Saturday, December 08, 2007

Living History

I love airplanes. I enjoy seeing them, reading about them, flying them, visiting a museum full of them, and generally being around them. No matter the shape, size, purpose, or model, I'm a fan. One of these years I'd maybe like to own one, like a sporty Vans RV series (200mph + full aerobatics = wooHOO!) or even something as basic as a Cessna 172. But that's far into the future.

As I train, I'm of course talking to a variety of aircraft on a daily basis. Since the sectors I'm training on are low altitude (surface to 5500') all of the airliners, corporate planes, and jets pass overhead at 6000-10000. The majority of aircraft I work are Navy T-34s and H-47s, plus a few Cessnas and Pipers. We also get the Navajos, the Cirrus, the occasional Columbia, and other GA types that are passing through. I've talked to enough of these that, while not exactly "routine", they've become "regulars" whose patterns you recognize well.

However, every once in a while, I'll talk to an aircraft that'll bring out the airplane fan in me and put a smile on my face.

Two days ago, I was handed a strip for a N18P. He was traveling eastbound and I didn't recognize the aircraft type. "AA5" or something like that. I take the handoff and see that he's cruising at 200+ knots. He checks on, I give him the altimeter, and ask him his aircraft type.

He responds "Grumman FM-2 Wildcat".

A little history lesson: The Wildcat is a WWII aircraft carrier fighter that was featured in every theatre of the war - Pacific, North Atlantic, European, etc.. It was not the fastest, nor the most maneuverable, nor the most heavily armed fighter of the war. Its opponents like the Japanese Zero were much more maneuverable. It is often forgotten in lieu of flashier aircraft like the P-51 Mustang or the P-38 Lightning. Compared to the sleek F-4U Corsair or the massive P-47 Thunderbolt, it's a tubby little barrel of an airplane.

However, it is the quintessential "unsung hero" of the war, especially the war in the Pacific. In the battles of Midway, Coral Sea, Santa Cruz, and others, it protected American dive dombers and torpedo planes as they struck again and again at the Japanese naval fleet. In the Atlantic, it served aboard light escort carriers, conducting patrols and protecting convoys from the ubiquitous German U-boat threat and German airpower. In England, it became the first American-built aircraft in British service to score a combat kill.

The Wildcat had a large list of pros and cons. The Wildcat's hand-cranked, narrow-track landing gear made carrier operations very treacherous. On the other hand, while outperformed by the Zero, it could take far more damage thanks to its construction and self-sealing fuel tanks. Zero pilots could pour hundreds of rounds into a Wildcat and still not bring it down, whereas a few shots into a Zero would cause it to burst into flame. The Wildcat was simply able to bring its pilots home safely. As an example of the overall success of the design, Wildcat variants were produced from 1940 up until the final days of the Pacific war, even after more powerful replacement aircraft such as the F6F Hellcat had been introduced.

I had no other traffic at that point, so I talked with the pilot a few times. "Is that the one with the hand-cranked landing gear?" I could hear him perk up when he realized I knew exactly what he was flying. "Sure is!." I found out he was based at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum located in Texas. "Do you give rides?" I asked, hoping that maybe they'd modified it into a two seater like some P-51 owners had. "Only got one seat," he said, laughing. They apparently perform at air shows around the country. "I'd love to come here [Pensacola] for an air show," he said. "You're welcome anytime." I replied. He sounded like he was having a great time in that war bird. Eventually, I handed him off to Eglin AFB's controllers with a parting "Have a great flight."

It was just cool. I really enjoy history, and definitely appreciate the efforts of those who want to keep history alive. It's one thing to see a photo on the web or words in a book. It's quite another to see the real thing, engine roaring, pilot lifting it into the sky, giving modern audiences a taste of what aviation was like back then. Even when the folks who flew them into battle are gone, at least we'll have their machines to bring those lost stories to life for generations to come.

Some pics of the Wildcat, then and now.

Wildcat taking off from the USS Ranger.
Wildcat formation.

N18P taxiing.
N18P in flight.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Blue Angels Video 2007

Here's the video I shot at the Blue Angels homecoming air show a couple of weeks back. I finally got around to putting it up on YouTube. I show some highlights from the show, and finish up with the Blues.


A few words on the music: it's the song "We Rise" by Chris Corner and is from the soundtrack to the 2005 French movie Les Chevaliers du Ciel, or "Knights of the Sky". It's basically a French version of Top Gun, with an equally corny plot, Mirage 2000s instead of F-14 Tomcats, and a couple of goofy looking pilot dudes that make Goose look like a tough guy. It's not exactly Oscar caliber material.

However... the cinematography is absolutely incredible. All of the in-flight shots are actual aircraft - no special effects or computer generated imagery. They built a special camera pod and strapped it on to a Mirage, so that it could follow the other Mirages through numerous maneuvers. There's dogfights over mountains, low level flying over deserts, shots over water, mock combat in the clouds... and it all looks beautiful.

Here's a video somebody cut together of some of the flying scenes in the movie. Remember: this is all real. No special effects, no movie magic.

I don't care who you are, that's just some beautiful footage right there.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Remember that old Nintendo game Excitebike? The one where you raced down a track at full speed, racing other bikers and jumping some insane obstacles?

Looks like someone tried that with an Airbus A340-600.... and failed.

They were apparently doing a pre-delivery full power runup at the Airbus facility when the aircraft broke free and slammed into a blast wall. No word yet on whether it was a brake failure, a restraint failure, or something else.

Unfortunately, 10 people were injured and the plane appears to be a writeoff. Thankfully, no one was killed, which was helped - I'm sure - by the fact that the blast wall was angled. If it had been a vertical wall, things would have been a lot worse for those aboard.

Read the A-NN Article

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Someone asked me this recently: How much paperwork/busywork do you need to do when you're on position?

Firstly, none of it is "busywork". Everything you do has a purpose. Secondly, you do a lot more than just sit there and talk to airplanes. Between stripmarking , ARTS command entries, inter-facility coordination, and intra-facility coordination, you've got a lot to do. The faster you get it done, the better off you'll be. I've actually found the off-frequency work to be one of the biggest challenges I've faced.

Let's run through a very simple morning session at Whiting NAS to the northeast of Pensacola. To start, let me give you some visual aids. As always, you can click a pic to blow it up larger.

Airspace: The area outlined in orange is the sector I've been training on. Depending on the workload, it can be split up into three scopes - the D (departures from NSE), the K (arrivals into NSE), and the Z (arrivals/departures from NDZ). But for the purposes of this blog post, let's assume the workload is relatively light and everything in there is combined up as one big sector.

The aircraft featured are:

T-34C Mentor: The entirety of North Whiting's fleet is composed of these little guys. Based off of the Beech Bonanza, the first one of these guys first took flight in 1948 (!!!). The models they're flying now are updated turboprop "C" models such as this one, but they're still pretty darn old. They cruise around 210 knots or so, but are being replaced by T-6 Texan II's which can hit 310 knots at altitude. The T-34C in the photo is actually from Training Air Wing Five, which is the North Whiting training unit (it says TAW-5 right underneath the tail).

TH-57 Sea Ranger: The Bell 206 in yet another of its many guises. These are the helos out of South Whiting.

The format: Anything that's an action will be in bold, anything that's in yellow is a radio call, and anything in green is a land line call. Also, you'll see [initials] quite often. For those who don't know, every time you make a land line coordination, you're supposed to end it with your initials as a form of verbal signature.

