Sunday, June 29, 2008

Weather in Contrast

It's thunderstorm season. Yay.

Every afternoon it seems, big towering cumulonimbus clouds get annoyed with us mere humans and blow out sheets of rain, bolts of lighting, and gusts of wind that make life complicated for everyone. If you happen to be in the air in a thin-skinned metal airplane, that includes a bunch of fun possibilities like turbulence, wind shear, icing, and hail.

Some pilots apparently think that we controllers have some kind of God's eye view of the weather. Unfortunately, T-storms don't have transponders and don't file flight plans.

What the Pilot Sees

Before you took off, you probably looked at all the cool weather charts on, iPilot, AOPA, and other sources. You pulled up nice detailed charts with all kinds of data, like some of these examples from and Before you'd even begun preflighting the airplane, you developed a weather picture with trend information, intensities, and forecasts. On your PDA or in your flight bag, it's likely you had printouts with Area Forecasts (FAs), Terminal Area Forecasts (TAFs), and Routine Weather Reports (METARs) on-hand.

Once you're in the air, if your aircraft is equipped with a glass cockpit system like the Garmin G1000 or one of the newer handheld GPS systems like the Garmin 496 below, you'll have access to satellite-delivered weather data. You can look ahead on your route of flight and view recent METARS at different airports, examine trends, and generally get a big picture view of the weather. Everything's in lovely shades of colors, telling you what areas from which you need to remain clear.

If your airplane's a swanky model with its own built-in weather radar, you can scan the sky yourself and see trouble ahead. Of course, this is subject to attenuation, meaning that the radar pulses get weaker or are "bent" more the deeper they get into the weather. The result is that it's difficult to see what lies beyond the first layer of weather.

Of course, as a last result, you can just look out the window and see what's going on out there.


You've got access to all kinds of data - web-based, satellite-based, airborne radar-based, and "Mark 1 Eyeball"-based.

What do controllers see?

Different facilities have different weather equipment. Since the ARTS-based one is the only one I'm familiar with, I'll just stick with that one for this post. However, a terminal facility with STARS or an En Route Center will have something very different.

How does a storm look on ours? Um, well, it kinda looks like this:

Isn't it beautiful? I think it's got a very "retro video game" feel to it. Just huge blocks of pixels all over.

I mean, look at Mario! He fits right in, doesn't he? :)

But in all seriousness, that is in fact what we're looking at when we're issuing weather to the pilots on our frequency.

Well, that doesn't look like a thunderstorm...

Nope, it doesn't. Those people looking out the window may see huge towering cumulonimbus clouds extending to FL450 and a thick overcast layer blanketing the entire county, but we don't see that.
  • Our scopes show only precipitation. No cloud cover, no turbulence, nothing. It could be a solid overcast sky and our scopes will be blank. When there is actual precipitation - rain, snow, hail - we start getting a primary target return on it. In essence, we don't see the storm itself but rather its footprint, the water it's leaving behind.

  • The stronger the intensity of the precip, the more opaque the image will be on our scope. There are six levels of intensity available to us:
    • 1: Light
    • 2: Moderate
    • 3-4: Heavy
    • 5-6: Extreme
  • However... our scopes can only show two levels of precipitation at a time. That's right: just two. Unlike, say, a satellite radar map where a storm image can go steadily from blue to yellow to orange to red, our equipment is much more limited. And that's two levels of green, since our scopes are of course monochrome.
Below is a shot of the control panel touch screen. Once again, there's big differences between different facilities' equipment. In a facility with STARS, for example, each controller can set up his individual scope to display whatever weather he wants. On our ARTS system, one control panel changes the settings on an entire bank of scopes. On a weather day, you'll frequently hear people calling back and forth, "Hey guys, I'm going to show 1's and 5's...." to give the other controllers a heads up on the display change.

We'll typically show levels #2 and #4, as depicted in the image of the control panel. This provides a good base, since we can see the moderate stuff and the heavy stuff. Any empty areas inside the 4's are interpreted as extreme weather.

When I was in art school, a lot of my drawing studies dealt with the concept of negative space. In short, rather than seeing what's there you see what's NOT there.

In the graphic below, #2 and #4 are selected. There are dark spaces between the #2 and #4 bands, and the center of the #4 is completely dark. So, we interpolate the combination of visible precip and invisible spaces as follows:

That sounds like a lot of limitations. What's on the plus-side?

Well, the precip returns we're getting are actual real time returns from the primary radar antenna. This means they're instant and reasonably accurate up to the moment. The satellite-based weather displays like the Garmins are updated every five or six minutes, and when you're talking rapidly building thunderstorms that's an eternity. Your GPS may be showing a gap in that line of storms ahead, but in two minutes it could already be closed. If we see a gap, it's probably real.

