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.

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