The setup:
I've only got one plane on my scope right now, a T-34 - Red Knight 165 (RN165) - on a base leg to join a TACAN approach for Runway 14 into North Whiting.
  1. Me: "RN165, four miles from final approach fix, turn right heading 110, maintain 1700 until established on the final approach course, cleared TACAN Runway 14 approach. Circle to land runway 5."
  2. RN165: "[Reads back approach clearance.]"
  3. SH281, a VFR pop-up, checks in: "Pensacola Approach, Shooter 281, flight of two T-34s, over Brewton at 3500, with information Hotel."
  4. I look up at Brewton and see him up there at 3500.
  5. I type in "SH281" into the ARTS keyboard and press Enter. It generates a squawk code assigned to that callsign.
  6. Me: "SH281, Pensacola Approach, squawk 0101"
  7. I write SH281 on our traffic count pad, along with his arrival airport "NSE" = North Whiting..
  8. SH281: "Roger, SH281, squawking 0101."
  9. North Whiting tower calls on the shout line: "Departure, tower, non-tag, Blackbird 295." (A non-tag is an aircraft that's taken off without his transponder on or set to a wrong code)
  10. I spot the non-tagged primary target on my scope departing from the airport and observed it within 1 mile of the airport's departure end.
  11. Key up North Whiting tower's direct line.
  12. Me: "Blackbird 295, non-tag, [initials]" to acknowledge and unkey.
  13. I look up on my tab list of departing aircraft to see what code he should be on.
  14. Me: "Blackbird 295, Pensacola departure, radar contact. Check transponder on. Squawk 0142."
  15. BB295: "Pensacola departure, BB295, roger, radar contact. Recycling transponder. Squawk 0142."
  16. I observe SH281 has now popped up near his fix.
  17. Me: "SH281, radar contact 1 mile east of Brewton."
  18. SH281: "Roger, radar contact."
  19. I recall that SH281 is a flight of two. I type "H" and "M" and then click on SH281's target. This puts an "M" in the special modifier section of the datablock so that the tower will know that SH281 has Multiple aircraft.
  20. I observe that VV5E129 is flashing in my Activation List. He is the first one on the list, and therefore letter "A". Aircraft needing activation will typically be on specialized IFR or VFR flight plans and will have strips printed and ready for whenever they activate. Before they can take off, you need to activate their flight plans.
  21. I press the "F13" key, then "A", and press Enter. VV5E129 stops flashing.
  22. In front of me I have three columns of strips. To the far left are the unactivated "proposed" strips, to my immediate left are my activated strips, and to my immediate right are the aircraft that have actually taken off. I move VV5E129's now-activated strip over to my "activated" column of strips.
  23. I see that RN165 is established on the TACAN approach.
  24. Me: "RN165, contact North Whiting Tower."
  25. RN165: "Roger, RN165 switching."
  26. I observe BB295's callsign has popped up properly.
  27. Me: "BB295, Pensacola, transponder appears normal. Say altitude leaving."
  28. BB295: "Leaving 1100 for 4500, BB295."
  29. I verify that his Mode C readout is within 300 feet of what he's reporting.
  30. Me: "Roger."
  31. I observe that RN281, now well into his TACAN final, is getting a low-altitude alert (LA). Our regulations state that we need to inform Whiting tower of any LA alarms.
  32. I key up the Whiting Tower shout line.
  33. Me: "Tower, approach, low altitude alert, RN281, [initials]."
  34. Tower: "RN281, low-altitude alert, [initials]." and I unkey.
  35. I observe VV5E129 (the one I activated earlier) has departed North Whiting. I move VV5E129's strip to my "airborne" column. He is IFR and is requesting 5000 feet eastbound towards the Crestview VOR, and then on to Tallahassee. While most of my sector goes up to 5500 feet, the easternmost 5 miles of my sector only goes up to 3500. The airspace above (where VV5E129 needs to go) is owned by our "E" sector.
  36. I type "**E" and then slew and Enter on VV5E129. This action displays the aircraft on the "E" sector's scope.
  37. I key up the E sector on the landline.
  38. Me: "E, D, point-out."
  39. E: "E."
  40. Me: "1 mile north of Whiting, VV5E129, 5000, Crestview." That tells him:
    • Where he is now.
    • Who he is.
    • How high he wants to go.
    • Where he wants to go.
  41. E: (Scans for a moment) "VV5E129, point-out approved, [initials]."
  42. Me: "[initials]."
  43. I write "50" on VV5E129's strip.
  44. Crestview is located in Eglin Air Force Base's airspace. I type press they key with the triangle-shaped "Delta symbol" and "1", then click on VV5E129. This initiates the handoff to Eglin. A small "V" (for Eglin's identifier "VPS") appears in the datablock indicating the handoff is in progress.
  45. If I feel like it (and if my memory's feeling up to snuff) I file the strip in our completed flights pile. I already know where he's going, what altitude he's climbing to, and who he needs to talk to, so the strip is extraneous clutter at this point.
  46. In short: I handled all the coordination I needed to do before the aircraft even called me. That way:
    • I don't have to stop him at any interim altitude and can send him on his merry way.
    • The handoff's already been initiated, so I just need to wait for Eglin to take it. Then I can switch him at my leisure.
    • I don't have a useless strip distracting me 0n my desk.
  47. VV5E129: "Pensacola departure, VV5E129, climbing through 1200."
  48. Me: "VV5E129, Pensacola departure, climb and maintain 5000. Leaving 3000, turn right direct Crestview."
  49. VV5E129: "Roger, [reads back]."
  50. I observe that helicopter Lucky 082 (LY082)has departed South Whiting.
  51. I move LY082's strip over to my airborne column and see that Flight Data wrote that he wants to do multiple practice PAR approaches at South Whiting. PAR (Precision Approach Radar) approaches require a Navy "GCA" controller to talk the plane down to the runway, using voice commands. This requires special frequencies just for those operations. We have 5 of them which we call "Buttons", each with its own transmitter.
  52. Once again, I want to get ready before LY082 even calls me. I key up the Button 1 transmitter.
  53. I type "PS1" into LY082's scratchpad. P = PAR approach. S = Standard missed approach (since he'll be coming back to us for more approaches). 1 = the Button he's on.
  54. I write a big "1" on LY082's strip, as a secondary reminder of what Button he's on.
  55. I type "B" and click on LY082 to hand him off to the Navy final controller. PAR approaches require you to actually hand the aircraft off to the GCA controller. There, now he's completely cleaned up. All I need to do now is talk to him. :)
  56. LY082: "Pensacola departure, LY082, leaving 1100 for 1700."
  57. Me: "LY082, Pensacola departure, radar contact. Turn left heading 140, vectors PAR approach. Change to my frequency [Button 1 frequency]."
  58. LY082: "Roger, [read back]."
  59. Me: (After I've vectored him around the pattern and put him on a base leg) "LY082, 10 miles from Whiting, turn left heading 360, stand by final controller."
  60. LY082: "Left 360, standing by, LY082."
  61. I key up Whiting's GCA controller.
  62. Me: "GCA, Approach, Button 1, heading 360."
  63. GCA: "Button 1, 360, [initials]." He's already taken the handoff and sees the PS1 in the scratchpad, so he knows who I'm talking about.
  64. Me: "[initials]"
  65. I unkey GCA.
  66. I reach up and turn off the transmitter for Button 1. Otherwise, I'll be interfering with his PAR instructions whenever I transmit. GCA turns him on to the final.
  67. I see that VV5E129's only has a few miles to go before leaving my airspace, and that Eglin has taken the handoff.
  68. Me: "VV5E129, contact Eglin approach on [frequency]."
  69. VV5E129: "Switching to Eglin on [frequency], VV5E129."
  70. .... and the session continues ....
That's just with four aircraft. We've had it where we'll get the following simultaneously:
  • North Whiting launching a dozen T-34s going every which way, with half of them being non-tags that need to be deal with and the other half needing special instructions.
  • Groups of T-34s recovering from all directions to North Whiting, with many of them wanting something special for an approach.
  • Half a dozen helos and T-34s doing a roundy-round the GCA pattern down by South Whiting, requesting multiple PAR, ILS, ASR, or TACAN approaches.
  • Four or five VFR pop ups off of Milton wanting to go to various practice areas.
  • A dash of low-level GA departures out of the Pensacola East sector.
By then you've got yourself a party! If staffing isn't an issue, one or two of the other scopes will have been opened up to alleviate some of the workload.

