Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Christmas Story

I just got my my first short story publication, ever. :)

I've always enjoyed writing, but the NaNoWriMo novel writing contest really kicked me into gear. As I was working on the novel, I started looking around at other venues for shorter fiction. I found out about a new online magazine that was taking submissions, and decided to give it a shot.

The story itself is a Christmas-themed steampunk piece, and it's the first short fiction I've written in nearly 15 years. It's a style that I don't normally use - written from the perspective of a small child - so it was a challenge to tone down the vocabulary and still get across what needed saying. It was a lot of fun to create and provided a good learning environment for the edit/rewrite process.

Click the link below to give it a read:

"Darkness into Stars"

I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Habits to Break

I'm not sure exactly where I picked up these bad phraseology habits, but I'm trying really hard to break them.
  • Proper Grammar, Improper Places
    "N132MM, traffic at your two o'clock..."
    "USC395, contact Mobile Approach on 118.5."
    "RN645, radar vectors for the TACAN 14 approach, North Whiting."
    "EGF888, the airport will be at your 12 o'clock, one two miles. Report it in sight."

    Articles, possessive adjectives, and prepositions work beautifully when you're talking to people casually in person or on the phone. I can't imagine calling up my wife and telling her, "Sweetie, me, dinner, chicken." Or calling up a friend saying, "Dude, me, hang out." Yeah, that would garner me some odd replies.

    But on a radio frequency, they just clutter up precious space and sound unprofessional.

  • The Murder of Roger (Ackroyd)
    Deep down in my soul, I must believe that every pilot out there is named Roger. Why? Because I seem to call them that regardless of what they're doing, what they are, or what they want.

    There are only a few times when it's appropriate, usually when you really have nothing else to add. For example, lets say Citrus 453 checks in eight miles outside of my airspace with, "Pensacola Approach, Citrus 453 at 11,000 with Tango." He is outside of my airspace, so I can't descend or turn him. He also has the latest ATIS code, so he knows what runway and approach to expect. I literally can't do a thing with him. In that case, I can reply with, "Citrus 453, Pensacola Approach, roger."

    However, I have a habit of injecting a "roger" into "working" transmissions where it simply doesn't belong. And it makes me sound like the n00b that I am.

    "Citrus 453, Pensacola Approach, roger, descend and maintain 6000, radar vectors VOR runway 8 approach."
    "BB645, Pensacola Approach, roger, squawk 0123 and ident."
    "VV7E123, roger, I have your request."

    So, I'm trying to flush poor Roger from the majority of my working transmissions. He has no place there, so he needs to be offed.

    BTW, if you haven't read the Agatha Christie novel whose title I punned, it's a good one. Definitely one of her most controversial works. Do NOT read the Wikipedia article on it, for it spoils the ending.

  • Radar Contact... Again
    An aircraft has been cleared for a practice approach. He is handed off to the tower and switched to their frequency. Once the approach is completed, the tower hands him back to me and he is switched back to my frequency. He went through two radar handoffs and remained within radar coverage the entire time.

    So why, when he comes up on my frequency for his next approach, do I insist on saying, "VV7E123, Pensacola Departure, radar contact, fly heading 040, radar vectors ILS 17 approach."

    Radar contact was never lost. He was never unidentified. He didn't disappear mysteriously. So why the heck do I insist on re-identifying aircraft that are positively identified?
Self-critiquing is a good thing. People who get complacent eventually get sloppy and I personally think people should always strive to be better at what they do. Sometimes, that starts with the little things.

A lot of these phraseology hiccups occur when it's slow - and therefore, when I'm more complacent and relaxed. However, slow periods are the times I should be perfecting my phraseology. When the pedal hits the metal, I'll be doing everything I did during the slow times - just at higher speed and in higher quantity. Every second I waste with unnecessary words will steal time needed for other ATC functions. Using non-standard phraseology will also undoubtedly increase the occurrence of that wonderful, frustrating phrase: "Say again?"

Holiday Happenings

We're well into the holiday season here and I'm sure everyone's going nuts as the end of the year comes rushing towards us. There's a lot happening on my end, some of which I can't talk about at this time (no worries - all good things). However, I just want to let you guys know about a couple things that I've been working on lately.

First up, a $10 sign-up special for ATCHours.com, our OJT time tracking site. Just type "HOLIDAY" into the sign up form's coupon code field. As usual, the sign-up fee guarantees you a lifetime membership to the site. That includes unlimited facilities, positions, instructors, and hours.

One of our upcoming features is going to be the ability to print 3120-25 forms straight from the site. It'll automatically prefill the top of the form, including your total hours, name, date, and the various checkboxes based on what you've selected.

This is a screenshot of our current prototype:

Secondly, I've opened up a little online shop called ATC Gear, selling ATC-related products. I've put up some homemade designs for shirts, mouse pads, bumper stickers, beverage containment devices, and more.

Product suggestions are definitely welcome! What would you guys and gals like to see on there?

One of the cooler products - in my humble opinion - is a computer mousepad in the form of an ARTS keyboard. If you're so inclined, you can practice ditching your newfangled QWERTY keyboard in lieu of the ol' ABCDEFG. This is a reproduction of the same keyboards we use here on our scopes.

If you're looking to make a Christmas present out of anything on there, CafePress is having a special where if you order by Dec. 17th, they'll automatically upgrade you to two day shipping so you receive it by the 24th.

Anyways, that's all for now. I've got a few more blog posts in the runup area, checking their RPMs, vacuum pumps, and oil temps. They'll be coming out shortly.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

On Training

I've stayed in touch with many of my classmates from Oklahoma City classes. It's great to hear that so many of them are doing well.

Many of them are already fully checked out. JR is done at DAL. JZ has been certified for nearly a year at ACK and is transfering to JFK. JT transfered to SRQ two months ago and is nearly certified. JA's been done for a long time at MTY. CW is done at Potomac TRACON.

I'm thrilled for them all. I remember when we were all starting out in the tower or RTF classes, trying to get a handle on things. How far we've come from there. I even recall some of them getting "you'll never make it" dress-downs from certain instructors in OKC. Yet there they are, fully certified CPCs a year later, some already transferring to better, bigger facilities.

I look forward to that feeling. I know I've still got a while left here. Of all the CTI, VRA, and OTS trainees here- most of which started when I did -not one has fully certified. In fact, until last week, none of the trainees had certified on more than one bank of three scopes. Another one is getting close. Maybe it's the facility. Maybe it's something else. I don't know.

Overall, I feel I am progressing. I'm definitely light years ahead of where I was three months ago. However, sometimes I don't think it's fast enough. Training really is a brutal roller coaster ride. I'll have a great session that's wall-to-wall good vectors and radio presence, and then do something utterly stupid the next one. I'll get down on myself really hard about it too, because I usually know better. Somehow, the most idiotic things I've done always seem to come on a skill check with my supervisor.

Learning Curve

I was talking with one of my coworkers the other day. He's the newest hire, and has only been here about three months. It's very interesting watching him go through the same initial learning curve the other trainees and I went through a year ago. He said something which I think exemplifies the training mindset perfectly:

"I like training. I just hate not knowing."

That is exactly how I feel about it. Everyone says training has its ups and downs. The peaks come when you're in your comfort zone, exercising procedures and rules that you know already. The downs occur when you cross into uncharted territory. It can feel like you've entered a desert wasteland without water or a map. The sun's blinding you, you're feeling mighty uncomfortable, and there's a sandstorm brewing from which you have no shelter.

