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.