Hopefully the above example makes some kind of sense and gives you an idea of the paperwork/coordination involved both within and outside the facility.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Blues

I went to the Blue Angels Homecoming Air Show today. Man, that was fun. I haven't seen the Blues perform since I was a kid, so it was great seeing them in action again.

Oh, and the "sneak pass" is still the absolute shizzle. That's where Blues 1 through 4 complete one of their formation maneuvers and start drifting off to the side. The announcer comes on, saying, "Watch how the foursome rearranges itself into the diamond formation..." Of course you're looking at the four fading off into the distance.

But then, right when you've been misdirected, a Blue Angel soloist comes hurtling down the runway opposite from where you're looking, afterburners on, startling the hell out of everyone. At the same time, the other Blue Angel soloist roars in from behind the crowd, over your head, kicking those involuntary "hit the deck" reflexes into gear. It drives everyone wild, especially if you've never seen it before.

Here's a YouTube vid of it from last year's show:

Anyways, it was a great show.

There were three aerobatic performances by Red-Bull Air Race-type aircraft, including an Extra 300L and an MX. Hammerhead stalls, wingovers, precision rolls, Immelmans, Cuban eights, and more were executed with extreme precision. However, my favorite aerobatic maneuver of them all is the Lomcevak, which is a Czech work that means "hangover".

Watch this video to see why:

I'd heard about that maneuver, but never seen it in person. As a pilot, it just makes me crazy. I mean, that's a little above and beyond unusual attitude training in a Cessna 172! :)

There were also a couple of military demonstrations from an F/A-18F and an F-16, which concluded in a very nice heritage flight with a P-51/F-16 combo. The F/A-18F is a sweet machine, much more impressive than its C-model predecessor, and the F-16 is certainly a treat to watch. However, having been to both the Paris and Farnborough air shows, I miss seeing the Sukhois and MiGs. For me, an air show is no longer complete without seeing at least a Pugachev cobra maneuver or a tail slide.

Picture Show

I shot nearly two hours worth of video, which I'll edit over the next couple of days down to a couple minutes of highlghts. In the meantime here's a few of the still pics I took around the show.

(Click each one to view it full-size)

Blue Angel Number 5: Engines are started and she's ready to roll. Her crew chief stands in front and a crewman kneels behind each wingtip.

Blue Angels Panorama: All six BA's lined up awaiting their pilots.
C-5 Galaxy: The world's largest umbrella.
T-6 Texan II: A very large percentage of our traffic consists of flocks of these little guys. It's a very powerful aircraft, with a top speed of over 300 knots and a 35,000 foot service ceiling. These guys can fly circles around the old T-34's they're replacing, which makes it really interesting when we get T-6's from NAS Pensacola in the same pattern as the T-34's from NAS Whiting.

Panavia Tornado: A very powerful swing-wing fighter-bomber flown by the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Saudi Arabia. To quote the Volkswagen ad: "Representin' Deutschland, yo!"

Saturday, October 20, 2007

"Expect nothing...

...That way you'll be ready for anything."
- Takeshi Kovacs, Broken Angels by Richard Morgan

This a short tie-in with my last post, Learning on the Run.

A couple of weeks ago on a quiet IFR morning, my instructor was working the main Pensacola Regional airport sector, with all but 1 of the other sectors combined into it. All-told, it was about 3/4 of our entire facility's airspace. Whiting NAS, the scope bank all of my training had been on, wasn't open yet, so my instructor asked if I wanted to monitor while he worked. I said "sure", went out to grab my headset, came back in, and my instructor says "Okay, you're working the traffic."

So, there I was, working an airport I'd only studied, using approaches I'd never cleared anyone for before, giving vectors that I'd never used, and working real honest-to-God airliners loaded with lots of people on board. Obviously my instructor was plugged in with me and coaching me along, but it felt very strange at first. After a while I got a much better feel for the differences in speed and flow.

Here's a segment of the recording from that morning, off of

A couple notes:
  • If you're familiar with LiveATC, you know that a lot of their audio sources cycle between different frequencies at a facility. The feed for us cycles between our main Pensacola Regional airport sector, our Pensacola NAS sector, and the Pensacola Regional tower. I cut out the transmissions from the other sectors. That's why you'll never hear me clear some of the aircraft to land, as the feed had cycled to the other frequencies while I did that.
  • I trimmed all of the dead air out of it (if you like to listening silence, well, sorry).
  • The original recording takes place over about 30 minutes. We don't have that much traffic at that time of the morning, but because I cut out the dead air and the time spent on other frequencies it sounds a lot busier than it was.
The aircraft, in order of appearance:
  • Coast Guard Auxilliary
  • EGF855: American Eagle regional jet (probably an ERJ145 or CRJ200)
  • Citation 78CK: Cessna C550 corporate jet
  • Buck 312: Navy T-6 Texan II trainer
  • ASQ769 (pronounced "Acey"): Atlantic Southeast Airlines CRJ200
  • GFT9151: Gulfstream International Beech 1900
  • Flight Express 101: Cessna 210
  • Cirrus 38BK: Cirrus SR22

Learning on the Run

Before I came to Pensacola, I'd visited a few other facilities that were much newer than our 40+ year old building. While the STARS and ACD systems are nice and all, the one thing I'm really feeling is the lack of an honest-to-God simulator with our airspace.

I've said it before that simulators are no replacement for the real thing. However, I do strongly feel that simulators are very important for getting procedures and patterns down. They create an idealized environment where you can build habits and see how things flow. You can try things and experiment with no danger to anyone. Your instructor can freeze the problem and point out a possible conflict, and discuss possible courses of action. In addition, you're learning the airspace and the frequencies. They're great for getting the fundamentals down so you don't have to think about them anymore.

Going through RTF teaches you the basics of radar terminal control. Vectoring, speed control, approach clearances, etc. However, they use generic air space. Every ATC facility out there is unique and each has its quirks. It would have been nice to have some runs on a Pensacola-based simulator before getting on the real scopes, as there are certain operations here that are truly unique. It also lets you see potential problem areas in action. I've had more than one experienced CPC here tell me this is the most screwed up air space they've ever seen.

Unfortunately, we're not setup for simulation here. Whereas the folks at Miami Tower and Potomac TRACON can work simulated problems using their real airspace on ATC simulators, we train with live traffic. No ghost pilots, no "pause the problem" so you can work it out. The only time we can experiment is when traffic is very slow, allowing some breathing room so we can get a little more experimental with our vectors (I recommend not flying in our airspace when it's slow, LOL... just kidding).

So, while you're developing your stripmarking, your paperwork, your airspace and attempting to build your basic understanding, you're working with real people on the other end of the radio. The issue with that is that there's no control over what you get. ATC is a fluid business, and you are guaranteed at least one or two odd-ball requests every time you sit down... if you're lucky. Most often you'll have more. So, as opposed to a structured "curriculum" where you build certain skills over time, here you need to be ready for anything at any given moment. That's just the nature of ATC.

Real World Example

Let me give you an example, but first I'll explain a little about our operation: Nearly all of my training has been on the Whiting Naval Air Station bank of scopes. The fixed-wing aircraft from Whiting use what are called VFR course rules. Course rules are essentially highly "proceduralized" (is that a word?) flight plans that the training flights follow to get into and out of Whiting. On departure, they'll climb to a pre-determined altitude, turn to a pre-determined heading towards their practice area, and cancel flight following at a pre-determined point. They'll each have a specific pre-determined practice area (A1, A2, A2F, or A3) in their scratchpad, so you know exactly which course rule they're flying. When they come back, they'll call in over three possible pre-determined fixes at a pre-determined altitude, be issued a transponder code by you, fly a pre-determined route back into the airport, and switch to the tower over a pre-determined fix.