Plenty of things can send you over the edge when you're training. Maybe it's the volume of traffic (like what happened to me yesterday when the number of planes on my frequency quintupled in the space of a minute). Maybe it's an unresponsive pilot who's causing all kinds of safety issues and distracting you (happened to me the day before yesterday). Or maybe you'll get an aircraft or facility in your ear asking for something you've never heard before (happening to me less frequently with experience, but every once in a while I get stumped).

Now, obviously, you can't train for every single scenario. That's why we learn our rules and procedures, so you know what's legal or illegal. The 7110.65, LOA's, and SOP's are all starting points, but they don't teach you technique. That only comes with experience.

If someone asked you how to drive from Miami to Los Angeles, you may not know the exact roads to take but you do know you have to drive on the right side of the road and obey speed suggestions limits. That's a start. That's the 7110.65. With experience and working knowledge, you'll be able to tell them more than "head west". After some time, you can tell them which highways they should use. Soon enough, you can give them shortcuts and tell them which exits to get off on for a good local meal.

But that takes experience. When you're training, you have none to fall back on. Unfortunately - and quite frankly - the pilot or other controller don't care whether you've been talking to airplanes 3 months or 30 years. They want something from you - whether it's an approval, a denial, or an action - and no matter what it is, you need to sort it out. That's the job.

The trick is to sort out those existing issues without causing more of your own.

Example: How to Make Your Life More Difficult

IFR day. I'm working the West sector of the localizer split - i.e. East and West sectors are divided right along the ILS 17 localizer for Pensacola Regional. A Cessna 172 requests a practice ILS approach (note the practice part) and afterwards wants to head to his home field 15 miles northeast. I'm vectoring him in and he is slow as heck in the headwind, showing 60-70 knots over the ground. He's at 1700 feet.

Uh oh. A Learjet's inbound from the northwest. Even though the Lear's 30 miles away, he's going to beat the Cessna easily. So... I give the Cessna a very short vector - maybe 4 extra flying miles - around on the west side of the final, getting him out of the way. I dunk the Lear in and clear him, and bring the Cessna back around. Sounds like a fine plan.

Well, not so fast. The East side suddenly gets a flurry of arrivals, most of them airliners. Then I get a few myself. All of them are jets. We keep boxing the poor Cessna on the west side of the final, trying to make a hole for him. Unfortunately, with a 60 knot ground speed, he's just incompatible with the Embraer 170s and the MD-88s coming in. Also, he's a practice approach, which takes lower priority than the scheduled airliner traffic.

Things deteriorate. The weather keeps getting worse. The Cessna's home base - an uncontrolled field within our airspace - only has a GPS instrument approach. The Cessna is not GPS equipped. The weather has now gotten so bad that he can't cancel IFR and is now requesting a full-stop at Pensacola.

My instructor and I get relieved and the guy is still out there. I stay behind to monitor the next controller. To make a long story short, the Cessna pilot ends up being boxed around for nearly an hour total. Once the flurry of arrivals passes, he's cleared and lands safely. I feel pretty awful about it and half expect a phone call from the pilot. I know that pilots can't always get what they want, but I think I could have done something better; I just don't know what it was.

Afterwards, in talking with the controller working the East side, she makes a simple observation:

When I first had the Cessna coming in for his approach and the Lear appeared, why didn't I just climb the Cessna to 3000 feet?

Such a simple and obvious solution. I could have left the Cessna on his original vectors, but at 3000 feet. I could have dropped the Lear underneath him at 1700, cleared the Lear, and then cleared the Cessna once the Lear was past him. The Cessna would obviously never catch him, and wake turbulence would probably not have been a factor since he would have been far above the glidepath of the jet.

Instead, I had taken the hard road, and caused myself - and the relieving controller - a tremendous headache while leaving some poor student pilot and his instructor tooling around in IMC conditions for an hour.

Just goes to show: the easy road is usually the best road. You just need to be able to recognize the exit ramp that takes you there. :)

Friday, November 28, 2008

Runway Close-calls

I found some pretty neat videos on YouTube that I hadn't seen before.

Rule #1 of ATC: Thou shalt not have two airplanes occupy the same space at the same time.

Here's a Mooney pilot who is apparently very disoriented and isn't communicating with ATC. He's completely oblivious to the danger he's causing.

Now we go down to lovely St. Maarten, Netherlands Antilles for some Boeing 747 action.

That rule doesn't apply to cars, though:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Turkey Day

I hope everyone has a terrific Thanksgiving Day. I'm thankful for many things: my family, my friends, the wonderful house we're in right now. I'm also thankful that I have a steady job, unlike many other families who are going into the holidays on shaky financial ground.

They let all of the trainees stay home today. This'll probably be the last Thanksgiving without a work schedule for a long time, so I'm going to enjoy it.

This will also be the first Thanksgiving my wife and I celebrate in our own home, and we're thrilled. She's making a wonderful homemade meal from scratch. The turkey's been in the brine since last night and will going into the oven shortly. Once that comes out of the oven, we're serving it with some roasted potatoes, blue cheese sauce, stuffing, and crumb-topped tomatoes. If we make it that far, we'll finish the meal off with the excellent birthday cake she made me yesterday. I'm so looking forward to it. And yes, I will be the sous-chef!

For some light-hearted ATC humor, here's a little clip from JFK tower. Just goes to show you never know what situation you'll come across. Gotta love that New Yawk accent they've got going on up there.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

New Camera

My family gave me a (much needed) new camera for my birthday, and I've been putting it to good use as of late. 9 megapixels plus 10x optical, image-stabilized zoom works great for airplane pics.

North American T-39 Sabreliner
The ubiquitous Navy jet trainer. Oldie but goldie. This one looks especially squeaky clean.

Gulfsteam International Beech 1900 getting prepped with PNS tower in the background. Our new TRACON building's going to be just to the right of the tower

Delta in the Evening
Delta MD-88 taxiing out. This and the AirTran Boeing 717's are the most common airliner we get here. Most of the other passenger carriers are technically air taxis: CRJ200s, ERJ-135/145s, Beech 1900s.

Bonus Plane
It took me a while to figure out just what the heck this thing was. I'm pretty good as far as aircraft recognition goes, and it stumped me.

If anybody here can figure out what it is, you get a cookie. Yes,I blurred out the N# - no cheating! From afar it looks like the bastard love child of a Cessna Skymaster and a P-61 Black Widow.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Into the Black

My family and I had a long weekend together in Orlando, FL. We came in from all over the place; my parents drove up from Miami, my sister flew in from the Baltimore area, and my wife and I drove down from Pensacola. We made the most out of it, celebrating my parents' anniversary, my mother's birthday, Thanksgiving, and my birthday since they all fall within three weeks of each other.

On Saturday, we took a drive over to Kennedy Space Center. Space Shuttle Endeavour had launched the night before, so there were no shuttles on the pad. My dad managed to snag a night shot of the launch from afar during their drive up and my sister saw it while she was waiting for us at KMCO. I was about the same distance as they were, inbound from the north, but I was under a solid overcast layer. I'm glad at least some of us got to see it.

I hadn't been to KSC since I was a very small child. As I've mentioned before on this blog, I've always been fascinated with space flight. I try to keep up with the newest developments in space technology, space travel, and launches via the internet, but actually being around the "real deal" was very interesting for me. KSC is simply a fascinating place.

