November 9, 2014

Someone has to do it.

Years ago, Memphis Center had some issues and the controllers saved the day.  I asked around for examples of what kind of things controllers did right to produce a positive outcome.  Ya know, so we could learn from it and hopefully do better next time.

My employer had no interested in such a thing for reasons I'll never understand.  I asked around for the same thing regarding the extended ATC Zero Chicago incident.  I'm gonna plead the fifth when asked why I think the FAA refuses to spread useful info that could improve safety.  Who knows, maybe they are going to round us all up in a room and present to us their findings someday.  For now, all we have is AOPA.  Thank you, AOPA.

This all happened on the first day of my road trip vacation.  I missed almost all of it.  When I came back 13 days later, no one said anything.  There was nothing to sign off on.  If I hadn't paid attention to the news, and if every single freaking person I know hadn't asked, I wouldn't have known why the Midway arrivals were permanently rerouted over northern Ontario with huge in-trail.  "Oh, that's weird, they're doing it again today," I would have said the next day.  That's a lie, of course.  The controllers in my area had everything under control.  The end wall had a nice new jumbo sized map of the US airway structure with Chicago outlined in highlighter.  J29.ROD..VHP..SPI direct was our newest and most used preferred route.

A few stories trickled in, but I still have no idea what kind of "new procedures" were happening.  And I can't fathom what "manually passing EVERY flight plan" could possible be like for 60 hours a week.

I hope that someday I get answers to half of my questions.  For the same reason that Apollo 13 got a movie and 1-12, and 14-17 didn't - other than a great documentary.  It's a story of humans overcoming huge obstacles ingeniously and heroically.

If anyone has additional information they'd like to share about the Midwest chaos that was no doubt occurring, please email me or comment.  Thanks!


October 24, 2014


Nine years ago, I was in Oklahoma City studying maps.  I hoped that by Christmas Eve I would be driving to NH to start a new life.  My ATC dreams came true, and I continued my life long obsession with aviation.  As I evolved over the years, I am no longer the blogger I was in 2005.  But as someone who is still wakes up mostly excited to be a part of the high altitude spot welding prevention program (the FAA), I feel like I must still have something to contribute here, even if it's not the same blog you've all be kindly following for all these years.

It's been a year since I've posted.  I've received a few "where did you go? we miss you!" emails during this time, and I appreciate it.  I've been busy.  I got engaged and married this year - to a girl that is so amazing I couldn't have dreamed her up before I met her.  This summer was really busy at ZBW, for me at least.  I worked a lot of evening shifts, and it felt like a constant request for deviations.  Thankfully, my wife has a calming effect on me that is invaluable.  But I don't have the energy anymore to write about that stuff specifically as it happens like I once did.

So, what to do.  I clearly have an active audience here, and we all share the common theme in the world of aviation to continue learning and discussion and dreaming.  One of the most inspiring and important and relevant things in my career over the last few years has been the Flight Deck Training program.  As many of you already know, this is the program where controllers can fly in the jumpseat of certain airlines.  I won't go into too much detail about it, but it is essentially 8 hours of world-view shattering perspective.  Without a doubt, the things I've observed and conversed with pilots have improved my work as a controller.   So, I realized that that is what this blog needs to become.  More of a conversation.

My idea is to re-brand the blog a little bit.  It'll still be called NAS CONFUSION.  But I need inspiration and a topic.  So email me or comment about things you wish you could sit down and talk to a controller about.  If it's Boston Center related, great, lets "talk".  If its more of a general topic, then I'll take some time and talk to my friends in the ATC world about it and attempt to answer it, for you and everyone, as a post, the best I can.   You can even frame your question is the form of a gripe and I won't take it too personal.  So, let's go!

Contact me by emailing me at or
or post a comment....

I look forward to hearing from you!


October 24, 2013

Good Distractions

Morale at Boston Center is, well, not soaring right now.  I know, shocking.  We're getting paid again, though.  I try to stay away from politics  but the world is a soul sucking machine that is difficult to deal with.  We've had plenty of staffing recently, since we were told that any vacation, or family sick leave, or holidays that we took off would never be paid or reverted to leave.  So everyone was at work.  Plenty of breaks to go around and plenty of griping.  Ultimately, we're getting paid for everything, regardless of furlough status.

Working for a paycheck or not, I found the only solace in plugging in and actually working traffic.  It was a welcome distraction.    Most notably, let me tell you about a nice session at our newly designed Watertown low sector.  A sector reworked with the sole purpose of eliminating most distractions from the Utica high sector.  Watertown owns FL270 and below, and is meant to be a slower, but much more complex sector, than the Utica sector, which owns FL280 and above.  Over the course of a rather interesting hour, I was never busy, but I never stopped working in some manner.

I took over the sector with some military activity FL230 and below around GTB,  in the upper central part of the sector.  We had a 80mi x 20mi chunk of airspace blocked off for the drones to do whatever they want, and it wasn't really getting in the way.  I had to turn a BTV departure south a little to climb around it enroute to ORD, and then worked out a heading with Utica to fit in their sequence.  Just as I'm turning said traffic around the south corner of the military airspace, the military pilots call to announce they are done working in my airspace and that they want a handoff to GTB approach.  So I put in the requested altitude at 10000 and route the plane towards GTBs airspace and that forces the flight plan information at GTB approach.  They take the handoff and I switch the drones to approach.  I get a call from GTB asking for control on the military flights, and add that they have some westbound departures (a heads up that I have some more coordination in my near future with Canada).  I take a handoff on a Falcon jet landing at MSS from the high sector and I get control to turn them direct MSS, since my military is gone away.  The first of GTB's two departures (a PC-12) climbs out of ART towards ROC and I assign them their requested altitude of 14000.  I'll need to point this plane out slowly climbing to Trenton Terminal in Ontario.

The Falcon jet informs me that they want a visual approach to MSS and would like a through clearance to HPN since they're going to be on the ground for about 10 minutes and they don't want to deal with flight service.  It's the top of the hour now, they're about 10 minutes out of MSS, and I have a King Air proposed off at 37 past the hour.  I ask the Falcon jet if they can be off by 30 past, and they affirmatively respond. I give the Falcon jet a lower altitude and advise them to "Expect that in a few minutes, standby".

Here's a map of the area I own down to the ground (I made up the name O90, or 09D)

I don't have a shout line to Trenton like we do to all of the other facilities that we work with.  So I have to pick up the Toronto land line and dial 71.  It rings a few times, and then a friendly Canadian answers.  I point  out the PC-12 clipping his corner, climbing above his altitudes, and he happily approves it.  GTB calls to advise me of the next westbound departure, an Eagle Flight to ORD.  Roger.  A VFR checks in north of Albany, Roger.

So, my Falcon jet can get out by :30, but there are some minimum altitude issues for planes going direct to ALB from MSS, and there is some SLK action in the MPV sector.

"Due to SLK traffic, can you accept direct PTD prior to ALB for your terrain and obstruction avoidance?"
"Falcon Jet, cleared through MSS to the HPN airport via direct PTD, ALB, VALRE4 arrival, maintain 6000, expect FL270 10 minutes after departure, squawk code 3402, void if not off by 2130, if not off by 30, advice no later than 35 of intentions".

I mark the strip and put PTD into the flight plan.  The Eagle Flight checks in off ART and I climb them to FL230 (the upper limit of the low altitude Montreal Centre sector).  I dial 71 again and point this plane out to Trenton, as well.  The controller is even more cheery (if possible) and approves my point out again.  I make a few computer entries and get the PC-12 to flash to Cleveland Center.  I call Montreal to hand off the Eagle Flight.  There is traffic at FL220, so they take the handoff only climbing to FL210.  I stop the Eagle Flight and switch them to Montreal.

I can't give this Falcon jet the normal spiel when I switch him to advisory frequency since they're not cancelling IFR.  So, after a few minutes, they report the field in sight and I clear them for a visual approach.  "Change to advisory frequency approved, report airborne above 3000 on this frequency."  The Falcon jet acknowledges.  I switch the PC-12 to Cleveland.  The King Air proposed off MSS in 20 minutes checks in VFR climbing out of MSS.  They snuck out before the Falcon jet landed.  They'd like IFR to MHT, so I radar identify them VFR, and then call MPV sector to APREQ IFR direct MHT climbing to 9000.

"Cleared to MHT airport via direct climb and maintain 9000, SLK altimeter 2997"

The Falcon jet drops below radar coverage so I remove strip on the arrival and enter a departure message and hold message for the departure flight plan to HPN.

