Last weekend was pretty good, overall. It was hot out, and a little humid, as I rolled into work on Tuesday (aka, Monday for me). I left the sunshine and my body prepared for the shock of the cold, dark control floor. It always seems colder inside when its hot outside. I make a mental note to grab my hoodie on my next break (yes, I made sure to bring it with me even though it was 96 outside).
The next shock to my system was the chaos that immediately ensued at the UCA/ART sector, my first session of the work-week.
The sector was busy with normal westbound traffic climbing towards Syracuse VOR. I had a big spacing requirement to IAD (40 Miles-in-trail), and lo and behold, I have a few of them coming from different directions with different headwinds.
The military is out in force today. They had taken some time off, as far as our airspace is concerned, and there are new flights that I've never seen before out of Maryland. They are using a small block of airspace called "Range 1", but only from 23000' and below, so it's not a big deal. Depending on the mission, the military uses different areas of airspace so they can fly training missions safely separated from IFR traffic and off our frequency. The schedule calls for another training flight to show up from BAF in Massachusetts soon, and they are requesting "Viper All", which encompasses a huge portion of my airspace, as well as a small part of Montpelier Sector. They generally request 8000' to 50000', with some western parts of that all the way down to the ground. When that happens, I need to get EVERYONE else out of there before the fighter jets can be cleared in so they can accomplish their training in sterile airspace.
The traffic along J547 is pretty steady, but increasing by the minute. I am getting alot of traffic from Canada going to IAD, and I need to figure out my sequence. As a big gaggle of planes at various altitudes enters my airspace from the east, I see the MURDER2 flight (all military callsigns will be altered slightly to protect the innocent) from BAF coming to request Viper All airspace. They can't have it until the Range 1 block is empty since the airspace overlaps and the training mission involved there is not associated with them. The MURDER2 flight is in a block altitude from Fl220 to FL240. An Albany departure comes off assigned an altitude just below them. It's a Southwest climbing fast to FL210, looking for Fl380. I take both handoffs begrudgingly.
The westbound flow includes a lot of traffic at FL300 today. All the IAD traffic going south needs to be at FL300 or below. This is going to be a problem. The Ottawa to Dulles flight is handed off to us from Montreal Centre, climbing to FL280 only. I think he'll stay there for a while, he wants FL320. The MURDER2 flight checks in requesting the VIPER ALL airspace. "Unable at this time, RANGE 1 is still active for a few more minutes" "Roger".
Normally, when our military flights show up to use our airspace, they file a full flight plan to and from the set of airspace, or blocks, that they want, incorporating a delay message in their flight plan so we can just clear them on their way when they are done "as previously cleared". These new guys using the Range 1 didn't do that.
"HORSE3 flight requesting IFR clearance." A few planes were checking in on other frequencies, but that caught my ear. It takes a few moments to realize that this HORSE flight is coming out of the RANGE 1 block and wants an IFR clearance to Maryland. However, they are in Wheeler Sack Approach's airspace. We call them and get control, and I clear HORSE3 on the preferred route and allow them to climb to 16000. I ask them if the Range 1 is cold/inactive now that they are done, they reply with a "we're not sure, I think there are more planes in there." My D-side is typing fast and furious getting the HORSE3 flightplan in the computer. I take a quick scan of the rest of my traffic and come up with a plan. The first Dulles is actually from the northeast, so I'll leave him at FL320 (I tell RKA what to expect and give them control reference my traffic) and go over the top of my westbound traffic. The second one gets slowed down, but I climb him to FL300. I take a YYZ arrival that is crossing with the second IAD guy and take him down from FL300 to FL280. I turn another guy at FL300 20 degrees right (missing the IAD guys and getting him out of the way of the ALB departure) and turn the Albany departure a little left and push him up above everyone. A shortcut and higher, bonus! I switch a plane or two to Cleveland Center and I get interrupted by MURDER2 reminding me that they are about to enter the Viper All airspace. The first Dulles is stll in the airspace MURDER2 is requesting, along with a pointout from Sector 53 going to Seattle and a Saranac Lake arrival at 17000 descending. I tell the MURDER2 to enter the VIPER ALL airspace but stay in their limited block altitude for now.
My D-side is calling the sectors around us to turn planes away from the Viper All so we can use it soon. The necessary coordination requires about 8 phone calls. The HORSE3 flight is clear of my Saranac arrival and so I issue a climb to the requested FL200 and I flash the handoff to the next sector. A canadian aircraft that is clearly from Quebec tries calling me for VFR advisories. "Unable VFR at this time" I respond. Yet, another VFR calls me....