It's pretty predictable and usually works smoothly. I guess a parallel would be a SID or a STAR. The only real controlling you need to do (outside of handling specific requests for holding and practice approaches) is traffic calls and sequencing for arrivals that are arriving too close together.

All that goes out the window when the weather is IFR.... which is exactly what happened the other day when a massive front came through bringing all kinds of nastiness.

Departures: Due to the IFR weather, the course rules were completely unusable, so all of the procedures I'd been training with were worthless. For the departures, Whiting was launching every aircraft as a VFR-On-Top (OTP). This meant the following:
  1. They each had OTP in their scratchpad, so we didn't know which area they were heading towards.
  2. They were IFR, so we had to request a cancellation from each one.
  3. They were not following a course rules procedure, so once they cancelled IFR we had to:
    1. Ask each one "What's your working area?"
    2. Enter it into the scratchpad
    3. Issue them the appropriate heading and altitude for their working area so they wouldn't go wandering off randomly.
  4. Issue traffic and a flight following cancellation as usual.
  5. The only good thing is that, due to IFR separation rules, they were launching them with some more space between.
Arrivals: For the inbounds, all of these Whiting Navy trainers returning from their practice areas were requesting airborne IFR pick-ups for vectors to a TACAN approach into Whiting NAS. This complicates things on several levels:
  1. Firstly, I think I'd given maybe two of these types of clearances previously over the past month, and now I was giving them out left and right, vectoring on the fly.
  2. One of the major reporting points they call over is inside another sector. We have pre-arranged coordination with that sector so we don't need to call them with course rules Navy trainers that call in at the appropriate VFR altitude. However... the trainers were calling in at a variety of altitudes, so we had to coordinate and point out every one to the other sector.
  3. They were all "Cleared to Whiting via radar vectors" so I had to - as the clearance suggests - provide radar vectors to get them to the TACAN. It was excellent vectoring practice since they were coming from all over the place.
  4. With every aircraft requesting the same TACAN approach, now you've got a congestion problem that requires real sequencing and IFR altitude separation - 3 miles or 1000 feet. It really works your speed control and vectoring skills, plus your knowledge.
  5. In addition, I was working both the arrival and departure sectors combined. This meant that I had two frequencies open, and overlapping transmissions coming from both.
Now, there's nothing unusual about IFR departures and arrivals. There's a million of them everyday. However, when you're new to it, you're unsure of the phraseology, and you're dealing with them in large quantities, the comfort level and confidence level is a bit lower than it should be.

I kept up with it for a good while, but there came a point where I just fell behind. My instructor had to take over for a couple minutes as they were just calling in from everywhere. He told me after I took over again not to feel bad, which I really didn't. I was perfectly fine. I'd never worked any traffic like that in any great quantity, so I'm glad that I kept up with it as long as I could.

You have to step up to the plate and swing with all you've got at that moment, and I did. I have confidence that the next time this situation comes up I'll be ready for it. It was a hell of an interesting experience and I'm much better for it in the end.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Might and the Will

From the title of this post, maybe you're thinking this is a post about confidence or something like that. Actually, it's about lack of confidence or - to be more precise - certainty.

ATC deals in absolutes. When you have two aircraft pointed right at each other, you'd better be sure they're not going to smack. It's not "they probably won't hit" or "I think they should have separation."

A word that tends to fall right in front of the word separation in ATC texts is "ensure". Sometimes its preceded by the words "the controller failed to". Its our job to be absolutely, 100% positive that two aircraft will not come closer than is permitted.

Let's say you're sitting there working a sector and you see N123 and N456 coming together on a hazy morning. They're C172's and they're 10 miles apart at 120 knots, but they're both at 2000 feet on headings that will bring them together. When your instructor looks over your shoulder and asks you "Are those guys going to hit?" your answer cannot be "They probably won't." o

That's where the might and the will come into play. If they might have separation, but you're not sure they will have it, then you have to do something.

Now, what will that something be? Sure... you can wait until they're two miles apart and issue traffic in hopes of getting visual separation. If N123 does see N456 and reports him in sight, you can just tell him "Maintain visual separation from that traffic." But, once again, you'll be using the word might. You're placing a bet, taking a risk, praying that N123 can actually see N456.

But what if he doesn't? What if they're head-on and that other white Cessna is a white dot blending into the white haze? You'll be left with nothing but a tightening in your stomach and "panic vectors" that usually involve the word "immediately".

How could you have avoided this? Any number of ways:
  • "N123, climb and maintain 2500." There, now you have 500 feet of vertical separation.
  • Or... "N456, turn left 20 degrees for traffic." Great, now you've got divergence.
  • Or - legal but stupid - "N123, maintain at or below 80 knots" Now you've got a confused pilot slowing to approach speed at cruising altitude, but the speed differential will make N456 beat the other aircraft.
Any one of those simple things are sure-fire actions that will ensure separation. You've created the vertical separation, divergence, or speed difference necessary.

Let's say you issued one of the above instructions, such as the vertical separation. You could literally unplug, walk away, and be certain that they'll never hit. You could have been handed off those planes when they were 30 miles away from each other and never have to look at them again until it's time to hand them off to the next sector. Instead of focusing on them for all 30 miles, wondering if they'll hit, now you know for certain that they won't (as long as the pilots adhere to your instructions).

Remember Yoda in Empire Strikes Back? "Do or do not - there is no try"? In ATC the saying would be reworded as "They're going to hit or they aren't - there is no maybe."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Verbal Spankings

As an air traffic controller, you will never see a pilot face to face. They won't know what you look like, what clothes you wear, whether or not you are short or tall or thin or fat. They only know one thing about you: what your voice sounds like.

The most important thing, as it's part of the job title, is to sound like you're really and truly in control. You could be going down the tubes faster than a bobsled team on a track covered in Vaseline, but as long as your voice doesn't convey that, you're cool. When that tension starts to makes its presence known on the frequency, the pilots will notice it. Like dogs, they can smell fear, and will begin to question your instructions - maybe not outright, but they will be hesitant and extra-vigilant. Sooner or later, when your self-doubt becomes apparent, they will speak up and challenge your decisions.

When you're working traffic, thinking out loud is okay. I do it with my instructor so he knows what my rationale is for different control instructions. But, thinking on the frequency? Not so much... One of the first things you can do is eliminate the pseudo-words "Uh", "Um", "Hmmm", "Errr", and "Well....". They make it sound like you're unsure, and as a controller it's you're job to have no doubts (even if you're absolutely wrong).

Oh, and phrases such as "Holy s***", "What the hell?" and "" are usually considered "ungood". They typically do little to nothing for a pilot's confidence in you. :)

Having worked a little bit of traffic now, I'm getting a feel for how I should be speaking. Every time I sit down I try something different. I don't have some kind of deep raspy trucker voice, so I find that I have to work harder to convey confidence.

I also listen to a lot of the folks I work with and see how they get their instructions across. Just in our control room, I've heard a bunch of different styles, each of which is effective in its own way. These are some highlights:
  • Utterly bored: Nothing says "I'm in control" better than sounding like you're about to fall asleep.
  • Amused sarcasm: Cocky, self-assured, and having a good time. The "I'm gonna clear you to land, sign out, and grab me a brewsky..." voice.
  • Stone cold: No emotion, just machine-like instructions spoken very precisely and clearly. You sound like a computer, and computers don't make mistakes, right? Right?
And my favorite:
  • Disappointed parent: This one works especially well on student pilots, of which we have a billion here. It's highly effective after they've screwed something up. The intensity of the "What did you do now?" tone is directly related to the severity of the screw-up.
Verbal Spanking

Here at Pensacola, we have to use that last voice quite a bit. We have tons of military training traffic and, as to be expected, they're highly unpredictable. You have to have loads of patience to work the traffic here, as you're working with pilots that may or may not do what they're told. On more than one occasion, I've heard the work done at those sectors described as "babysitting" or "hand-holding."