GTB approach flashes me a slow guy at 7000 eastbound direct LKP.  Thinking non-radar, this plane is in the way of my MSS Falcon jet departure.  In radar world, it won't be a problem.  And it wasn't.  A few minutes before their void time, the Falcon jet comes off climbing 4000 for 6000.  I call Montreal Centre and point them out climbing southbound for higher.  I climb them straight up to FL250 and they top the 7000 traffic in about three more radar hits.  The Falcon jet clears some FL260 traffic but they like the ride and elect to stay at FL250 as a final requested altitude.

These five planes gave me a solid 25 minutes of steady work.  Meanwhile, at any given time, the Utica sector had 15-20 planes flowing smoothly through the upper flight levels with half the work load.


On a separate note, last Saturday was the final day of HOST operations at Boston Center.  I'm pretty happy about it.  We had tested ERAM a few times over the past year or two, and I was always sad when I came back to work and HOST was back on.  ERAM has been on a long and frustrating road over the last decade.  The resulting system is a vast improvement over HOST.  From fully customizable controller user settings, to clearer and more consistent presentation of flight plans, three or five mile rings around aircraft depending on their location, faster display updates, and additional information displayed for aircraft in other ERAM facilities (currently just Cleveland).   To all the controllers out west who tested ERAM from its miserable beginnings, thank you for your hard work and insistence in a better program.  I've been spending most of my down time adjusting my scope settings to satisfy my anal retentiveness.  

So, despite the chaos of the world around us, we controllers have our world inside the NAS fully under control.  I'm glad that this job allows us to be fully mentally engaged in our work and, for about an hour at a time, provides a much needed distraction.

Till next time....


September 21, 2013

Request Vectors

I am a certain kind of person.  I can sit down with some one and talk about what I do for a living for hours.

I really enjoy writing this blog.  But I can't find hours of time to do so.  If feels like that is what is necessary.  I had a crazy idea to start an ATC Twitter feed, where I establish context initially and then conquer the epic challenge of describing hours of complex air traffic to you in 140 characters.  But that's impossible.  No, really.  It is.  

So, I, dispirited, accepted what I believed to be the reason I just never take the time to write my experiences for you.  But that isn't the reason.  

A few years back, I took a hiatus for a while.  The reason was my lack of confidence in myself to be outward with you.  I couldn't see myself as a expert in my field that I strive to be. It was a much more personal problem back then.  But, I realize, my lack of content lately also stems from the same personal limitation in confidence.  The depth of this lack of confidence is different, though.  

In the crazy, complex world of air traffic, I like to tell you stories about being up to my eyeballs in airplanes, and how I magically weaved them through storms and they came out the other side perfectly 20 miles in trail per airport.  My job is fun.  And I can talk about it for hours.  But I keep snagging on an issue.  

The snag is that while I continually learn more about my trade, the more I realize that I will never have all of the answers.  I don't feel comfortable putting myself behind the facade of "expert".  

For example, some controllers believe their job is giving planes as many short cuts as possible.  But not every shortcut saves time and fuel, based on winds and weather.  Other controllers believe, that as Center controllers, we need to maintain a shred of structure and order to promote safety.  I lean in that direction.  There is a happy medium somewhere in between, but I, nor any one person, should never be put in a position to determine medium happiness.  

This post is about my realization that ambition is like a compass.  My direction in life is to be an air traffic controller.  And in that direction, I want to be the most effective controller I can imagine.  But other controllers aren't required to follow my exact heading in order to still be great controllers.  


Part of me is inspired by the modest following I've appreciated over the years.   The other part of me doesn't like the thought of representing all controllers with my limited perspective. So, maybe now that I've gotten this out there, I can be more true to who I am, and still have fun writing.  When I am plugged in to my sector, I am one of 15000 controllers in the US.  But I am also one WITH 15000 controllers.  We all work together to keep the airspace above the US safe and efficient.  

This teamwork is important and hard to describe.  It's complicated.  It is powerful.  And I need to conclude this post by saying that I, as one controller, am unsure if we are using the power of our teamwork effectively for the citizens of the United States.  Controllers spent one week under rules of Sequestration.  We reduced staffing and, correspondingly, reduced traffic to maintain safety.  Then, we inconvenienced a few important people, and suddenly, we received special funding so we could maintain normal staffing levels.  On one hand, I'm glad we were able to run normal summer traffic and serve the citizens of this country in that way.  But on the other hand, the Sequester has been swept under the rug because the most publicly glaring effect of Sequestration was averted - for now....

Now that Congress has labelled controllers with such humbling importance, is it our duty to now insist that we sacrifice a few unpaid days of furlough to force the aforementioned Congress to start respecting the rest of this country with the same urgency and importance?  Is that even the appropriate scope of our service?  

I am consciously aware of how fortunate I am to have a job - and I love it.  I am also consciously aware that the direction my compass points isn't necessarily the vector I'd recommend for you.  

Now that I got that out of the way...


April 8, 2013

Space Based Fallacy

Perhaps some of you are familiar with "The Praxis Foundation".  If not, I invite you to meander your way over to one of my adjacent sectors on the right column.  You may note the seemingly paradoxical subject of their article about ADS-B and the required ground stations required for what is being sold to the public as a more efficient space-based airplane tracking system.  The new trend in aviation technology development (aka:  NextGen) is to fund the heck out of idea and then wait around a decade or two for the results.  The hardest part is not being disappointed by the end.

Disappointment is inevitable, however.  The companies who bid for the initial development funding are naturally going to promise the world to us on a silver platter.  They probably even intend to deliver what they promise.  But I'm not here to talk about promises.  I'm here to talk about expectations and results.  I actually don't even want to talk about expectations, but I have no choice than to bring them up to frame the subsequent, inevitable disappointments.

ADS-B - What I expected and how reality stacks up:

Let me start by saying that most controllers, myself included, do not see radar as a limitation to capacity.    Now that I write that, I bet you couldn't find a controller who would think that.  ADS-B is in use in Louisville, KY with UPS, but I don't know anywhere who works there....  Ok, let me rephrase:  I don't think you can find a Center controller who thinks radar is a limitation to capacity.

In Boston Center, we have a significant portion of our airspace, below FL180, certified for reduced lateral (3NM instead of 5NM required) separation. A lot of work goes into getting 3NM airspace.  It gets justified by saying "but we can run planes that much closer, which means we can run more in the same amount of space!".  Three miles is great when you're on a small range running a bunch of planes in a straight line (like, say, an approach control).  In my area, the scope is generally configured to be 200 miles from one side of the scope to the other.  The computer symbol that displays the location of the airplane is about 1 mile wide.  So you want me to run 3 miles apart!?  At 450 knots ground speed!?  Nobody does that intentionally.  Very often, the wind at one end of my sector will be significantly different speed and from a different direction than the other end.  And its changing at the speed of the wind (50-200 mph).  There needs to be a buffer so when one plane enters the area of more headwind and slows down, he doesn't get run over by the plane still goes much faster right behind.  The point is, we don't need less than 5NM in the en-route environment.  So, I don't expect ADS-B to help me increase capacity.  I am obligated to bring up the point that the MAIN factor in increasing capacity and reducing delays is adding runways that we can land on every day.

I won't just dismiss this as a waste of time, however.  As a controller who isn't completely under-layed by approach controls (I "own to the ground") I am acutely aware of the limitation of my radar and where I have no coverage at low altitudes.  So, when I heard about "space-based tracking" (ADS-B), I was excited that one day I'd be able to see all of my planes all of the time.  I expected that such a space-based system would look down over the world, send a signal down to the planes, receive a reply back, and then the satellite would beam down the data to our scopes.  It would be able to see everyone with an operating transponder.   This assumed system would not be able to fully replace radar, since planes in distress sometimes loose their transponders in some form.  We wouldn't be able to assist planes when they needed our help the most.

But, that isn't how it currently works.....

As of right now, I am getting mixed messages.  Boston Center ran a test a few months ago to see how our ADS-B coverage compared to our normal radar coverage.  ADS-B is required to have coverage that is the same or better as radar.  But ADS-B is not certified to be used in places we currently don't have radar coverage or within areas we use 3NM.  It is also not designed to see places radar can't.  If we show an improvement, that is strictly convenient.  Currently, ADS-B is used in Alaska and over the Gulf of Mexico (these places don't have good radar coverage).  If you are confused, join the club.  But what about those damn satellites!?  Can't they see everyone!?