My dad put it best: what other country has a fully operational space launch facility that is also a tourist attraction? I can't imagine just walking into Russia's Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome, the European Space Agency's facility in French Guiana, or any of China's multiple launch centers. Not to say that you can just wander anywhere inside KSC, but in any other country you'd need special permission just to be on the premises. I think it's great to be able to see the actual hardware up close and personal, and gives you a feel for how far we've come and where we (and our tax dollars!) are going.

Without further ado, here's the photo tour:

My dad's photo of Endeavour's night launch.

The Vehicle Assembly Building. To get an idea of the scale, the blue area of the American flag is the size of a regulation basketball court.

The Saturn V moon rocket. Words cannot describe just how immense this machine is.

Volkswagen? BMW? Mercedes? Nope - this is the pinnacle of German engineering, via Werner Von Braun.

Lunar Excursion Module

Third stage of the Saturn V.

Too... big.... Can't... fit... in... picture....

A recreation of the Apollo 8 Saturn V launch, featuring the original equipment used for the real launch.

One of the launching pads, originally used for the Apollo rockets and currently used for the shuttle. They were still in the process of cleaning it after the launch the night before.

The world's largest clean room, where they assemble and test the components of the International Space Station.

A mock up of the ISS' cozy little "space john".

Crawler-transporter with the VAB in the background, shrouded by rain.

The rain cometh!

Detail of one of the crawler-transporters.

The venerable Rocket Garden.

Mercury/Atlas, Mercury Redstone, and Atlas-Agena

The very impressive astronaut memorial. This photo shows the crews of Challenger, Columbia, and Apollo I.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day

Reader Mail

Here's a little something different for today. I get a lot of e-mails and questions each week relating to the job and the environment. It's good to know people are out there and interested in the content I post, and I do my best to answer each e-mail as promptly as I can.

Below are some of the more common questions I've had over the past few months. If there are anymore questions out there, please feel free to fire away.

  • What is your schedule like? Do you get any weekends off? Does the facility stay open at night or on weekends?

    ATC is generally a 24/7 job and you should be prepared to have a very whacked-out schedule. The schedule completely depends on your facility, your traffic and your instructor. When you're in training, you will likely be matched with your primary instructor's schedule. So... if he has Tues-Wed off and works 12pm-8pm Thurs-Mon, that'll be your schedule too.

    My own schedule is generally Mon 2:45pm / Tues 1:45pm / Wed 10:00am / Thurs 8:00am / Fri 7:00am. I'm just lucky in that my instructor has Sat-Sun off, so I'm matched up with him.

    Sometimes, for special reasons, schedules can be adjusted for training purposes. Let's say you're close to getting checked out on a sector but haven't seen much nighttime traffic since you and your instructor always work the day shift. Arrangements can be made so that you're both put on a night schedule for a week or two so you can get the appropriate experience. All of that depends on staffing needs, of course.

    Some towers do close at night, but I haven't personally heard of any facility that has weekends off (though there may be some). TRACONs tend to be 24/7 facilities and En Route Centers are all 24/7.

  • Looks like you went to a CTI school. Were there many "off the street" folks with you at OKC? Were they at a disadvantage?

    None of the people in my OKC classes were OTS. All of the ones in my tower class were CTI and the ones in my radar class were a mix of ex-military and CTI.

    There's no real disadvantages to either side. From what I've heard, however, it all depends on a person. Someone may have a CTI degree, but it could be from a crappy school that had no simulators and only a basic curriculum. On the other hand, you may have an OTS hire who's a professional pilot and worked in airport management. Or... you may a CTI student that went to top-notch school like University of North Dakota going up against a guy who maybe drove an airport snowplow and couldn't tell a VOR from an NDB.

    However, don't get too hung up on background. If you're reasonably smart, study hard, work hard, and fully recognize that this job will likely be the hardest (and occasionally scariest) thing you've ever done, you're well on your way. This job will humble you. When you walk in the facility door, nobody gives a hoot whether or not you were CTI, OTS, or military. They just care if you can do the job or not, and that does not come down to the presence or lack of a piece of paper from a school.

  • The FAA said I should be scheduled for the AT-SAT in XXX. How would you recommend preparing? ASA has a book with CD ROM I was going to order.

    I haven't looked at the ASA book too much, but from what other people have said it's not really needed. When I took the ATSAT, there were no study materials in existence and I didn't know anyone who had taken the test. It was all this big mystery and the only thing I had was a pamphlet from the FAA with a screenshot and very brief description of each test. I ended up studying on my own, finding different ways to get my mind in gear.

    Of the different things I tried, the following seemed to work best:
    • Study word problems, mainly "distance = rate x time" type problems. if you're a pilot, you should be familiar with that calculation.
    • Do sudoku puzzles. This builds your scanning capabilities, which is nice for the gauges and air traffic portions of the test.
    • Play tetris. The letter factory is basically a ramped-up tetris game using letters and colors.
    • Do online IQ tests. That's essentially what the ATSAT is.
    • ATCSimulator2. If you're going to invest some money in something, put it towards that. It's a great and reasonably accurate TRACON simulator.

    Doing all that, I scored a 94.2. When I took it again over a year later in OKC for their testing purposes - without having studied for it - I got a 93 or so. So, yes, I studied like crazy, and only boosted my score by 1.2 percent. LOL. However, the studying did make me feel more confident and prepared.

  • Is a pilot's license an advantage? I'm hoping that having an aviation background will help a bit.

    Absolutely, on both personal and hiring levels, since it shows A) you've already got working knowledge of the system and B) have the wherewithal and commitment to complete something that is highly technical and challenging. You'll also have less mic fright, less trouble understanding a lot of the technical matters (you can tell the difference between an ILS and a VOR :P ), a general grasp of how things should operate, and more confidence in yourself. The more knowledge you have, the better off you are.

  • How do you like working there?

    Overall I like it, but it has its good days and bad days. I like the people and facility here, but the airspace is quite a handful. We have three Class C airports within 20 miles of one another, each with completely different procedures/aircraft and all built around the Navy's operation. Our entire airspace is actually one huge Alert Area (A-252) blocked in by MOAs above it, a warning area to the south, as well as a ton of restricted areas to the east belonging Eglin AFB. We are also sandwiched between Jacksonville Center, Houston Center, Mobile Approach, and Eglin Approach. This results in a lot of manual coordination and a lot of, errr, "funky" procedures.

    As far as the traffic, it's all Navy, all the time. Well...about 90% actually and 99% of that is training-related.

    • Whiting NAS is the single busiest NAS in the world. Split between North Whiting (NSE) and South Whiting (NDZ), they have hundreds of T-34Cs and TH-57s which they use for initial pilot training, so you need to be prepared for anything when working with student pilots.
    • Sherman Pensacola NAS (NPA) has the more advanced aircraft, a mix of T-6 Texan IIs, T-1 Jayhawks, Sabreliners, and T-45 Goshawks that are used for navigation training and jet training. The Blue Angels are also based there and have their own procedures. They also get a lot of itinerant military traffic; it's not unusual to see F-15s, F-18s, C-130s, A-10s, and P-3 Orions playing around down there.
    • Sandwiched in the middle you have Pensacola Regional (PNS) with about 30-40 airliner operations throughout the day and a bunch of GA. The Navy comes here to do practice approaches as well, so they're definitely in the mix. You'll commonly have sequences to final that consist of an MD-88, an Embraer 145, a Cessna Citation, a Baron, a C-172, a T-34, and a couple Navy helicopters, all requesting different runways. You just make it work.

