Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Still Around!

I am still alive, contrary to popular opinion. :)

I had some speed bumps late last year, but with a new training team the wind's back in my sails. I'm finally just about done on the Pensacola bank. Can't wait to get that out of the way, knock out the last couple of sectors, and just work traffic. Things are looking good for certification.

On the blogging, I've written so much over the past three years that I needed to take a break and focus on some other projects. There are only so many hours in the day and I have so many different interests - my wife, family, music, design work, professional writing - that it became hard to find the time. At work I've also gotten involved in developing the training program for the next batch of trainees. We literally had no training program when I started, so hopefully things will be better for future arrivals.

Anyways, as always here's a visual aid. This morning, the Blue Angels decided to come over to Pensacola Regional and shoot some practice approaches. I guess they need to do their currency approaches like any other pilot.

Here's a view from the new TRACON's back porch as BA #1 executes a missed approach off our ILS 17.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Moving Day: A Tale of Two TRACONS

First - yes, I'm still alive! I'm not going to bore anyone with the details of what I've been up to. Suffice it to say I've had a lot of music, writing, and personal things going on that have really taken up a lot of my time.

Secondly, today is the last day in our old TRACON. The new building goes online tonight. Over the past few days the Airways and Facilities folks have been steadily "cutting over" equipment, frequencies, and landlines. Let's just say there have been a few hair-raising moments where controllers have suddenly found themselves with lots of airplanes and - surprise! -no working radios. But, everybody made it through just fine so far.

So, come Monday I'll be doing the same ol' thing in brand new surroudings. Just for a frame of reference, here's a look at the contrast between the old facility and the new one.

A Tale of Two TRACONS: A Comparison

OLD: The 45 year old building
It has a certain weary battleship thing going on. The boarded-up tower on top was decommissioned in 1998 and had its windows blown out by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The old radar room will stay operational for 30 days. After that, it will all be torn down and replaced with a new cargo terminal for the airport.

OLD: Panorama

My dusty, musty workplace for the past two years. You really don't want to see this place with the lights on. Oh my God.

Incidentally, this is the first position I was certified on, and the last one I worked in the new building. Physical push-button radio panels above, physical landline buttons to the left, and the ARTS keyboard with a PEM stick for moving your cursor around. Never heard of a PEM? Remember those

NEW: The 2009 model TRACON
Brand new government issue TRACON.

Note: The tower is separate

NEW: Panorama
It has a much larger floor plan, with large desks in the middle for supervisors and Flight Data. There are currently 12 scopes installed, with a room for around six more. The building was designed with consolidation in mind. There's talk of either Mobile or Panama City one being integrated in here.

NEW: STARS Scope for the same sector shown above
Touchscreen RDVS panel on the left with all the frequencies and landlines, trackball in the middle of the console, and the new expanded STARS version of the keyboard at right. It's a much cleaner workspace.
NEW: Logo Coffee Mug
We had some celebratory spillproof coffee mugs made, with a logo I designed on the front. I couldn't help it... it's Pensacola... the Blue Angels had to make it in...

A Little Nostalgia

As nice as the new equipment and new building are, there are certain things I'll miss about the old place.

The Convenience: My wife and I only have one car and our schedules don't match. For the past two years, every time I've worked a night shift - usually twice a week - I've gone into the airport terminal and sat in the airport's only restaurant until it's time for work. Let's just say they know my "usual" when I go there.

At times, I've sat there for up to four or five hours before my shift starts - for instance, when my wife goes in at 10am and my shift doesn't start til 2:45pm. So, an eight hour day becomes a twelve or thirteen hour day for me. And of course, that takes away from my time to run errands, sleep, relax, whatever.

On the plus side, they have free Wi-Fi, decent food - best Cuban sandwich north of Miami - and there's just no better place to people-watch than an airport. I have lunch, surf/write on my laptop, and generally pass the time. I've just become accustomed to it.

The new TRACON is located in the middle of freaking nowhere. It's a couple of miles further away from my house and there's nothing useful around it. No places to sit. No places to eat. So, on those late shift days, I'll probably have to go in and just sit somewhere in the building until it's time to actually clock in. Oh joy.

The other option is to get some addtional transporation. I did ride my bike home from the old TRACON many times. I may still ride home from this TRACON in the cooler months, since I can just jump in the shower at home. During the summer, it can get up to and stay at over 100 degrees. It's hellish. But riding to work... man, what a mess.

