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. :)

No comments: