Saturday, October 20, 2007

"Expect nothing...

...That way you'll be ready for anything."
- Takeshi Kovacs, Broken Angels by Richard Morgan

This a short tie-in with my last post, Learning on the Run.

A couple of weeks ago on a quiet IFR morning, my instructor was working the main Pensacola Regional airport sector, with all but 1 of the other sectors combined into it. All-told, it was about 3/4 of our entire facility's airspace. Whiting NAS, the scope bank all of my training had been on, wasn't open yet, so my instructor asked if I wanted to monitor while he worked. I said "sure", went out to grab my headset, came back in, and my instructor says "Okay, you're working the traffic."

So, there I was, working an airport I'd only studied, using approaches I'd never cleared anyone for before, giving vectors that I'd never used, and working real honest-to-God airliners loaded with lots of people on board. Obviously my instructor was plugged in with me and coaching me along, but it felt very strange at first. After a while I got a much better feel for the differences in speed and flow.

Here's a segment of the recording from that morning, off of

A couple notes:
  • If you're familiar with LiveATC, you know that a lot of their audio sources cycle between different frequencies at a facility. The feed for us cycles between our main Pensacola Regional airport sector, our Pensacola NAS sector, and the Pensacola Regional tower. I cut out the transmissions from the other sectors. That's why you'll never hear me clear some of the aircraft to land, as the feed had cycled to the other frequencies while I did that.
  • I trimmed all of the dead air out of it (if you like to listening silence, well, sorry).
  • The original recording takes place over about 30 minutes. We don't have that much traffic at that time of the morning, but because I cut out the dead air and the time spent on other frequencies it sounds a lot busier than it was.
The aircraft, in order of appearance:
  • Coast Guard Auxilliary
  • EGF855: American Eagle regional jet (probably an ERJ145 or CRJ200)
  • Citation 78CK: Cessna C550 corporate jet
  • Buck 312: Navy T-6 Texan II trainer
  • ASQ769 (pronounced "Acey"): Atlantic Southeast Airlines CRJ200
  • GFT9151: Gulfstream International Beech 1900
  • Flight Express 101: Cessna 210
  • Cirrus 38BK: Cirrus SR22

Learning on the Run

Before I came to Pensacola, I'd visited a few other facilities that were much newer than our 40+ year old building. While the STARS and ACD systems are nice and all, the one thing I'm really feeling is the lack of an honest-to-God simulator with our airspace.

I've said it before that simulators are no replacement for the real thing. However, I do strongly feel that simulators are very important for getting procedures and patterns down. They create an idealized environment where you can build habits and see how things flow. You can try things and experiment with no danger to anyone. Your instructor can freeze the problem and point out a possible conflict, and discuss possible courses of action. In addition, you're learning the airspace and the frequencies. They're great for getting the fundamentals down so you don't have to think about them anymore.

Going through RTF teaches you the basics of radar terminal control. Vectoring, speed control, approach clearances, etc. However, they use generic air space. Every ATC facility out there is unique and each has its quirks. It would have been nice to have some runs on a Pensacola-based simulator before getting on the real scopes, as there are certain operations here that are truly unique. It also lets you see potential problem areas in action. I've had more than one experienced CPC here tell me this is the most screwed up air space they've ever seen.

Unfortunately, we're not setup for simulation here. Whereas the folks at Miami Tower and Potomac TRACON can work simulated problems using their real airspace on ATC simulators, we train with live traffic. No ghost pilots, no "pause the problem" so you can work it out. The only time we can experiment is when traffic is very slow, allowing some breathing room so we can get a little more experimental with our vectors (I recommend not flying in our airspace when it's slow, LOL... just kidding).

So, while you're developing your stripmarking, your paperwork, your airspace and attempting to build your basic understanding, you're working with real people on the other end of the radio. The issue with that is that there's no control over what you get. ATC is a fluid business, and you are guaranteed at least one or two odd-ball requests every time you sit down... if you're lucky. Most often you'll have more. So, as opposed to a structured "curriculum" where you build certain skills over time, here you need to be ready for anything at any given moment. That's just the nature of ATC.

Real World Example

Let me give you an example, but first I'll explain a little about our operation: Nearly all of my training has been on the Whiting Naval Air Station bank of scopes. The fixed-wing aircraft from Whiting use what are called VFR course rules. Course rules are essentially highly "proceduralized" (is that a word?) flight plans that the training flights follow to get into and out of Whiting. On departure, they'll climb to a pre-determined altitude, turn to a pre-determined heading towards their practice area, and cancel flight following at a pre-determined point. They'll each have a specific pre-determined practice area (A1, A2, A2F, or A3) in their scratchpad, so you know exactly which course rule they're flying. When they come back, they'll call in over three possible pre-determined fixes at a pre-determined altitude, be issued a transponder code by you, fly a pre-determined route back into the airport, and switch to the tower over a pre-determined fix.

It's pretty predictable and usually works smoothly. I guess a parallel would be a SID or a STAR. The only real controlling you need to do (outside of handling specific requests for holding and practice approaches) is traffic calls and sequencing for arrivals that are arriving too close together.

All that goes out the window when the weather is IFR.... which is exactly what happened the other day when a massive front came through bringing all kinds of nastiness.

