Monday, April 28, 2008

Fam Flight

Well, a simulated Fam flight.

I've been really curious about the training aircraft the Navy fly around here. I've got Microsoft Flight Simulator X, so I decided to hunt around for some download-able versions of the planes we see here all the time. While the only T-34 I could find was the old B-model (piston, not T-prop), I did find a quite excellent version of the T-6 Texan II's that are used for training at NAS Pensacola. And... it even brings an NAS Pensacola skin for Training Air Wing Six (TAW-6)!

I also found some scenery for NAS Pensacola itself. It's pretty darn good and includes the Blue Angels hangar, Naval Aviation Museum, and other landmarks. It provides a lot more detail than the stock FSX "generic airport". Cool stuff.

So I loaded up, spooled her up, and went tooling around my neck of the woods.

The NAS Pensacola ramp, with the Blues parked in the background.

"Negative Ghostrider, the pattern is full."
The NAS Pensacola complex.
Practicing an approach at Pensacola Regional.
Screaming over the waves at 270 knots.

One of the reasons I downloaded the plane was to see where certain avionics are, like the transponders, navigation receivers, and radios. This gives me a better idea of what the pilot himself is doing in the cockpit.

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Are you Declaring an Emergency?"


Today was the first time I'd ever heard that over my own headset.

I'd been working the usual arrival and departure T-34 traffic into NAS Whiting. Then I get this call on the radio.

"Pensacola Approach, Shooter 123 Solo. I'm returning from [Training] Area 2 and I've got a problem with my landing gear. It's stuck down and my speed's restricted. I'd like to get vectors back to Whiting."

Now, T-34s being 40 year old airplanes, it's not unheard of for one of them to have a gear issue. Normally they'll just fly their inbound routes like usual, with the only difference being that they'll fly much slower (120 knots vs. 190) so as to not damage the gear. However, I've only seen that done with an instructor on board. In this case, it was a solo student pilot, and I could tell by his voice that he was a little spooked.

I calmly acknowledge his transmission and issue him a squawk code. Usually it takes around 30 seconds to a minute for the pilot to punch in the squawk code, our radar to process it, and the datablock appear on our scope. However, I notice it's taking an unusually long time. I know that Training Area 2 is to the north, but I don't see him anywhere near where the T-34s are usually calling in.

Me: "SH123, say position?"
SH123: "SH123 is... uhhh....right near the power lines and south of the sawmill..."
That of course doesn't help me a bit. It was evident that he was looking at a detailed sectional chart, while our radar maps really only show obstructions, sector boundaries, and airports.
Me: "SH123, where are you in relation to Brewton [Airport] or Point Initial [Inbound Fix]?"
Both of those are a couple fixes in the northern part of our airspace that are known to all the Navy pilots since they use them for training.
SH123: "Uh, I'm about 5 miles east of Evergreen [airport]."
The lightbulb goes on. I know exactly where he is. I increase the range of my scope by 20 miles and see him wayyy out there by Evergreen airport, which is a little field the T-34s go to practice their training. Funny enough, I took a look at the sectional chart when I got home last night and saw the power lines he was talking about.

Now, Evergreen is about 10-15 miles past our airspace boundary inside Jacksonville Center's airspace. I can't legally radar identify him without getting a point-out approved from the Center. I key up the Crestview Low sector for ZJX.
Me: "Crestview Low, Pensacola Whiting, Point Out."
ZJX: "Crestview."
Me: "Point out, 5 miles east of Evergreen, squawking 1234. T-34 VFR inbound to Whiting."
ZJX: "Point out approved."

That gives me the green light to work him in the center's airspace. I reset my scope back to its normal range, but shift the view northbound a bit so I can keep track of SH123 as he comes in.

Me: "SH123, radar contact 5 miles east of Evergreen."
SH123: "SH123, roger, radar contact."

I can hear the relief in his voice. At this point, we usually ask the pilot if they require any assistance or emergency handling. My instructor keys up.

My instructor: "SH123, are you declaring an emergency?"
SH123: "SH123, affirmative."

Now, if there was a flight instructor on board, he probably would not have declared an emergency. The other "gear-down" T-34s I've worked have been dual training flights with both an instructor and student aboard. But being a solo pilot in an unusual situation, I think he did the right thing. There's no such thing as being "too careful" when your airplane's not working right, especially when you're an inexperienced student.

