Friday, July 27, 2007

RTF Labs: Part 1

Ok, I'm back. Sorry about the long hiatus on RTF-specific posts. I've had a lot going on and frankly haven't been in a writing mood. Anyhow, let's cut to the chase.

Today's Subjects
  • Pre-test
  • Transmission Efficiency
  • Lab Problem Designs
We've been in the labs for exactly a week now. As with the Tower class, it's a steady ramp up of traffic. They start you off slow, with just a few amount of planes. Of course, if you've never done this before it feels like you're getting whacked with traffic left and right because you don't know what to say or what to do.

Actually, let me rephrase that. You have a good idea of what you want to say and do, but not exactly how or when to do it. Do I clear this guy for the approach now... or do I need to turn him? Will that F-16 climb fast enough to beat my American 123 even though the AAL has a head-start? Can I switch this guy to center now? You second-guess yourself a lot at first, but it gradually goes away.


The first thing you ever do in the labs is what they call the Pre-test, which is part of a process designed to measure your improvement. In short, what they do is throw you into the simulators with zero simulator time aside from the various part-tasks and academics you've been doing for the 9 days prior. You will invariably screw things up to some extent. The logs of what you did get recorded and stored. Then, later on in the program, your performance is compared to how you did on that problem.

The problem itself is not what I'd call difficult. However, it's similar to the Tower PV in that there's not a lot of traffic, but the traffic you DO have is going to require you to use all of your tools effectively. For instance, outside of the typical inbound airliners you'll get:
  • VFR pop-ups
  • Approaches into Bartles (ILS) and James (NDB) airports
  • ILS practice approaches into Academy
  • Mixed-type traffic into Academy (i.e. Boeing 767's following Cessna 182's on final)
  • Overflights
The idea is to throw everything at you, to see what sticks and what you need to work on. Most likely, you're going to feel pretty sheepish afterwards. The records are completely anonymous (the logs are recorded by station, not by name) so if you don't do well, it's can't be tracked back to you at a later date. The "scores" are averaged out.

Transmission Efficiency

As the problems get busier, you're going to need to pick up the pace. One of the easiest ways to do that is to combine transmissions. If you have DAL456 on downwind at 4,000ft. and want to turn him base and descend to 3,000ft., don't say, "DAL456, turn left heading 010." --Wait til he turns-- "DAL456, descend and maintain 3,000." That's two transmissions, and two responses you need to wait for. Instead, tell him "DAL456, turn left heading 010, then descend and maintain 3,000." That saves you a call and the pilot a call.

A side effect of breaking up transmissions is "tunnel vision". If you have to sit there and watch an airplane do something before you can tell them to do something, you're likely losing track of things going on elsewhere.

Lab Problem Designs

The problems in the labs are designed so well you'll hate them. They are created to systematically test your scan, your reasoning, and your phraseology by throwing a variety of situations at you while dragging your attention all over your scope.
  • Just when you have that Delta ready to turn final, a VFR pop-up will call you with a minute-long spiel about who, what, and where he is and what he's requesting. While he's drawling on, your airliner's plowing through the sky into your partner's airspace... and there's nothing you can do about it...
  • Right when you need to turn that Citation on his base leg inside the tiny Bartles shelf (view the airspace map in the previous post) you'll get a call from your partner requesting a point-out on the other side of the map, drawing your attention far away from where it should be. By the time you get back to your Citation, he's already busted Aero Center's airspace and you've got yourself an operational deviation.
  • Just when you're climbing your departure out to the northeast, Aero Center will call with a point-out who will want to descend right down on top of your departure.
The only thing I can say is roll with it and learn to prioritize. A good way to think about it is "Who's going to hurt me first?" The point-out 20 miles away from your airspace may need attention eventually, but not nearly as much as that 767 who's going to blow past the localizer and into that poor unsuspecting Cessna in your partner's downwind. If that happens, you've just earned yourself a two-for-one combo of an operational deviation and an operational error.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

RTF Airspace and Facilities (Pics!)

Before I go on to write about the labs, it's probably best that I show you guys what everything looks like so you have a point of reference.

Below is a link to an AAC airspace map I created for my own self-study. The original version has all of the elements split out on different pages (I printed the original version on transparencies so I could keep them next to me), but I compressed them down to just 2 pages in this version.

Download AAC Airspace Map (PDF file)

The different elements include:
  • Arrival / Departure gates
  • Frequences & Airspace division
  • Instrument Approaches
  • Airports
  • Patterns
  • Final Approach Fixes (Woody, Jam, Berry, Chapl)
Next we have the STARS lab. There are six radar stations all along a single wall. The ghost pilots are located upstairs.

A close-up view of a single STARS radar station:

This is, given my limited experience, as close to the real deal as possible. Visible in the photo:
  • On either side of the screen are a variety of knobs and switches that allow you to adjust a large number of parameters - datablock brightness, range ring intervals, map brightness, map views, letter size, history length, etc. Everything's literally at your fingertips, whereas with ACD you have to use submenus to access those options.
  • To the right of the scope is your communications panel. Unlike Tower, where every contact with an outside facility (namely, Academy Approach) is simulated with your instructor, here you actively use the shout lines and interphones to talk to McAlester Flight Service Station, Aero Center, Jeske AFB tower, and your partner working the other sector. It's a touchscreen; depending in who you're calling, you either press and hold the button to talk or toggle a channel on or off.
  • The illuminated keyboard falls comfortably under your right hand when you're working. Not so comfortably, the keys are not your typical QWERTY format. They are arranged in a linear fashion. A, B, C, D, E, F, etc. It takes getting used to, though the speed does pick up pretty quick. Barely visible in the darkness to the left of the keyboard is the trackball.
The upstairs STARS Ghost Pilot systems. For every single STARS radar scope downstairs, there are two of these computer stations. They have similar communications panels to the scopes below so the ghost pilots can call in representing various facilities.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Speaking of Shooting...