The real time nature of our displays allows us to guide pilots around the precip to an extent. For instance, if we see an aircraft tracking towards a precipitation return, we'll say "N123, there appears to be an area of moderate to heavy precipitation extending from your 10 to 1 o'clock, approximately 8 miles in diameter." This lets him know how wide the precip is and how "deep" it is. You can also inform him of possible gaps in the precip, though you should leave it up to the pilot to decide whether or not they should try to squeeze through that hole before closes.

Always remember what level of weather you're looking at. Different level displays give vastly different pictures:

Levels 3 & 4 makes it looks like there's just a small cell in the southeast corner...

...but Levels 1 & 2 give a vastly different picture, showing that the full storm system is quite large (at least 30 miles).

When there's a lot of storms in the area, you can plan on pilots deviating all over. "Deviations left and right of course approved. Fly heading XXX when able." The pilot's the one up in the thick of it, experiencing that weather first-hand, so you need to be flexible to their needs. The smart pilot will deviate anyway - controller instructions be damned - but an inexperienced or scared pilot may listen blindly to the controller and fly whatever heading they're assigned, no matter what lies ahead. If you order a pilot to fly a heading that takes them directly into a storm and he gets smacked down to his death by severe turbulence and down drafts, you will be up on a courtroom stand explaining why you thought it was a good idea to restrict his heading.

So that's the overview of weather from the ATC trainee's point of view, learning this stuff as I go. It was definitely a bit of a shock to me going from a pilot's perspective to an ATC's perspective as far how different the weather display is, when I was used to pretty maps and charts. Regardless, you do the best with the tools you have, and they generally do seem to work well.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Going Swimming

You know the old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words"?

Let's use some visual aids to compare my time training on Whiting to my last two days training on the Pensacola E/AR and W/AR banks.

The Whiting NAS Sectors as I see them now:

When I take over the Pensacola E/AR sector from the
previous controller, he's got it looking like this:

In just a short while, I've made it look like this:

And soon thereafter, I'm going down this:

Any questions? :)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

NIN Still Rocks

Nine Inch Nails has always been one of the strongest influences in the music I write, alongside Stabbing Westward. Their blend of electronics and rock music continues to impress and surprise me.

Unlike some bands who are constantly trying to repeat past successes by repeating the same formula over and over again - like Linkin Park prior to Minutes to Midnight - NIN always progresses. One album sounds clearly distinct from the next, though they all manage to sound like NIN. The angst-ridden synthpop of 1989's Pretty Hate Machine, the explosion of self-hate that is the 1992 Broken EP, the funky, complex audio journey of The Downward Spiral, the sprawling organic two-CD The Fragile, the tale of drug recovery that is With Teeth, the apocalyptic political concept album Year Zero, and the varied instrumentals of Ghosts I-IV all bring something unique to the table. Some albums are more listenable than others, but experimentation always brings its share of risk. I respect artists that are willing to take that risk instead of sticking to formula.

For those living under a rock, NIN recently released a free 10-track album called The Slip. As most NIN albums do, it has its share of hard rockers and melancholy ballads. You can download for free it in multiple formats at their web site.

Here's Trent and crew rehearsing the songs "1,000,000" and "Letting You" for their tour, both of which are from The Slip. As usual, Reznor surrounds himself with some of the best musicians in the industry. All of these guys are badasses in their own right and he has them on his payroll. The band includes:
  • Guitarist Robin Finck (Cirque du Soleil, Guns and Roses, and long-time NIN associate)
  • Drummer Josh Freese (A Perfect Circle, Guns and Roses, Black Light Burns)
  • Bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Beck, Garbage, Tori Amos, Black Eyed Peas)
  • Keyboardist Alessandro Cortini (Modwheelmood)


Letting You:

Monday, June 23, 2008

Well We're Movin' on Up!

Well we're Movin' on Up!
Movin' on Up!

To the east side!

- Theme song to The Jeffersons

The East sector that is. After a few weeks of seasoning on the Whiting sectors - where I've both built up my confidence and scared myself a couple times - I've started preliminary training on the Pensacola Regional Airport bank of three scopes. Basically, I'm working my way south, since I started with the Whiting NAS bank to the northeast, now Pensacola in the middle, and afterwards I'll go onto the NAS Sherman Pensacola bank.

Here's a 3D overview I made of the two largest sectors, East and West:

The three scopes at the PNS bank are as follows:

East (E/AR): The most complicated sector in the house.

