December 23, 2009

Strange Maps

I'll be heading down to Atlanta for a wedding the week of New Years. Here is one last post for 2009. Have a good holiday and I'll talk to ya next year.

If you're a little too into maps than you should be, like me, enjoy the strange maps on the newest adjacent sector to the right.

Till next time...


December 19, 2009

A Nor'easter of flavor and boredom

This slow Saturday night shift has been amplified by the blizzard across the east coast. It's a perfect night to make a Chipotle run! Light traffic, night differential pay, and a steak burrito. Yup.

Till next time....


December 15, 2009

The Mid-Flick 2 - Cancel my Refresher Training

No less than a week after I write about my lack of practice with the back-up system, I have swapped to a Sunday night midnight shift, and, lo and behold, I'm handwriting strips like a madman and pounding the beacon key entering callsigns into the back-up system's flight list.

When our HOST computer fails, or is taken offline for scheduled maintenance in the wee hours of the morning (like this time), we switch to our back-up system, called EDARC. EDARC is a catchy acronym, but using the back-up system really is a time machine back to the Dark Ages. Ya know, back when men were men, and we actually needed a pen to do this job.

After working some rather slow late night traffic from 10pm to 11:30pm, I ate my snack and hit the bathroom in preparation for the first half of the morning in the control room alone. Relief comes figuratively and literally at 3am, and if it's as boring as I think it will be, I'll be killing the battery on my iPod touch to stay awake.

One of the newer radar trainees in Area E is hanging out on the mid-shift tonight, and I quickly realize what this means: we're going (E)DARC! The OMIC announces this fact a few minutes later, to confirm the official-ity of the situation. I stow my iPod back into my pocket for safekeeping and prepare for the loss of almost all the high-tech automation we're used to using.

I print up a bunch of blank strips, get some blank paper just in case, and, since I have no airplanes at the moment, I stroll across the aisle to get a quick run-down on how to use EDARC from the instructor in Area E. I had only used EDARC once or twice, and never with more than one airplane at a time. Luckily, I was able to absorb the much needed lesson plan meant for this newbie (he wishes he could have my operating initials DM, but never will, bwhahahaha!) who was learning all of this for the first time, as a requirement before he is certified on his first radar sectors. I returned to my own sector and set up the mini strip bay just to the right of the scope for easy access. The clock strikes twelve fifteen AM local time and HOST prints up all the flight plans it has stored. The CID is replaced with XXX, and this means that shutdown is upon us. I make the two fingered keyboard command to change over to EDARC and then call all the facilities around me to remind them "manual handoffs only". I can only flash handoffs to Boston Center sectors now. HOST becomes EDARC. URET just goes dark.

Seven strips print. I post them in my bay and sort them by time. After writing my previous post a few days earlier, I make a mental promise to accurately mark all of them. I'm gonna party like its 1999! So far this is a lot less stressful than the Academy or D-school. I get a few manual handoffs from Cleveland and those planes come and go. I experiment a little with the format of the different inputs into the computer. By about 1am, I let Cleveland know that VIR8 is the last flight plan I have, so they'll have to call ahead and pass the flight plan data over the landline from now on. After I take down the flight plan, I write a strip for myself, and then one for each of the other areas in Boston Center that the flight will pass through. Then I walk down the aisle and give them the strips so they'll know where the plane is going when I hand them off to them in a few minutes. That is for one airplane. The level of automation in regards to the flight data is taken for granted.

At 1:15AM, I get the handoff on the VIR8 flight, but Cleveland has another flight plan for me to write down. I copy the flight plan as far as the North Atlantic Track, and then write up the other two strips, one for Area B, and one for Area D. We have a big monitor on the wall at the end of my area, and we display flight plan data on there. If any other Center has a flight plan, it'll show up for me to verify and copy if I have to. It doesn't show shortcuts and updates, though.

New York Center calls me with two flights, and they are sad to hear that I have no information at all on them. They quickly read me the cargo flight going to Europe, again, just a few fixes to the North Atlantic Track, but the Asiana to Korea.... I'm gonna need the whole thing, and then I'm going to have to relay that to Toronto.


I see that up on the big screen and I read it off to NY to verify it. I get an affirmative. Excellent. An ALB departure comes off westbound requesting FL430. The Asiana is climbing to Fl300, and Cleveland is calling to pass a flight plan for a Boston arrival at FL370. I take the handoff on the line from Albany approach and climb him to FL280 to start. I'm so busy taking calls and writing on strips I figure I should keep my airplanes separated, too. It was amazing how quickly I could get distracted from my primary duty to keep airplanes from colliding. I call Toronto and ask if they have any flight plan on this Asiana, which they don't. I can at least start at YYU, and clear the Asiana direct. While I'm spelling the Asiana's route out to Toronto, based on what I see on my overhead screen, Cleveland is calling for to handoff on the Boston arrival and overseas guy. New York is calling about a lifeguard flight going to Montreal... "...negavtive, It was GOLF alpha lima, Jay one two two, Oscar Mike Echo...." "Ok, you got it. He's radar? Thanks!"

