneath.

I pick up the FSS line again.
"(the SR22) is cleared from the OGS airport to the OGIVE beacon via direct, maintain 5000, expect routing to HYA via ALB V130 MVY direct and higher when radar identified, clearance void if not off by....(10 minutes at the most), contact boston center on 135.25, squawk code 4617, also verify the pilot can maintain his own terrain and obstruction avoidance to Ogive."
FSS reads it back and I tell him to call me back in a few minutes for the Citation, as I may be able to get him out, too. These Cape Air guys are still a ways out...

I put the strip into the small bay we have between the D and R positions, start a track on the scope to remind everyone that he's only climbing to 5000, and update the route into the computer. I take a quick look around the sector and call Toronto for a handoff. Then I call Montreal and make two handoffs and point out the MSS arrival holding at 7000. Its pretty darn busy in the southern half the sector, and right as I start to get a feel for what is transpiring, the FSS line rings again, requesting IFR on the Citation.

"Sorry, the first guy isn't off ye/"
My radar controller is waving at me and I look over to see an aircraft ident out of 3800 over Ogive. "Ooooo, he's off, standby please"

The track acquires on the SR22, and my radar controller starts issuing the clearance beyond the beacon. I motion her to follow the end of my pen on the strip to make sure she gives the correct route. "radar contact over ogive, cleared to HYA via..." Pen is over ALB, which was on the original filed route "via direct ALB..." Then down a line to V130 "V130, MVY, direct" Excellent, I wonder if he can climb above the Cape air and get outta there. I call Montreal back and point this Sr22 out climbing fast (for a prop) soutbound. She descends the Cape air to 5000, and they swap out nicely as the SR22 climbs to 9000. 6000 is now available for the MSS lander to hold so down he goes.

We still have 4000 available, and we actually saw the SR22 in radar there, so I get back on the line and quickly issue another short clearance to the Citation "cleared from OGS to the OGIVE beacon via direct, maintain 4000, expect routing to SYR via ART upon radar contact, clearance void if not off by... (you got 6 minutes buddy, make it quick), contact boston on 135.25, squawk code 0036, verify pilot can maintain...."

Start another track, put 4000 in the datablock, call Wheeler-Sack to pointout the SR22 climbing southeastbound. We got a RUT lander going head on with all our westbounds at FL410...and we need to get him down through everyone...somehow. I call Cleveland and get control to turn him left. My radar controller is really kickin' some ass. Off comes the Citation requesting 12000. I call Sack back and make the pointout climbing above his altitudes. He gets up to 4000 quickly and only has to make half a turn at OGIVE before we're clearing him on course to the southwest. He slingshots out of the hold just as the first Cape air is establishing a hold over OGIVE at 5000. We get our 5 miles quickly and climb the Citation up to 12000. Cape air is fully established in what is more of a procedure turn than anything, and gets his approach clearance. He promises to cancel as quick as he can so we can start his company into MSS.

After a few minutes, FSS calls back with an IFR cancellation at OGS and an approach clearance into MSS is issued. My radar controller finishes her fine work and the spacing is all taken care of. Switch the planes to Cleveland, give a briefing at O-90, put on my jacket and walk around the parking lot in the rain. Now that I think about it, maybe this sector isn't so bad after all....

Till next time...


For those not familiar with all the acronyms:
ART - Watertown, NY
UCA - Utica, NY
SYR - Syracuse, NY
OGS - Ogdensburg, NY
MSS - Massena, NY
ALB - Albany, NY
HYA - Hyannis, MA (on the cape)
MVY - Martha's Vineyard
V130 - Airway between ALB and MVY
J547 - High altitude airway that goes from New Engalnd through Syracuse to Buffalo and points west.
MOA - Military Operation Area, when active, no IFR planes go in there at the altitudes reserved.

October 2, 2009

In Process...

The FAA hiring process is an ever-changing, confusing process whose only constant is that it requires patience on behalf of the individual getting hired.

Patience is one thing, uncertainty is another. How long do you need to remain patient before you start wondering if they forgot who you are? A "quick" phone call to Oklahoma usually nets you a "we're working on it, be patient". Ok then. What to do with some free time before you get the call to report to training?

I worked some menial retail/temp/food service jobs until finally convincing Domino's Pizza to take me back as an assistant manager (I delivered pizza for 3 years in college). "When are you going to leave us to be a controller?" "I don't know. A year? Two? Six months if I'm lucky!?" I'd graduated from a CTI college (UND) over a year before and was told a year or so. Then the FAA stopped hiring for a while.

For some reason, I got the job(!) at a store about a half hour from my parents house (2 hours in rush hour, oh well) and have since amassed enough experience to permanently over qualify myself for any FAA management position. Eight months later I got the best phone call I've ever gotten and had a training date in Oklahoma City.

I could go on and on about how a Domino's pizza store runs surprisingly similar to an Area in an ARTCC (we had different positions that were combined when slow and individualized when busy, we talked on the phone alot, we had a map of our area to learn, and there was a sense of urgency making each driver take the best and most efficient delivery route as possible), or tell great stories about my felonious customers who kept getting themselves arrested by writing bad checks or assaulting my drivers. But that time is gone. For me, at least.

I knew this kid in high school once. We were partners at the back left table in Biology class in 10th grade. Our teacher was enthusiastic and always wore pink button down shirts. That's all I remember. I knew I didn't want to be a biologist. I also figured I'd never talk to Brendan again. I couldn't remember his last name because he never wrote it down on his homework. Name__Brendan___. He found me on Facebook a few months back, though. He had applied to be an Air Traffic Controller and was "in process" for Seattle Center. He thought long and hard about who he knew that might be a controller, and my name was first and foremost, apparently. He had questions about the hiring process (most I couldn't answer) and the job (should I keep talking?).

Well, Brendan was married, living in Texas, and was bored out of his mind waiting for the FAA to get around to calling him back. Jobs are harder to find these days. So he turned to Craigslist. He posted a request that someone buy him a jetBlue all-you-can-jet pass(not what you were expecting), and he would pay them back by doing basically whatever they asked of him. Ya know, fly unlimited on jetBlue from Sept8 to Oct8, shenanigans ensue....

So an internet magazine saw the ad and hooked Brendan up. Just fly 70 flights this month, on us. Oh, and don't ever leave the airport or the plane. He's got one week left, and he's tired, but seems to be having fun with it all. I don't personally endorse Twitter, but it's been fun following him up to the minute here.

He's also been writing some very entertaining blog-type features every few days for the company that is paying his way. You can find their link on the right side of Brendan's twitter page or go here.

I tried to catch him on his way through Boston a few times to buy him some Chowdah and arrange a Logan tower tour, but he only had a few minutes here and there between flights.

On a side note:
Many CTI graduates rightfully turned down the controller job they'd been waiting for after the FAA imposed their White Book on us and simply took what jobs they had acquired, while waiting for the FAA to call, as a better offer. Now that we have a contract, perhaps we should call these folks back and give them a chance to change their minds.

Till next time...