The northern half of it sits on top of the Whiting sectors and owns 6000-10,000. The southern half owns SFC-15,000, but is locked in above and to the south by the Sherman bank. The northern boundary butts up against Jacksonville Center and the entire eastern boundary is taken up by Eglin Air Force Base.

When operating as the eastern side of a localizer split, the East calls the sequence for final into Pensacola Regional (PNS). It's a crazy, highly shelved sector which has a lot of high speed traffic and not a lot room to work with them. There are all kinds of special automated point-out procedures and corridors that allow you to make use of other people's airspace for your needs, as well as allow others to go through yours.

West (W/AR): In contrast to its chopped up sibling to the east, the West is considered by many to be the easiest sector in the facility.

A big wide open expanse with little to fill it, it owns SFC-10,000 throughout the majority of its airspace, except for a few small shelves to the northeast. While it shares the PNS final with the East sector, most of its traffic is just "passing through" to other areas such as the Whiting sectors, Sherman, or to a few uncontrolled fields.

P Final (P/AR): The third sector is used primarily for vectoring to final and only owns up to 3000. To describe it as fluid is an understatement, as its airspace changes based not only on the runway in use at PNS, but on whichever runway's in use at NAS Pensacola to the southwest. It also takes ownership of certain areas and corridors dependent on runway.

Being the "final" sector, P/AR also has control for descent and turns (as opposed to other sectors in the house, which just have control for turns) with the E/AR and W/AR airspace boundaries. For those who don't know what "control for descent and turns" means, if you take a handoff you're allowed to both descend and turn that aircraft before he actually reaches the boundary of your airspace. This gives the controller a lot more flexibility in getting an airplane down and established properly, but you'll of course need to look out for any conflicting traffic.

Compare that to the Whiting sectors, where if I have an aircraft come to me at 5000 feet only a few miles away from his destination airport, I have to wait until he crosses my boundary before I can descend him. Keep in mind, anything is possible with coordination. I can call the other sector and say "W, D, N123, request control for descent," to which the other sector would reply "W, N123, your control." and I can start dropping him. However, that needs to be manually coordinated. With the P/AR I could feasibly start descending that aircraft whenever I want as long as he's clear of conflicting traffic.

Localizer Split: This is the configuration we use the most often. Basically, we operate only the E/AR and W/AR scopes, split right down the middle of the PNS Runway 17 localizer. The P/AR airspace is divided and absorbed into both of the other sectors, and therefore both E/AR and W/AR have control for descent and turns.

Corridors: Our Letters of Agreement and Standard Operating Procedures lay out a number of corridors and areas within our airspace that can be assigned to different sectors. There's about a dozen of them, so I'm not going to go into detail. Generally, they provide "cheats" for allowing a controller to use another sector's airspace to reduce coordination and expedite arrivals.

Here's what they all look like. And yes, those are The Joker's colors.

Fasten Your Seatbelts!

If learning ATC can be compared to learning to drive, the Whiting bank of scopes was those first few turns around the neighborhood where you're learning how the car works. You jerk the vehicle around, give yourself some nasty whiplash, and narrowly avoid collisions with innocent mailboxes. All the while a parent sits next to you biting their nails and giving you grief, trying to be constructive while restraining themselves from grabbing the wheel and jamming the shift into park. After a while, you get comfortable enough to drive over to your neighbor's house or the corner store to pick up some groceries, all the while keeping under 30mph and staying on the quiet side streets.

This new bank of scopes is like being given a nice new BMW and told to drive from Miami to Orlando. On Interstate 95. In heavy traffic. At night. In the rain. With no map. Throw in a woman in labor or a sick relative to add to the fun. Over dramatic? I suppose. I'm just trying to drive home the difference in scope between the "low and slow" Whiting sectors and the madness that is the Pensacola bank.

It's going to be a challenge. It took me around 9 months to get certified on the Whiting bank. Naturally, the first scopes of your first bank of your first facility are the going to be the most challenging, since you're getting used to basic phraseology and procedures. I'm thinking it'll take me a while to get checked out here. I'm not planning on anything less than a year.

However long it takes, I'll be busting my butt to get it done right. Wish me luck!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Evolution Gone Mad

So, I just downloaded the Spore Creature Creator. Man, what a trip.

Spore is a new game by the people who made The Sims, SimCity, and a whole slew of other "Sim" games. Unlike The Sims, where you create neighborhoods, houses, and then populate them with dysfunctional families that like to go "Woo-hoo!", Spore is all about making creatures.

This game really lets you rip with your imagination. You start out with a "blob" with a spinal cord, and just start dragging and dropping body parts on to it. You want it with six legs? Go for it! Four eyes? No problem. Purple and covered in horns? Sounds like a plan! Each creature has different attributes that contribute to its general survivability and success compared to other creatures.