Here's an example of "the voice" in use the other day, when one of our Navy planes decided to go goofy on us. He was one plane in a tight approach sequence of about six aircraft, and throughout the entire time we were working him he was repeatedly answering for another aircraft with a like-sounding call sign. After calling him out on that several times, he stopped answering completely. He ended up blowing past the final approach course, made a beeline for our neighboring sectors (we had to coordinate two point-outs regarding him) , and was about to slam into a hot restricted area when my instructor had this conversation with him:
  • ATC: "Navy 123, how do you hear me?"
    Pilot: "Loud and clear, sir."
    ATC: "Navy 132, I've called you three times. Are you radios functioning?"
    Pilot: *sheepish* "Yes sir."
    ATC: "Navy 123, I can't clear you for an approach if you won't respond to my calls..."
    Pilot: *sheepish* "Roger sir..."
    ATC: "Sir, I need you to respond when I call you."
    Pilot: *growing wool* "...Yes sir..."
    ATC: "Thank you. Now, Navy 123, turn left to heading 220. Vectors for the GPS approach."
There was no yelling, no barking, no tirade. My instructor's voice was even but stern, driving home to this kid that he'd messed up. The fact is, the pilot's mistakes were preventing us from doing our job and creating an immense distraction. While we were dealing with him we were still sequencing the remaining aircraft in for the approach.

First off, you should never yell at anyone on the frequency. It's unprofessional and it can be dangerous, both for your career and for the pilot. In the environment we're in, that's especially true. We've had discussions with Navy flight instructors over this issue. They've told us that on the rare occasion that a controller has dressed down a student pilot on the frequency, they can literally see the student's confidence shatter. At that point, the lesson is over and they have to return to base.

I don't put myself in the cockpit with these pilots, but as a former student pilot myself, I can relate to them on some level. The most important thing is safety, and if it takes a stern voice to get it across to them, so be it. Lord knows I needed a verbal slap on the wrist at times.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

One Man

I wanted to introduce you all to a person who has had a tremendous impact throughout the aviation industry and on me as an individual.

On a global level, he has been a driving force for aviation safety. As a college instructor, he has been a positive influence and an inspiration to thousands of aviation students for many years. This is a man who has always put the concerns of others before his and has never sought the recognition he so richly deserves.

As president of a major aviation association, he travels the world meeting with aviation industry leaders. He walks the walk of aviation safety and awareness, urging countries around the world to implement better safety measures. From the European Union to the Middle East to Southeast Asia, he is literally saving lives by encouraging country after country to adopt new measures of aviation safety. The standards he is implementing keep the problems of today from becoming the aviation accidents of tomorrow.

Back home, he is an educator. He is not any old teacher, not someone who is content to read from the book and pass that off as "teaching". He brings into the classroom real-world examples and real-life experiences that drive home the material. In his aviation law classes, you conduct mock trials based on real cases. In his management class, you role-play as managers and union members. With the information brought to life like this, it's easy to absorb and even easier to see how it relates to life in the real world.

Most of the air traffic control graduates from Miami Dade College have had him as an instructor, and many call him the best faculty member in the aviation department. A pilot, an aviation writer, a dispatcher, and an aviation photographer, you'd be hard pressed to find a person more passionate about aviation than he is. His wealth of aviation knowledge, his concern for each student's well-being, and his guidance have set many students on their way to a successful career in aviation. His enthusiasm for flight and the aviation industry is simply infectious.

For me, he has had a profound impact on my life. He taught me the values of honesty and respect for others, lessons I learned the hard way throughout my youth. Many of my interests began with him, including my love of aviation, my interest in technology, and my appreciation for the history of our country and our world. I have many fond memories of far off places and air shows from around the world.

Because of what this man has given throughout his life I have never wanted for anything, and because of that I find it hard to ask for anything from anyone. Through him, I have seen what hard work truly is. Years ago, he put himself through law school while working the midnight shifts at Eastern airlines as the head of their dispatcher operations. Later on, he did the work of three people as a college assistant dean. And today, he is constantly on the move, teaching six classes and finding time in between them all to truly make a difference in the aviation community. Through all that, not only did he provide for his family but he found time to be with them.

This man is always one of the first people I call when something major happens in my life. When I got my pilot's license, he was the first person I told after my wife. When I took my first flight as private pilot-in-command, he was my first passenger (and safety pilot...and brave soul). Last week, when I talked to my first airplane ever, I couldn't wait to call him and let him know. Whenever I get checked out on my first sector, he will be the one I call first.

This man makes me want to be the best person I can be. I never want to disappoint him and I always want to make him proud.

This man is my father.

Happy birthday, Papi.

I love you and miss you, and wish I could be there with you.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Other Side of Hip-Hop

A little non-ATC aside...

I recently I had a discussion with some friends about hip-hop/rap. Most of them listen to only rock and electronic music, and to them anything categorized as rap is automatically about "hood life", "pimping", "bling", the overall glorification of violence, and the degradation of women. For the most part, they're right: turn on the radio, and that's what you're going to hear. From NWA to 50 Cent, the production may have improved but the negative message stays the same. As to be expected, the more misogynistic and violent the lyrics the more records are sold.

However, the terms "rap" and "hip-hop" encompass a wide range of artists. It's simply a style of music, spoken words delivered over a solid beat. But unfortunately, the "thug life" is the only viewpoint you'll hear on the radio. As payola is alive and well these days, underground or independent artists with opposing messages usually don't get heard.

With every genre of music I listen to - rock, reggae, electronic, hip hop, etc. - I always wander off the beaten path and try to find artists that are different and interesting, that bring more to the table than most of the acts you hear on the radio. I think a lot has to do with my involvement in local music, where I've met plenty of extremely talented bands and musicians who work hard but don't get the fame they deserve.

On the rap/hip-hop front, these are some artists I've been listening to:

K'naan: This skinny little Somalian kid makes most gangster rappers pale in comparison with his background. G-rap glorifies the ubiquitous 9mm, but this guy grew up in a country where children carried AK-47s and the gangsters had RPGs. If you've seen Black Hawk Down, that's the environment he grew up in. And instead of glorifying warlords in his music (unlike, say, Bounty Killer), he talks down on his country's problems with powerful, positive, and witty lyrics.

My Favorite Tracks:
  • "Soobax" (Come out with it): A challenge to Somalia's warlords, blaming them for the destruction of his motherland. The video was filmed in Keyna amongst crowds of exiled Somalians.
    Video / Lyrics
  • "Hardcore": A direct call-out to gangster rappers who talk about being "hardcore". The video is a live show. No DJ, no massive production - just a few acoustic instruments and hand drums.
    Video / Lyrics

    we begin our day by the way of the gun,
    rocket propelled grenades blow you away if you front,

    we got no police ambulances or fire fighters,

    we start riots by burning car tires,

    they looting, and everybody starting shooting...

    So what's hardcore?
    Really, are you hardcore? Hmm.

Michael Franti & Spearhead: This man's been in the socially conscious hip-hop arena for nearly two decades. He brings to the stage thoughtful and colorful lyrics concerning current and long-standing social issues - race, community, war, politics, social responsibility. His message is delivered atop the music of his backing band, Spearhead, and is all organic instrumentation - none of the sampling that popular rap is so prone to use. His style has evolved over the past 15 years, from the straight-up rap style of 1994's Home to the concept album Stay Human to the solid reggae-meets-U2 of 2006's Yell Fire!

A prominent peace activist, not only does he talk the talk, he walks the walk. In 2004, he went to Baghdad, Israel, and the Gaza Strip to see what things are really like over there. As he puts it: "After years of watching and reading about war in the Middle East, I began to grow really frustrated with the news, hearing generals and politicans explain the economic cost and the political cost of war, without ever talking about the human cost of war."

