June 26, 2011

Losing the flick ; Losing my freq

It's the first session of the day. I'm told to plug in at the Utica/Watertown combined sector as a Tracker. My job, as the third set of eyes, will be to make some phone calls if necessary and to do the typing. I take a seat in front of the scope, fingers on the keyboard at the ready. I am actually the fourth set of eyes, as there is Radar training-in-progress. The training team has just taken a boat-load of handoffs and they are starting to check in. Some of you may remember this map from before:

Green is level traffic, Red is descending aircraft and Blue are climbing aircraft. It looks like a mess, but the main flow of traffic is level or climbing towards SYR VOR on the west side of the sector. There is quite a lot of westbound traffic at this moment, and I'm growing concerned. There are two very well placed thunderstorms in our sector, as shown as elongated north-south green ovals here:

The bold black lines show how the deviations will unfold. Planes don't fly through thunderstorms for good reason. Everyone's workload increases. Planes are now checking in three at a time from the CAM sector to our east already deviating around one storm, getting bumpy rides, and asking for something other than "direct SYR when able" (the last sector gave them that not realizing there was another storm at SYR). The trainee needs to kick it up a notch (and so do I, frankly) as the frequency is now completely full of nonstop chatter about turbulence, altitude requests, weather deviation requests, needs for shortcuts, etc. A few ALB departures check in, and they need a westbound turn to miss the first storm. They are cleared to do so, but as they make their turn to SYR, they realize there is a storm there. Planes are keying up their mic's at the same time and there is a frustrating moment of squealing and garbling in my ear. I take that moment to look for something better to do.

All of these westbound flights are going to deviate left of course into RKA's airspace, so I make the keyboard entry to force a full datablock onto their scope for as many planes as I can. But the Radar is giving climb clearances, and I'm struggling to keep up. I'm rushing to put in the step climb inputs.

INT 320 439 ENTER

INT 300 032 ENTER

"amend altitude, maintain FL260, deviate left of course, Buffalo when able"

INT 260 876 ENTER


Crap, since he's stopped under RKA's airspace, he'll need a pointout to DNY sector instead. I get the D-side to do that, pointing frantically at datablock....

PVD 24 876 ENTER

Uh, what just happened? Who was that climb for?

I hear numbers in my head, but I'm not getting complete information and I don't know what to do about it.

The instructor has taken over at this point and is now talking even faster. This is one impressive rush of planes in the middle of our scope now. The trainee needed to ramp up his speech rate and overall speed, but didn't. He was still cruising down a dirt road in Kansas in his rusty ole' pick-up truck, takin' it slow to avoid the rumblings of the washboard. I was right there sitting next to him in the passenger seat, barely keeping up. Now we're on the autobahn, in HV's Porsche. Oh crap, what on earth is going on. I think I'm 6 transmissions behind now. Airplanes are climbing, but the data blocks don't reflect it. No one has time to let me catch up. The planes are still moving, they're going left around the storms no matter what. Every plane that we have requires at least four of the following: a climb, a stopped climb for crossing traffic, a turn for traffic, a weather deviation and the amendment to the datablock so Cleveland knows what they are doing, a pointout to RKA or DNY sector, and a handoff. An arm keeps reaching around me to use the trackball.... At least someone knows what is going on.

My D-side is helping me catch up, too, but other sectors are calling both of us because I'm not taking handoffs from them, or they have their own traffic that they need to pointout to us.....

I'm typing as fast as I can, but it isn't fast enough. I'm not hearing callsigns very clearly, so I don't know which plane got that last clearance. Holy crap, the planes are everywhere.

My Radar controller says:
"Delta xxxx, for traffic climb and maintain FL380, deviate left of course, direct YWT VOR when able."

I type:
ALT 380 739 ENTER

The D-side puts in QU YWT 793 ENTER to take out all the intermediate, and now obsolete, fixes in the flightplan.

PVD 10 793 ENTER

"793" (the three numbers before ENTER) is the computer code for that airplane. I changed the altitude, put "DL/YWT" (deviate left, YWT vor when able) in the fourth line of the datablock, pointed the plane to Sector 10 (RKA) and flashed the plane on to Cleveland Center. That is one plane taken care of, 26 more to go.

All these planes want FL340-380 as a final altitude. You could cover 8 of them with a fingertip, and your hand would be surrounded by 10 others. Not too many planes are coming the other way at odd altitudes eastbound, so we start using those, too, as a temporary I'm-running-out-of-altitudes move. (We generally keep westbound planes at even thousands (FL360 FL320 etc), and eastbound planes at odd thousands (FL310 FL370 etc)).