I couldn't help but be reminded of this cartoon from the Far Side:

A lot of people post their creations online. The results are often hilarious, making the oft-maligned platypus seem normal. Most of the creatures people create in Spore seem to have been caused by one of the following:
  1. God was tripping on some serious acid.
  2. Evolution reversed itself and is now based off of "Survival of the weakest".
  3. Mrs. Potato Head and the cast of Monsters Inc. had an orgy that resulted in some very disturbing offspring.
Here's my first contribution to the shallow end of the gene pool. I wanted to make something "Penguin-y" and this is the result. The demo creature creator doesn't have many "bird" options - such as beaks - so this little Wicked Penguin has a crocodilian head. But, hey, doesn't he look happy!?!?

And here's my second creature, a little 6-limbed hoofed being I lovingly named "OMG WTF".

See? Now the platypus looks as normal as a dairy cow compared to dear little OMG WTF.

The best demo of them all is this one below. To sum it up, Spore's creator Will Wright lets comedian Robin Williams have a go at the Creature Creator.

Hilarity ensues. :)

Anything is Possible...

...With Coordination!

That is an absolutely true statement, one that is oft repeated by controllers everywhere. No matter what the Letters of Agreement (LOAs) say, no matter what the Standard Operating Procedures say, just about anything can be done. You just need to make sure you know what you're asking is possible to achieve safely.

There are, of course, a few ground rules: namely, the 7110.65. Whatever rig you're trying to pull needs to comply with what's in that book. As a silly example, you can't coordinate for an IFR airplane to fly at an altitude below your Minimum Vectoring Altitude; it's illegal.

Along with terms like "Manual handoff", "Point out", and "Your control", one of the most commonly heard bits of phraseology over landlines is "ApReq", pronounced App-reck. Short for "Approval Request", it basically indicates you're asking someone else's approval to do something unusual. Typically your request modifies something that's already existing in an LOA, like feeding an aircraft to another facility at an unusual altitude.

Before you key up another sector or facility to make a request, I suppose the most major things to consider would be:
  1. Know that what you're asking for is legal. Frankly, don't be stupid. Don't try to coordinate for a missed approach for an IFR aircraft if you know the new instructions will put him into the face of another IFR arrival on an intersecting runway. You're inviting disaster if the other controller doesn't catch it.
  2. Be knowledgeable of the overall situation. For instance, if you're requesting to descend an IFR airplane to 4000 and the guy you're asking has one at 4000 right under him, tell him "Request control for descent on N123. I see your N456 at 4000 and will miss him."
  3. Make your request clear and concise. Don't ramble, especially with another facility. Controllers are busy. It may dead quiet at your place but the guy on the other line may be going down the shitter. Don't be like "Uh... yeah, Eglin Sikes... uh... Pensacola Whiting, I'd like to get higher for N123 if I could. Can I get 4000 maybe? I've got a guy 10 miles to the west at 3000...blah blah blah...." It should just be, "Eglin Sikes, Pensacola, ApReq, 4000 for N123." You don't need to give a reason unless it really, really impacts things. The answer should be just as concise. "N123, 4000 approved, [operating initials]."
Tower Coordination

Below is our Z/AR sector. I've talked about it before in my Tight Quarters post.

As you can see, South Whiting NAS has several finals depicted on the map. We only use two of them: 1) the Copter TACAN 004 final, which runs due North/South a mile west of Milton airport, and the Runway 32 final which runs southeast-to-northwest on the northeastern side of Milton airport. The Runway 32 final is used for all of the other approaches into South Whiting: GPS, TACAN 32, ILS, PAR, RNAV, and ASR.

Now, the standard missed instructions for all of those approaches is a southwest heading and a climb to 1700 feet. However, as you'll no doubt notice, if an aircraft does a missed approach from Runway 32, it'll fly into the face of the Copter TACAN 004 arrivals. This is a big freaking deal - pun intended - if both aircraft are IFR. Same altitude, pointed right at each other, less than a mile apart, no recorded visual separation, IFR.... oooooh scary stuff!

Just the other day, I had three helicopters coming in for the Copter TACAN 004. Two of them were IFR, and one was already joining the final approach course 9 miles south of the field - but not cleared yet. I had SH123, a T-34, on 5 mile final for runway 32 who was IFR and would be missing directly at the inbound helos. How to resolve this?