Well, my expectation don't meet the reality.  Did you read the Praxis article about all of those ground based sensors?  The "space-based" part isn't anything other than good ole' GPS that the airplanes use to navigate today.  So, how it works:

Step 1 - The plane's GPS figures out where it is and converts that data into coordinates.

Step 2 - The new, super-awesome, transponder in the plane takes those coordinates, throws in pressure altitude data, aircraft ID info, and maybe even some other data that ATC isn't going to use, and, every second, beams it down to a ground based sensor.   Think cell phone tower........

Step 3 - That data collected by the ground based sensor goes off to a server somewhere and distributes the data to places that need it.  The aforementioned altitude, location and ID data ends up in a an FAA computer which then sends it to our scopes.  (This last step may be slightly simplified)

When you drive your car to the airport using a GPS on your phone or dashboard, you are equally, if not more "NextGen", than the flight you're about to board.  Luckily, you are much less likely to get lost since there are actual people making sure you don't make a wrong turn.  These people also help you avoid traffic jams and accidents.  Its very convenient.

Safety - Why I'm not writing it off yet....

We already have a network of ground sensors in place.  They exist.  We used them in February for a test.  They work.  So, how can we use them to make the system safer?

First, planes with ADS-B will be able to see other ADS-B equipped planes around them.  Callsigns and everything.  The ground sensors can transmit traffic information (TIS-B) out to planes to display on their own screens.  If your plane is out of range of a sensor, some systems will be able to receive the data via relay through other nearby airplanes that are in a location or at an altitude that is within range of a sensor.  Some sensors will also include FIS-B, which would transmit new NOTAMs, AIRMETS and/or SIGMETS for the area.

The push now is to give controllers the ability use high altitude planes to relay information to and from planes out of radar and sensor coverage.  The concern from the developers is that all of this relaying back and forth would take up too much bandwidth.  That's fine.  Just give us an ERAM function to toggle the function on and off.  We just need one or two at a time to fill in the gaps.  We don't need all the planes to be relaying back and forth to all the other planes.  We get it.  Just let us switch between one, and then maybe another when we need it.  If the next space-based system is supposed to razzle and dazzle us, then it should be an improvement!  The next system should make us wonder how we ever lived with just radar.  And I say "just radar" because you can't ever turn radar off if you want to maintain safety.  And that's a controllers primary concern.  Safety.  We are supposed to be there when you  need us.  We need to be able to see you if you want our help.  It's our job to think of reasons ADS-B can't be the only way or else someone who doesn't care about safety is going to make it the only way.

Reasons we can't get rid of radar:

1 - Terrorists turn off the transponder.
2 - Plane looses electrical power
3 - Attenuation.
4 - For that matter, a huge tornado takes out some sensors....
5 - ADS-B antennae get covered in five inches of rime ice.
6 - Lightning?
7 - Power outage at ground sensor
8 - Hackers
9 - Solar Flares

Got more?  Leave a comment.

Reasons why ADS-B increases safety of flight:

1 - Increases pilot awareness.
2 - Allows controllers to provide expanded traffic separation and advisory services.
3 - Is a great backup to radar.
4 - Is very accurate over a larger area (radar gets less exact the farther away from the antennae you go).

Got more?  Leave a comment.

As a taxpayer, perhaps your first question should be: "why didn't we design a system which met the goals of the second list, with an emphasis on safety of flight?"  Surely that would be much less expensive and the project would have had a clear goal.  Can't help ya there, sorry.  I'm busy working planes; not enough time to alter the universe.

I will add here, before I go, that ADS-B will enable future programs to safely integrate ways to increase efficiency.  Wow, I should get a job as a NextGen salesmen......  Seriously, though - there is testing in the works that will allow planes to safely run closer together and/or to sequence themselves in a fuel efficient manner using the data that is relayed back and forth between the planes as I mentioned above (Imagine the Perfect Vector, where planes always went exactly 5 miles behind another when crossing over SYR.  Or, using speed, planes approach the active runway perfectly staggered on opposite base legs, ready for the final controller to put them 3 miles apart on final.)  Imagine it.  Some controllers would feel threatened.  Others would imagine the economy recovering at some point and the task of working twice as many planes as we do now.  We're gonna need some help.....

Till next time....


PS.  The airlines were totally on board with this program until they realized that the government wasn't going to buy the new fancy transponders and traffic screens for them.  Suddenly, it wasn't such a great money saving piece of NextGen technology.   Planes equipped with ADS-B are few and far between at this point.  ERAM envisions a world where almost all planes have ADS-B.  When a plane doesn't have it installed or operating, a little red A appears on our scope next to the plane.  Luckily, we can turn them off, since they are everywhere.  So, ERAM can dream....but it is still learning how to make a handoff to New York approach.  :)  Due to furlough and supposedly resolved issues with NY which delayed it, ERAM at Boston Center is postponed until after the end of the year, or when furlough ends.  Or whenever.....

PPS. Oh, by the way.  ADS-B stands for Automatic Dependent Surveillance - Broadcast.  If you asked.

March 9, 2013

Observations of a Furloughed Controller

My desire to write something and the time it takes to accomplish such a task has not coincided in a while.  So, I'll try to keep this succinct. I've wanted to write about the joys of life when there is severe turbulence from FL250-FL330 (every plane in the northeast is either at FL230 or FL210....Chaos!)  or about our ERAM test run that went remarkably well (sort of) a few weeks ago, or the biggest waste of my time (ADS-B).

But, instead, since my words end up in the bloggosphere, and thus, the political/pop-culture world, I will address the hot topic of the day - Sequestration.   I will not spend this time discussing the actual politics of the situation.  Let just assume that the best way to implement Sequestration is to furlough every air traffic controller for two-four days a month.  Please ignore the fantastical/delusional tree limb I've stepped out onto which I am basing an entire blog post. The furlough letters have been mailed, and, as an agency full of air traffic controllers in charge of the busiest and safest airspace in the world, we have to plan for something!

So, lets talk about what we EXPECT to happen:

A 5% reduction in staff may, or may not, result in an equal reduction in airport/traffic capacity.  On any given day, thousands of controllers, managers and support staff are all working together (occasionally in harmony) to make thousands of flights get to and fro efficiently and safely.  When you disrupt a team structure in untested ways, the results will be unpredictable.

Let's start theoretically.....

Who do you think is the best football team in the NFL?  First, keep that to yourself....  Second, think about the consequences of that team being forced to play with one less player on the field for the entire next season.  Rotate that player throughout the year.  One player removed, out of 11 total, is a 9% reduction. Will that team perform 9% worse than last year?  Definitely?  Maybe?  Remember, the team that just won the Super Bowl was 10-6, beating a team that was 11-4-1.  Winning percentage wise, those two results are 10% apart.  So, do you think your team, playing with ten players all year, will make the Super Bowl?  Your answers could range from "Of course not" to "There's a slim chance" to "Sure, why not" to "My team is the best, they'll scrap their way in!".  The moral - it's almost silly to think about, and it's never happened before, so how could we possibly know.....  Would you be willing to bet $1000 on your team?  Would you bet your life flying through airspace full of uncertainty?

The reality.....

No one knows what will happen when you cut government spending and you furlough air traffic controllers the amount that is proposed.  But we have to plan for the worst.  That is our job.  As an industry, it is in our best interest to be funded in a way that we believe we can achieve maximum safety, capacity and reliability.  If this is disrupted, we will have to change how we operate so as to maintain the results we, and the public, expect and require.  So, as an industry, some red flags were raised to attempt to prevent Sequestration.

But, from an operations viewpoint, a small reduction in workforce will impact capacity (and increase delays) greatly in certain situations.  It is our responsibility to be prepared for this and, since you asked (as a taxpayer), I will try to explain why you might be late.

The primary constraint on the number of planes that can safely land is the number of runways we can use.  Generally speaking, the En-route world (where I work, at Boston Center) does not cause delays.  The delays often occur in our airspace, prior to the bottleneck (the runway).  If there are thunderstorms in my sector in the summer, then the bottle neck is the small gap between storms that I'm trying to descend planes through.  Then, yeah, it's all my fault!  But, I was speaking generally....

