Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Life on Data

I got checked out on Flight Data 1 & 2 a couple weeks ago.

Flight Data seems to be where most people start out in most facilities. Here, I started on radar first and then trained on flight data several times a week in between radar sessions. I don't think there's anything wrong with either approach, since they compliment each other. Working radar teaches you the operation and how everything fits together, plus allows you to see why you need to do certain things when you're working Data.

Flight Data always gets treated condescendingly as a position. You don't talk to any airplanes and you're basically doing the "paperwork" for everyone else who is talking to airplanes. However, it's a vital position that is designed to allow those working radar to focus on their traffic rather than dealing with weather data and NOTAMs.

Now, doing a good job on flight data will not actively relieve the stress of the different radar positions. However doing a bad job will complicate the rest of the room and pour on the stress.

One of my coworkers put it quite eloquently, "On flight data, you can't keep the room from going down the shitter, but you can sure send it there in a hurry!" :)

For those that don't know, the basic role of Flight Data is to:
  • Run flight data strips to different positions.
  • Update the weather and information displays.
  • Correct and follow-up on defective flight plans.
  • Amend, create, and remove flight plans.
  • Collecting traffic strips and papers for counting.
Here's a quick overview of how it works:

1) Departing Aircraft:

We have three Class C airports within our airspace, and we maintain a separate strip bay for each to keep things organized. When a particular aircraft is on the move, the tower will call our Flight Data position to activate the aircraft. We then take the strip(s) to the appropriate scope working that airport so they have it in front of them.

2) Arriving or En Route Aircraft:

For aircraft transiting or landing in our airspace, we'll post the strip in the strip bay next to the radar scope sorted by the time they're supposed to arrive in our air space. Sounds easy, right? Not necessarily. There's a lot of "educated guesstimation" going on there. You have to be very aware of your airspace, your operations, your letters of agreement, and the positions that are open.

Here's an example:

Call sign: Navy 123
Type: T-1 Jayhawk
Departed: Naval Air Station Jacksonville
Arrival Fix: Crestview VOR
Destination: Naval Air Station Pensacola
Direction of flight: Southwest
Arrival Time: 0800
Call sign: Navy 456
Type: T-6 Texan II
Departed: Naval Air Station Jacksonville
Arrival Fix: Crestview VOR
Destination: Naval Air Station Pensacola
Direction of flight: Southwest
Arrival Time: 0800

Aside from the type of aircraft, both are identical right? Both strips will show the same thing, the same fix, same destination, etc. However... the type of aircraft changes everything; the T-6's are turboprop trainers, the T-1's are jets. Per our Letters of Agreement (LOAs), Navy jets always come in high, overfly the rest of our airspace, and go direct to the NAS Pensacola sector. The props always come in lower and have to go through our other sectors before eventually arriving at NAS Pensacola.

So, as far as strip posting for our example, Navy 123 would go directly to the NAS Pensacola sector. On the other hand, the Navy 456 would go to our lower-altitude East sector.

Basically, the devil is in the details. After a while, you're able to look at a strip and quickly determine where it's going and get it there. You'll recognize patterns that will make things second nature. However, even after a while, there are still strips - usually unscheduled GA traffic whose course puts them right on the line between several sectors - where you'll have no idea as to where they'll go. In those cases, you just take your best guess and post it on the scope where it's most likely to go. Even then, you've got about a 50/50 chance of hearing someone call out "Anybody got a strip on a N12345?" :)

3) Flight Plan Management

ATC is a dynamic operation and all things are subject to change, including what's written on a flight strip. Reasons for modifications are numerous:
  • Modifying an en route aircraft's altitude so that the receiving facility knows what altitude to expect him at.
  • Adding a fix in other facility's airspace to a flight plan so that it will hand off to that facility correctly.
  • When an aircraft whose flight plan takes it to another facility decides to cancel radar services, you'll need to "Remove strips" on that aircraft. This deletes the flight plan from the National Airspace System and informs any facilities along his route of flight to throw away all strips related to that aircraft. If you don't remove the strips on that aircraft, you'll be getting phone calls asking about that airplane wondering where he is and if anything happened to him.
Working on Flight Data, you'll find out really quickly that our National Airspace System has tons of quirks. It's very, very particular about how it wants its information, and even when you input it correctly there will invariably be moments when you are staring at the screen, looking at the feedback, saying to yourself "What the hell?"

My one word of advice: Whenever you go Oklahoma City to train, become real familiar with the FDIO (Flight Data Input-Output computer). Pay attention during that lesson. Learn the fields and learn the formats for amendments, because you will be using them frequently.