So, now it's officially an emergency. If you know the 7110.65, you know there's several things that we need from the pilot. Most of it has already been answered in this case, both within the pilot's first transmission and by the fact that we're familiar with the Navy trainers' equipment and aircraft.
a. Start assistance as soon as enough information has been obtained upon which to act. Information requirements will vary, depending on the existing situation. Minimum required information for inflight emergencies is:
  1. Aircraft identification and type. SH123. By his squadron (Shooter) and callsign, we know he's a T-34.
  2. Nature of the emergency. Gear stuck down.
  3. Pilot's desires. Wants radar vectors back to Whiting.
b. After initiating action, obtain the following items or any other pertinent information from the pilot or aircraft operator, as necessary:
  1. Aircraft altitude. His mode-C is indicating 4500 feet.
  2. Fuel remaining in time. Unknown.
  3. Pilot reported weather. VFR, but other aircraft along his route of flight were indicating that the ceilings were dropping.
  4. Pilot capability for IFR flight. All of the Navy pilots are IFR rated. It's one of their pre-requisites prior to training in the T-34.
  5. Time and place of last known position. He's radar contact on my scope.
  6. Heading since last known position. I can see him tracking southwest-bound.
  7. Airspeed. He's already told us his speed is reduced and I see that his groundspeed is 120 knots.
  8. Navigation equipment capability. The T-34s generally have GPS and VOR/TACAN.
  9. NAVAID signals received. Unknown.
  10. Visible landmarks. He'd indicated his position near Evergreen airport.
  11. Aircraft color. T-34s are orange and white, the standard Navy training colors.
  12. Number of people on board. He'd called himself a "solo", so just one.
  13. Point of departure and destination. Departed Whiting. Went to Evergreen. Returning to Whiting.
  14. Emergency equipment on board. Unknown.
Considering that the pilot was VFR, had reported no weather difficulties, and was navigating via visual references, the only question I really had for him was how much fuel he had left.

Me: "How many hours of fuel do you have remaining?"
SH123: "Errr... two hours."

In the meantime, my instructor has called the supervisor over. He also calls Whiting tower, giving them a heads up on the inbound emergency, including nature of the emergency and the fact that he was a solo. This gives them time to prepare the crash trucks and whatever else they need to do.

Now it's time to get SH123 back home. I type a * on my ARTS keyboard, click on SH123's target, and then click on the VFR arrival fix (Point Charlie) for Whiting, which is about 5 miles out from the runway threshold. It reads back about a 200 heading and about 35 miles flying distance. I take a look at our current wind - out of the southeast and moderate - and do a quick mental calculation.
Me: "SH123, fly heading 190. Vectors to Point Charlie."
SH123: "Roger, heading 190 for SH123."

While this is going on, I continue to work my other traffic. I keep an eye out on SH123 as he slowly makes his way in. To my surprise, the vector I gave him puts him directly over Point Charlie. I had expected to have to give him some tweaks, but it worked out fine. I give myself a silent "w00t!" and switch him to tower after he calls the fix in sight.

SH123 was plugging away at 120 knots his whole way in. Behind him are two more Navy T-34s about 7 miles apart, cruising towards the airport at about 190 knots. Rather than reduce their speed or give them delay vectors when they're 20 miles from the airport, I let them keep coming most of the way to see how things work out. When the first one is about 3 miles behind SH123, I go ahead and give him a right 360 for spacing. My instructor also reminds me to issue the second one a 360 just in case he closes the distance. I tell them both the reason: "A solo T-34 with an emergency." That lets them know I'm not just spinning them for my own amusement.

While those two were burning circles in the sky, I watch SH123 on his straight-in approach. As he descends below our radar's vertical range, his target drops off my scope and goes into coast track. After waiting for a minute or so, I call the tower to ask if he got down okay. "He juuuust landed." was the eager reply, and I tell my supervisor and instructor so my sup could log the event. "Can I send the other guys in?" I ask the tower. "Sure, bring 'em in." I get the other two back on course and switched them to tower.

And that was that. The planes keep calling and I keep working. The traffic doesn't stop just because another plane's in trouble, though pilots will be more accommodating when they hear someone in trouble on the radio.

