October 11, 2010

In a Groove.

I returned home from my lovely vacation to a cloudy, rain soaked New Hampshire. It was really a nice change of pace from the hot and humid that had been going on since...I can't remember. I prefer cool weather, so I can't complain. At work, the few windows that we do have (in the break room and cafeteria) have been boarded up for replacement. The boarding up is to keep the threat of asbestos out of our lungs. The lack of natural sunlight during the day is making my internal clock spin out of control.

And yet, despite my seemingly weird sleep cycle, I rolled into work on Wednesday afternoon in a really good mood, and wide awake. Someone important was visiting NY (shocker) and so they drew a big circle on the map around Him/Her, and we couldn't let planes go in there. This increased our traffic significantly, as many of the planes destined for TEB were flying to HPN.

The higher levels of traffic had my interest piqued, and I was actually skipping breaks, enjoying the complexity of spacing and Metering and the occasional weather deviation. I was having fun; fun makes the day go by faster.

At the DNY/HNK sector around 6pm, the traffic picked up, and to all the right places. I had 5 or 6 Newark inbounds, some with Metering delays, some without. I got 4 White Plains arrivals from the sector above me. They were all 15 miles in trail, as required due to the higher traffic volume, but the guy from the southwest, being handed off to me from New York, was going to end up tied with one of the 4 planes from up high. There were a few Hartford area arrivals, an Albany arrival, a LaGuardia prop and two props coming in from the east, head on with everyone else and slow. One was just an overflight going to the southwest, the other was a Sidney, NY arrival. The overflight might get in the way of my White Plains arrivals and the Sidney arrival needed to get down but the LGA prop was in its way.

While I was enjoying myself, in a strange state of euphoria, I was provided a 3rd set of eyes at the sector, called a Tracker. My tracker plugs in and monitors the frequency, answers some landline calls, and basically just keeps an eye on me. He was standing a few feet behind me, with a much better wide angle view of everything going on in my sector. That different perspective can be invaluable.

I got control from the sector that gave me the Sidney arrival and turned him to the right, to go behind the LGA prop. I had just turned three of my White Plains arrivals out to the north to allow room for the one from the southwest to fit in behind the first one. I was descending two Newark jets quickly so I could get those White Plains guys down under my westbound overflight. After a few minutes of constant chatter on the frequency, I had 15 miles in trail to White Plains with speeds matched up as they descended, and all my Newark arrivals were nicely spaced flying 280 knots at FL190. Luckily I didn't have any Philly arrivals to cut across and spoil my best laid plans.

With two nice strings of traffic all spaced out, there wasn't much to do except get my Sidney lander landed and the other airplanes switched to their next frequency. So my tracker left and moved on to get someone a break. As it turns out, it was my break. "Neh, I'll skip, I'm in a groove". I got the necessary arrival information from the Sidney lander and cleared him direct to the initial fix on his requested approach. This turned him back to the left, bringing him back in conflict with the LGA prop. I took two more Newark handoffs and formulated a plan for sequence, included the fact that I couldn't let one of them get in the way of another White Plains I had coming in from the high sector. I overheard the possibility that my last two Newarks may have to go in the hold, since the VIP in NY was clogging up the works. I scanned my traffic and came up with a simple backup plan if the next sector didn't take the tail end of my Newark flow. As I finished my scan, I saw my Sidney arrival, still at 16000 feet, getting closer and closer to his destination. A quick descent would be required from there, I thought, and issued the clearance to 7000. Then I turned that westbound overflight to the left to miss a White Plains descending, turned my new Newark to the right for a Metering delay and to allow my next White Plains a chance to get down, as well. Why hadn't I started the Sidney guy down sooner, I thought? And then my D-side realizes why. He's converging with the LGA prop. Oh, this is bad. My euphoria has expired. I issue a turn back to the north for the Sidney arrival. I don't know how much room I have there, not much. A few miles, at the most? I call traffic to the LGA prop, maybe he'll see him, hopefully! I say 11 oclock and five miles at your same altitude, but I'm pretty sure I'm lying about the distance, it must be more like three. I want to turn him away too, but I'm having a moment. I can't breathe. It didn't come out. They're not going to hit, but, F%#$, I'm having a deal. The LGA prop has him on TCAS (and he totally realizes I screwed up, I can hear it in his voice), but he doesn't actually see him out the window. I turn him right to a southbound heading. Why did I pass a break? Oh, I was having fun, that's right. I get a break now. And then I sit and wait for the higher ups to review the tapes and determine how bad it really was. My D-side joins me in the union office. We get to watch Roy Halliday's no-hitter. At least my planes didn't hit, either. A few hours later, we're called back to be interviewed.

As it turns out, a little over 4 miles and a few hundred feet was as close as they got. I misjudged 5 miles. When I called traffic, I still had 6.5 miles. I should have turned or climbed the LGA prop right away. I could have prevented all of this. They were both moving so slow. I had time to save it. I just didn't realize it at the time.

Upon further review, the Sidney guy didn't start down right away, and not very quickly. The conflict alert didn't go off until I actually lost separation. That is because the two planes were so slow and the computer only looks two minutes out. It was not even technically a "deal". It was classified as a "proximity event". A proximity event is just a euphemism for "I screwed up, but not bad enough for the FAA to go public with it." But none of that matters to me. Call it what you want. I should have started the Sidney guy down 5 minutes ago. I don't know why I didn't. Maybe I needed to learn a lesson. Take a tracker, keep your tracker, and go on break. Stay vigilant.

Consider it experience. Silver linings are always good. And if the worst that happens to me is having a proximity event every 5 years, than I'll have a career I can be proud of. For now, the controllers in my area are giving me a boatload of hell for being "in a groove". I deserve it all.

Till next time...