May 31, 2011

Data-Comm Continued

My last post started a discussion. I continued thinking about what I wrote and how I feel about what I wrote. My guess is that if you are very involved selling data-link to the government you would not invite me to your party. And that is a shame, because I want it, and I'd like to help you make it work for me as a controller. I know it doesn't seem like there's room in this world for moderation or flip-flopping or whatever. As a safety minded controller, I just came right out of the gate with two good reasons not to dismantle the air-ground radios we use now. I may have prefaced it all with "this is why data-link isn't getting off the ground", but I digress.

Data-link (text messages to flight decks) should be expanded beyond the current use of issuing route clearances to airliners at major airports. But it shouldn't be the only form of communications available. Can we afford voice and data-link? Can we afford not to have both? Can we have this conversation?

Let me give you two situations where data-link would really help:

1 - A plane is flying along and has a radio failure. We exchange clearances via text message. YAY!

2 - An Iberian A340 is flying westbound to Ohare through my sector. There are storms over central and southern Michigan. All Ohare traffic is now being rerouted. Have you ever tried to issue a long reroute to a pilot that speaks English as a third language when your sector has 25 other planes in it? How about the other 6 Ohare arrivals in my sector? It sure would be nice to say "American 734, American 12, Emirates 866, Iberian 38, United 792, Eagle Flight 3941, and Flagship 7833, there is a reroute to Ohare, please check your printer, thank you, acknowledge with an ident". And my D-side highlights those planes in his URET, types SYR..YWT..TVC..GRB..MSN.BULLZ1.KORD, SEND. Roger that. Eliminating all repeats on routing clearances would be VERY nice.

And now that that ball is rolling, there are other things that would be nice to see in the 21st century. My D-side could select "send route as displayed in URET". There could be a "Contact Center on (whatever sector has track control's frequency)" button" When a message is sent, the datablock would indicate that somehow, and then change when the message is received. We'd only need to send one message to each plane at a time since we still have voice communications as a primary way to issue clearances.

Any other ideas?

Thanks for the comments so far.

Till next time....


May 27, 2011

Time Out - NextGen Ramblings

Apparently, we skipped spring and jumped right into summer. Every single shift this past week was a doozy, and I've resorted to a triage of sorts to decide if any of it is blog-worthy. So far, I've been distracted by the latest article at the Praxis Foundation (link on the right).

I'd like to talk to you about "data-link communications."

Some older controllers in my area dismiss the whole thing; Data-link has been "imminent" for 15 years. That may be the case. As a member of the newer generation of controllers, I'm not afraid of change for changes sake. But, even I can't see this integral part of NextGen getting off the ground. Here is why:

1 - What is the last thing you want your bus driver/airline pilot/train engineer doing when you're sitting in the back with your life in their hands? Texting on the cell phone, right? Data-link is texting while driving. A message is received, and one or both pilots have to put their head down and read the message, and then presumably, they have to text someone back that they received the message. Currently, pilots respond on the radio by holding down a button, either on the control stick or nearby in an easy to reach spot (see picture below, arrow points to a little red button - push to talk). Left hand on the yoke, with one finger dedicated to talking on the radio, the right hand is on the throttle. Where in this cockpit would you put the screen to get ATC clearances? I say we keep the clearances in the headset so the eyes can stay focused out the window looking out for things like other airplanes, weather, mountains and/or the runway.

2 - As pilots fly around, they often ask controllers if there is any turbulence ahead. Sometimes this comes off as annoying, but at least when we answer the first call "light to moderate turbulence from FL310 to FL360, everything gets smooth west of SYR", others around hear it, and can simply request FL380 without further conversation. Granted, pilots sometimes stop listening after someone else's call sign is used.....

There are many benefits to having everyone on one frequency together. Pilots hear turbulence reports, as I've mentioned, but they also get a sense of how busy the controller is to a certain extent. They hear about weather deviations, they hear holding instructions and other delays. From personal experience, "verify you are declaring an emergency?" is the quickest way to shut everyone up.

If everyone just got the messages meant for them, they would have NO IDEA what is going on around them. Situational Awareness would be significantly sacrificed. This is a clear case of safety taking a back seat to supposed gained efficiency. This issue would be much more magnified in the Terminal environment around and on the airport.

Obviously, this is a much more significant issue for single pilot operations, of which airline flying generally isn't subject, but I would assume pilots try to spend as little time as possible with their head down entering data into their flight management computers (or being distracted by burnt out landing gear light bulbs....). Lets not encourage them to take a 40 year step back in safety.

Till next time...


May 10, 2011

Crossing Traffic

It always strikes me as odd how the same airline will file different routes to the same place, often causing their aircraft to cross paths. The most common example that I have noticed are the BDL/ALB/BTV flights going to MSP. On more than one instance, the BDL (most south) flight ends up taking a routing north of Lake Ontario, the ALB (middle) flight takes a more direct (and most often flown) route over Waterloo (the one in Canada, YWT), and the BTV (most northern departure point) will head southwest over Buffalo and Milwaukee. Being oddly curious about things that don't really matter, I have wondered which flight got there first. Here are two recent examples where I have remembered to keep a copy of the strips so I could look them up on the fabulous (thanks flightaware!) after my shift.


Two Delta flights departed Albany and Bradley bound for Atlanta on a Friday afternoon. There were some thunderstorms around, but there wasn't an official weather reroute in effect at the time.

DAL1913 departed Bradley (BDL) first, at 1:09pm, with a flight plan filed over upstate NY to central PA and south over West Virginia. DAL1023 departed Albany (ALB) a few minutes later at 1:12pm flight planed over NJ, eastern PA, overhead DC and then over the Carolinas. Both flights usually fly the eastern route that DAL1023 flew. Both flights' targets merged over the ACOVE intersection just south of ALB, as you see below, and the race was on. DAL1913 was about 2000 feet higher than the DAL1023.

The first flight to arrive was DAL1023, which flew the normal routing to Atlanta (and appears to have deviated around some storms over Maryland), at 3:26pm. Two minutes in-trail was DAL1913, arriving one or two planes back in sequence at 3:28pm.


A few days ago, I was sitting in the D-side at Utica and we had two E-170s tied over SYR, both requesting FL360. RPA3305 had departed Montreal (YUL) at 7:47am and RPA3124 who departed Ottawa (YOW) at 7:53am, both bound for Charlotte (CLT). My R-side gave the Ottawa departure, who was a few thousand feet lower in the climb, a vector to the east behind the Montreal departure.

The Montreal departure had filed the normal routing over central PA, West Virginia and and then onto the CLT arrival from the northwest. The Ottawa departure filed Syracuse direct to Roanoke, VA for a different arrival route from the northeast. As strange as this was, it was a Saturday morning, so we simply vectored the Ottawa flight east a little and gave him direct Roanoke, which allowed both flights minimal delay up to FL360 once we had crossed them out and established them on perfectly parallel routes.

Something happened half way to CLT, though. The Montreal departure, who was now west of the Ottawa departure, got massively vectored back east and put well behind the Ottawa departure on the arrival route from the northeast. After all was said and done, RPA3124 (YOW) arrived first at 9:48am, and RPA3305 (YUL) arrived at 9:55am. I'm not sure what happened, as this reroute occurred well beyond my airspace, but I can only assume the YUL departure would have arrived first if nothing had been done, since the flight arrived only 7 minutes behind the other despite the extensive delay vectors.

Till next time...