The unexpected end to this happened when the land line from the tower rings a few minutes later. I pick it up. "This is the Whiting sup. Is this the controller?" "Errr, yes?" I reply, wondering what I'd screwed up. He continues, "Hey, listen, I just want to thank you for helping us out with that emergency. Also, holding those other guys out gave us plenty of space to work with him and get him on the ground. Good job." I wasn't expecting anything like that. "Hey, no problem at all. Anytime," I replied and unkeyed the line.

The sup's comments definitely lit up my day, although I didn't (and still don't) think I'd done anything special. Handling emergencies and such are part of the job description. The experience served as a good reminder of the basic purpose of ATC: controllers working together to keep people safe. I know for a fact any other controller here at my facility or anywhere else in the country would have handled that situation the same way. It's just part of the job.

In the grand scheme of things, a student pilot with his gear stuck down is not exactly a major emergency - unlike an engine fire, a fuel emergency, or landing gear stuck up. If there's such a thing as a "starter emergency" this was definitely it! However, it allowed me to get acquainted with the overall procedures involved in emergencies such as:
  • Taking care of the distressed pilot's needs.
  • Notification of the supervisor.
  • Notification of the tower.
  • Coordinating with other facilities.
  • Gathering information from the pilot.
  • Working other aircraft around the emergency.
  • Keeping your voice calm and reassuring to a distressed pilot.
Good experience. One more tool in that ever-growing toolbox.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Training Updates

There hasn't been all that much to report on the training front. I'm still working on the NAS Whiting sectors. I've been recommended for certification on two radar positions by two different instructors, however my supervisor wants all of the trainees to get a bit more experience with IFR/Marginal VFR operations.

The problem with our facility is that we handle so much Navy traffic and work so many specialized Navy procedures that the standard civilian stuff tends to fade a bit. For instance, two weeks ago was the first time I'd ever released an IFR aircraft out of an uncontrolled field while another IFR aircraft was inbound to that field. This of course required me to hold the inbound somewhere until the departing aircraft got airborne. I'd studied this kind of thing and it ended up being simple to work. I'd just never actually seen it in nearly six months of steady training.

What is becoming readily apparent is that there's simply no way to train you for every eventuality. Every day you work, you see something that you've never seen before. You work it, talk about it with your instructor, and put it away in your experience "toolbox". As you progress that toolbox continues to fill until you've got quite a few tools that you can call into action at a moment's notice.

The powers-that-be realize that you may not have seen every feasible scenario in the world. They just want to know that your judgment is sound and that you have enough experience to handle most scenarios safely. You of course have to be thoroughly versed on your airspace, your letters of agreement, and your operating procedures. Working knowledge of the 7110.65 as it relates to your facility is imperative as well. All that goes a long way to establishing a solid comfort level.

One thing that's been told to me repeatedly: even after you're checked out, you are absolutely encouraged to ask questions on stuff that you're not sure about. Most of the controllers I work with have no problem at all answering questions regarding all of the above. No matter how stupid the question may seem, you should get it answered.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Art of War (As Applied to ATC)

I recently picked up a copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War at my local Barnes and Nobles. As a student of military history, it's always intrigued me from afar. I took the plunge and I must say that I'm glad I did.

The book is a collection of statements, all of which are divided into eleven different chapters such as "Laying Plans", "Maneuvering", and "Variation of Tactics". To put it simply, it's a For Dummies guide on waging war, covering topics such as tactical advantages of terrain, financing military campaigns, maintaining troop morale, surprise, and deception. It's remarkable how relevant this man's treatise is thousands of years after it was written. Whether it's the D-Day beaches of WWII or the sands of modern-day Iraq, the majority of the piece remains thoroughly applicable.

What's even more remarkable to me is how much of it applies to the "art" that is air traffic control. As I read the verses, I couldn't help but notice the appropriateness of the material.

Sun Tzu Wrote:
The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy's not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unavailable.
- VIII, verse 11
In short: be prepared, come whatever may. When you sit down at your radar scope or stand up in your tower you need to be on your game and ready for anything. Whether you end up working two planes or two hundred is irrelevant; the important thing is to be prepared for two hundred and keep your edge sharp. If you go in thinking the session's going to be a cakewalk, you'll be on the wrong side of the power curve when the unexpected storm of traffic hits.