So we're in the labs now. I've been wanting to write about them, but I wanted some photos to go along with it, and I haven't been able to get them. The problems are getting more and more difficult, and our skills are ramping up at the same time.

In the meantime, here's a new video I shot of me, well, shooting. I had ordered some ammo online for my Makarov, and it turned out it was a type of ammo that's only allowed in outdoor ranges.

There's only one outdoor range around here, and it's out in the boonies. I shot there a few weeks back with my friends Kelly and Dave; we were driving around through farmland for a while before we found it. It literally has no address - only directions on how to get there. They're not quite of the "Make a right where the old barn used to be, keep driving a mile and a half, and make a left on the dirt road by the sign with the gun on it." variety but pretty darn close to it. In fact, you can substitute "schoolhouse" with "old barn" and you've got it.

Anyways, I went back there yesterday with my trusty Makarov and videoed the gun and targets from different angles while I shot. Here's the result:

Friday, July 20, 2007

Shooting Yourself in the (Ca)Rear

The FAA Academy, like most government institutions, is littered with official signs and placards everywhere that provide notice for rules and regulations to be observed on the grounds. Some of the most common talk about how you're not supposed to have any weapons whatsoever on the grounds. This means on your person, in your bag, or in your car, and includes guns, large knives, and pretty much anything else that is designed to cause harm to other human beings.

This "no weapons" notice- located at the front gate, in the guard shack, around the buildings, everywhere - should be plain and clear to anyone. It features a big picture of a big pistol, and big black lettering that a one-eyed grandma with cataracts could read from 200 yards away on a dark night. They couldn't make it more obvious.

Well, thanks to this poster, the laws of natural selection have been proven correct. Natural selection is commonly referred to as "Survival of the fittest". In this case, it should be referred to "Weeding out the dumbasses".

Apparently, a new ATC student in a recent class decided it would be a good idea to bring live ammunition to class. Now, it's one thing if you went shooting, used your school bag to carry your gun/ammo, and - oops! - forgot to take the ammo out. Hey, mental lapses happen. Most normal people would keep their yaps shut and try not to draw attention to the fact that they have deadly objects on their person.

But what does our intrepid student do? He passes some live ammo around the classroom. I don't know how many rounds, what type/caliber they were, when he showed them, or other details like that. Whatever the case, one of the girls in the class got scared (rightfully so) and somehow got security called in. I would imagine they took him off for questioning. The end result is that the guy got fired.

The story was confirmed by one of the guards at the front gate. I happened to be sitting in the guard shack waiting for them to call me in, saw the aforementioned poster, and asked him if what I'd heard was true. He confirmed it, adding that - get this - the guy blew a second chance!

After the student was questioned, they led him out to his car. They asked him, in plain English, "Do you have any weapons in your car?" Just like that. It's a simple question. It's not abstract physics or in some obscure Mandarin dialect. Only eight words, none of them greater than two syllables.

What does our idiot say? "No," of course. They ask him to pop his trunk. Up comes the trunk, and there sitting in the middle of the trunk is a gun. He was immediately terminated.

From what the guard told me, if he had said "Yes" and admitted to the weapon he might still be in class. However, not only did he endanger the lives of fellow students and violate the regulations protecting federal buildings, he outright lied . That is the worst offense of all, I think.

You're going into a career where you will be trusted with thousands of lives a day and be responsible for following innumerable and often obtuse rules. Now you've proven that your word means nothing and that you can't follow even the simplest of plainly-stated kindergarten-level rules.

Good job, idiot, and good riddance. I hope you didn't spend too much money on CTI school, because you just wasted it all and killed your career by saying the wrong single-syllable word.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

RTF Day 6: Arrivals

Today's Lessons:
  • Arrivals
We spent all of our time today on arrivals and arrival-related part task exercises.

Compared to what we were doing in Tower (you know, "Cleared to land") the basic phraseology is a mouthful, and it changes depending on what airport the aircraft is landing at and what kind of approach they're doing.

To start, there are a variety of approaches in Academy-land, but the only ones that are used are:
  • AAC: ILS Runway 28R
  • Jeske AFB: ILS Runway 27
  • Bartles: ILS Runway 13
  • James: NDB via James Radio Beacon
  • Viney: GPS
ILS, NDB, and GPS are all handled differently. Since it's the most common approach type, I'll use an example for an ILS approach. Let's say you've got a Continental heading into Academy, on a right base for 28R. You clear him by telling him: "Continental 123, one-zero miles from Woody, turn right heading 250, maintain three thousand until established on the localizer, cleared ILS runway two-eight-right approach, maintain one-niner-zero knots to Woody."

To break it apart:
  • "One-zero miles from Woody": You need to tell him his distance from the final approach fix (FAF).
  • "Turn right heading 250": The course for intercepting the ILS localizer must be 30 degrees or less from the runway heading. In this case, he's coming from the north, so 250 will work fine. If he was coming from the south, it would be a 310 heading.
  • "Maintain three thousand until established on the localizer": This will keep him from descending or climbing until he's setup on the ILS. Typically, the aircraft will keep the assigned altitude until either they cross the final approach fix or you issue a new altitude.
  • "Cleared ILS Runway 28R approach": Academy has multiple types of approaches on multiple runways. When you clear an aircraft to land at an airport with multiple options, you have to be specific about the runway and/or type. In the case of a different airport, such as James - which has only a single type of approach - you would just say "Cleared approach, James Airport" and you're done.
  • "Maintain one-niner-zero knots to Woody": When you issue an approach clearance, it automatically voids any previous speed clearances. Speed control helps you keep separation, and when you've got your aircraft running in on a tight final, you don't want guy #1 suddenly throwing the brakes on before he hits the FAF.
Outside of the actual approach clearances, there are additional LOA's and procedures that need to be followed. These include:
  • Cancelling IFR: When an aircraft is making its approach into an uncontrolled field and is established on the localizer/final approach course, you need to advise that aircraft on the best way to cancel their IFR clearance. This changes depending on the radio reception capability of airport's area.