Me: "Tower, approach, reference SH123."
Tower: "Tower"
Me: "Miss Sh123 to the east, 90 degree heading, 1700 feet."
Tower: "Will do, [operating initials]"
Me: "[My initials]"

There! Problem solved. Instead of executing the standard missed, the T-34 will miss to the east. The only difference for him would be that he's now on a right downwind instead of a left. In the meantime, my three helicopters have loads of room to come in. I clear them for the approach one at a time and sequence in the T-34 after them, using speed control or vectors if necessary to ensure he doesn't compress on them. No one gets delayed.

Now, you always have to be aware that sometimes the sector or facility you're talking to can't accommodate you. I've seen only one time where the tower was unable to provide for an east missed, but that's always in my mind when I'm thinking about using it. If the tower had said "Unable" in the situation above, I could have simply broken off the lead helicopter and put him on a left downwind behind #2 and #3. That would have made him #3 for landing instead of #1, but it would have been legal and it would have been safe.

Now, I know that's a lot of talk about a seemingly minor bit of coordination. But when you're busy and you're up to your eyeballs in airplanes in a piece of airspace the size of a dinner plate, every little bit helps.

Approach Coordination

Readers here should be familiar with the ATC credo: "Promote the safe, orderly and expeditious flow of traffic." Sometimes you need to coordinate to achieve those ends as effectively as possible.

I'll keep talking about the Z/AR here, since most of the "funky" stuff happens here (besides, I've already got a visual aid up there!). We have many Letters of Agreement (LOAs) with our neighboring facilities. The one I've dealt with the most so far is Eglin, as that's where most of my outbound traffic goes.

Unnecessary Vectoring: With Eglin, we often have "Gate" procedures where have to send our eastbound aircraft out via a departure gate. In the Z/AR, Crestview VOR is the gate we use since that VOR is due east of us. Our most common instruction for departing IFR aircraft is "Proceed direct Crestview VOR". However, a lot of our general aviation and air taxi traffic want to go to Bob Sikes airport, which is a few miles to the southeast of the VOR. If we were to follow the LOA to the "T", we'd basically be forcing these aircraft to add a certain amount of flying miles to their trip by going north to the VOR and then tracking southeast to the airport.

How to solve? "Eglin Sikes Sector, Pensacola Whiting, ApReq. N123 direct Bob Sikes." If they approve it, I can just send the aircraft directly to the airfield and shave off an extra 5 miles of flying. That makes things a lot more expeditious for the pilot and knocks out 2 minutes of the time the guy spends in my airspace.

Note: We normally only do this with known local aircraft, such as Flight Express check fliers and Bob Sikes-based aircraft, since they're familiar with the plethora of restricted areas within Eglin's airspace.

Altitudes: The Z/AR has only two usable IFR altitudes - 1700 and 3000 - so to get anything higher I need to coordinate. Our LOAs for Eglin state that any Whiting aircraft landing in Eglin's airspace need to be at 3000. However, there are some times where that's just not possible.

Let's say, for example, I have an IFR helo - callsign Navy 123 - going out to Crestview at 100 knots at 3000, but I've got an IFR T-34 SH456 closing in on him from behind at 200 knots also at 3000. Based on speed differentials and distance to the boundary, the T-34 will eat up the helo so I'll need to take him higher to at least 4000. To get altitude, I'll need to get a point-out from the E/AR sector which owns 4000-15000 above me.

But first... I need to make sure Eglin can even take him at that altitude.
  1. I both aircraft in handoff status so they start flashing at Eglin, call up Eglin and ask "Eglin Sikes, Pensacola Whiting, ApReq. Shooter 456 at 4000 to top Navy 123." Basically, I'm asking them if I can climb the eastbound T-34 to 4000 - which is WAFDOF (Wrong Altitude For Direction Of Flight) - to top the helo and not have to vector anyone.
  2. Now what happens if they have a Baron or something coming in IFR from the east at 4000? "Eglin Sikes, unable 4000. 5000 is approved."
  3. Cool. I can't use 4000, but 5000 is good to go. I call up the E/AR sector, "East, Zulu, Point Out. Shooter 456, 5000, direct Crestview." Once I get the approval, I then climb the T-34 to 5000, and leave the helo at 3000. Eglin takes the handoffs, the T-34 passes cleanly over the helo, and I switch them over to the appropriate frequencies.
That effectively achieves both the safe and orderly ends of the. The T-34 is safely above the helo and Eglin gets the two aircraft in an orderly fashion, rather than a faster one chewing up the tail of the slower one.

Note: There are many ways to solve this puzzle. For instance, just using altitude, I could have ApReq'd 2000 feet for the helo and left the T-34 at 3000. That would have saved me coordination with the E/AR sector. However, Eglin usually has a lot of holding traffic at Crestview at 3000 and below.