Cab rides are too expensive - ~$35-$40 one way from my house. The busses here are useless. I don't want to bum anymore rides from my coworkers. Buying a second car, even a used one, is not in the financial cards right now. Maybe after the first of the year, when we get our raise, we'll explore the option. But right now, it looks like I'll just be doing the sitting game. Except, this time, without food and without internet. Yay... time to pack two meals - one lunch and one dinner.

The "Personal Space": The old building had three floors and was very spacious. The first floor was management and Airways & Facilities. The second floor was the radar room, equipment spaces, break room, and a few small offices. A mostly disused conference room made up the third. There were also a number of spaces around the building where you could find a nook to read, play some guitar, and generally get some quiet time. A bunch of us actually commandeered the third floor as our own area to talk, read, watch movies, and generally hang out without a TV or YouTube blaring in the background.

The new building is actually much smaller in terms of square footage and has only one floor. So, now management, controllers, and AF are working in much closer proximity, and sharing the same spaces. I have a feeling things will be a bit claustrophobic for a while.

That third floor will be missed.

The View: The last thing I'll miss the most is the outdoor staircase at the rear of the building. It was just perfect for planespotting. I always carry a camera with me - a real point-and-shoot, not just a camera phone - because I just never knew what was going to come in.

Here are some videos and pics I've taken over the past couple of years from that staircase, sort of a "Staircase Greatest Hits":

Blimp Landing

Navy T-45 Goshawk

Pano looking south from the stairs
You can see the tower and the new TRACON beside it on the other side of the field.

Delta Departing
Perfect lighting and a touch of haze add a sheen to this B752.

V-22 Osprey Taxiing

I was upstairs, heard this bizarre sound, went out to look, and saw this:

Bad Weather Day
Sarah Palin arrives in Pensacola via a Jet Blue charter. On another note, DHL ceased airborne cargo operations in the United States a few months after this pic was taken.

There may be some developmental commentary here.

Odd Couple

A sleek little CRJ being passed by what's arguably one of the ugliest - but most effective - aircraft ever made, the Navy C-2 Greyhound.

It was very, very peaceful out there most of the time.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Good Riddance

Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out. I'd burn you, but I think all that accumulated hate inside of you might pollute the atmosphere like Chernobyl.

Friday, September 11, 2009

On a Quiet Morning...

Eight years ago, I awoke to a pounding on my bedroom door. "Turn on the TV!" my mother-in law - who my wife and I were staying with at the time - yelled in Spanish. She's a very mellow person usually. Something was obviously up.

I stumbled out of bed and grabbed the remote. What could be so important that-

Oh God.

Twin towers aflame. Smoke billowing for miles in a plume so huge it could be seen from space. How could both towers be on fire? Then they reran the clips of UAL175 streaking along, banking, correcting. My gut wrenched as I saw the huge Boeing swallowed by the tower and a huge ball of ugly flame belch out of the building. Eyewitnesses said another one had hit the first tower.

Two airplanes? This was no accident. We were under attack. I immediately thought of Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor. The anger punched me hard.

I woke my wife up. We both sat, dumbfounded and helpless, as people struggled to survive a thousand miles away while metal wilted before the heat of flaming jet fuel. Firemen rushed to the rescue. People hovered in windows, waving frantically, trapped between a fiery death or a fall to Earth. Some held hands and leapt, together in their last moments, choosing their fate. Heroism and tragedy intertwined.

Those buildings were so indescribably tall and majestic, and being a child of the 80's I could never picture NYC without them. I remember reading about the B-25 that slammed into the Empire State Building in 1945. That was a 20 ton bomber crashing into a concrete and steel building, not a 150 ton airliner. But, surely, building technology had come a long way since those days.

Then came the first collapse. A short time later, the second. And we could only watch and hope that someone - somehow - had made it out of there alive.

I'd only visited New York once since I was a small child. In May 2001, my wife and I hooked up with my parents and sister in Philadelphia and took a whirlwind tour of the NE United States. Eight states in three days. My wife had never been to NYC before, and we saw a lot of things very quickly.

However, my strongest memories are of the Twins. I recall standing beside them, looking up, and feeling so very insignificant. They seemed to go on forever.

The only camera I had on me then was a DV video camera that also took 1024x768 stills, a pitiful resolution by today's standards. I had a wide-angle attachment for it as well. Here are the pics I shot on that beautiful day in May.

(Here's what the sphere looks like now. It actually survived the collapse and will be placed in the 9/11 memorial when it's built.)

Those are just a little reminder of how things were eight years and one day ago.

A few years later, I went on a class trip to the D.C. area. We hit every type of ATC facility: Washington National Airport Control Tower, Potomac TRACON, Washington Center, and - lastly - the Air Traffic Systems Command Center.