    Many of the controllers here, including those with 20+ years of experience at busier ARTCCs and TRACONs, agree that this is some of the most complicated airspace they've seen. The general consensus is that there are better places to start out learning the ropes due to the "strangeness" of the place. I'm not talking about the difficulty level per se, but more about the procedures. Since we're built around the Navy, we use a ton of site-specific procedures here that appear nowhere else in the country. Basically, you kind of do things "the Navy way" as opposed to "the FAA way" that's used throughout the rest of the FAA world.

    The irony of all this is that when I joined the FAA, I didn't want the following: (A) a TRACON, (B) an airport with lots of training, (C) an airport with a lot of military, and (D) an airport with heavy helicopter traffic. What do I get? A TRACON whose airspace contains the Navy's largest fixed-wing and helicopter training operation. Karma's obviously got a sense of humor. :)

    So, to answer the question again, I do like it. It's a very challenging but cool job in a unique area. I will say that it wasn't my first choice, but it's grown on me. The area itself is nice to live in, with low housing prices and great weather. If you've got a boat, it's even better. The only drawback is that flying out of here is expensive, since we're not exactly a big hub; if you've got family out-of-state it'll cost some $$$ to fly in and out of here. On the other hand, I-10 runs right through here and I-65 runs near here, so it's great for road trips to New Orleans or Atlanta.

  • How old is that equipment you're running?

    Our current building is 45 years old, looks 45 years old, and and we use the old monochrome round "green between" ARTS scopes. I'm not sure exactly how old the ARTS scopes are, but I'm pretty certain they're older than I am. We don't have even trackballs or mice to "slew and enter" on a target; we use a PEM, basically a larger, uglier version of one those "pointing sticks" you see on certain laptops. You do get used to it.

    On the positive side, our swanky new building is on schedule to be completed in October 2009 and will have the STARS radar system, touch screens, and other newfangled widgets. We're all looking forward to that.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Pulling Teeth

Imagine this radio conversation:
N123: "Pensacola Approach, N123."
Me: "N123, Pensacola Approach, remain clear of Class Charlie. Say position and request."

N123: "Pensacola Approach, N123, roger, remaining clear of Class Charlie."

Me: "N123, Pensacola, say position and request."
N123: "Pensacola, N123 is two-five miles northwest of the airport."

Me: "N123, Pensacola, two-five miles northwest of
which airport?"
(Remember: we have three Class C airports plus a slew of uncontrolled fields. He probably means Pensacola Regional, but it could really be any airport.)
N123: "Pensacola, N123, we're two-five miles northwest of Pensacola Regional."

(Okay, now I know that he's in my sector. I key him in and get a squawk.)

Me: "N123, squawk 0105 and ident. Say intentions."

N123: "Squawk 0105 with a flash, N123."

Me: "N123,
say intentions."
N123: "Uh... Pensacola, N123 would like some touch and goes at Pensacola."

Me: "N123, roger, verify ATIS information Zulu."

N123: "Pensacola, N123 is negative ATIS."
(I read the ATIS off our TIS screen above the scope.)
Me: "N123, Pensacola ATIS Zulu current. Wind 040, altimeter 3014, runway 17 in use."

N123: "Altimeter 3014, runway 17, roger, N123."

Me: "N123, radar contact two-five miles northwest of Pensacola Regional. Proceed direct to the airport, enter right base runway 17."

Annoying, isn't it? A ton of transmissions just to get to the meat of the issue. I have to drag every single thing out of the pilot, bit by bit. When I'm talking to fifteen other airplanes, that's a whole lot of time taken up. It can get very distracting, especially when you're working a final or another busy sector. It's just a lot of frequency congestion.

Let's try a different way:
N123: "Pensacola Approach, N123, with request."
Me: "N123, Pensacola Approach, remain clear of Class Charlie. Say position and request."

N123: "N123 is two-five miles northwest of Pensacola Regional at two thousand five hundred with information Zulu. Requesting touch and goes."

(I look and see a target 25 miles northwest of PNS at 2500 feet. I get his squawk code. He also said he has the ATIS code.)

Me: "N123, squawk 0104 and ident."

N123: "N123, squawking 0104 with the flash."

Me: "N123, radar contact two-five miles northwest of Pensacola Regional. Proceed direct to the airport, enter right base runway 17."

There! Much easier. The pilot was prepared and told me in an organized fashion what he wanted. I did not have to yank it out of him piece by piece and he had done his bit by getting the ATIS code already. Also, by giving me his position right away, it immediately took a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. The second he told 25NM at 2500, my eyes went there immediately and spotted him.

Below is a list of things we need from a pilot, in order of priority:
  1. Who are you? Speak your call sign clearly.
  2. Where are you? Say your position and altitude relative to a well-known fix, such as an airport, a major landmark, or an airway intersection. This lets us know if you're inside our sector, another sector, or another facility's airspace. If you're not inside our sector, we can at least give you the frequency for someone who can help you.

    Keep in mind that we don't have a VFR sectional in front of us. If you call us over the "railroad tracks" or the "trailer park", we have no clue where that is. Now, if you told us "7 miles southeast of Brewton airport", "Directly over the PENSI intersection", or "Over 3 mile bridge." that works wonders.
  3. What do you want? In short, controllers like to plan. In order to do so, they need information. Be clear yet brief about what you're requesting. It's likely that the controller will be passing your information around the radar room to other controllers, either verbally or via a flight progress strip.

    For instance, if you're doing a photography flight, don't just say "We want to fly around." That gives us nothing. Instead, say something like "We're on a photo mission, wanting to fly south to three mile bridge, then cut east to Navarre beach, then go north to join I-10 westbound, with a full stop at Pensacola Regional." Now we have a solid idea of what you need. If so inclined, the controller can even write "BRIDGE->VARRE BCH->I-10->PNS" on the strip. At the very least, he can verbally pass that info on to any controllers who will be working your flight. Obviously, if it's a long request like that, you might need to pick your moment if the controller seems very busy.

    Also, if you're unsure about anything you're requesting, say that up front. "We want to fly south to three mile bridge. After that, we might need to go west about five miles, and then turn around to the east to go to Navarre beach, north to I-10, and west to full stop at Pensacola Regional." At least you're telling the controller there's a question mark in there somewhere.

    As an example of the "planning" I mentioned, if was working the Pensacola East bank and got the above transmission, I'd know right away that I'd have to:
    1. Work you south over the bridge.
    2. Either hand you off or point you out to the Navy Sherman sector if you turned west.
    3. Work you again myself as you turned back to the east towards Navarre.
    4. Hand you off to the South Whiting sector as you went north to I-10.
    5. Work you again as you returned to Pensacola.
  4. What are you? Often times a pilot will call up with their type as their call sign, such as Stationair 123 or Decathlon 456. If you don't give it to us on your initial transmission, it's not a big deal. We'll get it from you eventually.
On the Flip Side

I've done the same thing to pilots and fully admit my guilt. I sometimes don't combine my transmissions as well as I should. It's something my trainer's been on me about and I have been trying to improve on it. Basically, it seems to come from "working out the problem" on the frequency. I find it happens to me when I'm unsure about the current traffic situation.
SH456: "Pensacola Departure, SH456, leaving 800 for 1700, executing climb-out instructions."
Me: "SH456, Pensacola Departure, radar contact, radar vectors TACAN 14 approach."
SH456: "Roger, SH456."
(Okay... if I turn him, is he going to be a factor for that Citation I cleared for the visual approach? No? Cool.)
Me: "Uh, SH456, Pensacola, turn left direct Trojan."
SH456: "Turning left direct Trojan, SH456."
(Alright, is that helicopter out of 4000 yet? He is? Here we go.)
Me: "And... SH456, maintain 3000."
SH456: "Maintain 3000, SH456."
(Shit. Did he have the ATIS code for North Whiting?)
Me: "Oh.... and, uh, SH456, verify ATIS information Victor at North Whiting."
SH456: "Affirm, SH456."
If I was the pilot, I'd be ready to smack someone. It really makes it seem as if the controller doesn't know what they're doing, like they can't process more than one instruction at a time. What's really happening is that I'm playing it too safe. I haven't processed all the information fast enough to be 100% sure SH456 is clean.