Teamwork is Crucial

What I'm trying to get at is: we're all on the same team. There's nothing wrong with reaching out to another sector or facility to try and make things flow smoothly for yourself. It goes both ways of course, as people make requests of you to ease their own workload.
  • Why vector, delay, or speed reduce a fast airplane when you can just coordinate for a different altitude to get him over the slow mover?
  • Why worry yourself to death whether or not a missed approach will cause a deal when coordinating alternate missed approach instructions will keep things simple?
  • What's the harm in asking if you can send a pilot direct to his destination instead of sending him tens of miles off course?
Just key up that land line and make your request. If it can't be fulfilled, usually there's a good reason for it. At least you gave it a shot.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Another Perspective

It's amazing what you'll find in the blogosphere.

I was doing some research on the Whiting squadrons when I came across this: I wanna be a Navy pilot... It's a blog by a fellow who's in training at none other than NAS Whiting, driving those T-34Cs that comprise the majority of the traffic I work. I've been going through it and I've got to say, it's terrific to see what's happening on their end. It's given me a fresh perspective on what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. His photos and commentary have given me an improved understanding of their training procedures.

It's funny how differently pilots and controllers view things. In researching Whiting, I also came across some documents covering the infamous course rules. As I've explained in a few previous posts, course rules are essentially preset routes that Navy pilots fly to depart from and recover to the Navy airfields around here. They feature specific headings and altitudes dependent on VFR fixes around the area.

However, the course rule fixes appear very differently depending on if you're a Navy pilot or a controller. To us, the map looks like this, minus the name tags. We only show the fix symbols and just have the names memorized.

But for the Navy pilots, the fixes - or checkpoints - look like this:

Every day we have aircraft calling in over "Point Charlie". I've never seen Point Charlie in real life and up until I read this I had no idea what it actually was. To me, it's always been a little square a few miles northwest of Whiting NAS on our radar maps. But to a Navy pilot. it's that road intersection in the lower right corner of the left hand page. The same applies to Point Initial, which is a key fix which three out of four T-34 recovery routes must pass depending on what runway configuration they're on.

Regarding those documents I mentioned, here they are:
  • Course Rules test - A review and test for the Navy pilots on the Course Rules routes.
  • Whiting Course Rules Gouge (PDF) - It's from 1999, but most of it still applies, and it's got those cool diagrams I screen-shotted above. The only difference I've seen in my brief review is that "Site 8" has been replaced with the Chicken Ranch, which is slightly further to the northwest.
It's just funny what's out there on the web. A quick search on Google answered a lot of questions I'd had and gave me an insider's perspective into the workings of NAS Whiting's pilot community.

BTW, if you guys at the Shooter, Red Night, or Spiral squadrons could ever swing a familiarization flight in a T-34C, that would asbolutely rock. I can tell you of at least two other trainees here - one of them an instrument-rated pilot - who would jump at the chance to see what you guys do firsthand. Just give me a waiver to sign and I'm there! :)

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Up in Smoke

Remember that crash of a B-2 stealth bomber in February? Apparently it was caused by, of all things, humidity.
The Air Force said the first crash of a B-2 stealth bomber was caused by moisture in sensors and estimated the loss of the aircraft at $1.4 billion.

The crash probably could have been avoided if knowledge of a technique to evaporate the moisture had been disseminated throughout the B-2 program, Maj. Gen. Floyd L. Carpenter, who headed an accident investigation board, said Thursday.

Water distorted preflight readings in three of the plane's 24 sensors, making the aircraft's control computer force the B-2 to pitch up on takeoff, resulting in a stall and subsequent crash.
I didn't know there was a video of the crash, but here it is. You'll see the lead B-2 take off first, giving you an idea of what a normal take off profile looks like. Then you'll see ill-fated #2 take the runway. The second #2 gets airborne it's obvious something is wrong, as his angle of attack is far too great, his wings are waggling in a classic stall, and he's sinking instead of climbing. Then the left wingtip drags on the ground, the bomber pulls left, the pilots eject safely, and kaboom.

It's basically a power-on stall... in a $1.4 billion airplane.

Go ahead and check out the video. You know you're curious to see what $1.4 billion looks like when it burns. :)

Thursday, June 05, 2008

...And That Makes 3

I just got my third radar certification, for our "Z sector". This is the sector I talked about in detail way back in February in the "Tight Quarters" post. It's a scary, nasty little sector, and now I get to work it all by myself. :) This also means that I'm fully certified on all of the NAS Whiting sectors, so all of you Navy T-34 and H-57 drivers out there, "LOOK OUT!".