If you haven't seen United 93, you should. It's a powerful film and does a good job of showing what air traffic controllers do and how they react to unusual situations. While actors portray the heroes and terrorists who died aboard the aircraft, many of the folks on the ground - including ATC, military, government - are the actual people who were working that day. That includes the controllers who were on the frequencies and were the first people in the country to realize something was seriously wrong. Also, in tune with its accuracy, no other film has done as good a job presenting the "look" of ATC facilities.

The order to land every non-military aircraft in the United States airspace originated in the Command Center - given by 1st-day-on-the-job director Ben Sliney. Controllers from around the country managed to land every airplane within two hours, a fact that the media certainly noticed in a number of post 9/11 reports.

While visiting the Command Center was certainly a "big picture" look at the National Airspace System's normal daily ebb and flow of ground stops and delays, I also found it interesting to be in a place where a significant piece of ATC history originated.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Resting Up

The missus and I just returned from Dragon*Con 2009, the creative/sci-fi convention in Atlanta. I was feeling crappy before we headed out, and over the past couple of days it's developed into a full-blown cold. So, I'll be taking a little time off writing for the rest of this week.

We did have a great time. I spent about 40% of the time at various creative writing panels, on everything from writing accurate military characters to the different factors that affect whether or not a book becomes a bestseller.

Here are some of the authors who conducted the panels I attended. There was a whole lot of talent and experience packed in every room, folks who've been in the writing industry since the day before forever.
  • Charlaine Harris: Author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, aka the basis for HBO's awesome show True Blood.
  • Mike Mignola: Creator of Hellboy.
  • Timothy Zahn: Author of a gazillion Star Wars universe books and other sci-fi novels.
  • Kevin J. Anderson: Author of the Dune prequels (along with Brian Herbert).
  • Richelle Mead: Author of the Succubus series. I've never read them, but my wife and sister are huge fans.
  • Peter David: Author of over 70 novels and 1000 comics in a ton of different markets.
I also got to watch and meet some of my favorite indie bands - The Ghosts Project, Abney Park, and Faith and the Muse. Excellent performances by all.

And, I had a walk-by encounter with The Guild's Felicia Day in the Art Gallery. Even though I'm not an MMO player myself, I love her web series (and of course Doctor Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog). She is so very, very cute in person.

For the sci-fi fans out there - and not that bullcrap SyFy thing....eck - we went to a Babylon 5 panel and a Battlestar Galactica panel. The B5 one was fantastic, with five of the major stars of the show in attendance. If you've never seen the show, once you get past the corny mid-90's 3D graphics and focus on the story and characters, you'll find one of the best dramas ever written in any genre. It actually took me until about episode 20-something to realize how good it was. Unlike Star Trek's crappy standalone "alien of the week" episodes, B5 is all about an ongoing storyline and fully realized character arcs.

The BSG panel was hella fun as well. The actors who played Laura Roslin, Saul Tigh, Ellen Tigh, Tom Zarek, "Dee" Dualla, Kat, Sam, and Felix Gaeta were there. Great group of people, and they dropped some hints about the upcoming BSG movie The Plan.

The only problems - with both the BSG panel and the B5 group - were the few audience members who insisted on asking some seriously ridiculous questions and making outlandish comments. I was reminded of this clip from William Shatner's famous SNL skit, directed at detail-obsessed Trekkies who seem to think the show was real. It was really, really just like that. It's like, "People, it was a show - a great show, yes - but nonetheless, just a frakking show..." Seriously guys, did your parents not socialize you? Did you spend the past 20 years in grandma's basement?

*Sigh*. Sci-fi convention stereotypes exist for a reason, I guess. Galaxy Quest does tend to be pretty accurate.

But anyways, I'm going to hit the sack. My wife doesn't have to work tomorrow. I do. Meh. Let's see how I feel in the AM. I'd rather not be sneezing all over the ARTS keyboards. They're disgusting enough as it is...

Heck, that's probably where I got this bug. There isn't enough hand sanitizer in the world to clean up after using those keyboards.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Seventy Years

Seven decades ago today, Germany ignited the fires of World War II by shelling - and then invading - Poland. To say the world was forever changed pays poor respect to the tens of millions of people who perished in the carnage that ensued.

In the midst of the destruction, new, terrible words were born that have since left an indelible mark on the world's lexicon.
Such small words with such gruesome connotations.

In somewhat related news, my WWII story "Day 483" has made it to the top ten stories of all time on For those who haven't read it yet, click here. It's a tale of ordinary citizens surviving the darkest hours of WWII's Eastern Front.

