Thursday, August 28, 2008

Awww, Frak... (Part Deux)

Well, it looks like Gustav is tracking a bit further west now. Five out of six forecast models show a direct hit in Louisiana. Based on those forecasts, we'll definitely get some of it here, but not as much as anticipated. We're not out of the woods yet, though. There's still six days before it makes landfall in the States.

We're heading up to Atlanta tonight to go hang out with some friends. Before we go, we're going out to get generator gas and plywood. Chances are that when we come back on Sunday night or Monday morning, there will either A) be no gas or plywood left or B) the lines to get the remaining gas or plywood will be miles long.

But those poor people in Louisiana... I hope the levees hold and more of them get out of the way this time. Having just been there recently, the damage from Katrina is still evident three years later. Flattened houses, wall-less buildings, trash and debris still piled up.

One of the guys at work showed me some pictures from Katrina's sideways blow at Mississippi. I'll have to post those later - I ran out of time to put them on my flash drive. Let's just say it looked like the world ended. If you've ever seen the nuclear war movie The Day After with Jason Robards or read Pat Frank's Alas Babylon, that's pretty much how it looked.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Awww, Frak...

Hurricane Gustav. 90mph winds. NW track.


It's funny how many people in Florida quickly become armchair meteorologists. Quite a few folks in this state seem to understand the concepts of shearing, eye wall, fronts, ridging, troughs, etc.. I guess when you're faced with huge storms that can at worst kill you and at the very best give you a really bad day, it's in your best interest to learn how they function and what other weather systems can weaken or strengthen them.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Farewell to Friends

We held a going-away party last night for several of the folks that I work with. It was a nice time on a beautiful Sunday evening, enjoying the good company and salty air on Pensacola Beach. It felt great to relax amid the sounds of Bob Marley, the clinking of beers, and the cheers from the beach volleyball court outside. You would have never have guessed that a tropical storm was supposed to have hit the night before.

We all pitched in and got them some gifts. Someone also got them signed Blue Angels posters (didn't I tell you the Blues were big around here?)

The P31 family and spouses. We put the "fun" in dysfunctional! :)

Can't beat that Pensacola Beach view...

It was bittersweet, however. By this time next month, four of my friends and coworkers will be gone. While I'm happy that they're moving on to better situations, I'll be sad to see them all go. With JT, I'll miss his eternal optimism, his love of all things aviation, and jamming on guitar with him. Cindy's genuine kindness and sweetness always helps brighten my day. Tim and I are always on the same wavelength when it comes to sci-fi shows and guns. And the TRACON just won't be the same without JR's sense of humor, intelligence, and the aroma of his awesome cooking. When they're gone, the emptiness will be felt.

One funny thing to note is that we'll still be working with Cindy and JR from afar. JR's going next door to Mobile Approach, which borders us on the west. Cindy's headed to the western area of Jacksonville Center, which sits on top of our airspace. So, at the very least we'll be able to give them crap over the landlines. :)

We've had a lot of people go over the past year. There have been many retirements, a couple promotions, and a few trainee transfers. When I arrived last August, we had 46 people either here or inbound. In only a year, we're down to 35, including CPCs and trainees. Several more CPCs are eligible to retire right now, and an additional number within the next six months to a year. It's safe to say we'll be seeing more farewell parties soon enough.

Maybe it gets easier to say goodbye after a while, but I've never really been good at farewells.

Here's to JT, Cindy, Tim, and JR. Best of luck in everything you do.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hurry up and wait

1:49pm CST. Light rain, light winds. Total cloud cover. Nothing serious yet, and I don't really think it's going to get that bad.

Tallahasee METARs reporting winds in the 35 knot range. Latest reports indicate the storm is dropping about 3-4 inches of rain an hour. The overcast has a silver lining: at least the lawn will get watered. Thoroughly.

The only thing that concerns me is the unknown. In Miami we knew what to expect from the construction and the utilities. However, this is our first significant storm here in Pensacola. New city + new house + new utility companies + first storm = a whole lot of curiosity.

It's a London-like drizzly Saturday so far, but we've got this to look forward to:

Friday, August 22, 2008

Radar Room With a Skylight

Back in 2004, Hurricane Ivan came through Pensacola. It battered the area pretty badly, coming ashore just southwest of here in Gulf Shores, Alabama. To give you an idea of the proximity from an aviation perspective, Gulf Shores' Jack Edwards airport is 27 miles southwest of Pensacola Regional Airport.

The northeast side of a storm tends to be the strongest quadrant, and that's exactly what Pensacola got smacked with. It did the usual things a hurricane does: tore up roofs, leveled buildings, knocked out power, wiped out vegetation. Amongst its star achievements was the severe damage of the I-10 and Highway 90 bridges across Escambia Bay and leveling of Perdido Key. 1/4 mile of the I-10 bridge alone wound up at the bottom of the bay.