4) Weather and Information

The last of your major duties is to - put simply - disseminate information of all kinds related to the operation and update the information on this screen. There's one of these screens over each radar scope and from the Flight Data position you can update the data on all of them simultaneously.

(BTW, check out that low ceiling!)

Typical information:
  • Weather/ATIS: While our main airport updates its weather and ATIS automatically, we get manually-sent weather reports from the other two Class C's in our airspace. This gets a funky sometimes because the airport's weather department will send you new weather but the tower will still be using the old ATIS code. We have in-house procedures for when that happens - namely putting a highly advanced asterisk next to the ATIS code when the ATIS is old but the weather is new. :)
  • MOA Activations: When areas go hot, it affects our routes and approaches, so it's vital to get that info up there.
  • NOTAMs: Various NOTAMs for both towered and uncontrolled fields throughout our airspace. Examples include unavailable approaches, closed runways, lighting outages, and navigation aid outages.
  • Flow Control: Our flow with our two neighboring centers and two approach controls changes frequently, so that needs to be updated. We have two main settings: Gates and Randoms. Gates means that aircraft going to another facility need to be routed through one of our arrival/departure gates. Randoms means you can put the aircraft through any part of the airspace boundary between both facilities.
Well, that's an overview of Flight Data. It's one of those positions where you'll have your feet up one second, and the next you'll be literally breaking a sweat as you're running strips all over the room, inputing amendments shouted at you from around the room, and stuffing piles of strips coming out of the printer. Not very glamorous, but certainly very important to the operation.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Back from the dead

I'm really sorry I haven't posted in a while. Believe me, it's not for lack of material. I've just had a lot going on in my life over the past month or so,.

Here's the breakdown:
  • We finally found a house we wanted to buy, after 8 months of searching.
  • We had to jump through an enormous number of hoops to get this house. It's our first home, so all of the inspections, the paperwork, shopping for mortgages, comparing insurance companies, etc were new to us and very tiring.
  • We had to pack up everything in the apartment we'd been renting.
  • The holidays came and went, bringing along with them their own set of complications, as we went back to Miami to visit our families.
  • We closed on the house on Dec. 28th.
  • We moved into the house over the weekend before New Year's.
  • Every bit of free time we've had since we got the house has been spent working on getting the house setup as we want it. New appliances, new furniture, etc.
  • I've been setting up a garage work shop so I can Do-It-Yourself things around the house. I bought all kinds of dangerous toys like saws, drills, and Dremel tools. :)
  • On top of that, we had no internet for several weeks, and I can't access Blogger from work.
I gotta say, it's wonderful being able to own your home and not throw away money in rent. We were very lucky in being sent to Pensacola. I've heard horror stories from friends of mine who were sent to places like Nantucket and Southern California and are trying to get by on the AG payscale. Not one of them has been able to survive without help from their families. For several of them, 75% of their salary goes to just rent. If you're taking home $2300 a month ( AG salary including standard 12.52% locality), and your rent is $1600, there's simply not much breathing room for car payments, insurance, utilities, phone, car, food etc..

Down here, home prices are excellent compared to what I'm used to. In Miami, a comparable house to the one we bought would have been priced three or four times as much. We simply would not have been able to afford anything.

Put it this way: my best friend in Miami recently bought a 1/1 apartment in an older condo-conversion subdivision in a mediocre area of town. It's around 600-700 square feet, has a dinky kitchen, and was in fixer-upper condition. He had to put in a lot of money into updating the bathroom and living room, and the place still looks kind of dreary.

Our house is a 3 bed/2 bath detached single family home with 1620 square feet, a 2 car garage, and a huge corner lot. We have a covered porch, 15 foot high ceilings, a beautiful kitchen, and tons of storage. Our neighborhood is very pretty and quiet, with lots of kids and people out jogging. We're 10 minutes from my work and 15 from Mary's, and if you sit out on the front porch you can watch the approach traffic on the glide path into our main runway, beautifully lit by the afternoon sun.

The kicker? We paid $20,000 less than my friend did for his 1/1 condo.

On top of that, we have no traffic jams here, people are very nice, everything is close, and the city is overall very pleasant. The nightlife is no South Beach, but at the same time everyone here is more down to Earth and real. There's plenty to do and see. Whenever we have kid(s), the schools here are some of the best in the state.

The moral of the story is this: if the FAA assigns you to some strange airport in the state of your choice, do your research. Visit the city, visit the facility, familiarize yourself. Don't blow it off. What you think may be some podunk tower in some backwater town may just be exactly what you've been seeking. I would never have thought I would like Pensacola, but I find that I'm really liking the way of life down here.