Many major airports in this country have demand that exceeds the runway's capacity during certain times of day, and especially when the wind blows from certain directions or if the visibility is low.  These airports have adapted their procedures to enable them to safely add capacity in creative ways such as by using crossing or parallel runways that couldn't normally be usable without the extra controllers to monitor the extra traffic and complicated traffic flows created by the extra traffic.  Very often, these procedures require an extra controller to oversee the extra runway, plus another controller to oversee the operation in general.  These extra set of eyes are getting furloughed every day, so I expect that this extra capacity will be eliminated.   It won't affect every flight.  It won't affect some airports on days when the weather is nice.  But, we are used to a certain level of service from our National Airspace System.  It is our job to make sure that it stays SAFE.  Since we plan on decreasing the number of airplanes to ensure this priority of safety, consider this a fair warning.  Time is money, and we have less money.  I hope you're not in a hurry.

Till next time...


I ran out of time on my break writing.... If I may add:

It is our job to do our best to minimize the effects of Sequestration.  I doubt that my facility will be as impacted as places in NY or Chicago or LA.  If you are delayed more than normal, then there is a controller in this country somewhere who has your safety in mind and he/she asks your patience while we do our best with what we are given.

November 9, 2012

Ebbs, Flows, Storm Surges and Schedules

Let me begin by saying that I grew up on Long Island.  I have friends and family who live all over east coast.  I am thankful that they are all OK.  I remember a few hurricanes that hit NY when I was a kid, but this one is different.  The size, shape and ground track taken by Hurricane Sandy allowed this storm to wreak still incomprehensible damage.  I am safe, warm, mostly dry and writing this post on my computer which is plugged into a working power outlet.  I intend no disrespect to anyone living in the affected area at my casual mentions of this storm or how relatively easy my life has been in the last two weeks.   I am thankful for my outcome, cognizant of how quickly natural disaster can change one's life, and those who reside south of my locale are constantly in the thoughts and prayers myself and my coworkers.   The intent of this article is to discuss the operational impacts (from the viewpoint of Boston Center Area A's skies over upstate NY) on the ATC system caused by Hurricane Sandy.


I usually have Sunday/Monday/Tuesday's off.  But not this week.  I had a my girlfriend's brother's wedding to attend in Oklahoma on Saturday, November 3rd,  but couldn't get the day off.  So I swapped days off with two coworkers - Monday for Saturday, Tuesday for Friday. After working a normal week prior, I then had only Sunday off so as to work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights, followed by five days off without taking leave. My flight was scheduled for Friday morning.

When I arrived at work at 1pm on Monday, most traffic to/from NYC and south was already cancelled for Monday night and Tuesday morning.  It was very IFR already, and windy.  During my commute from Manchester to Nashua, the wind increased about 15 knots.  It was starting to rain.  The altimeters were falling so rapidly that the computers weren't updating them because it was assumed that the data was faulty.  Every half hour or so, I would call the approach controls and manually input the altimeters.

At 3pm, the NH DOT recommended that everyone should be off the roads and that the public should avoid travel.  The building switched to the backup diesel generators.  The pressure dropped, the wind increased, and the rain intensified.

We only had two scopes open at this point, with the high sectors still a little busy with overflights.

The wind is almost always out of the northwest, west or southwest.

Hurricane Sandy

But for three days during this storm, the wind was out of the east, northeast (the red box at the top left is the corner of my airspace).  I draw the blue wind vectors on this picture to emphasize the winds aloft and how different they are during the storm's approach compared to a normal jet stream.

I've discussed before how fast an eastbound sector like RKA can be, when everyone normally has a tailwind. Here that sector had a headwind and the planes moved relatively slow.  Conversely, the westbound sector was now much quicker, and all of the Europe - Western US overflights took full advantage of that tailwind. A few brave souls even departed upstate NY for destinations south of the storm, flying southbound  through eastern PA, basking in the 70-80 knot tailwind, even at low altitudes below icing levels.  

As Sandy slowly approached the coast, a few last commercial flights departed the inland airports in my airspace to calmer destinations out west.  The planes may have been empty, to spare the planes from possible damage, or as last flights out for anyone needing to get away from the storm.  Either way, the flight numbers were not normal and everyone's scope were mostly blank by 6pm.  At this point, we had full staffing and maybe one or two planes at a time flying through.  Dare I say, we were bored!?  Emphasis during position relief briefings was put on the fact that FL190 was lowest usable in the northern half of the area, and FL200 was lowest usable in the southern half.  The altimeters were so diverse and changing so rapidly, lateral separation was the safest bet below FL210.

I would like to note how smooth everyone's ride was through my area.  Usually, the northern edge of storms like this are VERY bumpy.  This storm was very low- hardly any deviations other than around the first band beyond the eyewall.  The wind was strong, widespread, but, again, surprisingly shear free.

It was strange to zoom out the scope and see ZERO planes in New York Approach.  Surreal, really.  Normally, it is such a cluster of targets, with only three distinct features - the final approach courses to LGA, EWR, and JFK.  It was a ghost town all night.

Finally, management gave up and let us go home about an hour and a half early, around 9:30pm.  Not sure what they were waiting for.  The late rush?  The drive home was through pretty much the worst of the storm that hit NH.  It was pouring down rain, which was being blown horizontal in white sheets.  The wind was gusting in the 40-50 knot range.  I only had to dodge a few trees on the highway...  I made it home in one piece to power and heat.  A few hours later, the wind died down, and I felt comfortable sleeping upstairs without the tall trees in my backyard creaking and swaying so much.


Back to work at noon.

We started with two scopes, optimistic that EWR and PHL would open in the afternoon.  They might have "opened," but no one was flying.  It was still IFR, windy, and everyone was focused on the disaster that happened the evening before.  There was no business being conducted as usual.  A few control towers had been abandoned the night before and they remained "ATC zero".  LGA was completely under water.  DC airports had a trickle of traffic.  But as far as air traffic goes,  Tuesday was a lost cause.  We combined all of our sectors up to our normal overnight configuration around 4pm.  There were lots of breaks, of course, and I was able to get in touch with people I knew in NY, NJ, and DC.  

Late in the evening, there was a steady flow of empty airplanes returning to New England.  They were being repositioned, apparently ready to pounce on the NY Metro as soon as the airports would take them.  Wednesday could be interesting.


Into work at 2pm.  I got my A-game on.  Everything except LGA was open.  Imagine the pent-up demand to get into these places!?  It was going to be crazy!  But, it wasn't.  The subway was still shut down.  No one had power.  Focus was on recovery, not business or recreation.  There were flights now in an out of EWR and DC, but not many.  BTV, SYR, ALB were operating mostly normal, light traffic.

By the end of the night, though, BOS was pretty steady.  Again, they strangely all had headwinds being sequenced for the QUABN.  And the departures were hauling out to the west with tailwinds.


I got to work at 1pm.  BOS, MHT, PWM, BDL, PVD,  and ALB were all operating normal, if not above normal.  LGA opened, without lights or instrument approaches.  EWR and JFK picked up, under similar conditions.   As the day went on, traffic to PHL showed up.  By the time evening rolled around, we had ourselves a good, solid, busy Thursday night.

My girlfriend made it out of Logan fine.  Her parents made it out of ALB the day before just fine, also.  Hopefully the seats on my AAL 757 would be bolted down...... I got out of work on time at 11pm, finished packing, and had a 6:30a bus to catch to the airport.  

Luckily, the ATC system was mostly back to normal, as far as en-route operations goes, by the end of Thursday.


The storm had pretty much stalled out, and its immense size was obvious once my flight took off.  It stretched out to sea to the east of Boston as far as the eye could see.  We were over a solid cloud deck until southern Indiana, an hour and a half after takeoff.
 There was one little break in the clouds....right over my hometown of MHT!

Till next time...


October 17, 2012

Ok. Now what?

From the time I realized that talking to ATC on the radio was my favorite part of flying to the the moment my instructor unplugged and walked away after my final checkride, over a decade had transpired.  The majority of my life was focused on learning aviation and attempting to become a better trainee than I was yesterday.   I received a warm round of congratulations from those in the control room at that moment, but it only marked the end of the miseries and struggles of training, so it didn't seem like the end of anything worth holding on to;  my first thought was "Ok, now what?"