As of today, Google maps still shows a lot of the damage. For instance, if you click this link, you can see all of the "blue roofs": houses and apartments whose roofs are no longer watertight and are currently covered in blue construction tarps.

Here at Pensacola TRACON, Ivan turned out to be Mother Nature's Giant Can Opener of Doom (TM).

Remember this photo of me working the Whiting arrivals sector?

Here's what that same spot looked like after Ivan.

"Red Knight 123, I'm showing an area of pink fluffy precipitation at your 12 o'clock, 5 miles, approximately 20 miles in diameter. Deviate as necessary. Blackbird 451, radar contact lost, you've flown behind an errant ceiling tile. Maintain VFR."

Here's the other side of the room. We used to take over Eglin's airspace on the weekends and would use these scopes. That hasn't happened since the storm. However, these scopes still have the Eglin maps on them.

Here's a shot of the roof damage from above. Basically, a quarter of the roof just lifted off, exposing all of our sensitive hardware equipment to the ravages of Mother Nature.

This is the inside of the systems room that contains our hardware and communications equipment. The door in the first damage shot above leads in here.

Pensacola TRACON is a 24/7 facility and we had people in the building at the time of this event to keep an eye on things. They acted quickly to try and protect what they could as the storm had its way with our 45 year old building. Our current NATCA rep, Cliff Murdock, ended up winning an Archie League award from NATCA for his efforts during and after the storm. You can read all about his experience by clicking this link - just scroll down to the "Southern Region" section. To go from the above scene to operational in only a few short days is mind-blowing.

To quote from the article:
Murdock said, “in the loudest crash I have ever heard, a large section of the roof peeled off the TRACON and landed onto a red Saturn in the parking lot.” .... The storm drenched computers, radar scopes and communications equipment, but a team of controllers, airways facilities and other Federal Aviation Administration employees, led by Murdock, set to restoring the TRACON to near full operational status. The facility reopened just 20 days later, with nine of its 12 radar scopes back up and running, inside a building outfitted with a new roof and a handful of other repairs.

Ivan was a nightmare for the community but things have bounced back since then. On the plus side, we are currently having a new building constructed. The new one is basically a concrete bunker, designed from the ground up to take all kinds of abuse. God forbid we should get another major hurricane, but if we do hopefully the damage should not be as catastrophic as Ivan's.

The damage photos above are courtesy of

Yay. It's Fay.

So we're battening down a few hatches for Tropical Storm Fay. This is the first named storm my wife and I have experienced in Pensacola, so we've stocked up on vital supplies like a camping stove, lanterns, fuel, flashlights, etc.

As of yesterday, the Navy hasn't expressed any real signs of evacuating (what we call around here a HurriVac, or Hurricane Evacuation). However, we have seen a lot of Coast Guard overflights, including what seemed to be a whole squadron of HH-65 Dolphins recovering to Jacksonville and a few Falcons that were back and forth to the Opa Locka CG station in Miami.

Considering the storm's supposed to hit us tomorrow, I imagine today may turn out be an interesting day. If the Navy squadrons do decide to head for the hills, hopefully they do it during the day when we have actual people here on hand to work them.

I say that because apparently one time they HurriVac'd on the midnight shift. We had one CPC in the building, settling in for a night of light itinerant traffic, police helo calls, and occasional medical helos. Suddenly, the floodgates open and both Sherman and Whiting unloaded what was apparently their entire training wings of hundreds of aircraft. Somehow I think sunrise (and his relief) couldn't come soon enough for that controller. :)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Working The Blues

I worked the Blue Angels for the first time yesterday. They were heading off to Illinois for an air show run up in the Chicago area.

Nothing overly special about it. You just treat them like any other military flight. Radar identify, climb them, turn them, hand them off, and switch 'em.

They all take off at once in formation and, as with most military flights, the only one squawking a transponder code is the leader. Even though it's a formation of multiple F/A-18s - six single seaters plus a two seater used for media flights - it only appears as a single datablock on your scope with the call sign VVBA01. The only extra thing you need to do with them is provide an extra mile of separation on account of them being a formation.

Needless to say, they like to hotdog it when they can get away with it. Hell, if I had myself strapped to a Navy jet fighter I'd make the most of it too.

When they're inbound to the field, a lot of times they'll cancel IFR way out, 30 or 40 miles away from Pensacola NAS. Once they're VFR, they'll drop down to wavetop height and fly the entire length of the beach all the way to the base. They'll get so low that we'll often lose radar and radio contact with them. It must be a sight to watch them go ripping by along the white sandy beaches on a nice day. On the flip side, I've seen them do that at 7am before; good luck trying to sleep with the sound of fourteen GE F404 engines screaming along! Once they're done saying "We're here!", they do a rapid recovery into the NAS.