The result is a fascinating documentary called I Know I'm Not Alone, where he talks to all kinds of people: a Christian family living in Baghdad, an Iraqi metal band, Israeli soldiers, Palestinian teenagers, mothers - both Palestinian and Israeli - who have lost children to the violence, and American soldiers in Baghdad. At various points in the film, he attempts to bring people who normally consider each other enemies together so they can speak openly about their situations. The different perspectives are fascinating and enlightening.

My Favorite Tracks:
  • "I Know I'm Not Alone": A 10 minute preview of the film.
  • "Time to go Home": If you're all for the Iraq war and think that we should be there indefinitely, don't watch this video.
    / Lyrics
  • "Hello Bonjour": A great live performance of a song from his newest album.
    Video / Lyrics

El Producto / Aesop Rock: A couple of New York artists that I stumbled across recently. I've been slowly looking into their catalog. Aesop is signed to El-P's record label and they perform together pretty often.

My Favorite Tracks:
This last act isn't hip-hop or rap, but I thought I should mention them nonetheless:

Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars:
I just watched the documentary on these guys by the same name. It's the story of a band whose members were all refugees from the Sierra Leone civil war, a decade-long war where atrocity was the name of the game. Tens of thousands of people in that country were killed or mutilated, and millions more were displaced to camps in neighboring countries. They came together as a band in one of these refugee camps and began writing songs about their plight and the loss of their homeland.

To lift the spirits of their fellow refugees, they began playing neighboring camps. After the civil war ended they returned to their country and were given the opportunity to record an album. Eventually, with the help of the U.N. and the film's producers, they were able to a secure passage to the USA for a brief tour. After they played the huge South-by-Southwest (SXSW) festival, they were signed to a record label and are now playing all over the world and using their income and notoriety to support the rebuilding of their country.

If you watch the video without seeing the movie, you will see a bunch of goofy guys acting like dorks on stage and having a good time while playing what sounds like light reggae music. However... keep in mind the horrors these people witnessed. One of the band members watched his parents killed in front of him, was forced to beat his own child to death with a mortar and pestle, and then - as if that wasn't enough - had the fingers of one hand hacked off with a cutlass. The very fact that these people can get up in the morning, much less sing and play music, speaks volumes about their strength.

I've always felt that music has power, that it can lift you up and see you through hard times. I think these guys are living proof of that.

My Favorite Tracks:
  • "Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars": A trailer for the documentary.
  • "Live at Fuji Rock": A live concert performance in Japan.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

On the Radio (!!!)

Day One:

I talked to my first airplane today. :)

So... I'm sitting with my instructor in my first hour of OJF and we're working the "D" sector. Essentially, the entire north-eastern chunk of our airspace is under our control, including the entirety of the Whiting Naval Air Station facility.

He had mentioned that he wanted me to do all the typing and stripmarking so I could get used to it. For the first few minutes, I handle the ARTS keyboard and keep track of how he's handling each aircraft. It's very slow

Well... after a few planes took off from Whiting and he gets them on their way, he says to me "Okay, you're talking to the next one that takes off." And sure enough, here comes our little departure, a T-34 out of Whiting North. I immediately get a little bit tense.

My left brain is telling me: "It's easy. All you need to say is 'Shooter 562, Pensacola Departure, radar contact.' You've said it a million times before at the Academy and on the simulators. Nothing is different, it's the same phraseology."

Clear over on the other side of my brain, the right side is saying some phraseology of its own: "Holy shit."

Well, he calls up, and I get it out pretty evenly. "Shooter Five-Six-Two, Pensacola Departure, Radar Contact." All went well - he didn't crash and explode with my slightly stuttery delivery. He didn't say "N00b!" and then tell all his friends "Hey, guys, we got a new scrub here! Launch the whole air wing so we can send him down the tubes!" Nope, he simply replied "Roger, radar contact, five-six-two," and continued on his merry way.

Ten miles out, he reported clear of the Class C. I issued my second ATC command: "Shooter Five-Six-Two, radar services terminated, squawk VFR, frequency change approved." I've said that a million times in practice - but for some reason it seems like such a damn mouthful when you say it on the air. Hell, I just said it "three times fast" here while writing this and it came out perfectly. But on the radio, for some reason, it seemed like I had to think it through! Very frustrating, LOL.

I ended up talking to maybe four or five different aircraft that session, including a VFR On-Top. It was a pretty cool feeling, though definitely a bit uncomfortable at first. It's not that I don't know a lot of the basic phraseology. "Turn right one-eight-zero", "climb and maintain four thousand", approach clearances, and the rest are the same as the 7110.65, the same as the Academy. However, I felt like I was second guessing myself even on simple things.

I suppose it's like someone going into acting. You read the play on your own. Then, you rehearse with your fellow performers "on book" (still reading from the script) to get the performance down. Further in, you do dress rehearsals and blocking on the stage, at which point you've learned your lines.

But then on opening night, the curtain pulls back, the lights shine in your eyes - and you're staring into the faces of thousands of paying theatergoers. At that point, you need to know your material and you need to step up. With live traffic you can't "pause the scenario" or ask a ghost pilot to "delete N123" - this is the real deal, the real show, and it has to be good.

Day Two/Three:

Things improved greatly. My voice quality improved, the second guessing dropped off, and overall I felt far more comfortable than I did a day earlier. I was issuing approach clearances, doing some vectoring on my own without prompting from the instructor, and generally getting the "office work" down (ARTS entries, stripmarking, strip filing). The traffic I've been working has been pretty light - no more than five planes at a time - but it has been varied. TACAN approaches, PAR or Surveillance approaches, VFR and IFR departures, and a mix of helicopters, T-34s, and light GA aircraft.

My "feel" for how everything works together is improving greatly. I've been working on my landline coordination between our different sectors as well as with different facilities. I can look at VFR traffic now and take an educated guess on who and what they are. A lot of the little things that were question marks are now being answered. There's a long road ahead, but every radio transmission and every written strip is a step forward.

With the slop thunderstorms coming off of Hurricane Humberto, I've also been able to get a feel for how adverse weather impacts our operation. When that weather hit, the Navy issued a full weather recall for Whiting NAS. The result was very similar to this video of Fedex arrivals, just on a smaller scale with smaller airplanes. T-34s were flocking in from everywhere! From what I heard, they were coming in 20 mile-long conga lines.

I took over the sector from the person who had worked the bulk of the arrivals, so I handled the stragglers. One of the last ones in was my first completely solo vector and approach clearance. My instructor sat back and let me do what I thought was right. I vectored him through a break in the weather, got him in low, got him on his base leg, and cleared him for the TACAN approach to Runway 23. He missed the weather and made it in.

So far, I'm having fun. However, my instructor has forewarned me that he's going to let me go down the tubes sometime next week to see what it feels like. That should be an interesting experience.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Cave of Wonders

Well... tomorrow's the big day. I hit the Radar room for my first scheduled training session.

It looks like I'm about to take that first real step in that long road to becoming a:


I'll be starting off with OJF: On the Job Familiarization. Before you can start your On the Job Training (OJT) on a position, you need to complete two hours of monitoring on that sector. As the name suggests, OJF gives you a feel for a sector's traffic, procedures, and problem areas.

The plan is to take care of the OJF this week; 2 hours per sector, and we have 9 sectors. The actual training will start next week. So basically, all I'll be doing will be monitoring for the next few days. After that.. it's game time. :)

Over the past few days I've been reviewing my approaches, my Letters of Agreement, my Standard Operating Procedures, the frequencies, and just about everything else I can get my hands on. The more I know now, the more it will help me on the floor.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Testing in Progress

So far I've done well on all of my written tests. I scored 100% on the Frequency test and the Chart/Fixes test and did well on the Airspace and Identifiers. All that's left now are the approaches (48 of the things), and then the cumulative final exam.