One of the last words of advice my instructor gave me was that my learning was far from over, and that I wouldn't "peak" as a controller for a few more years.  The peak, he explained would occur after I gained experience working on my own during day-to-day operations while still being young and fast.  After that peak, my speed would slowly diminish over time, but gained experience would carry me forward. 
So, I guess I have peaked.  I am at a stage now I could not have imagined 15 years ago.  I have never had a job for this long before.  I admit, I am not learning something new and exciting every day.  I have followed up my "Ok, now what" moment with years of fabulous non-ATC activities though, so don't feel bad for me.  Things at work are happening over and over again, with slight variables, and I spend my career making sure the planes don't hit despite these variables.  It is still very enjoyable, just not necessarily "blog-worthy".  This is my career.  It's no longer my life.  I'm still wrapping my head around that reality. 

I have spent the few years since my "peak" attempting to pass along what I've learned to someone else.  The truth is, I am still learning about aviation.  Instruction is a vital part of the industry.  I am definitely not the best instructor that I could be, but it's just another aspect of my life that is a work in progress and there is more to learn.  TQ and I have spent the last few years learning together.  He, about the basics of working planes through Area A.  Myself, about myself and how instructing doesn't always solely involve the passing of knowledge.  I discussed this conundrum in the previous post about patience and confidence. 

And so..........I am proud to announce that TQ is now fully certified! 

Both of us reached another "Ok, now what?" moment together.  His was predictable, but his life without me constantly harassing him has been filled with sudden tragedy outside of work along with pending home ownership.  Hopefully the quest to still improve at work has been an adequate distraction for him now that his post-training life is unfolding differently than he would have expected.

I set out to find things to keep myself occupied during the slower, less complex months of winter traffic.  Many of you have heard of ERAM, our main computer software replacement.  I'm sure if you scour the adjacent sectors in the right hand column, you'll be able to find out more!  Boston Center is getting ERAM this month, to be released only on overnight shifts at first, then only on slow days, and then eventually full time.  Every controller in the building needs to learn how it works before it can be turned on during the day.  I volunteered to learn it first and then help teach it to the others.  So far, the scheduling of training has been very last minute, uncoordinated, and has interfered with other stuff I have volunteered for, as well.  It is what it is.

In addition, I have proposed the creation of a new Standard Terminal Arrival Route into TEB.  The papertrail has begun, and hopefully meetings with other controllers will soon follow to set up a procedure that helps everyone improve traffic flow and safety.  I have no idea what the timeframe is for full implementation. 
---- So, now what?

I don't have the time or the motivation or the new material to write about this job 3 times a month like I used to.  But I keep getting web views and your personal emails when I write new posts, so I have an audience and I can keep teaching aspects of my job that others can learn from.  I take this seriously;  I'll keep writing.  As I've learned, patience is an important part of teaching.  It is an important part of learning, too.   Thank you for reading.

Till next time...


August 15, 2012

Let 'em go

About a month ago, right before my vacation, I was feeling a little worn down and a tad uninspired about this whole ATC thing.  I was spending the busiest nights of the week (namely Thursday and Friday) plugged into my least favorite sectors with my trainee all night long. Together, we experienced every momentary peak of accomplishment along with every trough of soul-searching, aggravating, "you-can-do-better", "I-can't-take-it-anymore" frustration that comes with realizing that we need to do better next time.

For the last two years, I've been plugged into the override headset jack with my trainee.  We're friends outside of work and we put up with each others' crap on sector, usually with a smile.  But I was growing impatient.  I wanted to get TQ checked out so I could go and work on my own again.  I miss talking to the airplanes.  But he wasn't ready.  And maybe it was my fault, being the lead instructor, and all.  So, we discussed it like the true professionals that we pretend to be, and decided that I needed a week off from training.  At the time, it felt a little selfish.  But TQ could use some other perspectives, and I needed the currency/proficiency.

 Like I said, I had spent all of the busiest traffic periods just standing behind my trainee watching, ever vigilant, and managing my own plan of action side-by-side with my trainee's plan and constantly evaluating whether or not the next move could prove too overwhelming for me to recover should my trainee suddenly loose the flick.   It is one thing to sit there and watch and then yell at your trainee in hindsight.  It's another to actually work it.  I was loosing touch with what my trainee was actually experiencing.

****I'm sure there has been LOTS to blog about, but I spend much of every day talking ATC with my trainee, and I really have no desire to go home and recap it yet again.  Sorry if you've missed me. 

So, I enjoyed my week on my own.  I got to spend time at other sectors.  I got reacquainted with the adrenaline rush that comes from simultaneously typing, talking, thinking, and listening as fast as you can all at once.  Oh, yah, this isn't as easy as I it looks.  Working radar is all about the scan your eyes make around the screen.  And the scan you make is much easier from further away (aka, where I stand as an instructor) as opposed to sitting right up there front and center in the chair with a mouse and keyboard demanding entries.  (The farther away from the scope you stand, the smaller the screen appears to your perspective, and the shorter distance your eyes have to move across the scope) But, I only had to worry about one plan:  Mine. So, instructing isn't a cakewalk, but it is different, and I'm glad I got time away from it.  I like balance.

The next week, all hell broke loose.  I relegated myself back to the position behind TQ's chair, but this time with much more patience and confidence in my own ability.  This allowed me to let TQ execute his own plan all the way to end.  I knew I wasn't at my recovery override limit yet.  We stayed right on the edge of madness for a while, but at the point I normally would have taken over, TQ really hit his stride.  He was in full control of the whole sector and was directing orders to the two other controllers working with us as D-side and Tracker.  It was a revelation!

It was truly a sight to behold- both my trainee kicking ass and the sheer number of planes happening.  I can't really say we were "pushing tin" since we were holding LGA and JFK traffic over Watertown, but the fact that everything over northern upstate NY was under control during those few hours was very reassuring that progress was being made and that my trainee could thrive within chaos.  So, we checked him out at those two sectors and I took a vacation.  All was well.

The only remaining sector is considered the easiest in the area:  Rockdale.  This is not to say it should be taken lightly.  Many controllers start here and then move on to the more complicated sectors later.  While this may be an ideal situation, TQ started on the hardest sectors and now has worked backwards towards the "easy" sectors.  The issue now is that Rockdale is the fastest sector.  It's a high altitude eastbound sector.  It has less complexity and less confliction points, but it has a higher volume of traffic.  TQ is used to planes behaving in a certain way.  He's developed habits that work well in low sectors were the wind isn't as strong and many of the planes are slower, if not just because many of them are prop planes.  The last high sector he just finished is a westbound sector, where everyone has a big headwind;  they move nice and slow across the scope. 

As a procrastinator myself, I know how difficult it is to break your mental habits that are used to waiting a minute or two to figure out the best plan of action.  At Rockdale, you don't have the time to hesitate or procrastinate.  Planes need a descent clearance, pronto.  Often, you'll need to start another plane down first.  If there's a plane in the way, turn 'um out quick and then go down and around.  There are lots of vertical layers.   Most planes aren't in conflict at Rockdale, but almost every plane needs something done to them before the next sector gets them.  If you don't finish your task in time, then you've made life at that next sector very difficult.  You can easily screw over four of five sectors around you in no time flat.  The key is to keep everyone around you happy so that they take your handoffs.  Once TQ can do that on a consistent basis, then I'll be ready to let 'em go on his own.

Maybe they'll let me work traffic on my own for a week or two before I get a new trainee......

Till next time....


June 12, 2012

Not Status Quo...

Six years ago when I was a new trainee, Boston Center, and the world of Air Traffic, was a scary place.  I had worked so hard to make it here.  And the hard work was really just beginning. 

It was overwhelming.  So my mind started looking for ways to simplify it all.  Granted, there was still the map test (with over 10000 memory items to draw), procedures, frequencies, preferred routes, phraseology...... and a dark room full of 50 other intimidating people who already know how to do your dream job.  So, step one:  Get over it and find some good role models.  One of the reasons I love my area of specialty is because I think my area is full of good role models.  Of course we have some people who don't fit that role as well as they could, but I digress.  Area A is full of controllers who know the rules:  We talk about them, we argue about them, and we try to figure out if there is a safer way to rewrite them.

But six years ago, I just needed to find a few folks who seemed like the best controllers and then figure out how to be like them.   And luckily, it didn't take me long to figure out who my role models were.  I still strive to be like one controller who always speaks in the same constant, calming tone, no matter how many planes are deviating.  Or another who says the number zero unlike anyone else.  Or another, even if they never use vector lines.....

The one that inspires me to write this was forced to retire recently.  I, sadly and begrudgingly, now work his schedule.  I think of him every day that I go to work for my new ten hour shifts, four days a week, Wednesday through Saturday.  I will add that it is a GREAT schedule.  It's just horrible how I came to receive it. 