BIRCH5 calls requesting a pop-up IFR clearance as well, this time to BAF to the southeast. "Did you file an IFR flight plan" "Affirmative" "Roger, maintain VFR while I pull up your flight plan". My D-side and I are frantically searching the computer for the flight plan, but find nothing. I switch a few planes while my D-side looking into the situation.
HORSE3 calls. "We're encountering IMC conditions, we need to split up and become two flights."
"Roger, are you with HORSE4, same flight plan?"
HORSE3/4 is about 12 miles north of SYR, which, at FL200, is where 3 Centers meet. The coordination on this could get hairy. I get DNY sector to flash the handoff back to me (luckily New York Center hadn't taken the handoff from them yet), and in a split second I decide to turn the HORSE flight to a 330 heading, keeping them in my airspace. I pull up a code for the new HORSE4 flight plan and have that plane come up on my frequency when he's ready.
Sector 39 calls for a few handoffs on the other side of my scope and I, again, begrudgingly say "radar contact," followed by a few clicks on the datablocks to take the handoff. MURDER2 is entering the Viper all now, and he reminds me of it, again. Yah, yah. I'm working on it.
"MURDER2, standby. Is BIRCH flight still on frequency?"
"Affirm, center, VFR at 9500 requesting IFR to BAF."
"Are you clear of the Range1 and if so, is it cold?"
"BIRCH is clear, we're the last ones out, the Range is cold"
"Roger, standby for IFR."
"MURDER2 can you take the Viper All from 11000 up to FL290 for now(?), I have traffic still in there for a few minutes."
"We'll take whatever you can give us..."
"Roger, MURDER2 is cleared into the Viper All airspace 11000 up to FL290, Wheeler Sack altimeter 30.02, frequency change approved, monitor Guard for the rest of the block in 10 minutes."
"Roger, switching MURDER2."
"HORSE3 what is HORSE4's requested altitude?"
"We'll both take FL200, but we, HORSE3, will take a vector to follow in-trail if that works for you."
"Roger, HORSE3, have HORSE4 come up on my frequency heading 090, HORSE3 fly heading 360."
I see the HORSE4 pop up, I issue the clearance and HORSE4 turns back to SYR to fly the preferred route to Maryland. Once I get about 8 miles, I turn HORSE3 back to SYR and he resumes the route as before.
Now, about this BIRCH flight. My D-side is finishing up the flight plan for the HORSE4, changing HORSE3 to a flight of 1....Dude, where is the flight plan for BIRCH!? I turn one of my IAD guys eastbound for spacing. I expedite another Albany departure above him, and tell a few planes that shortcuts aren't available and the rides are probably bumpy. Cleveland gives me a BTV arrival going direct (straight through the Viper), so I call them quickly to get control to turn him around the Viper airspace to the south. I'll somehow have to get that guy down to FL190 through all my westbound traffic climbing. I turn my Dulles back on course and assign a speed.
Five minutes later, everyone is clear of the Viper airspace. I got the Saranac Lake guy down and handed him off to Sector 52, the Dulles guys are all clear and on their way, mostly spaced, and any other stragglers have moved on. I tell the BIRCH to contact Albany approach and request IFR with them, since they aren't in my airspace anymore. I call MURDER2 and clear them into the whole block as they requested, thanking them for their patience.
Our usable airspace has gone from a big rounded square to more of an L shape, but I have all the same planes, and they all have to climb and descend. I feel squeezed when Viper All is active.
Lets take a look at my lame excuses for a visual aid:
The ART/UCA sector is in the middle, within the bold black lines. Other sectors are shown as thin black lines. Green lines are flights that are en-route and mostly in level flight. Blue lines are climbing aircraft, and red lines are descending aircraft.
The first pic is how the sector started off, with just Range 1, in red, 23000' and below. This is mostly a normal flow for this sector. While there are always flows that climb and descend head on with each other, we have plenty of room to turn guys out a little to keep them laterally separated.
The second pic shows the Viper All in red, taking up my entire northeastern quadrant of airspace. I am left with but a sliver of an L, and all the climbing and descending and level aircraft are compressed within that L, in conflict with each other. There is little, if not no, room for error. Ottawa departures are head on with Ottawa and Montreal Arrivals, Burlington Arrivals are head on with Burlington and Montreal Departures. And brace for impact if there is ever a RUT or GFL arrival in there or something. They usually come from Cleveland Center at FL410 and need to go down to 11000. Yeah....
As I take a break, all I can do is vow to do better next time. And I need to remember to bring my whole brain to work next Monday, I mean Tuesday....
Till next time...