The far more efficient version starts with me making sure he's clean even before I really talk to him. Then it goes:
Me: "SH456, Pensacola Departure, radar contact, turn left direct Trojan, climb and maintain 3000, radar vectors TACAN 14 approach."
SH456: "Left direct Trojan, maintain 3000, vectors TACAN 14 approach, SH456."
Me: "SH456, verify you have ATIS information Victor for North Whiting."
SH456: "Affirm, SH456."
That sounds much more professional and in control. You know, like I actually know what I'm doing (Ha!). Just say as much as you can in as few transmissions as you can.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Moment of Truth

Update: November 5th, 2008
It is done. My mood right now is "cautious optimism". We'll see what is delivered. I hope the crazies who are expecting messianic miracles get back to reality.


For me, the choice was simple.

One candidate has been intelligent, proactive, and tried to unite the American people. He is a decent family man who came from nothing and, with dignity and confidence, fought the largest smear campaign the world has ever seen. He has shown good judgment, a willingness to listen, an open mind, and a strong interest in the well-being of all Americans, not just some Americans. He is not perfect, but he is straightforward and respects the people of this country.

The other has been petty, profoundly negative, and driven rifts between the many people of this country. History has shown him to be an ill-tempered elitist philanderer whose party's ideals have driven this country into the ground. He may have been a maverick at one point in his life, but he has dropped to pandering to the lowest elements of his party's base. He has shown no indication that his administration will differ much from the current administration in its ready-shoot-aim foreign policy, ignorant approach to hotbed issues such as abortion and gay marriage, the treatment of unions and federal workers, blind trust in corporate self-regulation, and the overall fracturing of our nation. I do not think he is "McSame"; however, I do feel is he is "McCloseEnough".

To be clear, this election is not about "change" for the sake of change. There is always some level of change whenever a new president takes over. It's about the future of our country and selecting the one candidate who will lead this country with intelligence, forethought, an even temper, and - most of all - respect for its own people. It's about selecting someone who can chart a course towards calmer waters and a brighter future. John McCain is not that person.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

50k Run

50,300 words in 29 days.

Due to some plans with family in November, I decided to do the NaNoWriMo novel writing challenge in October instead. I completed my outline on October 2nd and started writing later that day. I took about 5 days off from it in the middle of the month, then resumed the story. On October 30th, at around 5pm at the local Panera Bakery, I crossed the finish line.

Let me tell you, it feels freaking awesome to look at your word count and see the 50,000 mark crossed. The other customers at Panera all looked at me weirdly as I stood up and gave a "YESSS!" out loud. Then I calmly sat down and texted everyone who knew I was writing.

Here's the proof below. This image was taken on the 31st, so the "Project Modified" date shows that date. However, even if I had crossed the finish on the 31st it would still have been inside 30 days.

Just to give you an idea of how long a 50,000 word book is, here's a list of famous, comparable sized novels:
  • Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Brave New World
I've had some friends and coworkers ask if they can read it. It'll be some time before I can let even an excerpt out of the bag, as I've yet to complete the entire first draft. At the 50k word mark, I had maybe 2/3 of my chapters drafted. I also have some more research to do on the time period - 1914 Imperial Russia - that I need in order to make everything as authentic as possible. Everything from weapons to clothes to food to language to culture to politics has to be taken into account.

Anyways, back to my tale set in the land of vodka and balalaikas.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Busy Day...

It's the new fiscal year. What does that mean? Well, apparently the Navy's received some more gas money. They flew the hell out of us today. And yesterday. And the day before.

Today I sat down to work the North Whiting sector, and both times the Navy was jumping.

For normal Whiting course rules traffic, we use specialized traffic count sheets. They have a blank column in the middle where we write down the call sign (RN047, SP641, MX047), a column on the left with departure airports, and a column on the right for arrival airports. They're designed to keep us from having to fill out a flight progress strip for every single aircraft. The sheet looks like this:

So, let's say a T-34 calls us up: "Pensacola Approach, Red Knight 641 at Conecuh River Bridge, off of OLF Brewton, with information Victor." He said he took off from Brewton airport, so I check off "12J" - Brewton's identifier - in the left column. In the middle, I write "RN641" for the call sign. On the right column, I check off "NSE" for North Whiting, his destination. There, now we have accurate count. We do this only for T-34's who wants the course rules in or out of Whiting. For overflights, practice approaches, etc. we use regular strips.

Each sheet has space for ten aircraft. I filled up about seven or eight of them in each session. Keep in mind, those sheets are only for NSE course rules traffic. That's not counting IFR departures or arrivals, civilian overflights, T-34s inbound wanting practice approaches, or T-34s going cross country. It was much busier than it's been lately.

For the Pilots

I know some Navy pilots read this blog, and I'd just like to say: please be patient with us. We want to work with you and provide you service. However, we have a hierarchy of priority we need to deal with. We never ignore pilots, but sometimes we just need to take care of other things before we get to you.

To Blackbird 123: I've heard you call at Conecuh bridge. I see you out there squawking 1200 just northwest of the bridge and your Mode C showing 3500 feet. I really would like to get you squawked up and on your way home.

However, right now I'm dealing with:
  • A flight of two Red Knights who just departed whose transponder's inoperative and they're just a primary target.
  • My IFR T-34 on the TACAN final just had his LA-LA go off (Low Altitude alert) so now I need to call the tower on the shout line.
  • I have another T-34 on a base leg for the TACAN that I need to clear right now or else he's going to blow through the final.
  • A T-34 flown by a solo student just got lost and went to Point Initial instead of Point Charlie (i.e. he thinks he's landing runway 23 instead of 5).
  • Base ops screwed the hell out of Shooter 789's flight plan and now I'm trying to get our own Flight Data position to fix it.
  • I've got the Pensacola West sector in my ear asking for a point out on a helicopter who's going to clip my airspace.
  • I have a civilian Cessna 172 west of Whiting - who's on the victor frequency so the Navy birds can't hear him and keep talking over him - asking for flight following to Pensacola Regional.
  • I've got two overflights who just checked in, one who is about to fly right through the Whiting departure corridor at 3000 feet (i.e. most ungood).
  • And lastly, the tower just called me with approach requests for VV2E840.
All of these things were happening simultaneously today. When a T-34 calls inbound, I usually try to at least issue them a squawk. That A) let's them know I heard them and B) buys me some time so I can take care of other things since it normally takes about 30 seconds or so for the plane to tag up (15 seconds for the pilot to punch it in and two or three radar sweeps of 5 seconds each before the scope tags him).

Note that several of those things on the list involve me talking on the land lines to tower or to another sector. I might be chatting up a storm on my end, but you in the cockpit just hear dead air and no one responding. Or you hear the controller talking to a bunch of other airplanes whose responses you can't hear. Maybe you start thinking you've got the wrong frequency keyed up. Or maybe you think your radio's not receiving properly. I understand how that can be a little unsettling and/or annoying. I'm a pilot too, and if I was calling approach a few times with no reply I'd be thinking "WTF, over?"