They've already decided who my trainers are going to be. We'll be holding a training team meeting soon. If you recall from the first days from the academy, your Training Team consists of your Primary Instructor, Secondary Instructor, your crew Supervisor, and your facility Training Manager.

First IFR Day

In other news, I went upstairs on Friday and monitored for a while. It was my first time being up there on an IFR day and it was quite a different experience. The ceilings were low at 1100 feet, so we were running a pretty defined final compared to what normally occurs here.

Let me clarify that: at larger airports - the Miamis, the Altantas, the Memphises, etc. - they typically run looong finals (up to 30 miles) consisting of mostly airliners. From what I've heard, things are very procedural and somewhat predictable. Also, most of your traffic operates at similar performance values - 150 or 170 knots on the approach, most are large or heavies, and most are "professional" pilots.

For instance, this is a photo my classmate Bryce took where he works at Louisville, KY of a long line of flights coming in:

We'd never see this here. I'm in no way saying either one is better or worse. All I'm saying is that it's simply a different type of operation.

With our mix of traffic, things are a bit looser, more random due to the varied types of aircraft we're working. It makes it challenging to have a really clear final. It's not disorganized; it's just not immediately obvious when you look at it for the first time. After a while, when you start learning what each aircraft can do, you can look at a scope and start figuring "Okay, that's number 1, that's number 2, and that's number 3" even though they're all coming from three different directions.

On Friday when I sat down to monitor the Pensacola Regional sector, we had the following inbounds:
  • T-34 (Navy's single engine prop trainer) 5 miles to the northeast.
  • A southbound Cessna 172 to the northeast, maybe 10 miles out.
  • ERJ-145 descending to 6000 from the northeast 20 miles out.
  • CRJ-200 following from the northwest also dropping to 6,000 at 25-30 miles out.
Due to the low cloud deck, you had to establish the aircraft on the final approach around 8 miles out (5 miles to the approach gate + 3 miles additional due to low clouds). The Cessna's much closer than the regional jets, but much slower. In addition, there's priority in numbers: a couple people in a Cessna vs. 100 paying passengers on the RJ's. Plus, you have to take into account that the T-34, while a pretty fast airplane in cruise (200+ knots) essentially dies on final. He may be going 150 knots on the base, but if you stick an MD-88 close behind him at 150 knots everyone's going to be pretty surprised when the T-34 sucks it back to 90 knots and winds up as a brand-new hood ornament.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

In the Henhouse

(This one's for my friend Kelly at SoCal)

If you've been to the Academy, you've probably heard one of the instructors sarcastically describe something easy by saying it's "Like putting socks on a Rooster!"

Well, dammit, I'm coining a new phrase:

"Like Boots on a Chicken"

(Photographed at ROSS. I couldn't pass up taking a pic, LOL.)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Try not to Choke on the Elephant

It feels good when things start to click.

When I first sat down to monitor at a scope here, all I saw were datablocks. Sure I could tell which direction the aircraft were going, their altitude, what speed they were flying, but I didn’t know where they were going, which sector’s airspace they were in, or what they were doing.

After learning the airport identifiers and fixes, the geography of the airspace came to life. Fix indicators became Conecuh River Bridge, Point Charlie, Point Initial, and the Chicken Ranch. Airport symbols became Ferguson (82J), Jack Edwards (JKA), and Choctaw Naval Outlying Field (NFJ).

Along with the fixes, I learned the airspace charts defining our sectors and our boundaries. I could now tell that the helicopter taking off southbound from South Whiting NAS was talking to the Z sector, the Embraer departing Pensacola Regional to the east was talking to our E sector, and the F-18 taking off from Pensacola NAS was in contact with our A sector. The northbound MD-88 climbing to ten thousand was about to be switched to Jacksonville Center. All of the thin demarcation lines on our scopes became airspace shelves and corridors. I don’t have them all absolutely perfect yet, but it’s about 90%.

Now, after going through the Letters of Agreement, memorizing our local scratch pad entries, and learning the stripmarking, I can tell what they’re doing. I can see a scratchpad entry in an aircraft’s datablock that reads “KZ5” and know that he’s going in for a TACAN approach (K), is going to stay in the airport’s pattern after the approach (Z), and is on Local Channel 5 (5). If a Navy helicopter is westbound at 2200 feet towards the Monte fix, I know he’s on the Monte departure that will take him over the Pensacola Regional Runway 17 glide slope.

In short, there’s a progression. It’s all overwhelming at first, but as they say: the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the airspace here is pretty crazy. However, after looking at the charts, reading the LOA’s, and monitoring the actual traffic, it’s all really making a lot more sense than it did a few weeks ago. For me, my pattern is to do a lot of book studying, combined with a bit of monitoring. I usually study and memorize the majority of the day, with a couple short breaks here or there to clear my head. Around three times a week, I’ll go upstairs to monitor for forty-five minutes at a time, maybe an hour.

By the far the most amazing source of knowledge has been the actual controllers. The LOA's have a lot of legalese - pages and pages of dry text and tables. It helps quite a bit to have someone sit down and say “Okay, this is how it works in the real world.” LOA’s are typically full of extraneous text that may or may not apply to your side of the operation, so it’s good to render the fat off and get to the meat of the procedures. You're already consuming so much information that it's a big help for someone to point out on which areas you should focus on the most.

For my home study, I’ve also bought myself a dry erase board ($6 at Walmart) and hung it up in my home office. After I get home, I bang out the frequencies and navaids on it. The approaches are still problematic and the frequencies are still not down perfectly. The UHF ones are especially annoying for some reason. I don’t feel ready to take the tests for them, and do feel like I should be further along. There's nothing I can do but keep working at it.

There's a long, long way to go. They say every journey begins with a first step. Well, I'm still tying my shoes on. :)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Attack of the VLJ's

I've been following Eclipse Aviation and its largest customer, the upstart air taxi DayJet, for a long while now. I'd heard that they were getting close to starting up operations and had selected Pensacola (along with Gainesville, Lakeland, Boca Raton, and Tallahassee) as their first five "DayPorts". With prices said to be at or around economy class seats I was definitely intrigued.

For the past few days, myself and some coworkers were doing a course at Pensacola Aviation, the largest FBO at Pensacola Regional. Imagine my surprise when I looked out on to the ramp yesterday and saw a spanky-new DayJet Eclipse 500:

Man, that's purty.

I saw at least one pilot, along with two DayJet representatives and the FAA inspector who was working with them. We introduced ourselves as controllers from the local TRACON and were promptly given a tour of the airplane.

We talked with the FAA inspector for a while, who gave us some good information regarding their performance capabilities. Overall, they're equivalent in performance to the original Cessna Citation (C500) , meaning they're pretty sluggish on the climb and during cruise compared to larger jets. This is pretty much in line with what I've been reading about them. In short, don't expect Citation X performance from a $1.2 million package. They'll still get you where you're going, just about 80 knots slower than an Embraer 145.

On the approach end of things, they have excellent short field performance and can really pull it back. On final, they can slow it down to around 90 knots without a problem. They can also put down and takeoff from runways shorter than 3000 feet. Not an STOL by any means, but they can get into and out of places that a Lear or Gulfstream can't. This could potentially open up jet traffic to a lot of smaller airports that have traditionally been piston-only.

The ticket price is supposed to be between $1 to $3 per mile. When I asked how that is calculated, I was told that it's determined by how small your travelling window is. For instance, if you can depart between 8am and 12pm, you might pay $1 per mile. However, if you absolutely have to be in the air at 8am sharp, you could be paying up to $3 per mile.

How does it compare to a regular airline fare? Let's say I needed to get from Tallahassee to the South Florida area for a meeting at 12 noon, but wanted to be back home later that evening. I just did a search on for flights from Tallahassee to Fort Lauderdale for September 1st, flying down in the morning and returning in the evening. The cheapest available was a $1105 fare on Delta that routed me through Atlanta, with total round trip flight time of nearly 9 hours. The flight leaves TLH at 7am, and I'd arrive back at TLH at 10:20 that night. I'd get back the same day alright, but I'd be freaking wiped.