    • Bartles (where AAC Approach frequencies reach the surface): "N123, advise cancelling IFR in the air or on the ground this frequency. Change to advisory frequency approved."
    • James (where only McAlester FSS is reachable on the ground): "N123, advise cancelling IFR in the air this frequency or on the ground with McAlester Radio. Change to advsory frequency approved."
  • Jeske AFB Arrivals: Whenever an aircraft is inbound to Jeske, you need to call Jeske tower on the interphone and notify them of the aircraft's position, call sign, and type - in that specific order. To save time, you can notify them of several inbounds at once as long as they're within 15nm.
There's plenty more where that came from, but that's just a little taste of the phraseology and of some of the rules we need to work with.

Monday, July 16, 2007

RTF Class Dates

Forress just asked me the following, which I felt were excellent questions:
I have a question, so tower class is 7 weeks and if you passed the PV, they send you to RTF for another 2 1/2 weeks. How come some are going to their facilities first but you are going straight to RTF school?

And do they tell you this the first day you report to OKC? I would imagine it'll mess up ppl's return plane ticket if they don't tell you ahead of time.
1) How come some are going to their facilities first but you are going straight to RTF school?

I'm the odd-man-out. Usually people report to their facilities first, then come back for RTF. I'll go into how that happened in a minute.

With regards to when you report for RTF training, every facility is different. Usually the priority is based on how useful you will be to your facility without RTF.
  • Stand-alone TRACONs: If you're going to a stand-alone TRACON, such as Potomac TRACON, Southern California TRACON, Pensacola TRACON, Atlanta Large TRACON, or New York TRACON, you're pretty much a doorstop until you have RTF since it's all radar and no tower. If that's the kind of facility you're going to, your turnaround time is going to be pretty short compared to other facilities. To even begin your training (outside of CBIs, maps, monitoring, and other self-study stuff) you need radar familiarity, and they will want to get you in and out of OKC's RTF program as fast as possible so they can start OJT.

    Everyone I've spoken who is going to a stand-alone TRACON measured their turnaround time in weeks, usually around one or two. For my facility, there were a couple of guys who got to hang out at the facility for about a month. There were a few more new hires coming in after them staggered a couple weeks apart, and they wanted to send them all off to RTF together in one bunch.
  • Up/Downs: If you're going to an up/down combined tower/TRACON like Miami, West Palm Beach, or Fort Myers you will probably get some OJT in the tower cab . As an example, there's one guy in my RTF class who went to Kansas City Int'l two months ago and is already checked out on their tower. Other people in my class going to up/downs are also in different stages of tower training. Like I said, every facility is different, and every trainee is different.
2) And do they tell you this the first day you report to OKC? I would imagine it'll mess up ppl's return plane ticket if they don't tell you ahead of time.

Nope... and yes it sure does.

To sum up how RTF scheduling works (as it was explained to me), each region is allotted a certain number of seats in each RTF class. Three regions * 6 slots each = RTF Class of 18 people. This seems to be what makes it complicated for RTF students to swap classes, in particular if they come from different regions. It apparently takes a lot of paperwork and legwork because it involves a balance of both the region's slots and your facility's needs. If you're going to an East Coast facility but want to swap dates with your friend who's going to the West Coast, be prepared for an interesting ride.

Something else to note is that, upon passing your PVs, you become your facility's "property". Anything that has to do with things like your pay, your per-diem, your travel, your RTF date, etc. is handled specifically by your facility. While HR and the RTF department may have some information and say in the matter, your facility is the last word. If you are uncertain about when or if you need RTF, drop a line to your manager and see where you stand.

Anyways, you asked how I ended up back-to-back with my Tower class? Well.... My RTF situation was pretty screwed up. To sum it up, my class date ended up changing three times. And no, that was not fun. Let me lay it out in a timeline in the comments...

Saturday, July 14, 2007

RTF Days 4 and 5: Compression, Slop, and Departures

Today's Lessons
  • Speed Control
  • Vectoring
  • Departures
  • Block Test 1
The past few days have been half-lecture and half-simulation part task. The format we follow usually sees us doing a lecture on a particular subject (say, Speed Control) which is followed by a simulation where we put the theory into practice on a limited basis. For instance, on the vectoring simulation, you only do vectoring and are not allowed to adjust speed or altitude. In short, these part tasks build skill in particular areas, giving you a foundation that you can apply later on in more complex scenarios.

Speed Control

This is pretty straightforward overall, with a few red flags thrown in for fun. To describe it overall, speed management is how you maintain your separation in your pattern and is one of the methods you use for opening holes and establishing your sequence.
  • Anticipate: You need to take into account that airplanes do not slow down immediately and cannot descend below 10,000 feet if they're doing over 250 knots. For this reason, you really need to understand what your traffic needs to do before it can comply with your altitude restrictions.

    Example: Let's say you've got a 737 on your downwind leg, abeam Academy airport at 10,000 feet doing 350 knots. He's only four miles behind a Lear that's descending to 4,000 and is at 210 knots. You of course need 1000 feet or 3 miles separation. You tell the 737 "AAL237, reduce speed to one-niner-zero, then descend and maintain 4,000". The 737 has 140 knots on the Lear. By the time 737 complies with the speed reduction, he may be inside the 3 mile bubble around your Lear. A better thing to have done would have been to issue the speed restriction when the 737 was maybe six miles behind the Lear, which gives you a little wiggle room. Once they're down to similar speed, you can then issue smaller speed increases/reductions to tighten things up.
  • Compression: This ties in with anticipation. When you've got several aircraft lined up for the final, just keep in mind the following: the second that first airplane crosses the final approach fix, the flaps, gear, and slats will come out, the tray tables and seats will be in upright positions, and he will begin to bleed off speed like crazy as he slows to his approach speed. If you've got your airplanes exactly 3 miles apart, when that first one slams on the brakes the rest are going to "rear end" him (and eventually each other), and you will have a dangerous "accordion effect" with your traffic.

    You need to maintain that 3 miles. For this reason, you need to build yourself in a 1 mile cushion to anticipate for the compression that naturally occurs around the final approach fix. So, instead of keeping that 737 three miles behind that Lear, give him four miles and a similar airspeed. That way you're protected.
  • Keep 'Em High Program: Smoke 'em if you got 'em. Departing Turbojets and Turboprops like speed, and to get that speed they need to be climbed up high. For arriving jets/tprops, you should keep them as high as possible until it's a requirement to descend them. Think about it: the faster they get where they're going, the less time you have to deal with them. If you take them or keep them at 10,000 and up, there's no speed restriction. The Boeings can go 350 knots, the T-38's can zoom along at 500, and everyone's happy.

    Example: That 737 mentioned above probably checked in at 10,000 feet around 30 miles out at 350 knots. He's got a long way to go, and if you descend him he's going to have to pull back on that throttle and chunk nearly a third of his airspeed off. So, instead, you just keep him high, maneuver him into your pattern at 10,000 feet, and then you drop him and slow him.
  • Aircraft Performance: If you try to tell a Beech Bonanza to "Increase speed to two-five-zero", you're in for some disappointment. :) Just know your aircraft types and what they're capable of. There's a few here in the sims that were not in the Initial Tower course, such as:
    • ATR-42 (AT44)
    • Beechjet 400 (BE40)
    • C-130 (C130)
    • T-38 (T38)
    • Twin Comanche (PA30)
    • T-37 (T37)

A vector, by definition, is "a heading issued to an aircraft to provide navigational guidance by radar". Once again, understanding aircraft performance is key to doing this correctly. If you tell an F-16, a 747, and a Cessna 182 to turn right 90 degrees, you're going to get three vastly different radar tracks as they make their turns at varying speeds.

The distance an aircraft will travel before it fully turns on to its assigned heading is called "slopover" or just "slop". You need to account for this, in particular when you're working your pattern. A quick formula they gave us to work with was this: Speed / 100 = Miles of "slop".

So let's say we've got our 737, traveling at 200 knots on a heading of 180. We then issue him a heading of 270. So, using our formula, we calculate 200 knots / 100 = 2 miles of "slop". We can then predict that the aircraft will travel 2 miles further south during its turn before lining up on a heading of 270.

The lesson covered methods and phraseology such as:
  • Assigning headings: "Fly heading 220" "Turn right heading 190"
  • Reasons for vectoring: "Vector to final approach course" "Vector for spacing" Etc.
  • Incremental headings: "Turn twenty degrees right"
  • No gyro vectors: "This will be a no-gyro vector. Turn right." "Stop turn."
  • Restrictions: MVAs, VFRs, etc.
The part task simulation for this consisted of a "maze" through which we had to navigate various aircraft. Each aircraft has letters in its scratchpad, which tell you which departure gate you need to get it to ("AAA", "BBB", "CCC", etc.). Thrown into the mix was also one aircraft that lost its directional gyro, so you had to baby it through by giving it no gyro vectors.

Here's a shot of the maze. I blurred out the AC ID's on purpose; I don't want anyone to say I was giving out answers to this. This also shows you the STARS interface.


We basically went over the LOA's and procedures for each airport in our airspace and what we can expect as far as altitudes, headings, and authority. Each airport has different procedures and you need to know the phraseology for each intimately.

Subject matter included:
  • Initial climbouts for each airport (5000 for AAC, 4000 for JKE, 3000 for the satellites)
  • Initial turns
    • AAC: No turns below 3000 feet for noise-abatement aircraft (jets, turboprops)
    • JKE: Below 3000 feet, turns up to 90 degrees are permitted for all aircraft
    • Satellites: No turns until aircraft enters controlled airspace and is above MVA (2100)
  • Rolling calls for JKE
  • Release procedures for satellite airports
    • For James, the release request comes in from McAlester FSS (pilot calls in via telephone)
    • For Bartles, AAC Approach is reachable from the airplane on the ground, so the pilot will contact you directly.
Block Test 1

This was in the same computer-based format we used over in Initial Tower training. Prior to the test, we had an "interesting" review session where the instructors pitted one side of the class against the other over 48 questions. It was setup in a "Who wants to be a Millionaire" -meets- "The Weakest Link" format. The questions are multiple choice, but if you miss an answer your team gets bumped down to 0 points if you're not past 10,000 points. Really silly, but it was more fun than normal test reviews.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

RTF Day 3: Ghosts and ID's

Today's Lessons
  • Pilot Teach
  • Radar Identification
Pilot Teach

Today we spent some time on learning to Ghost Pilot for each other. The software is easy to use and every keyboard in the class has one of those paper "overlays" on it that tell you what each key does in the context of the ghost pilot software. It's pretty powerful actually. You can do a lot with just the numeric keypad on your keyboard, since the top three keys on it are correspond to HDG, SPD, and ALT. I'm having a brain fart and can't visualize which key is specifically what, but they're three of the keys on the top row of the keypad, starting with Num Lock.

Let's say you're ghosting and you've got Continental 123 under your command. Academy South tells you "COA123, descend and maintain 3000, turn left heading 310, reduce speed to 190". You just click the airplane with your mouse, press the HDG key, type "030", press ALT, type "310", press ALT, type "190", and the press ENTER. Everything is entered using only 3 digits. You can also use modifiers. For instance, if you're told "Turn rightto 030", you can type HDG, [right arrow], and "030".

Alright, let's say that was a vector for a final and Approach clears your for the ILS into AAC's runway 28R. You click the aircraft, press the key labeled "Approach", and a list of approaches will pop up for the airport listed as that airport's destination. Just select the appropriate one using the and arrows and press ENTER.

It's really easy once you get used to it.