When it gets to the point where I know I won't be getting to the inbounds, I just need to key up and say something ridiculous like "All inbound T-34s, stand by." and keep taking care of my business. Once I've taken care of what I need to do, then I'll go back and start picking the targets out. "T-34 just south of the bridge, say call sign." Squawk them. "T-34 three miles of the Chicken Ranch (a VFR reporting fix), say call sign." Squawk them. "Flight of T-34s north of Jay, say call sign." Squawk them. Then, once I've taken care of all the obvious ones, "Are there any other aircraft standing by?" I say the last, because there might be some who I missed or who are wanting something I don't expect, such as a T-34 who's wanting a practice approach or a Maintenance T-34 at Point Initial.

A Different Kind of Operation

I know the readers out there working at Atlanta and Miami and Chicago think it can't possibly be that hard. I don't pretend to think that the traffic we work here in any way competes with the complexity of feeding a billion airliners an hour to parallel approaches. You guys pump the airplanes in and out like nobody's business. Whiting is relatively simple air traffic control compared to that.

I obviously have no real point of comparison to other facilities, since this is the first place I've worked. That said, we have controllers here who came from LAX and other busy places who claim this is one of the most complicated places they've been. That takes into account our Pensacola Regional and NAS Sherman banks of scopes as well, not just Whiting.

Our operation here does have its own specific brand of difficulty. The four biggest problems on the Whiting NAS sectors are:
  • Frequency congestion: You typically have anywhere between six and thirteen frequencies keyed up at once if you're working Whiting combined up. A VHF/UHF for each of three sectors, a monitor frequency for the Lakes operating area, and up to six SFA frequencies used for the PAR or ASR approaches.
  • Volume: Whiting has 150 T-34s and a huge number of H-57s. When they get going, it's like Hitchcock's The Birds.
  • Learning Environment: Every aircraft we talk to is flown by a pilot in training. Most have an instructor on board to keep them from getting into too much trouble. There are times where the instructor will let them go too far and it makes things a little messy.
  • Airspace: We've got some badly chopped up airspace built up around our three Class C airports, requiring a huge amount of point-outs and other coordination.
What we're dealing with here is essentially the world's largest flight school, with an enormous volume of traffic. To give you an idea of this volume, fully 10% of the US Navy's global flight hours take place in our backyard. And that's just Whiting; that doesn't count NAS Sherman with its T-6, T-1, T-45, and Sabreliner squadrons.

I've met several Whiting pilots and I think they're some of the coolest, most professional, and patriotic people I've ever met. Of course, as with any flight school, they're learning their craft. We're talking pilots in high performance aircraft that have maybe a few hundred hours of flight time, not thousands like the guys in the left seat of a Boeing or Airbus. It gives it a higher level of unpredictability. Most of the time they fly well, but I've seen things go awry enough times to be very wary. It's not a bad thing; it's just the nature of the beast.

To add to the fun, the other side of the scope is learning too. We're talking about trainee controllers like myself who have only a few hundred hours of total time on position. A Boeing 747 captain has a wealth of experience to pull from versus the flight student who just passed his commercial check ride. Likewise, we have some time to go before we approach the capabilities and resourcefulness of the veterans who train us every day. Myself and several of the guys I work with are certified to work all of Whiting - North and South - on our own, but we're not at the level of the older guys. It takes time to build that level of finesse and confidence. It may take us a little longer to formulate a plan or understand what you mean. But we'll make it work, and over time it will get better.

And that's why, I tell you, it felt good today. Moving 160+ planes was pretty nice. I like it when it gets busy. It makes you more efficient, more proactive, and more confident.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Happy Halloweenies

I hope everybody's Halloween is fun-filled and candy-coated. :)

While I'll be in my home dishing out candy to the neighborhood, a few lucky people "will be taking part in a historic event: the first commercial Zeppelin flight in the USA in over 70 years. Before anyone says "Hey, what about the Goodyear Blimp?" - the blimps are not Zeppelins. A Zeppelin has a rigid structure inside, while a blimp is for all intents and purposes a helium filled gas bag.

And, not only is Airship Ventures inaugurating touring airship flights, but they'll be doing it with one of my favorite bands: Abney Park. They're a steampunk band based out of the northwest. Their sound is very similar to a Cirque du Soleil soundtrack, blending modern elements (synthesizers and rock guitars) with traditional and world instruments (violin, darbuka) and both male and female vocals. Lyrically, they're somewhere between steampunk and goth, with plenty of references to airships, Nikola Tesla, automatons, and other steampunk staples. Their stage "persona" is that of a crew of airship pirates, so they've got the goggles and style to match.

I would have loved to have gone that flight, considering that:
  1. I'm a big fan of steampunk. My NaNoWriMo novel is steampunk-inspired.
  2. I'm a big fan of airships, The NaNoWriMo novel also heavily involves airships.
  3. Abney Park's members are all very cool and down to Earth. I met them at Dragon*Con a couple months ago and they were simply awesome.
But hey, I'll be doing it one better. My wife and I will be celebrating Halloween in our own home for the first time ever. And it feels great.

Here's a vid of the Zeppelin NT in Germany, before it made its trip over here:

If anybody's interested in some "off the beaten path" music, check out the Abney Park vids below. They were definitely a bit of an acquired taste at first, but I ended up becoming a big fan of their music.

"Airship Pirates" at Dragon*Con 2008

"Sleep Isabella"

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

ATC Hours

Apologies for the lack of posts. I've had a bunch of projects going on simultaneously that are eating away at my time (in a good way).

The biggest one is a web site I launched recently. It's called ATCHours.com and is designed to help ATC trainees keep track of their OJT training forms. It's loaded with features that make it simple to calculate your position hours and view the status of your OJT reports.

I hope some of the folks reading this blog will be interested. Here's a little "textual infomercial" for it. :)

  • Overview
    Where I work, we train on a number of positions with a multitude of different instructors, and we're responsible for the accuracy and completion of all reports. Before ATCHours, many of the trainees here used Excel, text files, and even paper note pads to track their time, all of which brought their own problems to the table. I've seen Excel files get deleted by computer updates and note pads have near mid-table collisions with spilled cups of coffee. Missing a record or two from three weeks ago might force you to manually recalculate every total for every report during those three weeks. Then there was the question of finding out which reports had already been turned in and which were still outstanding.

    By creating a single feature-filled universal tracking tool, I felt it would make life easier for a lot of people around the country. That's where ATCHours comes in.
  • Features
    1. Access from any computer or web-enabled cell phones.
    2. Works with any type of ATC facility (tower, TRACON, ARTCC) and any number of positions and instructors.
    3. Log up to four records simultaneously, easily, and quickly using a simple web form.
    4. Run reports by position, date, and other criteria.
    5. See who you trained with on what day and on what position.
    6. Display position totals and daily totals.
    7. Log comments made by your instructors.
    8. Export your logs in MS Excel and PDF format for easy backup.
    9. Check off which reports you've filed with your supervisor and which you still need to get back from your instructors.
    10. If you transfer to a new facility, it's easy to separate your old facility's training hours from your new ones.
    11. Customize your settings to your facility.
    12. Server hosted on a trusted web host with frequent back-ups.
    13. Tested and used by existing ATC trainees.

  • How it Works and Looks
    When you first log in, you'll be greeted by your Overview page. This is your entire training record at a glance, showing your time on each position, your most recent 20 records, and your instructors.

    Clicking on the View All Hours link on the left takes you to the more detailed viewer page. On this page, you can filter your records by position, instructor, and date.