Most importantly, I've now earned myself a homemade lasagna, courtesy of my lovely wife. Homemade pasta, homemade sauce, homemade everything - the works. It's one of our little traditions for when one of us achieves something we've been working on for a while. The last time I got lasagna'd (cool, I made it a verb!) was when I got my Private Pilot license in the summer of 2006.

It's been awhile. If you've never had fresh pasta noodles, you're missing out!

The Big Bucks

Slightly less important, this means I get my first raise. And let me tell you, it couldn't come soon enough... The AG pay scale sucks hard. Every day of every month since I've joined the FAA has been a challenge, a battle to keep our heads above the storming financial waters. The politics of that belong on other blogs and other sites; I'll just say that this raise is a tremendous relief.

Most readers should be familiar with the ATC pay progression, which is generally as follows:
  • OKC: The +/-$9.00 an hour they pay you out in Oklahoma City
  • AG: What you're paid when you arrive at your facility and are not certified on anything.
  • D1: Certification on 25% of positions
  • D2: 50% of positions
  • D3: 75% of positions
  • CPC: Certified on everything
For instance, if you're at an En Route center, working in an area that has 8 radar scopes (16 positions = 8 R-sides + 8 D-sides), you'd need two R-sides and two D-sides to get to D1. On the other hand, a VFR tower may only have Local, Ground, Clearance Delivery, and Flight Data. If you're checked out on Ground and CD/FD you'd be at a D3 level.

The facility level dictates the progression. At an ATC-9 like us, once we get Flight Data and 3 scopes (total 6 positions = 3 Radar + 3 Radar Handoff) we bypass the D1 level altogether and jump straight from AG into D2. For other facilities the distribution will be different.

Now, we're all government employees. Our salaries are public record, so I have zero problem posting the numbers on here. If you want to look me up or any other employee in the Federal government, just follow this link and type in a name:

AG Salary
  • Base: $33,100 nationwide
  • 2007 Locality Percentage for Pensacola: 13.18%
  • Final Salary: $37,463
D2 Salary
  • Base: $45,350 for an ATC-9
  • Locality Percentage for Pensacola: 13.18%
  • Final Salary: $51,327
That's an extra $13,854 per year or $1155.34 per month in gross pay. Or, as I like to put it: breathing room.

That sounds fantastic, but let's do a reality check. Let's compare it to what the old pay bands were prior to September 2006. If I'd been checked out in, say, June 2006 instead of June 2008, I'd have been making:

Old AG Salary
  • Base: $38,385 nationwide
  • 2007 Locality Percentage for Pensacola: 12.52%
  • Final Salary: $43,190.8
Old D2 Salary
  • Base: $57,101 for an ATC-9
  • Locality Percentage for Pensacola: 12.52%
  • Final Salary: $64,250
That's a heck of a big difference. A whopping $13,000 worth of difference on the D2 scale. That's a credit card paid off, some real money in the retirement kitty, or a new compact car so my wife and I don't need to share a single car. Maybe a vacation if we're good. I missed out on it because I got into the FAA two years too late.

What was that cheesy 80's song? "If we could turn back time..."

Anyways, okay, now that I've quoted a Cher song whose video involved a battleship and her bare ass - the horror! - I'm going to go listen to some Nine Inch Nails and Stone Sour. Maybe play some speed metal on my bass guitar with some heavy distortion. Anything to get the image and sound of that stupid video out of my head before it shatters my fragile mind.

Actually, I've got a better idea... I'm going out to pick up the ingredients for that lasagna. :)

Monday, June 02, 2008

Fix on Fail?

I have an avid interest in most things having to do with space travel and transportation. This morning I was poking around the "Black Hole of Time" - otherwise known as Wikipedia - and looked up the articles on the three remaining space shuttles, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. I came across something on the article for Space Shuttle Atlantis that made me go "Wha?".

I'm sure a lot of you have seen the movie Armageddon. The movie is renown for its extremely high level of scientific inaccuracy. Actually, let's just call it what it is: plain unadulterated Hollywood bullshit. However, there is one line that rings very true:

As they're piling into the space shuttles, getting ready for launch, Steve Buscemi says: "You know we're sitting on four million pounds of fuel, one nuclear weapon and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder. Makes you feel good, doesn't it?"

Fast forward 10 years after the movie was made, and I read this on Atlantis' Wikipedia page:
NASA announced that 24 helium and nitrogen gas tanks, named Composite Overwrap Pressure Vessels, in Atlantis are older than their designed lifetime (designed for 10 years, later cleared for another 10 years but in service now for 22 years).

NASA said it cannot guarantee any longer that the vessels on Atlantis will not burst or explode under full pressure. Therefore, the vessels will only be at 80 percent pressure as close to the launch countdown as possible, and the launch pad will be cleared of all but essential personnel when pressure is increased to 100 percent. A launch pad explosion could damage parts of the shuttle and even wound or kill ground personnel. An in-flight failure to the vessels could even result in the loss of the orbiter and its crew.