In comparison, a direct flight from TLH to Boca Raton airport (about 20 minutes north of FLL) is approximately 329 miles. Let's round it off to 350. I forgot to clarify if the price per mile is one-way or round-trip. According to this article, it's round trip. If it's truly round-trip, it's no contest. $350 vs. $1105. If it's one-way, $700 vs. $1105 is still pretty peachy, especially if the business is footing the bill. For me, one of the biggest differences is the flying time. 3:00 direct round trip vs. 9 hours involving two connections at the world's busiest airport sounds much more pleasant. Couple that with no parking fees, no security lines, and no two mile terminal walks and we've got a winner. Lastly, since your direct flight time is an hour and a half, you can give them a pretty wide departure window.

Overall, I still think that DayJet is going to be on the higher end of the airfare spectrum, especially when compared to low fare carriers like Southwest. However, it makes up for it in terms of convenience and what can be defined as "cool factor". Given the choice between being shoved in Cattle Class on consecutive CRJ and MD-88 flights or spending a couple hundred more to get there and back faster on a private jet, it'd be a tough call. If you're a business traveler with a corporate budget behind you, it'd be a no-brainer.

Cockpit Close-up: They use an AVIO avionics package, designed exclusively for the Eclipse. The vertical PFD layout looks closer to the Avidyne system found on Cirrus aircraft than the ubiquitous Garmin G1000. I wonder why they didn't go with either one of those packages, since they're already being integrated on other VLJ's like the Citation Mustang. The G1000 is everywhere, which would make it easier to transition pilots upgrading from the many other G1000 aircraft.

Riding in Style: Here's the shot of the cabin and its four seats. The inspector mentioned that the ride is very smooth and the seats are very comfortable. You can see the hangers towards the rear for hanging garment bags and coats.

Sticking my hand where it don't belong: I just wanted to give you an idea of how small the engines are on this thing. I've seen hair dryers with bigger fans, LOL. The engines are rated at 900 pounds of thrust each, giving the plane a maximum cruise speed of around 370 knots.

Can someone loan me $1.2 million? These planes are just cool-looking. No, it doesn't have that "Mach .98 while it's still got the chocks on" look of the Citation X, but it's pretty and - most importantly - very affordable. It really makes the leap from "private jet" to "personal jet". From what I hear, they're very easy to fly and very forgiving as far as turbine aircraft go. I just hope the people who become owner-pilots of these things realize the responsibility they're taking on.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Real World vs. AcademyLand

The Academy is nothing like the real-world. I know everyone says that, but I just wanted to restate that here. Don't go into your facility with any illusions.

Get The Picture

I would highly recommend everyone visit and take a tour of their facility before actually showing up there to work. A lot of the people I went to school and the Academy with had never even seen a picture of their tower or TRACON. Go there, talk with the controllers, talk with the managers, get a feel for the traffic types, the amount of airports and airspace you work. No one expects you to be an expert after a one hour tour, but at least when you go to the Academy you have a frame of reference.

Before I went to the Academy, I'd visited just over a half dozen facilities from VFR towers up through ARTCC's. The list includes ZMA, ZDC, DCA, MIA, TMB, PCT, P31, and the ATC Command Center in Virginia (if you've seen United 93, that's where it all went down). Each visit was immensely valuable and gave me a good taste of what kind of work is being done at each facility, along with a sense of how everything ties together. It's interesting to see the entire process from top to bottom.

Let's say the weather's bad today in Miami and traffic in and out of Miami needs to be slowed down. There's only so many slots available, so there needs to be a compromise between airlines.
  1. The ATC Command Center coordinates with airline representatives via teleconference to see which flights are going to be cancelled or rerouted.
  2. In the meantime, ground delay and flow control programs are issued to each ARTCC, including ZJX (Jacksonville Center) and ZMA (Miami Center).
  3. The ZJX Traffic Management Unit issues the flow control instructions to the affected sectors.
  4. The ZJX controllers institute 10-miles-in-trail procedures for the sectors entering ZMA's airspace, spacing them out to maintain a manageable flow.
  5. ZMA controllers receive the spaced-out traffic and work them to meet MIA approach control's needs.
  6. MIA Approach works them around the weather and sequences them to the final.
  7. MIA Local control gets them on the ground.
  8. The MIA clearance and ground controllers work with the ground delay programs for outbound traffic.
That's a pretty oversimplified example of how the system is tied together. What I'm saying, basically, is that when you go to your facility you become part of a much bigger picture. Your decisions affect - and are affected by - a large number of people, and that's something AcademyLand can't convey.

A Numbers Game

While I would say that the Tower and RTF sims at OKC are realistic in the technical and procedural sense - i.e. you learn proper phraseology and you deal with aircraft that perform realistically - you're missing the volume that you get out here. You're also missing the "X" factor, that random element that will mess up your day. It could be weather, bad radios, unresponsive neighboring facilities, radar issues, broken air conditioning, etc. In short, not only are you dealing with the traffic but you're having to work with any number of outside factors that can distract you from the traffic.

The thing to remember also is that the Academy facilities are stripped-down because they have to be. At the Academy, you've got between 9 days to three weeks to learn your "facility" before you start working "traffic". They can't over complicate the facility if they expect you to learn it in that amount of time along with all of the phraseology and procedures.

Let me compare the stats of my facility vs. the stats of Academy approach.

AcademyPensacola TRACON
Major Airports14
Satellite Airports 540+
Neighboring Facilities25

As you can see, there's simply a heck of a lot more to learn.

Airspace Design

The Academy Approach airspace is about as dumbed-down stoopid as you can get. It's basically just a big circle divided horizontally across the middle. You have two sectors: North and South, and both extend upwards to 12,000 feet. There are no shelves, no complications. The only tricky bit is that Bartles airport shelf to the northwest, but even that is pretty straightforward.

Here, we have 9 separate sectors. To complicate things, it's sliced up into more pieces than the cheese you buy at your local supermarket. I've had many people here tell me this is the most complicated airspace they've ever worked, and these are folks with as many as 7 facilities under their belts. Maybe there are other approach controls out there that are simple "upside down wedding cake" layouts, but not here.

Below are the three radar banks (3 sectors each) for our facility. One thing to note is that every time there's a runway change, the sectors change completely. The actual dimensions of each bank's airspace remain the same, but the divisions of the sectors within swap around like crazy.

Aircraft Types

One excellent thing about the Academy is that it teaches you how to work a variety of aircraft together. If you're going to a busy Class B like Miami or Atlanta, you're most likely not going to be mixing up too many Cherokees with Boeing 737's on the same runway. In RTF, we did that all the time. Once again, in no way am I saying that just because you sit on a STARS or ACD simulator for 9 days you're ready to plug-in and work real people. However, I paid extra attention to the really mixed problems because (going back to my "visit your facility" point) from my visits here I'd seen that this was the kind of traffic I'd likely be working.

Here at P31, it's common to have a CRJ, a Citation, a Navy T-34, and a Tomahawk all coming into land from four different directions. It's fascinating to watch the controllers here sequence them in and create a plan for them all using speed control, vectoring, and altitudes in conjunction with aircraft performance characteristics. Watching these men and women with 15 or 20 years of experience doing this is like watching a master painter at work.

Second Nature

I'll finish this up by going to back to one of my my tower instructor's favorite sayings: "Don't think. It slows the team." The more you have committed to memory and available on instant recall, the better your training will go. I've talked to a lot of the trainees and OJT instructors here, and that's been one of the strongest recurring themes: learn the frequencies/ sectors/ identifiers before you get out on the floor. The less you have to think about mundane stuff, the more you can concentrate on working your traffic.