March 28, 2010

The Buildup

As winter comes to an end, I invite all aviators who read this blog to consider taking a moment to snap a picture or two of some thunderstorms as they fly near/through/over them. This continued request comes second after the safe operation of the aircraft, of course!

I offer a few exposures of my past trip to and from Denver as mild inspiration.

Then over SYR...

I have flown mostly at night in the last few years, but I took advantage of jetBlue's new daytime flight back to Boston...

Here is a shot of the climb out heading east away from the front range.

Fuzzy clouds=Light chop.

There was a nice line of storms along the cold front moving over Indiana and Lake Michigan.

The seatbelt sign was off as we stayed well above the tops...

The skies cleared just in time for me to question "where the F%#^ is that!?" Oh, it's ice in Lake Erie....

It was hard to get a stable picture of the tip of Cayuga Lake and Ithaca in the moderate chop. It's always choppy here, just ask Air Canada...

And then the sun went down as we descended into a rainy evening in Boston....

Till next time...


March 17, 2010


I'm back from my nice, four-day jaunt over to Denver. It could have been warmer, or sunnier. But, whatever. It was still lots of fun and I enjoyed my vacation. I also had a mostly smooth flight for the first time in a long time, it seems. Expect some pictures to follow.


In my area, the biggest "event" of late was the consolidation of Griffiss Approach into Syracuse Approach. I had argued before that moving controllers' homes and workplaces away from their airspace is never good for safety, but it was hard to argue that RME approach was too busy to be closed...and the FAA wouldn't take "just fix the leaky roof with Stimulus money" for an answer. Most of the controllers in RME were able to transfer to other facilities, and a few others will commute, and later move to SYR, last I heard. The control tower at RME airport remains open as a separate facility.

On the operational front, the merge was preempted by a half hour long briefing in the conference room about a week ahead of time. Our letter of agreement (the agreed upon procedures between facilities) was canceled with RME approach, of course, and changes were made to the Syracuse Letter of Agreement to include the procedures for the RME airspace addition. There were still some automation issues to be addressed, but it seemed rather straightforward, and has proven to be a mostly smooth transition on our end.

Our 06, 21, and 36 landlines were relabeled, and our communications touch-screen looks much better organized, in my opinion.

But that isn't very interesting, so I'll go over some issues we've had.

At the briefing, I asked a simple question: "Do we flash the planes to R or S if they are going into the old RME airspace, and what will the datablock say to indicate that we are handing the plane off to the correct SYR approach sector?"

For handoffs to other ATC facilities, we have simplified automation. We type a single letter: C for Cleveland Center, N for New York Center and all the approach controls using their HOST computer for flight data (BGM, AVP, N90), A for Albany, S for Syracuse, L for Wheeler Sack, and R for Griffiss, then input the aircraft ID, hit ENTER, and it should flash to the appropriate sector based on route of flight and altitude. So, do I still use R? The initial answer was "yes, because of ERAM, we still have to flash to R, then it will forward to S automatically, and who knows what the datablock will say, it should be obvious." Oh OK. There were a few other questions that received the always popular "use your best judgment" answer. We all rolled our eyes.

Then, on the day of the merge, we were told NOT to flash to R, only use S, and that has worked every since. HOST still gets a little confused which sector we want the plane to flash to sometimes, and that requires manual coordination using one of our fancy, new, relabeled landlines.

Our new Letter of Agreement also added a new SYR departure route that avoids New York Center's airspace. Where as before, we always had to call New York before we could climb the plane above 10000 under their airspace if SYR was departing west. This new route was screwing up SYR approach's handoff to Boston Center (it kept trying to process the flight plan to New York, the very airspace it was meant to avoid, go figure), and it took a few hours to determine that this wasn't our problem, so the tower was tasked with fixing the routes for the departure controller.

Ending on a positive, our new Letter of Agreement allows us to clear everyone direct to their airport, so that makes the pilots happy.

I would say, from my view, operationally, the consolidation has gone better than expected. I can't say the same for the controllers who have to pack up and move away and learn new airspace...

Till next time...


March 3, 2010

Cleared for Takeoff

Someone is always listening. That is part of the job description of being an air traffic controller. We hope the pilots are listening, but isn't always the case based on some recent "NORDO" events that have made headlines. doesn't have any live feeds of my area, so bad phraseology and dumb jokes tend to go unnoticed by the public. But everything we do is taped by the FAA. Every computer input is reviewable. And the blips/airplanes are full of people. We all take that very seriously, but, at the same time, have to put these things in the back of our minds to do our job successfully.

Things are sometimes said on frequency that we immediately regret, or at least a "I hope nothing happens to this guy or they're gonna pull the tapes" thought flashes through our minds for a moment, and then we move on and keep working. Our workday consists of many ups and downs, and we often go from being freakishly busy to mostly dull and back again within the course of a shift. That's just how airline schedules work. These "dull" times aren't void of airplanes, but there is nothing complicated happening. These are often the times when silly comments are made, or we spend a few seconds longer inquiring about the ride reports, or ask an simple question about a new aircraft's performance. It keeps us sane and alert.

Controllers are paid a lot of money to make good judgment calls thousands of times, if not millions of times, a day. As much as it is a part of our job, we are NOT solely paid to talk on the radio, nor is issuing clearances on frequency the most difficult part of our job. This job is all about formulating a plan and a series of timed transmissions to make the plan work. We are paid to manage our airspace and our frequencies together.

This is in response to all the media hoopla in regards to a controller that let his child transmit to airplanes. The child was not being an air traffic controller. The child was not in control of the airspace. The child was relaying clearances that the controller was instructing the child to transmit on frequency, in a similar fashion that FSS controllers relay clearances to planes at uncontrolled airports. (This is NOT intended to undermine my FSS friends, just to make a point) The controller, who is trusted to make judgments about everything else in regards to his operational position, apparently is not trusted to determine that two airplanes awaiting takeoff at one of the busiest airports in the world is slow enough to let his child have a great experience on his winter break with his dad at work. If something other than "cleared for takeoff" and "contact departure" needed to be said, it WOULD have been said.

Sorry for the op-ed piece. Let's focus on stuff that is actually unsafe. Check out the newest adjacent sector "ATCfreqs" for some important information about ERAM. Let's not get distracted by a controller who can't get a day off to spend with his kid because the FAA is under-staffing his tower.

Till next time...