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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

May I ask how did you (or the facility) make those way cool airspace graphics? I haven't seen anything like that before.