Cleveland is frantically calling me, thinking either the landline died or I'm snoring. Little does he know, I'm clutching a black telephone to my head while I concentrate on the huge 60 inch plasma screen on the wall. I must have looked like a submarine captain coordinating a torpedo attack. Battle-stations! Ok, back to the phones. The Asiana is pulling in front of my Albany departure, so I keep the climb going to FL360. The Boston arrival checks in and I clear him to GDM to keep him south of my ALB departure, who gets FL430 finally. Now I'm hurriedly copying flight plans for the Montreal arrival for Area B, and the Boston and overseas flight for Area B and D. I run down the aisle to deliver the strips. I get back a minute later and switch all the planes to surrounding sectors. Luckily, Cleveland had the flight plan info for the ALB departure since there was a proposal in the HOST when it shut down. In 8 minutes time, I went from having one airplane to six and then to one at a time again. So much for being tired...

I faithfully posted and marked strips for all my planes except the Asiana. I was the only area that worked that flight, so I didn't feel too bad about it. I could only imagine what would have happened had there been more airplanes, more sectors, and controllers running around the control room with strips. Call me a purist, but I enjoyed it. Fine, call me crazy.

Till next time....


December 4, 2009


Many of my friends from college fly airplanes for a living. I even considered doing that until I decided that the best part of flying was talking on the radio. Now I can go to work and hear myself talk all day! Its great.

Through my friends' stories of trial and tribulation in their company's simulators, I'm familiar, and we should all be so relieved, with the regular training that airline pilots endure to maintain their proficiency in the specific type of plane they fly. Anything and everything that could possibly go wrong in their airplane is practiced until they show the instructor a satisfactory result.

On September 25th, 2007, in a land far, far away.... Ok, it was in Memphis, but I digress....

Controllers lost their radar and they lost their radios. Memphis Center declared ATC-0, and the airspace was shut down (did they have any other choice!?). Sectors in other facilities around Memphis kept planes out of Memphis' airspace. Planes that were about to take off where held on the ground. The airplanes left hurtling above the darkened land... Well, I'm not sure what happened. News reports describe the chaos that ensued as "controllers whipped out their cell phones..." But who did they call!? I asked my supervisor a few weeks later. "I dunno, ask the OMIC" The OMIC is the Operational Manager In Charge for the entire control room, overseeing all the areas.

So I walked down the aisle and asked the OMIC. I suggested that the FAA put out a memo, or something, that described what happened, why it happened, and who all those controllers called on their cell phones. What could we do better next time and what worked as good as it could have given the dire situation? I was relatively new to the FAA and young and stupid, I guess. I got a startling answer: "If you lost everything, just tell your supervisor. We have a satellite phone to call the airlines, and they'll email their planes to change to other frequencies in other facilities around us. As long as you always ensure separation, everything will be fine!" "But who did the controllers call on their cell phones? What am I expected to do!? Its my sector!," I pleaded. "Am I supposed to just throw my hands up and tell my supervisor? Really!?" The OMIC had better things to do than deal with this, "Yup. Really." Oh, FAA, how I love you.

I was shocked, to say the least. Two years later, I've finally found a link to a full article that actually mentions, with some detail, who the controllers called, and what that actually accomplished that day in Memphis. Read it here.

The article mentions how controllers in Memphis called controllers they knew in surrounding facilities. These controllers were able to use planes in THEIR sectors to fetch planes on Memphis' frequencies (planes are transmitters too, ya know) and bring them all in contact with this other controller who then relayed clearances for the controller in Memphis. That's great, except we're not supposed to have our phones on in the area, so no one would pick up. Add that to the contingency plan....

A few months later, Boston Center's HOST computer had an issue and we were forced to use the backup system during a busy afternoon. I say, "we", but it happened on my day off. I still think about what I would have done if I was there. We had radar and we still got to talk to the airplanes, but our backup system doesn't use our new fancy strip-replacement screen, URET. The last time I used strips was in D-school - over 3 years ago. Yes, we still write on strips at the Watertown sector for operations in and out of our non-towered airports, but that's one or two at a time.

Pilots practice stuff like this at least twice a year. We should be using strips at least that often so that, when something happens, we can deal with the actual problem, not our lack of proficiency with our backup system. This may be unpopular, but en-route controllers should spend time working busy traffic with strips enough so that it doesn't feel completely foreign if we need to use it in an emergency. This practice may be impractical working live traffic, as beneficial as I think it would be, for, say, a week at a time, once or twice a year. At least make us spend some quality time in the simulators with strips. How about include it as part of refresher training? If nothing else, it will be a good history lesson for the newer generation.

I bring this up because we recently changed our contingency plan to include non-radar routing through the ATC-0 airspace after it is "stabilized". The printed up power-point presentation lacked details. It didn't include a plan for how controllers were supposed to deal with the situation. So I actually went and read the whole PDF file. And IT lacked detail, as well. Boston Center's specific plan is at the OMIC desk "for easy reference". Throw your hands in the air. Why should we care? If you're flying through my airspace and something happens, you don't want me handing it over to the supervisor. Trust me.

Till next time...