Radar Identification

This course covered how we can verify an aircraft's identity using a variety of techniques. Depending on the method you use, you will need to issue the aircraft's observed position to the pilot. Here's a quick overview:
  • 1 Mile from End of Runway: If we see a primary target appear off the departure end of a runway and get a radio call saying something to the effect "Academy Departure, Lear 123PL with you out of eight hundred for five thousand." that's most likely our guy. You don't need to give him his position, since it's obvious to both of you.
  • Position Correlation: The call comes in... "Academy Approach, Cessna 172PT five miles northeast of Tulsa VOR at three thousand feet, requesting VFR traffic advisories to Springfield." You look five miles northeast of Tulsa VOR and there's a VFR single target there at 3000', miles away from any other aircraft. Given what the pilot's reported it's safe to say that the aircraft has been ID'd. He already gave you his position, so there's no need to spit it back at him.
  • Identifying Turns: However... what if there are two or three VFR targets out there? Which one is him? To figure this out, just turn him a minimum 30 degrees left or right. Ideally, you should keep in mind his destination, in this case Springfield. SGF is to the northeast, so you should give him a turn to the north or the east if possible so you don't take him too far off of his path. Also, take into account that smaller, slower aircraft will not show the turn too well, so it's better to give them a larger turn than thirty degrees.

    So you give him the instructions "Cessna 172PT, Academy Approach, turn forty degrees left for radar identification." You monitor your targets, and sure enough, one guy makes a nice standard left turn to the east. You call back with their position: "Cessna 172PT, radar contact, four miles northeast of Tulsa VOR. Resume own navigation. Squawk 1603."
  • Beacon Identification: There are three ways to ID an aircraft via their beacon, and require that you issue the aircraft's position afterwards. The methods are Ident, changing their transponder their code and watching it change, and telling them to switch their Mode C off and back on. Ident is the best one since it doesn't require you to tunnel-vision yourself into watching a target for extended periods of time.

Monday, July 09, 2007

RTF Day 2: The "Green Between" the STARS

Today's Lessons
  • STARS/ACD Orientation
  • Primary and Secondary Radar
  • Separation Procedures
STARS/ACD Orientation

Ok, I love STARS. For those who don't know what the hell that is, it's the "newer" Terminal radar scope. The acronym stands for "Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System". Lots of old facilities using the old monochrome round scopes (ARTS IIE and such) are getting those replaced with newer equipment. Unfortunately, my facility will still have ARTS IIE for the next few years before the new building is put up. Until then, the only colors I'll be working with are bright yellow (traffic I'm working) and duller yellow (traffic I'm not working). :)

Here's a side-by-side comparion of all three STARS, ACD, and ARTS:

Today they divided us up based on which system our facilities will be using. There are only a couple of true STARS people in the class, with most of the class being the old ARTS system. However, since they don't teach ARTS anymore and a lot of us are slated to get STARS at some point at our facilities anyway, about half the class opted to learn on STARS and the other went for ACD (ARTS Color Display). The way it works out is that the STARS half will work a problem on the STARS simulator while the ACD people act as ghost pilots. When the problem finishes we swap positions, and the same problem is run again on ACD with that STARS people now working as ghosts.

ACD is similar to STARS and is also pretty refined. However, in my (very limited) experience STARS' user interface is better and there appear to be more tools built-into the STARS software. I'm sure both have their quirks and issues, but what can you expect? They're both pieces of government hardware and software that probably cost the FAA $3000 per key on its keyboard and twice that for every line of code.

Overall, the system is just very easy to use and there are many options so you can customize how you view your traffic. In the field at your facility, you will have your own individual login. When you sit down at a station and log into the system, it will remember your map and panel preferences. It saves you from having to sit there fiddling with map brightness and range rings and font sizes and all that crap (which we have to do here in RTF since we don't have our own custom logins).

In short, I like the technology.

Primary and Secondary Radar

Lots of review here. No need to go into this stuff. Primary shoots out beams, secondary talks to the airplane, and there's weird stuff that can happen to both. It was covered in CTI school in just about every ATC class (except Non-radar, ha!). It was covered in the Initial Tower class. The horse has been beaten and it is dead.

And even here, none of the instructors have any idea why the word "fruit" is used to describe a transponder getting interrogated by multiple units. There's even a piece of hardware called the "defruiter". Fruity.


This was one of the most important courses we've taken so far. To sum it up, it contains some of the tools that you will use to keep your traffic moving both safely and efficiently as well as some of the restrictions that you need to apply.
  • Divergence: As our instructor put it, if you aim two airplanes at each other, you have "Die". If you angle them 15 degrees apart or more, you've guessed it!... divergence!

    This is one of the tricks allowed in the terminal environment. For instance, let's say you've got two aircraft at the same altitude whose courses will cross. So long as:
    1. You have determined that the targets will indeed cross paths without coming in contact with each other. Note: not guessed or "think" they'll pass. This is a science, not conjecture or theory. You must be absolutely certain that they will indeed pass each other; otherwise, it's "deal time".
    2. You monitor the targets to ensure they do not touch ("green between") you are good to go.
  • Vertical separation: This covered topics such as IFR minima, vertical separation between Special VFR and IFR traffic, etc.
  • Wake Turbulence: The silent killer is back. Here in terminal radar, instead of the ever-present timers used throughout the Initial Tower course, you use vertical separation and mileage to keep separation. It's all figures we've heard before: 4 miles between a heavy and another heavy, 3 miles between large and large, 4 miles between a small and a large, etc. More review, but vital knowledge for this.

    Our instructor gave us an interesting visual for it. Basically, pretend that every heavy has a "stinger" dangling behind it 6 miles long and 1000 feet below. I know it sounds ridiculously stupid, but when you've got a B767 maneuvering around your pattern it makes it easy to visualize a "tail" following it. Just keep that following Citation or King Air away from that "Swinging Tail of Death" and you'll be deal-free.
  • Other Radar Separation: We also covered radar separation from adjacent airspace, formation flights, obstacles, non-radar airspace, etc. Lots of review, but all required knowledge.
  • Visual Separation: We touched on this, but it is not used here at Academy-land. They want us to actually work the traffic instead of punting the separation responsibility on to the pilots. Bastards.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

RTF Day 1

So today I moved across the street to the Carter-era RTF building. The powers that be were gracious enough to give me a bit of time to say goodbye to my friends from my tower class. I gave them all DVD-ROMs of all the photos we took while we were here.