Since I'm spending all my time catching up, my D-side is trying to keep the datablocks apart in his spare time, while not taking phone calls from everyone around him. Not sure exactly what is going on over there. I'm not sure exactly what is going on in front of me on the scope either, for that matter. Uh, where was I?

I hear an Ottawa departure get a "Deviate right, when able direct EXTOL, J59"

As I type the QS DL/EXTOL I realize that when that plane comes around the west side of that storm at FL360, there is a definite conflict with another plane deviating around the south side that storm, also at FL360. I point, again frantically at the soon-to-be-imminent situation. It got the Radar controller's attention and he wisely descends the southbound plane to FL350.

INT 350 938 ENTER 10 938 ENTER

I look over at RKA's scope and motion to the plane now at FL350 and make sure they are OK with it. They start scanning for any conflicting eastbound planes already at FL350....there is a Hartford arrival out there in Cleveland's airspace....RKA's D-side makes the call to start an early descent into Hartford....They take the handoff from us.

Uh, what else is going on. I have no idea. A plane is climbing above the last altitude I put in for it a while back. Is that supposed to be happening? "Yah, I gave him 34"

INT 340 103 ENTER PVD 10 103 ENTER

Is he deviating yet?

"Yah, these four are."

PVD 10 303 ENTER PVD 10 993 ENTER PVD 011 ENTER Crap forgot the sector number.... The datablock drops off the scope when you forget the sector number. How stupid is that!

PVD 011 He's back.

PVD 10 011 PVD 10 644

I gotta put all the deviations in there too. Hey, D-side, do that, thanks!

Cleveland is getting overwhelmed now as we've begun to hand our mess off to them. I hope we weren't supposed to give them spacing. We went into survival mode and just made sure everyone was at different altitudes. Now that the big blob of planes is abeam the main SYR storm, we are trying to figure out how to get them to diverge a little so we can give them all even-thousand altitudes before they cross Cleveland's boundary. I'm still mostly confused and trying to catch up with my keyboard entries. Our D-side is all over it and points to each plane in order "JHW, Jossy, Peck, London" A vector or two and they're all laterally separated. They're quickly approaching the Cleveland boundary without a handoff so a few phone calls need to be made to sort it all out.

Stueben, Utica, 97 Line...........


I wish I could go into more detail, but I truly didn't have much of a clue as to what was going on. To say that I was out of breath and, at times, a little scared would be an understatement. I will note also that I do not believe that HV owns a Porsche. For keeping everyone separated for that half hour someone should get him one!


So, there is a thunderstorm over SYR. Thus, TMU is rerouting planes that would not normally fly over SYR through our sector over SYR. I know this doesn't make any sense, but apparently since we didn't kill anyone before we must be able to handle anything.

Since more planes are coming, and the storms are growing, it is determined that we should split Watertown and Utica sectors up. This does not happen very often, and it tends to lead to some confusion. On the bright side, since we normally have both Watertown's and Utica's frequencies on at the same time, and since different sectors put planes on different frequencies, splitting the sectors means that planes won't talk all over each other without knowing it. Planes sometimes end up on the wrong frequency, but at least they can only talk one at at time.

So, the training team and my D-side went across the aisle open up Watertown sector. I was left to chill at Utica. A nice, simple, high altitude sector with a thunderstorm slowly moving eastbound. Watertown sector owns below me and all the airspace north of me. I now own just a rectangular shaped sector, FL310 and above, as shown below:

Many of the planes comprising the next rush of traffic ended up below FL300, so the move to split the sectors worked out well. I was still a little distraught over my still-fresh-in-my-mind performance as a Tracker. Well, at least I had everything under control now. In the rarefied air above FL310, I had a much more manageable number of airplanes and was able to keep up an enjoyable pace.


What the hell is that? It comes out over the speakers. I hear it in my earpiece. My lone frequency, plus the UHF emergency frequency light up orange as if they are being transmitted on. What the......?

I ask someone how their ride is. No response. I issue a new frequency for a plane entering Cleveland Center. No response. Does anyone hear me? No response.


I attempt to switch to my standby frequencies. It won't let me. How about the Back-Up Emergency Channel (BUEC - yes, lots of car references tonight). Ok, that works. Sort of. It always sounds like a tin can. But, tonight it's especially tin-ey. After a few transmissions it sounds like someone else is keying up at the same time as I am. There is a buzzing, whirring sound as if someone has a stuck mic. But no one does. The planes can hear me enough.... Half of my planes get sent to RKA's frequency. I get Cleveland to take the handoff's early on a few more and switch them over. The rest are fine for now. They are deviating but are altitude separated. So much for the benefit of having one frequency to myself.