Departures: Due to the IFR weather, the course rules were completely unusable, so all of the procedures I'd been training with were worthless. For the departures, Whiting was launching every aircraft as a VFR-On-Top (OTP). This meant the following:
  1. They each had OTP in their scratchpad, so we didn't know which area they were heading towards.
  2. They were IFR, so we had to request a cancellation from each one.
  3. They were not following a course rules procedure, so once they cancelled IFR we had to:
    1. Ask each one "What's your working area?"
    2. Enter it into the scratchpad
    3. Issue them the appropriate heading and altitude for their working area so they wouldn't go wandering off randomly.
  4. Issue traffic and a flight following cancellation as usual.
  5. The only good thing is that, due to IFR separation rules, they were launching them with some more space between.
Arrivals: For the inbounds, all of these Whiting Navy trainers returning from their practice areas were requesting airborne IFR pick-ups for vectors to a TACAN approach into Whiting NAS. This complicates things on several levels:
  1. Firstly, I think I'd given maybe two of these types of clearances previously over the past month, and now I was giving them out left and right, vectoring on the fly.
  2. One of the major reporting points they call over is inside another sector. We have pre-arranged coordination with that sector so we don't need to call them with course rules Navy trainers that call in at the appropriate VFR altitude. However... the trainers were calling in at a variety of altitudes, so we had to coordinate and point out every one to the other sector.
  3. They were all "Cleared to Whiting via radar vectors" so I had to - as the clearance suggests - provide radar vectors to get them to the TACAN. It was excellent vectoring practice since they were coming from all over the place.
  4. With every aircraft requesting the same TACAN approach, now you've got a congestion problem that requires real sequencing and IFR altitude separation - 3 miles or 1000 feet. It really works your speed control and vectoring skills, plus your knowledge.
  5. In addition, I was working both the arrival and departure sectors combined. This meant that I had two frequencies open, and overlapping transmissions coming from both.
Now, there's nothing unusual about IFR departures and arrivals. There's a million of them everyday. However, when you're new to it, you're unsure of the phraseology, and you're dealing with them in large quantities, the comfort level and confidence level is a bit lower than it should be.

I kept up with it for a good while, but there came a point where I just fell behind. My instructor had to take over for a couple minutes as they were just calling in from everywhere. He told me after I took over again not to feel bad, which I really didn't. I was perfectly fine. I'd never worked any traffic like that in any great quantity, so I'm glad that I kept up with it as long as I could.

You have to step up to the plate and swing with all you've got at that moment, and I did. I have confidence that the next time this situation comes up I'll be ready for it. It was a hell of an interesting experience and I'm much better for it in the end.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Might and the Will

From the title of this post, maybe you're thinking this is a post about confidence or something like that. Actually, it's about lack of confidence or - to be more precise - certainty.

ATC deals in absolutes. When you have two aircraft pointed right at each other, you'd better be sure they're not going to smack. It's not "they probably won't hit" or "I think they should have separation."

A word that tends to fall right in front of the word separation in ATC texts is "ensure". Sometimes its preceded by the words "the controller failed to". Its our job to be absolutely, 100% positive that two aircraft will not come closer than is permitted.

Let's say you're sitting there working a sector and you see N123 and N456 coming together on a hazy morning. They're C172's and they're 10 miles apart at 120 knots, but they're both at 2000 feet on headings that will bring them together. When your instructor looks over your shoulder and asks you "Are those guys going to hit?" your answer cannot be "They probably won't." o

That's where the might and the will come into play. If they might have separation, but you're not sure they will have it, then you have to do something.

Now, what will that something be? Sure... you can wait until they're two miles apart and issue traffic in hopes of getting visual separation. If N123 does see N456 and reports him in sight, you can just tell him "Maintain visual separation from that traffic." But, once again, you'll be using the word might. You're placing a bet, taking a risk, praying that N123 can actually see N456.

But what if he doesn't? What if they're head-on and that other white Cessna is a white dot blending into the white haze? You'll be left with nothing but a tightening in your stomach and "panic vectors" that usually involve the word "immediately".

How could you have avoided this? Any number of ways:
  • "N123, climb and maintain 2500." There, now you have 500 feet of vertical separation.
  • Or... "N456, turn left 20 degrees for traffic." Great, now you've got divergence.
  • Or - legal but stupid - "N123, maintain at or below 80 knots" Now you've got a confused pilot slowing to approach speed at cruising altitude, but the speed differential will make N456 beat the other aircraft.
Any one of those simple things are sure-fire actions that will ensure separation. You've created the vertical separation, divergence, or speed difference necessary.

Let's say you issued one of the above instructions, such as the vertical separation. You could literally unplug, walk away, and be certain that they'll never hit. You could have been handed off those planes when they were 30 miles away from each other and never have to look at them again until it's time to hand them off to the next sector. Instead of focusing on them for all 30 miles, wondering if they'll hit, now you know for certain that they won't (as long as the pilots adhere to your instructions).

Remember Yoda in Empire Strikes Back? "Do or do not - there is no try"? In ATC the saying would be reworded as "They're going to hit or they aren't - there is no maybe."