I'm really bummed about a couple things, the first of which is being thrown back into training with no break in between. Everyone else in my class gets to move on to their facility (if at least for two weeks like my SoCal friends) and get familiarized with where they'll be working, while I'm still stuck here. I haven't set foot in a TRACON in over six months, and I would have loved the opportunity to at least monitor on-position a bit before being sent back here. But nope; here I am. At least I didn't have to pack and move.

The second thing is that, well, I miss my friends. I've never served in an armed force, but having gone through the tower course with these people I can understand the whole camaraderie thing. You know, where you all work together to succeed in a challenging environment and look after each other despite everyone coming from different walks of life for different reasons. There were of course some people that I was closer with than others, but overall I just miss that group of people. I couldn't have asked for a better group of friends / co-workers / classmates, and now they've all scattered to the farthest reaches of the country. Hopefully we'll run into each other someday.

Anyways, enough of that. On to the subject at hand....

Today's Lessons:
  • Airspace
  • Procedures / Letters of Agreement
The RTF class is a much more condensed class than the Tower course, and you are inundated with a lot of information right from the get-go. They waste no time in getting up to speed, so when you show up you'd better turn your brain to "sponge" mode. Unlike the Tower course, where there was a lot of "fluff" (such as the Tower Equipment, ASOS, and Tower Visibility courses), here it's all meat with zero gristle. Everything you are taught here matters and will be used in the labs.

Academy Approach Airspace

Coming directly from the Tower class, it's kind of cool to zoom out from the too-familiar world of Academy Airport and view the world 40 miles around it. The airspace is fairly simple, although there are a few "gotchas" built-in to make it interesting (more on those later). Some fun facts:
  • 30 mile radius around AAC
  • Two towered airports: AAC and Jeske Air Force Base
  • Three main uncontrolled fields: Bartles, James (no joke), and Viney.
  • All airports have an instrument approach: ILS, NDB, or GPS
  • Two sectors: North, South
  • Four arrival gates: NE, SE, SW, and NW
  • Four departure gates: N, S, E, and W
  • Extends from Surface to 12,000 MSL
  • Bordered by Aero Center's Tulsa Low and Oklahoma City Low Sectors, as well as Springfield Approach to the northeast
Procedures / Letters of Agreement

AAC Approach's airspace naturally shares LOA's with Aero Center, Springfield, AAC Tower, and Jeske AFB. Most of these are pretty straightforward, such as the requirement that aircraft entering Springfield's airspace must be at 5000 or 7000 feet, or that when you're transferring aircraft to Aero Center they need to be 5 miles in trail. However, here are some of the internal rules that govern operations within AAC Approach's airspace:
  • Shared Final: AAC has a single usable ILS, for Runway 28R. As it's the northern of the two parallel runways, it lies within the North sector's airspace. North therefore controls the sequence of aircraft into AAC and South is forced to coordinate with North for slots in the approach sequence.

    For instance, let's say you're South and you've got AAL401 on a left downwind for 28R. You have to call North on the landline and request a slot. He will then respond to you with something akin to "Behind SWA237". So then you'll look out for SWA237 and maneuver your AAL401 in behind him.
  • Internal Traffic: If you have an aircraft in your sector that's heading to an airfield in the other Academy sector, they need to be transferred to the other sector at 6000 feet and the transfer must occur outside of 15nm from AAC Airport but within 30nm.
  • Noise Abatement: Aircraft departing from AAC Airport cannot be turned prior to the aircraft reaching 3000 feet.
  • Jeske Tower Inbounds: Whenever there's an aircraft inbound to Jeske AFB, you have to call the tower and let them know the aircraft's position, call sign, and type. For instance:
    • You: "Jeske tower, Academy South, Inbound."
    • JKE: "Jeske tower"
    • You: "One five miles northwest of Jeske, Viper17, F-16"
Those are a few of the rules we're having to work with. AAC is a pretty stripped down approach facility compared to those in the real world, but it seems to be pretty balanced in that it's relatively simple while still forcing you to think and act.

I'm looking forward to Monday, seeing what it brings.

Friday, July 06, 2007

PV Passed!

Well, I PV-ed today... and passed!

On PV day, you can really feel the tension in the air. There is a mix of euphoria, anxiety, and depression as people wait for their turn. People - both faculty and other classes - will turn up to check on you and make sure your class is doing well. To cut into the tension, we watched DVD's and played games throughout the day. There's nothing else to do but wait, so you may as well be unproductive! :)

The PV Process

The PVs will begin about two hours after you arrive. Prior to the first PV run, you will have time to do at least two or three runs in either the TSS or EDS. Make sure you do at least one local and one ground run. After the PVs begin, you are no longer allowed back into the EDS or TSS.

Each PV session is an hour long, and is broken down like this:
  1. Preparation: You get 15 minutes to set up your TSS station however you like. The strips will already have been ripped and stuffed in stripholders by the ghost pilots (as I mentioned previously, these guys rock). Take this time to relax, chat with your PV examiner, and setup any last-minute coordination with your PV partner.
  2. Running the Problem: The problem lasts about 30 minutes. There is no one in the room aside from you, your partner, the two PV examiners, and the ghost pilot. By this point in training, you will have come across everything you will use in the problem multiple times in multiple situations over the course of four weeks of labs. Just make it happen here. The examiner will sit behind you, watch and listen, and take copious notes on their papers. Just put them on ignore and do what you need to do.
  3. Review Period: After the problem is over, you will be asked to throw away your scratch paper and go wait outside for an undetermined period of time. A photograph of a trainee during this period should be placed in the dictionary next to the phrase "pucker factor". Tears, anger, frustration, self-doubt, confidence, and arrogance were all present. Our instructors, Russ and Curt, were also there, looking like expectant fathers. You could really and truly feel the concern they had for us.
  4. Revelation: After around ten or fifteen minutes, someone will poke their head out and draw you back into the inner sanctum. You will sit down with your examiner for that run and go over their notes in detail, which of course - depending on how badly you think you did - will build the tension until you're ready to scream, LOL. Both of my examiners took the roundabout way and covered the pros and cons of my runs before telling me I had passed. Some of friends just flat out asked them "Did I pass?" before allowing them to get in.