Some commenters have called it a horror story. I don't agree - horror stories are fantasy. What happened on the Eastern Front goes far beyond what fiction can conjure.

Nightly LOL

I'm working Flight Data and simultaneously monitoring the one radar position we have open. The phone rings at the supervisor's desk and the sup picks up. It's the operations office for a regional air carrier. They have a flight arriving here in about fifteen minutes and apparently the flight's gate has been changed. They ask us to pass the information on to the pilot.

Why they called us, I have no idea. I've yet to see someone issue a "taxi to ramp" instruction from a radar position, but we've got the information. The radar controller agrees to pass it on.

Shortly thereafter, the plane gets handed off to us.

RGL3421: "Approach, Regional 3421 with you descending to 11,000 with Bravo."
Controller: "Regional 3421, Approach, roger. Descend and maintain 3,000."
RGL3421: "Down to 3,000, RGL3421."
Controller: "Oh, RGL3421, I'm not sure why this got passed to me, but your gate's apparently been changed. It's now G9."
RGL3421: "Errr, G9? Roger, 3421."

- A minute or so passes -

RGL3421: "Approach, you did say G9?"
Controller: "Uh, RGL3421, like I said, that's what got passed to me. It's G9."
RGL3421 (laughing): "Yeah, we were just discussing that and, uh, your airport's only got eight gates."

- We all crack up. A few seconds pass. -

Controller (deadpan): "Well, just look for the guy with the flashy lights."
RGL3421 (laughing): "Yeah, we'll do that. If that doesn't work, then we've got some real problems!"

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Flock of Ospreys

I think it'd be pretty hard to find a modern military aircraft that's stirred up more controversy than the V-22 Osprey. Sure, the F-22 is expensive and much of its role arguably obsolete, but it's still the best damn air superiority fighter in the world.

The Osprey, on the other hand, seems to be one teething problem after another. Engine exhaust that warps unprepared decks and lights landing zone foliage on fire. HIGE (Hovering in Ground Effect) issues when operating aboard ship with one engine over the side. Numerous crashes during its development phase that killed nearly two dozen people. Mechanical and maintenance problems caused by a lack of parts. Public relations disasters in many areas of its deployment, from falsified maintenance records to massive cost overruns. It hasn't lived up to its promised range and speed requirements.

Nonetheless, I'll admit: I'm a fan of the airplane, or at least its concept. When pushing aside the logistics, costs, and general public relations issues, the aircraft is a marvel of engineering. Unlike many other bloggers who hope it fails and want the U.S. to buy up a ton of modernized CH-53s or CH-47s, I'd actually like to see it succeed. The last I've heard its situation appears to be improving, with its deployment ships learning how best to operate their new toy.

Until today, I'd only seen one before in real life. In 2007, I took a Caribbean Carnival cruise out of Fort Lauderdale. The FLL Air & Sea show was in full swing as we were getting ready to depart. The USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) pulled into Port Everglades and docked right beside us, right in front of my balcony. On her deck sat a V-22.

USS Kearsarge getting pushed into her berth.

V-22 Osprey onboard

V-22 getting maneuvered about by a tug with a Princess cruise ship leaving beyond it.

Well, this morning, I was running some errands near Pensacola Regional Airport. Driving past the main airport entrance, I happened to look left towards the terminal. Heliworks - our local helicopter FBO that sits next to the terminal - sometimes has odd aircraft over the weekend. I've seen CH-53s, CH-47s, CH-46s and other military hardware there before.

A gaggle of strange rotors and twin tails peeked up beyond the fence. What the...?

After a quick U-turn, I drove into the parking lot adjacent to Heliworks. And there I found five V-22s from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron VMM-266. Odd aircraft indeed!

This is a perfect example of why I always keep a camera on me. I took a couple of panoramas and a bunch of standalone shots.

Five Ospreys of VMM-266

A Continental Express Beech 1900 taking off beyond.

Cloudy nose-on.

Ah! There's the sun.

Broad rotors.

Funny how dirty the engine nacelles are. These aren't exactly two decades old.

Rotors up.

Pilots from Navy Training Air Wing Five (TAW-5 NAS Whiting) tying down their H-57, with their (possible) future ride in the background.

That's our new TRACON to the right of the tower. Hopefully we'll be there in October.

It's funny; I wasn't the only one intrigued by these strange airplanes. I was there maybe ten minutes taking these shots, and no less than a dozen cars pulled up to admire the Ospreys. Parents with kids in tow, old ladies, photographer-types with long lensed cameras - a bizarre crossection of people, all fascinated by these aeronautical oddities.