As I worked the A-sides and D-sides and met the controllers in my area, there were a few key attributes I was looking for:  Calm, no matter what; perfect phraseology; friendly; helpful; and lets add hilarious in there, too.

CN fit that description. And for any of you who never heard his verbal mannerisms and iconic southern accent on the frequency, it is a shame I can't play a tape for you right here (working on it).

But a few months ago, CN got a headache.  It never really went away.  He got lost driving somewhere he's gone a hundred times.  So he went to the hospital and they found a brain tumor growing so fast he literally had hours to live.  Most people with his form of cancer never make it to the hospital.  So, he's in unfamiliar territory (being alive with this kind of cancer).  But he made it through his first round of chemotherapy and the tumor is very small and not growing anymore.  As far as his public interactions are concerned when he stops by work to say "hi"  or when he's on the phone, he seems like his old self.

It can't be noted strongly enough that his attitude and his great family are helping him to remain an amazing individual still worthy of my, and anyone else still looking for a good role model's, respect.

Also noteworthy is the treatment CN is receiving at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon, NH.  This Sunday, my new schedule allows me the honor to go take a walk with CN, his family, my fellow controllers and countless others in Lebanon for the benefit of CN and the Cancer Center.

Feel free to throw in a few bucks on behalf of a great man and controller who, even in retirement, inspires all of us to enjoy work and enjoy life. 

Skip Matthews Memorial Run: Team Charlie

Till next time....


April 11, 2012


A few years ago, I had a brilliant idea.  I suggested adding a transitional route to the standard arrival route (STAR) into Montreal that would start inside my area's airspace and would take planes around our Adirondack Military airspace and, while we're at it, add a spot just south of the Canadian border which would allow us to tack on an altitude crossing restriction to miss the high sectors in Montreal Centre whom wish not to speak to such planes.  It would make our lives much easier, especially when dealing with pilots who speak English as anything but their first language (aka, many of them that fly into Montreal from the's looking at you, Cubana). 

I wrote up my proposal, including the LAT/LONG of said spot (intersection) for crossing restrictions, and even theorized about how this added safety would increase the possibility that there would be peace on earth; international incidents averted.

My proposal was sent up the chain towards the black hole that is the FAA outside the control room.  A few months later, I was planning a trip to Montreal for the weekend, and took it upon myself to set up a tour of Montreal Centre.  I commented to those there on my desire to change the arrival procedures into Montreal and the universal response from everyone at the Centre was that "we're reversing flows" soon, so don't worry about it.

(thanks skyvector!)

The red arrows represent the arrivals into Montreal, and the green arrows are the departures.  The controllers in Montreal were proposing to reverse these.  Green to Red, Red to Green.

A year passed.  No word on my proposal.  No word on Montreal's flow reversal. 

Then a few Montreal controllers came to visit Boston Center.  They wanted to see our perspective on their flow reversal.  It would be a big change, but nothing we couldn't handle.  The number of planes would be the same, they would just go in opposite directions than we were used to.  It was fine, really, thanks for asking.  The only issue left to discuss was how northbound arrivals would be routed through NY Center airspace (through the east side of their center, as opposed to the current western edge).  We suggested that they go visit NY and talk it over with them.  They looked at us, looked at each other, and decided to cancel the project. 

So, Green is still Green, Red is still Red.  But what is up with all the Blue lines all over the place on that map up there?  Well, if you remember from WAAAY back, I discussed a little thing called Navaid use limitations.  Its a cute little rule that says that direct routes (even with GPS) require radar monitoring when there are no VORs or NDBs around and used as part of the aircraft's route.  See MSS (Massena, NY) on the map up there?  Notice how it is the only VOR within 40 miles of Ogdensburg and Massena?  Well, since NextGen is kicking in we supposedly don't need VOR's anymore, with GPS taking over.  So, the FAA has let MSS slowly become weak and powerless.  It is unusable below 10000.  Even though planes have GPS, we can't let them take off (below radar) and just fly where they want without radar monitoring from us, the controllers.  Even though planes are allowed to use GPS to fly instrument approaches towards the ground, they aren't allowed to use them to fly away from the ground.  And some higher-ups (who work extremely close to the black hole) have taken notice of some controllers who aren't strictly following these rules.  I could go on and on,  but lets just say that there are safer ways we could be going about this whole thing.

Montreal, on the other hand, has charged ahead and basically eliminated VORs from their system.  The blue routes on the map are Q routes.  They don't need VORs.  Just plug the fixes into your GPS and fly.  They're run by a private company, NavCanada, so they can do that, I guess.  If you want to fly in Canada, you ought to have a GPS and know how to use it.  If you don't, they'll just vector you around and consider you an exception.  Overall, their change has gone pretty well.  While they were at it, they started their new GPS STAR into Montreal in US airspace where I proposed it should years ago, and the whole thing misses our military airspace.  They've streamlined one of their countries most complex sectors (just northwest of MSS where Ottawa and Montreal arrivals cross with overflights and Ottawa departures). 

While the focus was on Montreal, a few changes in Toronto's route structure was left unnoticed until we started handing them off planes in way's they didn't appreciate the first day this all went into effect.  A few notes and a missing Letter of Agreement change later, we were all on the same page.  NavCanada expects to take their GPS on the road west and ultimately make their entire country one big, happy, GPS-guided family.  Just like the US.  Except without the rules and black holes that hold us back. 

Till next time....


PS.  That new airspace redesign I was discussing in my last post involved new Q routes into NY Center.  So, yes, we have them too, but only for high altitude....

EDIT:  The one thing missing from the new arrivals into Montreal is that intersection just south of the Canadian boundary for crossing restrictions.  Expect 10 south of DAVDA at FL280....

March 18, 2012

Don't worry, the Frogs are happy!

Life is full of change.  We often resist it.  Sometimes we grow impatient waiting for it to come our way.  Change is an opportunity.  Many moons from now we may longingly gaze nostalgically back to the good ole' days.  Change makes us wiser, older, and possibly an old, irritable bastard. 

There are things I wish I could forget.   

Change is something as simple as tomorrow.  And for all of this general indecisiveness about the inevitable, change happens anyway.

I've been meaning to write this post for a while now.  But tomorrow keeps happening and things keep changing and this post keeps going philosophical, as opposed to my intended route, which would be technological.  I feel like I can't finish this before something changes.  Very frustrating.

There is a general (mis?)conception that government is slow at change; nothing ever gets done around here.  In many cases this is true. But at least government CAN change.  As stubborn as the people who work at the FAA may seem, changes to the system occur every 28 days (most charts update every other cycle - 56 days).  

I know what you're saying:  "You can't keep up with something that changes every month or two?  Seriously?  You can't just write us a damn blog post!?"

Yes. No.  I can't.  It's sad.  Get over it.


This is where I've been.

My solution to this creativity problem is that I'm going to keep it short and sweet.  Or at least shorter.  I'll split up all the different changes into separate posts.  Maybe that will keep us all more interested...

Cycle 1112
Some updates have more substance to them then others.  Previous updates had included things like a few new GPS approaches at the airports in the HNK sector, changing the number of an airway to eliminate confusion, or creating a new published holding pattern on the Standard Arrival Route (STAR) into Newark.  Stuff like that.

Update 1112 (the 12th update of 2011), as it is referred to, completely redesigned New York Center's airspace in ways I still don't fully understand.  New GPS/RNAV (Q) routes were created to fly through New York's newly designed sectors.  Routes into Dulles were changed to a new RNAV STAR.  But, except for checked to make sure planes were flying the new routes, not much changed for my area specifically.  Most of the airspace changes affected airspace that I never work with, even if it is within 50 miles of my area.  The routes are structured so that I really don't have to worry about it.  So, while BIG changes were happened for controllers all around me, my area was just minding its own business as usual.

So, about half way through the first day of this new update, on November 17th, someone realized that the HUO Sector, which works NYC departure traffic immediately adjacent to my area's DNY sector, was changing its altitude limits.  When the new procedures were being tossed around the administrative side of the building months earlier, the HUO sector didn't seem to concern anyone.  Now, suddenly, the support staff sprung wildly into action, re-changing the maps in our area and creating a new briefing item that we could sign claiming we now knew everything again. We were assured that nothing else was overlooked.

On the Boston Center side of things, there were a few changes to Area E's airspace.  Most notably, to allow for the fancy new RNAV STAR's into Boston that were set to be launched during the next chart date.