    You will be presented with an OJT form to sign, which will invariably be covered in all kinds of notes. The thing you need to locate is a tiny little check box underneath the "Recommendation:" section on the back that says "Continuation of OJT". If that is checked, it's time to do one of the following:
    • "Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight!"
    • Run screaming through the streets of the MMAC yelling "I passed, bitches!"
    • Curl up into a fetal position and have a good cry.
    • Plan what you're going to do with your $18,000 pay raise (" mean I can afford ramen with....with flavor now? Oh thank you baby Jesus...").
For many of us, this will be the most stressful thing we've done in our lives up until this point. Obviously things will get more complicated at our facilities, but passing this first hurdle feels so unbelievably good.

PV Problem Overview

The problem is a slow one; you will have maybe 30 airplanes, if that. It's very similar to TSS Problem 44. It is very, very moderately paced. However, it will force you to use all of your tools and your coordination abilities. Also, due to its slow pace, you will have plenty of time to second-guess yourself. Don't! Play it cool and be confident in your abilities. The PV-ers will smell fear, so don't show any.

Items that featured throughout:
  • Pattern management (Extend downwind, short approach, enter three mile final, etc.)
  • Wake turbulence
    • Small behind Heavy
    • Small behind Large
    • Arrivals and departures behind departing Heavies
    • 16 Departures behind departing Heavy on crossing runway
  • Traffic Calls
  • Vehicle crossing the parallels
  • Departure/Tower coordination (IFR releases for 16 departures, rolling calls for all IFR departures)
  • Runway Crossing Coordination
  • Traffic awareness: When you give your position relief briefing, make sure you know who everybody is, where they're going, and what they're doing.
There are no helicopters, overflights, low approaches, military flights, or any other silliness. It's just plain traffic. There are around 8-10 IFR arrivals and about the same number of IFR departures. Compared to the world-ender that is problem 23, this one is very laid-back. Not dead-easy, but it gives you time to breathe and correct any issues that may arise.

Failure Points

We had three people not make it on their first try, all on Local. Two were because of a serious incident, the third seemed to be due to a combination of smaller things. The first two failed on Thursday, went through some retraining on Friday morning, and passed successfully on Friday afternoon (to much cheering and fanfare from the rest of us). The third will have to retake on Monday.

The two key issues that caused people to fail were the following:
  1. Runway 16 Departures: There will be around three aircraft that will request Runway 16, and you will be required to give it to them. While at least one of them is a Cat II which you can have takeoff from the intersection of Runway 16 and taxiway Bravo (in other words, you save them around 3000 feet of rolling time), there is one jet that you will need to take full-length.

    It simply boils down to timing. All aircraft on the parallel runways have to be completely across the intersection before the crossing runway's aircraft begins its takeoff roll. For one of my classmates, if he had waited literally 3 seconds for an aircraft to pass the intersection he would have been fine.

    Also...while it's tempting to hold the 16 Deps indefinitely until you've got a nice big hole, the PV folks will also frown on that. You cannot delay someone for 15 minutes. You do what you have to, such as extend the downwind for that Cessna on downwind, hold a Heavy an extra 30 seconds on a parallel, or deny a runway crossing. On top of that, do not forget to call traffic. Those 16 departures will make or break your PV, so use all of your tools to get them out of there successfully.
  2. Coordination Problems: You have to be totally clear on your crossings; there can be no ambiguity. On my Ground PV, I needed to get a vehicle across the parallels at taxiway Echo and advised Local of my intentions. Here's a quickie airfield map so you can see what I'm talking about. Taxiway Echo parallels Runway 16/34 and runs across Runways 28R and 28L.

    Local saw a hole in his pattern and prompted with "Cross Runway 28 Left at Echo, Hold Short Runway 28 Left". That of course makes no sense. I quickly corrected him with "Cross Runway 28 Right at Echo, Hold Short Runway 28 Left." He realized his error and repeated it back to me correctly, and I went ahead and crossed the vehicle without an issue. After the PV, my examiner made a huge deal over this, saying that I'd saved Local's butt.

    My friend who failed the Local PV apparently had a similar slip-up. However, unlike the guy above who passed his Local PV despite his mistake, my friend was not so lucky. It was one glaring example of the subjectiveness of the PV process. One person gets their ticket, the other gets another try... over the same error.
Man-Machine Issues

The voice recognition issues that I mentioned previously are alive and well in the PV. There are two incidents that nearly wrecked a couple of my classmates, and one that happened to me:
  • "Turning Right": My friend was working Local and had told an aircraft to hold short of Runway 28R. Apparently, the computer misread her and caused the airplane to turn on to the runway. It snowballed into a bunch of different problems that she corrected, but underneath it all she felt that the original problem was her fault. She kept it together for the remainder of the problem, but when she walked out she burst into tears, thinking it was all over. Thankfully everyone - examiners and ghost pilot - concurred that it was a computer error. She passed and was complemented on how well she did given the situation.
  • "Hold Short Runway 28L": Another friend of mine had a vehicle going to the VOR, which is on the opposite side of the parallel runways. Three times he used the correct phraseology: "Proceed to the VOR, hold short Runway 28 Left". Three times the vehicle spat back "Unable". Finally, realizing the computer was fighting him, he resorted to telling it "Taxi to the VOR." As soon as the vehicle crossed Runway 28R, he told it "Hold Short Runway 28L".

