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.

Down the Rabbit Hole

So... I've been getting messages with the theme of "where the hell are you?" The short answer: I passed RTF, made the move, and am now at my facility, Pensacola TRACON.

Life has been crazy and I don't have the downtime/alone time that I did in OKC. My wife and I have moved into our new place and after three months of FAA-induced separation it's great to be back together. Along with some other things I have needed to take care of, writing has kind of taken a back-burner. I apologize for that.

So far here, I've been doing a lot of self-study. They had a big group of new folks come in a few months ago and they all went through their initial training together. However, since I came in by myself, it's a little bit unclear as to what the progression will be. At the moment, I'm going over frequencies, charts, airspace, approaches, and other fun goodies. I'll probably be tested on thse next week. This week I'll also do some CBI's (Computer Based Instruction courses), while next week should see me starting the Letters of Agreement and other more advanced things. I also try to monitor for about 45 minutes a day or so, right before lunch.

Everyone's been great so far. I don't have any complaints (and I'm not just saying this because you P31 mushrooms are reading my blog :P ). Seriously, people have been very welcoming to this big dysfunctional family (with an emphasis on the "fun") and I look forward to working with them. The facility itself is pretty damn interesting. It's not a major Class B hub with a constant flow of heavies. Instead, it's challenging mixed traffic and a really screwed up set of airspace. Lots of regional jets, mixed in with GA, corporate, and a ton of military training traffic - all bumping around in some really chopped up pieces of sky.

So anyways, that's the update for now.