This not only applies to attitude, but technical preparedness as well. Do you know your airspace? Your approaches? How about your Letters of Agreement? How fresh are the Standard Operating Procedures in your mind? These are all "weapons" that you need to have at the ready, on call at an instant's notice for application.

Before I go on, I'd also like to emphasize that I do not view pilots as the "enemy". However, like an opponent, they present unpredictable situations that need to be dealt with using grand strategy, local tactics, planning, and speed. If not handled properly, they will cause harm - either to themselves, your career as a controller, or both.
He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.
- IX, verse 41
It's your job to look ahead and prevent situations. Say you've got two airplanes on your scope that are forty miles apart but whose paths cross. You take a glance at it and blow it off, thinking "Eh, they'll never hit." You know, the old betting on the come routine. Minutes later your luck runs out, the CA-CA goes off and you're taking a CA-CA of your own in your pants. You should have prevented that, either with an altitude change or some other means.

Be proactive. Don't just solve problems but step up and keep them from ever forming. You need to look into the future, whether it's one minute or twenty. If you're only thinking about the present, you're already far behind.
Success in warfare is gained by carefully accommodating ourselves to the enemy's purpose.
- XII, verse 60
This is a twofold statement. First you must determine the pilot's intentions. This can be divided up into two additional levels: near-term and long-term. For instance, in the near-term this pilot wants to do several approaches at your airport. The long-term plan after the approaches is for the pilot to depart VFR to the north and get flight following to a neighboring city.

Secondly, you take this information and incorporate it into our "big picture". You plan how you're going to insert this aircraft into your approach pattern along with the other aircraft you're working. You also determine how the aircraft will eventually depart northbound, factoring in elements such as airspace and traffic flow. While the pilot conducts his approaches, you reassess constantly to verify that your plan will in fact work. If there are doubts or issues, you reformulate your plan on the fly to make it work.

In short, be flexible and responsive. Do not become so attached to a plan that you tie your own hands behind your back.
If, however, you are indulgent, but unable to make your authority felt; kind-hearted, but unable to enforce your commands; and incapable, moreover of quelling disorder: then your soldiers must be likened to spoilt children.
- X, verse 26
Your job title says "controller" in it, so take control. If you're sheepish on the radio, pilots will jump all over you like a pack of ravenous wolves. Confidence in your voice and your instructions will leave zero doubt of who's control on the frequency.

This is especially important when you're busy and reaching your operational limits. You don't have time to deal with questions. You simply need pilots to comply, and comply now.

Additionally, you are supposed to provide the pilots as much service as you can, but not at the expense of order and safety. There just comes a point where you cannot provide optional services to them any longer. If that pilot is requesting one more practice approach and you've already got a pattern full, "Unable additional practice approaches. Say intentions." The tone and firmness in your voice will dissuade them from questioning your authority.

The facts are:
  1. Sometimes you just need to come off like an arrogant (but G-rated phraseology-compliant) jerk in order to get the job done right. "Stern parent voice" works nicely.
  2. Not every pilot is going to get what they want all the time.
  3. Do not accommodate optional pilot requests to the point where safety and separation are lost.
  4. Pilots will whine and question if given the opportunity. Do not waver.
Old Truths Ring True Today

The 7110.65 is the quintessential source for Air Traffic procedures and regulations. Its hundreds of pages are full of dry phraseology and methods that lay down the rules but do little for the nuances of the job.

When it comes to the strategy, personality and mentality of ATC, there are plenty of sources from which you can draw inspiration. First and foremost are the controllers who have been doing this for twenty years and are full of techniques and tricks. That "tribal knowledge" is an irreplaceable, invaluable resource that helps us new trainees determine what we need to focus on during our length training process.

Outside of their vast experience, you can find comparative works in the strangest of places. The Art of War is such a perfect piece because its subject matter shares considerable similarities to ATC. Timing, tactics, overall strategies, proactive maneuvers, priorities of duty: these are all things that come into play every time you plug-in.

I highly recommend the book, whether you're into:
  • Air Traffic Control
  • Military history and tactics
  • Or... actually, you know, planning to invade a small country.
If it's the latter, I recommend Monaco to start. With a land area of only .76 square miles, it should be a pushover. I hear the beaches are choice. :)