    Apparently, his examiner was actually going to fail him because of this. My friend used the correct phraseology 3 times and only used incorrect terms because the computer wouldn't do it any other way. Thankfully, reason, logic, and a sympathetic supervisor intervened and that incident was not used against him in any way.
  • "Runway 28R at Charlie": I had a Cherokee that was requesting an intersection departure, so I gave him "Runway 28R at Charlie". It took me three times for him to finally give a correct readback. After he got underway, I kept a pretty close eye on him. However, as he was nearing Delta, I got busy with some other things. When I look back at Charlie, expecting the Cherokee to be waiting there, I saw that he was in fact at the full-length threshhold of 28R. This gave me a hell of a scare and put a lot of doubt in my mind, as I had been 100% certain I'd given the correct instruction and received the correct response.

    After the problem was over, I talked with the ghost pilot about it. He confirmed that the Cherokee had indeed gone the wrong way and should have gone to the Charlie intersection. There's simply no explanation as to why it did what it did.
So that's it. PV day is over. A-freaking-men to that.

Monday, July 02, 2007

TSS: Voice Recognition

The TSS and EDS voice recognition system is the weakest part of the simulation here at the Academy. While it is able to handle a variety of accents and tones, there are sometimes where it just simply interprets your voice the wrong way. This, unfortunately, can cause immense frustration and aggravation since you know you used the correct phraseology, but the computer simply didn't pick it up correctly.

This issue is most noticeable in the EDS labs, where you don't have a Ghost Pilot to pick up the slack and slap the computer back into shape.

Here's a pic of the EDS labs, by the way. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are six stations just like this one in a single room, running the same software and problems that is used in the large-scale TSS sims.

Some tips:
  • Annunciation and speed are key. As the problems get busier, it's tempting to speak more quickly to match the pace of the traffic. However, this will lead you to trouble, as you will spend more time and wasting more transmissions correcting things that would not have occurred if you'd just spoken a little more clearly.
  • Don't slur. A lot of us have the habit of slipping "err" or "um" into our speech patterns when we're unsure of what to say. The results can be completely unpredictable and can cause you loads of hurt.

    This was most prevalent with a couple of my Puerto Rican friends, for whom English is more-or-less a second language. However, by the time of the PV, they (and all others who had that issue) were doing really, really well.
  • Unkey for non-control instructions. Give all traffic and wake turbulence advisories with the mic unkeyed. Due to the variety and random nature of WT and traffic notices, it really opens up a lot of opportunities for the computer to go ape-shit.

    Your instructor knows that the computer is freaky and understands that you need to play it simple. They will typically "play pilot" and respond to your WT and traffic advisories.

    For instance:
    You: "Delta 333, Runway Two Eight Right, Cleared to land." (Unkey your mic) "Caution wake turbulence, arrived Heavy Boeing 777. Traffic ahead and to your left, Cessna 172, turning final Runway Two Eight Left."
    Aircraft: "Delta 333, Roger, Runway Two Eight Right, Cleared to Land."
    Instructor (playing as the DAL333 pilot): "Roger wake turbulence. We have the traffic in sight."
  • Love your Ghost Pilot. These guys work hard as hell and they're all super nice people. There's one in each TSS monitoring your transmissions and fixing any wonkiness that occurs. They will save your bacon day in and day out by fixing wayward aircraft and vehicles.
  • Know where the blame lies. It's all too easy to blame the computer for bad performance on your end. There is no doubt that the computer has its quirks, but if you're not saying things right in the first place (or saying it at the appropriate time) then you're screwing yourself. The computer is unforgiving and - unlike a real pilot - will simply do what it's told. If you screw up and tell an aircraft on short final to "enter downwind" the virtual airplane will do just that, whereas a real pilot may respond with some type of "You want me to do what?" transmission.
Of all the man-machine-translation SNAFUs that I've seen, by far the biggest troublemaker is the following example. It has screwed numerous people over and caused a chain reaction of events that caused people to fall behind.

You: "American 311, Hold Short Runway Two-Eight Right, landing traffic."
Airplane: "Roger, turning right."

Essentially, what happens is that you have an airplane holding short of Runway 28R, normally because you have another aircraft on final. The airplane on the ground hears "turn right" and proceeds to turn on to the runway... directly into the path of the landing aircraft. At this point what happens is this:
  • The landing aircraft needs to be told to go around.
  • The taxiing aircraft no longer wants to take off. This is a total "computer thing". The airplane is no longer able to be cleared for takeoff, ridiculous as this sounds. You have to taxi it clear of the runway, coordinate with Ground, and taxi it back to the runway threshhold.
  • You have to reinsert the landing aircraft into your traffic pattern. If it's a small airplane, it's not too bad, but if it's an airliner and you have other IFR jets inbound, it can cause some serious issues.
The best way to combat this is to super-enunciate "hold short Runway Two Eight Right." as "Hold. Short. Runway. Two. Eight. Right." After I started doing that, it helped everything quite a bit.

In short, one mis-read voice transmission will cause you a world of hurt, so speak clearly.

Hear are a few additional examples:

You: "N123, Runway Two-Eight Right at Charlie. Taxi via Golf, Bravo. Hold short Runway One Six."
Airplane: "N123, Roger, Taxi to Helipad Charlie via Golf, Bravo. Hold short Runway One Six."
Solution: Just re-issue the taxi instructions.

You: "American 123, Runway Two-Eight Right, Cleared to Land."
Airplane: "American 123, Roger, Holding over Woody."
Solution: The aircraft will break off final to go and hold over the Woody fix. Even if the aircraft was on a one mile final, you can no longer clear it to land. You have to first issue additional pattern entry instructions, such as "Enter four mile Runway Two-Eight Right", wait for it to actually carry out those instructions, and then clear it to land.

You: "N123, Runway Two-Eight Right. Taxi via Golf, Bravo. Hold short Runway One Six."
Airplane: "N123, Roger, Runway Two-Eight Right. Taxi via Golf, Bravo. Hold short Taxiway VORTAC."
Solution: Just re-issue the taxi instructions.