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...


1 comment:

hATChet man said...

I worked at a facility where the back-up was broadband radar. If the computer crashed, we'd push the scopes to horizontal and make up shrimp boats (target markers) and get on with our business.

Except, they tossed out all the shrimp boats by mistake.

You should have seen the scopes after a couple hour session of doodling everything on them with a grease pencil!