    Time to add new records. Just click the Add Hours menu item and you'll be taken to a page with four identical forms. Whenever you add a new record or change an existing one, all of your hours are instantly recalculated to reflect the update.

  • Extras and Widgets
    There are also several extras on the site that you can use on your blog or forum signatures to display your progress to the world.

    Time Tracker: A widget that you can install on your blog or web site that displays all of your positions and hours. You can see mine fully operational on the top right of my blog.

    Dynamic Banner: You can use this as your forum signature, on your MySpace page, and just about anywhere else you can display an image. Every time you update your hours, this image automatically updates, showing up to twelve of your positions.

  • Frequently Asked Questions

    How much does it cost?
    Normally it costs a one-time fee of $15. This small fee helps cover our hosting costs, past and future development time, and maintenance.

    However, for readers of this blog, I'm offering a coupon that knocks $3 off that price, giving you a lifetime membership for only $12. Even if we change the rates later on, you'll never be affected and never have to pay again.

    When you're signing up, you'll see a box labelled Coupon Code. Just enter in the following code to get your discount: PENGUIN.

    How many positions/instructors/records/facilities can I add?
    Unlimited. The site is designed to work with all facilities, from the smallest VFR tower to the largest ARTCC. There are no limits.

    Will new features be added?
    Of course. We're always looking for feedback from our users. Several of our newest updates were suggested by site users.

  • In Closing
    If anyone has a question about the site, please feel free to comment here or drop me an e-mail. There is also a support form available on the web site here.

    If you like what you see, just click here to sign up! And remember, the Flying Penguin coupon code is PENGUIN.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hate Mail

Yay, I got my first bits of hate mail! Apparently some ex-USAF type from Eglin AFB next door to us decide to chime in on a few of my posts with some, err, colorful commentary of his own. I found it all quite enlightening.

I know, I know - don't egg the troll on. It only encourages them. But you know, having never been bashed like that, I decided to call him out on his claims.

1) The first comment (on LOA Hell)
"I was an Air Traffic Controller at Egin AFB. I was fully rated in Eglin Tower, Duke Field Tower, and all positions in the Eglin Radar Approach Control and Mission Control Facilities. I am also a pilot. "

Wow, really? OMG! Can I get an autograph?

Guess what. We have a guy here with all those same quals. Entered the FAA a year ago as a VRA. One big difference, though: he's not an asshole. Oh, and he knows how to spell Eglin right. Say it with me now: E-G-L-I-N. With an "L", like "Loser".

"This site is hilarious. You obviously have a lot of free time on your hands. Thanx for the laughs. It isn't that difficult goober. "

When myself and most of the other trainees started, we had basically no training department. Some of the other guys were lucky enough to get a quick course taught to them by one of the controllers. Me? Not so lucky - I arrived here about two months after the others. I was handed a book of LOAs, a CD with SOPs, and told to go read it and make sense of it.

So, I did, in my own way. I know Photoshop and 3D programs from my last job. I made sense of the material the best way I knew how: visually. A lot of the graphics I made on my own because there were not many materials to study. Instead of poring over a boring-ass LOA, why not convert it into a more easily accessible format? The same goes for this blog: I write about things here because A) I like to share the experience of training for those who are interested, and B) it helps me keep all this stuff straight.

Essentially, you're giving me shit for studying, taking initiative, and wanting to improve my abilities and knowledge.

Who's the "goober", exactly?

"Good Luck Geek. I hope you're not working me when I fly through."

And how am I a geek? Because I know how to use a computer for more than checking my MySpace and surfing porn sites? God forbid someone should have a skill other than binge drinking and lap-dance-receiving.

"But, you're probably one of those controllers that "has to use the bathroom" when the strip bay fills up...aren't ya?"

Two hours ago, my last session of the night, I had a full strip bay tonight on the right and a workspace full of strips in front of me. Dual full patterns at NAS Whiting North and South. A flock of dissimilar aircraft - fixed wing and helos - running around in the GCA pattern at South, each doing multiple PAR, ASR, ILS, and TACAN approaches. Multiple T-34s doing TACANs and GPS approaches at North. In the middle of that, a variety of popups for both fields requesting entries back home and multiple IFR departures headed either eastbound to CEW, westbound to Mobile, or south to Sherman NAS.

In addition, I was working around the airspace your fellows at Eglin took from us - MOA Alpha West and the three GCA areas (A,B, and C). That left me with about 30% less airspace than usual, knocking out my right downwind from South Whiting.

Funny. I don't remember getting any urge to tinkle.

Where there things I could have done better? Absolutely. But every inbound pilot got his approach requests and every departure got sent on their way cleanly.

I actually had quite a good time. See, I actually look forward to it getting busy. You don't get better by working slow sessions.
2) The Second Comment (on Things Gone Awry)
You are such a friggin goober. I worked Eglin with nothing...including radar! You probably have no idea what the hell non-radar means, do ya?

Man, you are a god. I bet you're the only controller in the whole wide world who's worked non-radar. That section of the 7110.65 was written especially for you.

I'm well aware of what non radar is, but frankly have not had the opportunity to use it very much. I've been a controller trainee for a year in a facility that has two independent ASR-11 radars and a CENRAP feed from Jacksonville Center. That means three separate radars need to fail for us to go non radar.

I've had to create the most basic kind of NR separation - 20 miles or 10 minutes - when Jax lost their LRR. We fed them 20 miles in trail, with manual handoffs.

You're the guy that sits next to me and just hands me his strips when you're friggin screen goes blank.

Uh, you seem to have a lot of people passing you strips. That's the second time in two comments you've used that analogy. I guess creativity is not your strong suit.

It just seems like you've got some massive ego that needs constant feeding. Maybe you feel nobody can do anything better than you? From the little I've seen so far, I'd imagine that your picture is next to the word "autofellatio" in the dictionary.

will you go to Sammy's and get a life? Please? You embarass me.

Oh, is that where you gotta go to get some action? Sorry to hear you can't get any without having to hit an ATM beforehand. What's your pickup line? "Hey baby, I know 'non radar'. Can I clear you to my fix?"
3) And the final little gem (also on LOA Hell)

If you know the aircraft you worked, and can list them on a website...
Please go do something else for a living.
No really.

I don't know. Call me silly for wanting to get into an aviation field and actually liking airplanes. It's ridiculous, isn't it?


I feel kind of dirty now. Oh well.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Blog Props

Some other interesting aviation blogs are popping up throughout the Internetz. Others that have been dormant for some time are coming back to life. Each one offers a different perspective on the aviation universe.

NAS Confusion
Author Statement: "I am an Air Traffic Controller at Boston Center. My area of specialty is Area A, which includes airspace above eastern upstate New York. I also earned my Private Pilot's License in 2001."

Level 7000
Author Statement: A line pilot for a cargo operator, building time and looking to break into the Profile: "I wish to let everyone know that I am a Part 135 freight pilot that flies for about 2.5 to 3 hours per day with a duty day near 14 hours. Yes it's long, yes it can get really really boring but...it pays well and I am working for a smaller Part 135 outfit that bases in the southeast United States but I am in the Midwest! I look forward to talking about many things aviation and possibly aviation."

The Towerboss
Author Statement: Controller trainee just starting at Houston Intercontinental Airport (IAH). "I'm an Air Traffic Controller and a Private Pilot."

Squawk Normal

Author Statement: "I'm not here to talk ATC. I'm here to talk politics. All the ATC blogs are openly supporting Obama and the Democratic Party. That's fine. But there is another side to the two-party coin. There are also more than two parties in America, and an infinitely more political ideologies than parties."