Because the original vendor is no longer available, the vessels cannot be rebuilt before 2010, when the shuttles are scheduled to be retired. NASA analyses originally assumed that the vessels would leak before they burst, but new tests showed that they would burst before they leak.

The new launch procedure, of clearing the launch pad of all but the essential personnel and pressurizing the tanks to 100 percent as late as possible, will now be conducted during the remaining Atlantis launches if no other resolution is found. Atlantis will have to fly at least one more time in this setting. It is unclear, but possible, that Discovery, which will launch another five or six times, has the same problems and if the same launch procedure needs to be conducted with Discovery. Since Endeavour, which will launch another six or seven times, was built much later, around 1990, it is possible that Endeavour does not have the same problem.

Um, wha?

Space travel is a dangerous operation. When you combine fragile lightweight spacecraft, massive amounts of fuel, millions of different parts built by different companies, and forces of literally astronomical proportions, little problems can become big ones in an instant. Take the Columbia disaster: a foot-wide hole in a wing cost 7 people their lives. Here on Earth, an F-15 can land with its entire wing missing. In Columbia's case, the stresses and temperatures involved with atmospheric reentry turned that small hole into a golden opportunity for superheated material to pass through and melt the spacecraft's innards.

No one knew about the hole in Columbia's wing before they began reentry. But they do know about these tanks on the three remaining space shuttles. Now, they've reviewed them again and say that if they do blow, they probably won't lead to the loss of the orbiter. No guarantees. Instead, they'll take a few "feel good" preventative measures instead of outright replacing the tanks. You can read about specifics of the tanks here.

How would you like to be sitting in one of those seven seats in the orbiter's nose when that countdown timer hits "00:00:01"? Especially since:
  • The entire launch pad area has been cleared because that spacecraft you're sitting in has a reasonable chance of spewing parts on unassuming NASA workers.
  • Scientists have determined that if one of these tanks "goes", you'll get no leak as a warning. You'll just get a nice, reassuring BOOM.
  • If that BOOM happens when you're hurtling through 80,000 feet at high Mach, you better hope what happens next will be painless.
Considering that these tanks were built nearly 25 years ago, it'd be ridiculous to think that no modern vendor could machine new ones. If the Soviets could reverse engineer the state-of-the-art Boeing B-29 bomber down to the rivet in the 1940's, a modern tech company should be able to create a pressure tank. How much time could it take? I'm no engineer, but NASA has shown that where there's a will (and funding) there's a way. That's how we got to the moon using computers no more powerful than a modern calculator, isn't it?

What's also telling is that these were a known issue.... 12 years ago! They've had plenty of time to rectify the problem. Now, of course, it's too late they say. The shuttles are being retired in 2 years. Why spend the money now on a system that's becoming obsolete and when there's no guarantee of failure? "We'll just keep people away from the launch pad, make sure our insurance is paid up, and everything will be fine."

However, if there was an absolute guarantee of failure, you know the money would materialize. Thanks to Challenger, the rocket boosters were redesigned and NASA's culture was revised. Thanks to Columbia, the external tank was redesigned, numerous monitoring cameras added all over the orbiter, and an external arm added that would check the underbelly of the orbiter once it reached space. Were these measures unavailable prior to 1986 or 2003? No, but the outcry from the public community and the resulting funding wasn't.

The difference between Columbia's disaster, Challenger's explosion, and the issue with the remaining shuttles is that Columbia's disintegration was caused by an unforeseen event. Challenger's engineers warned the launch officials that there would be issues with the O-rings and they went ahead anyway. BOOM. And now we have these tanks that have dubious structural integrity, and they're going ahead anyway. BOOM? "Maybe" is the word of the day.

Putting money before safety is a dangerous tactic, which is ironic when you consider the costs involved. Discovery is currently in orbit right now, delivering a $1 billion lab to the space station. The launch itself cost $500 million. To build a new lab would be another $1 billion. A 2nd launch, another $500 million. If Discovery - God forbid - had exploded on its pad or torn itself apart after liftoff, would that have counted as a guarantee of failure?

It's a classic example of a government agency betting on the come with people's lives. While they are taking some minor preventative measures, it seems more like a band-aid instead of a real solution. They just continue pushing until something breaks. After the accident happens and the fires are put out, then they become reactive and take steps to fully correct the problem, spending the money they should have spent in the first place.

Unfortunately, this "fix on fail" attitude does absolutely nothing for those that were killed in the original failure.