Last year, or was it two years ago (let's call it a year and a half ago), I was sitting in a meeting upstairs in the administrative wing of the Center, trying to stay awake.  Years before this meeting, MASSPORT, with local community groups hounding their shadow at every turn, studied the traffic patterns in and out of their Logan Airport and determined that changes should be made to the arrival and departure tracks to decrease fuel burn, decrease the number of flights over noise sensitive areas, and to save the world by letting frogs yell at each other in the elevators of the central parking garage.  Aforementioned local community groups appreciated the second benefit and loudly announced that the new flight paths NEEDED to be implemented. The frogs may have had their own agenda, but as far as we're concerned, they just like riding the elevator.

These fancy executive-type chairs are too comfortable, so I struggled to stay awake waiting for the controllers from the Boston TRACON (approach/departure) to arrive.  Our counterparts at the TRACON used a fancy computer program to plot all the new arrival and departure procedures according to their newly completed study with the assumed encouragement of many land-based Boston natives.  The idea was that planes would stay as high as possible as long as possible and remain on an off-shore flight track as long as possible. The airlines liked the idea and determined that if air traffic controllers simply let them fly at whatever altitude they wanted, they could save millions of dollars a year.  A few members of our group were invited down to Charlotte to fly in a flight simulator to show how awesome the new procedures would be if they were adapted with only USAirways in mind.  It would be our mission to find a compromise so that all users of the NAS could benefit from these procedures.  Am I jealous that I didn't get to fly in the simulator?....maybe. 

The departure procedures were already being implemented on a voluntarily basis within the TRACON's airspace (fly this if you want, if not, we're still using the old procedures which include vectors mainly).   Now it was time to finalize the arrival procedures.  This was more complicated, since the arrival routes start hundreds of miles from Boston, in Center airspace.  It was up to our group to tie their new procedures together with our own at the Center level, and in doing so, create procedures which were operationally feasible and beneficial to the actual airplanes, regardless of the weather.  We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the altitude limits along the arrival route at each fix.  The airlines want to be able to descend on idle thrust from cruise altitude all the way down to the altitude onto which they turn final approach.  As I've mentioned here before, each plane descends differently based on all sorts of variables, including the wind.  Boston arrivals fly through VERY congested airspace, so we can't just give it all away and let them do whatever they want all the time.  After a few days of working out the details, we were ready to publish our new procedures.  All the information went up, down and all around the chain of command, and would be ready sometime near the end of the 2011, a year later.  The FAA has a thorough process to ensure that the procedure is legal, can be physically flown without complications, and then to have all the of the charts printed correctly and the data entered into all of the flight management computers in the airplanes and for the dispatchers.  Oh, and then the controllers need to be training on everything.....

Here is a small part of our results:

The updates to Area E's airspace, as mentioned above in the previous chart date were to facilitate Boston arrivals entering the Danbury sector at FL270 as shown in the new KRANN arrival, as opposed to FL230 with the old ORW arrival.

Cycle 1113
This cycle, introduced on December 15th, included these major changes for Boston arrivals.  All of the major routes in and out of Boston were now officially on RNAV procedures.  Since many airlines pushed for these new procedures, we didn't have to work very hard to get them to file their new flights plans correctly (there's always at least one airline that doesn't get the memo).

From an Area A controller standpoint (me), not much has changed.  The real benefit to my area will be during the upcoming thunderstorm season, when aircraft are often rerouted off of the GDM/QUABN arrival to avoid weather.  Reroutes to the ENE.OOSHN1 arrival will be much easier to issue compared to the previous reroute.  


Please note how many of the fixes along the route in Center's airspace (WIKID, YEARS, PAHTI, BAWLL, STRKK, OUTTT) have altitude limitations shown between two horizontal lines.  We spent a lot of time working on those in our meetings.  But Boston Center controllers are not allowed to issue "Descend via..." clearances (which is why those altitudes are there) (and we're not expected to be able to in the near or far future).  Why are they published, you may ask?  Just because.

New procedures in Canada have shown light on an issue with these altitudes.  In Canada, when an aircraft is "Cleared to Ottawa via the DEANS5 arrival", any descent clearance issued assumes compliance with the altitudes listed in a similar manner on the Canadian charts.  Controllers do not need to issue a specific "descend via the DEANS5, maintain 11000" clearance.  "Descend and maintain 11000" implies that.  In the US, "cross LOBBY at 11000" permits the deletion of all previous altitude limits shown on the chart.  The only one that matters is LOBBY at 11000.  Altitudes beyond LOBBY are in TRACON airspace, and they say "descend via" and issue an approach transition.  This causes confusion among Canadian pilots.  Many of them have not flown a STAR in the US with altitude restrictions (known as VNAV - Vertical Navigation).  At least they ask.

Another issue arises when the approach controller issues the approach transition, which instructs the pilots which track to fly after RSVOR or MYSTK (in the case of the QUABN1).  This clearance must be issued in time to give the pilots enough time to enter the new route into the computers. This often occurs prior to LOBBY.  A descend via clearance is sometimes issued at the same time as the approach transition, which can then make the Center's clearance of "cross LOBBY at 11000" turn into "descend via the QUABN1 arrival, runway 4R transition, maintain 7000."  That clearance then allows the pilot to cross LOBBY between 11000 and 13000.   This is a discussion between Area B, C and D and the TRACON (those area's actually hand the plane off to approach).  I'm gonna stay out of it beyond this simplified explanation.

Secondary to this issue is a display issue of the actual chart with the horizontal lines that define the altitude restrictions on digital screens.  Certain zoom levels may cause the horizontal lines to disappear or be very difficult to see.  We can't use them, we sometimes can't see them, and none of them are in Area A's airspace.  Word on the street is they are being taken off the STAR next chart date.  No sweat off my back, really.

For now, everything dealing with Boston is mostly under control.  The vast majority of aircraft are filing the RNAV routes though I don't know exactly how Boston TRACON is handling the approach transitions.  

Slowly but surely, change is happening.  In the end, the goal is simple.  Save the world.  One happy frog at a time.

Till next time....


December 8, 2011

Multi-core Cranium

The past few months have been filled with the trials and tribulations of training.  My trainee (TQ) has spent the last few months training on the HNK/DNY sectors. This is my first main project (it seems strange to refer to my friend/coworker/trainee as a "project", but it is hard to categorize anything that takes over two years to develop as anything different - I would never mean to dehumanize....) as a primary instructor where the trainee was not already a controller somewhere else before transferring to my area.  It has been a learning experience for everyone.

After spending the obligatory two months in the classroom and simulators, honing phraseology and so forth, TQ hit the ground running, so to speak, and left me with a false sense that this might be easier than I thought.  This was right after Labor Day, and the weather in our area was really quite horrendous that first week he was back on the floor.  There were epic levels of traffic (since we were working all of our normal traffic, plus all of New York Center's traffic, and some of Washington's traffic, and they were all deviating).  I took over the frequency for a few extended periods of time, but only because I couldn't keep up, let alone would I expect a brand new radar trainee to keep up.  "Just watch for a little while" is pretty much all I could muster as words of wisdom. 

And then the worst of the summer traffic was behind us.  It still gets busy, but not for hours and hours at at time at freakish levels.  Mentally, we all settled in for a long winter.  I took a few days off from work in the early autumn, and the secondary instructor on our training team was involved in a union project of his own, leaving TQ to train with different instructors. 

As thick as our regulations manual appears, the actual performance of the job depends on strategy and actual execution of these imposing regulations.  We call it "technique."  There is more than one way to get planes A, B, C, D, E and F across the sector to points Q, R, S, T, U, V in a safe, orderly and efficient manner. 

So, TQ was exposed to many new and different techniques from other trainers in the area.  Hardly a day would go by without an accusing "who on earth taught you to do it THAT way!?"

As long as the rules are being followed appropriately, no one is seriously going to judge your technique.  But technique is everything.  So while I, or someone else, may not agree that TQ's way is the best way, as long as the job is getting done, we'll simply discuss legal alternatives that would work in that same situation.   Or theoretically if that one plane was a prop?  Or if there was icing at 17000?  Or if you gave that clearance and the pilot said "unable"?  Or if these planes had to deviate around storms? Or if you had 30 miles in trail to Kennedy.  Oh, wait, you do.  Get on that!