I'm told I should try to switch back to my main transmitters. It won't let me. I have no frequency. They must have been struck by lightning. I need to stop blogging about how much I love or hate data-link. I must have jinxed myself. CAM sector is flashing me 4 airplanes. I tell that controller to hold on them for a while. I don't have a frequency right now. I get a puzzled look over the land line. Time to combine Watertown back up with Utica and use Watertown's frequency. I broadcast to everyone left on my frequency to change over to Watertown. Once they all check in across the room, we start the process of combining the sectors back together at the scope where I am sitting. They aren't done training yet so it is now my break. I will take it, thank you. Gotta get ready for the remaining 6 hours of my shift. Anything could happen.

Till next time....



LRod said...

Several observations:

You may or may not be interested in reading my similar experience from nearly 40 years ago.

That seems like an awful lot of typing for interim altitudes, etc. Have things changed so much or are things so different at ZBW than they were at ZAU that you can't fall back to basics like strip marking (or the modern equivalent) to take care of the inability to keep up the datablock?

An old aviation maxim which might be useful to adopt for times like this: "don't drop the airplane while trying to fly the microphone, " meaning the ATC being provided to the user is far more important than interim altitudes on data blocks.

I am 13+ years removed from the job, and I recognize things have likely changed. But I can certainly relate to the demands of the situation you describe.

ZJX, ORD, ZAU retired

deltamike172 said...

We don't use strips anymore, except for non-radar stuff (arrivals to airports we own to the ground). The flight plans are on a screen in front of the D-side.

The radar controller was kicking ass talking to the airplanes and keeping up with it. I was falling behind with my tasks, which was computer entries.


Anonymous said...

Please. All controllers had experiences that will rival everyone else's. Especially if they played at the major league level. Your blog is interesting, but too dramatic. We all play the role of (just as Redbook magazine said over 30 years ago) "...those ultra-cool, death defying air traffic controllers." We've all heard this tune before my friend. The sympathy well is dry.

Steve said...

Holy crap, this was definitely one of the more exciting reads on here in a while. I was just picturing the craziness around that scope while reading your account of what happened.

We flew from Ohio to SYR over the weekend (after the weather passed by) so this hit home a little more than usual. Glad it all worked out ok - phew!

deltamike172 said...


Luckily, I didn't expect you to quench my thirst for sympathy. I was simply trying to explain what happens on a crappy stormy night such as one that happened a few weeks ago. As an amateur blogger, my goal was to raise your heart rate a fraction of what mine rose that night. Your criticism is appreciated. I love my job, but occasionally things don't go as planned. I think it makes for a good blog post since everything worked out and my radar controller had everything under control.


Alex said...

As a private pilot who flies through your sectors on occasion, I found this entry fascinating. We frequently wonder what's going on on the other side of the radio, and this provided a great example of what can happen during the exciting times.

It got my heartrate up, and I was waiting for the conclusion to be "and then I woke up and realized it was a dream", but that wasn't the case.

Whether this was an unusual day for a "major-leaguer" or not, that it all was handled without any incidents is worth respect. You guys and gals do a great job. It's interesting peeking under the cover to see how it all happens.

"La Vida de Perro" said...

Your story reminds me of a day many years ago at ZLA. I was working a friend's D-side on a low altitude sector when all hell broke loose.

Just like your experience, we were hanging by our fingertips for about 45 minutes, and then the planes trickled out of the sector and calm returned.

There, in one of the strip bays, sat a flight plan on a C-130. I looked at it. Hmmm. It said he went through the sector right during the big frenzy.

I held the strip up for the R-side to see. He looked at it and shrugged. I shrugged.

I tossed the strip in the trash.

ATC is not always an exact science.

Tim said...

Been there, done that. Never got a Porsche.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand ZBW TMU. I would route a plane to avoid a massive line of thunderstorms in a downline center, and TMU reroutes them right through it. It's almost like they only care about moving the metal out of ZBW, and don't care about what happens afterwards. A few times recently I had to call TMU and say I cannot accept the reroute.

Sorry, just a vent.

Scott said...

I remember days like this. All the TMU should have, and we should have split the sector sooner considerations aside, it still makes me think that the tracker role is not adequately accounted for in the automation. The R controller needs to be able to talk and type and so does the tracker. The radar controller should have a small separate keyboard and CRD when the tracker is present to allow entries that keep the data block up to date with clearances as well as macros for common deviations for the 4th line.