"Bob" Part Deux: The Reckoning

This is a sequel to my earlier post "Some Pilots..."

Light cargo haulers. Canceled check fliers. Whatever their name, they seem to have a lot of things in common wherever they are in the country.
  • They're always in an extreme hurry. Opposite direction departures, intersection takeoffs. Even their radio transmissions are brief to the point of being curt.
  • They will do anything in their power to be number one to the runway, maneuvering their Cessnas and Barons like P-51s.
  • The sky can be filled with a solid overcast, Noachian deluge-style rain, horrible visibility, volcanic ash, flaming frogs falling from the clouds, locusts swarming, and yet.... they'll still call the field in sight from 30 miles out at 1500 feet, in hopes of snagging a visual approach.
That all being said, it makes them fun to work. They bend their airplanes around the sky like madmen, make extreme short approaches, fly through some crazy weather. I don't know who pays them or how they get paid, but I've seen them fly directly through Heavy and Extreme precipitation in light piston singles just to shave a minute or two off their flight. Obviously we issue the weather to them, but we can't make them deviate if they don't want to. All we can do is provide the pilot with the weather information.

Overall, they're entertaining... until they're not number 1 for the runway. If you've got to sequence them, watch out. And that's where our story begins.

There are two rules in play for this story:
  1. We have to sequence all traffic to Pensacola Regional, regardless of whether it's VFR or IFR. We can't just shotgun the tower with VFRs from all over the place while feeding them IFR's on the primary final.
  2. Pensacola tower's AOR (Area of Responsibility) goes up to 1700', so we own 2200' and above.
So, let us proceed.

The Situation: Overcast day. Reduced visibility. We are landing runway 8 using instrument approaches.

The Players: We have three aircraft inbound to Pensacola at the moment. From the west, we have an IFR Embraer 135 regional airliner descending for the GPS approach . From the northeast, about 20-25 miles out, we have an IFR light cargo hauler. And from about 15-20 miles to the southeast, we have Bob v2.0, another IFR light cargo hauler (who's from the same company as the other one).

The Plan: You can't beat a straight-in. The Embraer is hands-down #1. I'm going to put Bob on a right downwind to follow him and then put the other cargo hauler on the left downwind to follow Bob.

The part of Bob will be played by the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Embraer has been cleared for his instrument approach and is about ten miles out. I descend Bob to 2200 feet. and he's on a vector to join a 3 mile or so right downwind for 8. He's about five miles southeast of the airport at this point. Having worked a few of these light cargo haulers before, I'm pretty sure that he's going to want to jump in front of the Embraer with a visual. However, that's not going to work for us.

Well, Bob's closer to the airport and - as expected - calls us "Airport in sight." This implies a request for the visual approach. The Embraer is now on a four mile final. No way is Bob going to make it in ahead of him. So, I just say, "Roger. Fly heading 250, maintain 2200, vectors for sequence. You're following a regional jet on a 4 mile final."

Apparently Bob thought that by calling the field in sight, it automatically waived our need to sequence and separate from other aircraft. He immediately copped an attitude. "I have the airport in sight."

So I repeat, "Fly heading 250, maintain 2200, vectors for sequence."

"Ha-ha! Thought you were getting that visual, weren't you?"

Now he pulls out the next weapon in his arsenal. It's a well-used blade that has allowed him to cut through many an ATC requirement in the past.

"Approach, I'm canceling IFR at this time."

Nice try. Remember: we still need to sequence VFR aircraft. Regardless of whether or not he's VFR, his light piston is not going to beat our Embraer. And if he tries, within 30 seconds I'm going to get a call from our tower's landline with the ATC phraseology equivalent of "WTF, over?!"

So, Bob has swung his sword. We now parry with our own mighty blade.

"Roger, IFR cancellation received. Fly heading 250, maintain VFR at 2200."

Clang! His blow is deflected. Cancelling IFR has changed nothing for him. He still needs to be sequenced to follow that Embraer. He is still number 2 for the runway. And unless he gets him in sight - which he hasn't - we still need wake turbulence separation.

"Cancel THIS!"

Note: I'd like to stress at this point one thing I mentioned in my last "Bob" story: at no point are we driving him far out of his way or making him do anything unsafe or unusual. We are not "vectoring for controller amusement". We're merely vectoring him behind another aircraft in a manner that is safe and efficient. The plan was to wait until he was abeam the Embraer on the downwind and then clear him for the visual. He would have had maybe another two or three miles to fly, and then he'd be cleared.

However, now he drops another bomb: "Uh, I can't maintain VFR on this heading. It'll run me right into the clouds! And I don't have my IFR clearance anymore." He sounds very annoyed and has simultaneously confirmed our suspicion: he obviously cancelled IFR just to try and sneak in ahead of the Embraer. Apparently, however, he wasn't actually in tenable VMC conditions.

Well, well. That's a surprise. "Maintain VFR at or above 2200'. Climb and deviate as necessary. "

Got yourself in a pickle now, don't ya?

At this point, we're splitting off the position. While before, I was both East and West, now I'm just the East side. Since we're landing runway 8, I hand Bob off to the west controller. By now my instructor and I are already annoyed ourselves. We were just trying to work the traffic, and this guy was trying to play us for fools.

Since I didn't work Bob after we handed him off, I am not certain if the other controller recleared him IFR or what. I don't know. However, what I do know is that Bob went from being number two to land, to number three. Because of his stunt, he ended up being vectored out to the west a bit, and the other airplane from his company - who, I might add, heard the entire exchange on the radio - wound up being closer. The other airplane did not make peep and simply followed instructions without complaint.

"So, have you learned your lesson?"

Well, apparently he didn't.

Shortly after he landed, Bob had the gall to call the TRACON and complain. Our supervisor was on the phone with him for a long time - at least 20 minutes. To make a long story short, he accused us of trying to fly him into clouds when he was VFR, which was absolute bullshit. The second he told us that the heading would run him into clouds, we told him to maintain VFR and deviate as necessary. It was plainly obvious to everyone on our end that he'd tried to pull a shortcut and wasn't in real VFR conditions.

Difficult Pilots

I don't care how much of an asshole a pilot is - and I've worked a couple real pricks in my short time training - I will never consciously put anyone in danger. I don't care what attitude they're copping. My goal is to keep the operation as safe as possible - whether they like it or not. However, I find it especially ridiculous when a pilot puts himself into danger - such as canceling IFR in IMC conditions - and then tries to blame the controller.

Like yesterday, for instance, one of my coworkers had a Cessna that was doing work 15 miles north of Whiting NAS. After he finished in that spot, he wanted to work all of three miles northeast of Whiting. This would put him right in the T-34 departure path: a bad place to be when you're talking swarms of high performance military aircraft flown by student pilots. The area was also located within the tower's airspace.

The controller called the tower, asked for a point-out, and they told him unable - with good reason. He informed the pilot: "Unable request due to Whiting departures, remain clear of Class C surface area." Apparently the pilot got pissed off, even though it was for his own safety. With Whiting launching like crazy as they were yesterday, every single departure would have been a potential conflict and a traffic call. Simply not workable.

We're not trying to be pains in the butt and restrict people from flying around without justification. However, there are times where we simply can't accomodate a request. Usually the reason for the "unable" is the best one of all: safety.

As a nightcap to the story: On the good side of things, I've worked this post's Bob several times since that day, and he's much more cooperative than he was before.