So after a while, TQ's brain started turning into a confused mushy sponge.  The basics got lost in there somewhere.  Life wasn't very fun for a while.  It made me start thinking about what was going through his mind.  Which made me start thinking about what goes through MY mind when I'm working traffic.  After sifting through some weird stuff that I'm sure you don't care about, I may have actually found something useful to dole out as worthwhile instructor-ey type insight. A few weeks later and I have an even weirder thought that maybe some of you non-ATC folks might find it interesting. 

Compared to your math teacher in High School or even the flight instructor at your local airport, Air Traffic Controllers don't receive much of any instruction on how to be instructors.  They send us up to the classroom for a few days of team building type exercises, but that's about it.   We learn how to control airplanes and how to be future instructors all from the same people:  The instructors in our area.  And they, of course, learned in the same fashion.  Training is supposedly tamer now.  No more "power training" with rulers held at threatening angles or random headset unplugging to draw your map for the millionth time with a golf pencil.  Heck, they can't even yell at the trainee's for bad strip marking.  Strips are gone.  The older generation has almost all retired.  These things are all myths to me. 

One question always arises in any discussion about ATC training, however.  Can you teach someone to "see traffic?  This is a two part question.  (1)What exactly would be the process of teaching someone how to "see traffic" and (2) do we currently do that or know how to do that?

Ok.  I know some of you may have expected one of those questions to be "what exactly is 'seeing traffic' anyway?"  It all revolves around a controller's "scan". 

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed radar classes when I was in college more than tower classes because I preferred having all of the planes right in front of me on the (simulated) radar scope as opposed to being completely surrounded by airplanes in the control tower (simulator).  My scan in the radar was better.  I rarely have to turn my head around.  I like that.  I belong in a dark room.  Yes, I accept that.  Luckily, the FAA called me up 7 years ago and said "you are going to work in a dark room."  Yay for me.

Scanning a radar scope starts with one airplane.  Pick one.  Generally, you would start your scan on the part of the scope that has a tendency to contain airplanes that have a high chance of being in need of your attention.  If nothing pops out at you as extremely urgent (planes about to enter another sector without a handoff, aircraft not at their assigned altitude, two airplanes at the same altitude and very close together, etc) then a quick scan in that area commences.

When I say quick, I mean spend about one second per plane.  That one second of time would contain the follow mental process: Is there anything that I told myself I'd take care of next time I scanned this plane?  What altitude is this plane currently at, what did I assign, does it look like they'll make the restriction I issued if I issued one, are they on their cleared route of flight?  Where are they going, what do I have to do with this plane based on its type of aircraft and destination, how much do I have left to accomplish? If everything seems normal, and the answer to the last question is "nothing", then I take another second to flash the handoff to the next sector if it isn't already and I move on to the next plane nearby.  If there are other planes going to the same place on the same route, I'll check the speeds.  This may take a few seconds as speed is not always permanently displayed.  If the answer to the tasks accomplished question is not "nothing", then what is there left to do?  Here comes the seeing traffic part: What do I have left to do with this plane and what other planes are going to interfere with my goals.  And so the eyes will take over again.  Where could potential issues come from?

The extensive training we receive at each sector teaches us that each common traffic flow has a certain number of confliction points with other common flows of traffic.  These common danger zones are where we look first.  My brain then tends to look in an arc shaped pattern, searching for planes that are a similar distance from where this plane would cross with them.   If a plane is  25 miles west of DNY, and other planes tend to cross at DNY, then I'm looking for planes that are about 25 miles away from DNY in all directions, with my arc changing distance depending on the wind.  If the wind is strong out of the west, planes traveling south and north will fly a little slower than the eastbound traffic, and the westbound traffic will fly the slowest, so I need to search closer to DNY in those cases.  My short term memory should remind me if I have any other planes that are flying abnormally fast or slow, and I should do an extra search for those planes, expecting to find the unexpected.  Another common traffic flow is for BDL arrivals. Common conflictions include LGA arrivals along a similar path, but often at a slower speed since they are lower in altitude already (and because Air Canada has been flying REALLY slow lately),  PHL traffic coming from the north at FL240 or FL260 most often, and traffic climbing slow out of BDL westbound.  ALB arrivals tend to conflict with EWR arrivals first, watch out for HPN and SWF traffic, then LGA props lower, and then ALB departures. There are over a dozen of these common flows in each sector and they all cross in a 3D pattern. 

Once you spend a second or two doing this scan for other conflicting planes, and you've scanned most of the other planes around your original plane, the overall scan order then moves around the scope to areas of lesser priority until we're back scanning the plane where we started.  

When we get really busy, these are the default settings our brains use to increase the speed of our scan.  A good scan forces the brain to keep looking for conflicts it doesn't expect.  When all the airplanes are deviating around storms and others are on reroutes, this extra scan is required for every airplane every time.  So while you're used to a scan taking a second or two for each plane, now its taking maybe five times longer, yet your brain is stressed out and wishes it could scan in half the time.  After a while, this gets frustrating.        

Can we teach someone how to go about "seeing traffic" in a way I just explained?  Sure.  We can.  We do.  But with limited traffic.  It takes time to go through and talk about each and every plane, just from a scanning perspective.  Then you have to talk about what to do with that plane, technique wise, and then that changes how that one plane interacts with all the others, of course.

The issue isn't that we can't teach someone how to scan airplanes on a radar scope.  The issue is how do they react to the really busy sessions with a frustrated brain.  Do they dwell on little lapses in their scan when they discover their overlooked traffic a few moments later (perhaps when their scan finally gets around to seeing that previously overlooked target)?  If they've made it to Radar training, hopefully we've established that they'll never just freak out and give up.  That's rule number 1: Never give up.  Ever.

As I list all of these mental questions, keep in mind that while many of them are "yes/no" type questions, or perhaps there is a "well, if this happens, then that will happen" question, the key to being a great controller is taking a busy, overwhelming situation, and generating creative solutions to urgent problems that pop up on a second by second basis.  Letting your brain operate like a computer program works great most of the time.  But most of the time isn't ALL the time.  Most of the time doesn't cut it in ATC, either.  And so, in order to create a sense of confidence and creativity, trainees need to start understanding why I use my techniques the way I do, when I use them and when I don't use them, and how to decide when to abandon your first plan and create a better one, quick.

I don't always have a good answer for why and how I do things.  I wish I did.   On the other hand,  changing plans is a basic ATC function.  As a controller scans their airplanes, they are thinking of all of that stuff from a few paragraphs above, but there is always one or more back-up plans in place, and thoughts about how that back up plan will effect everyone else.   TQ has reached that point in the last few weeks.  He's not afraid to change a plan.  He knows he'll find all the new conflicts quickly.  He knows he'll figure out a way to solve any issues that come up.  It might not be the way I'd do it, or how anyone else in my area would do it, and I might have to pester him for a few minutes to figure out why he thinks that's a good idea......  And why wouldn't I do that!?


With all of this maximized use of our mental capacity, I think the hardest and most physically damaging aspect of ATC is that we are constantly changing mental speeds.  My brain could be thinking at 100 miles a second, my eyes darting all around the scope, contemplating a plan of action for all of my airplanes, and then forecasting the future position of all of my planes to see if my strategy works out if everything else goes according to plan.........but then I need to TALK to one of my airplanes.  I suddenly have to think only as fast as my mouth can clearly issue a clearance. 

I need to precisely READ the aircraft's callsign in the datablock on the scope, then issue the clearance I intend (distinguishing it from all the other ideas I had about my other planes I was scanning) at a speech rate that can be easily understood and that exudes confidence.  Then I need to LISTEN to the pilot read the clearance back to me, and decided if that matches what I just said.  Often times, while listening, my brain can go back to scanning.  In fact, after reading the callsign, I will usually make a visual scan ahead of the plane that I am talking to, as one last check that what I am in the midst of saying is safe, all the while typing away at the keyboard and making glances down in the corner of the scope to make sure my inputs are being accepted.  How do I do that?  How do I teach someone else to do that?  No one ever taught me this last part.  I just do it.  It seemed necessary to learn how to do all of these things all at once in order to survive training;  to feel confident that I could handle anything.  I noticed TQ started doing this recently.  I'll move my chair so I can see what he's looking at.  After he reads the callsign, I see his eyes move ahead of the plane as he's issuing the actual clearance.  I couldn't tell him how to get his mind and body to do that, but he taught himself.  A few shaky weeks in ATC will motivate a human to do amazing things.     

Till next time....