It's funny how much of a big deal they are around here. Their blue and gold F/A-18s are on the covers of phone books, street names, and area maps, immortalized in street names, and depicted in models throughout the city. Touristy shops are filled with Blues paraphernalia like T-shirts and mugs. An older Blue Angel A-4 Skyhawk greats you at the entrance of Pensacola Regional Airport. It's nuts.

There's even multiple formations of Blues F/A-18 models nailed to the underside of our I-10 overpasses; below is the architectural plan for them:

I tell ya, Pensacolians are hardcore about their Blue Angels. With no major national sports like football, baseball, hockey, or basketball, the Blues are about the closest we have around here to a "home team".

They do put on a great show. If you're ever in the Pensacola area, be sure to catch one of their practices during the week at Pensacola NAS. Just park at the Naval Aviation Museum on the base and walk out to the flight line. They're typically done early in the morning and are free for everyone. The lighting is beautiful at that time of day and, since it's just them, you don't have to sit through 5 hours of "opening acts" to get to the main event. You can check out the show and practice schedule here (PDF).

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Out of the Frying Pan...

It's not easy to find an analogy for ATC. It really is a unique job and it's hard to find a comparison for the stresses and challenges that come with it. The flexibility, the reaction times, the ability to manage resources and plan effectively - those are integral components of being a controller.

I've been watching a lot of Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares lately, the British version that's shown on BBC America. For those that are not familiar with it, each episode features a struggling restaurant that asks Chef Ramsey to come in, see what they're doing wrong, and try to turn their failing business around. What ensues is usually a lot of tension, screaming, F-bombs, egos, and - occasionally - people getting fired. However, in the end, the restaurant usually manages to come around.

From the first time I watched Kitchen Nightmares, I knew that I'd found the perfect comparison. Watching a chef go down in flames on a busy Saturday night is the closest thing I've seen to what it looks like when you go down the shitter at the scope. It's just chaos, a battle against panic as you try to keep your head above water.

See for yourself. Below are the first two parts of Season 3's episode featuring the Clubway 41 restaurant. Through the course of the episode, it's clear that the chef in charge of the place is unable to handle the pressure and quickly folds.

Clubway 41: Episode 3, Season 3, Part 1
The intro to the situation.
Clubway 41: Episode 3, Season 3, Part 2
Fast forward to about 2:00, and you will see what it looks like to go down the shitter.

You can clearly see what happens when you don't keep organized and don't keep up with the demands. There comes a point where you just want to throw up your hands and say "I'm so deep in the crap that I'll never get out.".

But you can't do that in ATC. You can't just kick people out of the restaurant and shut your doors. The people you're providing service for aren't out for a quick bite of food that they can get elsewhere, but are in any number of pressurized metal tubes careening through the sky at hundreds of knots, possibly pointed at each other or someone else's airspace. If you or someone else don't do something, you're looking at a deal, or worse.

That distinction aside, there are a remarkable number of similarities between life in the kitchen and life in the radar room. As an illustration, I made up the following table showing some of the requirements the professional culinary world and the air traffic control profession have in common:

Professional Kitchen Air Traffic Control
PlanningPreparing ingredients in advance, designing the menu to be as simple as possible,and managing reservations to prevent overbooking contribute to a smoothly flowing kitchen.Using available information, formulate a plan for your traffic, such as determining your sequence to final and protecting airspace for your departures.
MultitaskingDealing with multiple orders of a variety of dishes for multiple tables is par for the course. Multiple aircraft with multiple needs are to be expected and need to be handled properly in an organized fashion.
TeamworkEach person in the kitchen needs to accomplish their task effectively. If the meat station and vegetable station are fine, but the sauce station falls behind, the entire dish is held up. Feeding other sectors properly, preventing problems someone else needs to fix, and letting coworkers know if you spot a problem in their airspace are some examples of the teamwork involved.
Health Risks Undercooking meats such as chicken, storing good ingredients next to spoiled food, and failing to keep your kitchen clean will cause food poisoning. Run your kitchen right or you'll kill someone. As a controller, you are responsible for the lives of potentially thousands of people in a given moment. Also, your own health is put to the test with the stress of the job.
FlexibilityIngredients will run out, equipment will fail, and orders will change. Work through that and deliver the meals as best you can. Pilots, weather, and equipment will change their minds frequently. Be ready to work out new plans each time this happens.
CommunicationThe kitchen and the front-of-house staff need to convey problems and questions clearly.Clear communication is vital when coordinating requests and point-outs with other facilities and sectors.
SpeedThe longer diners wait, the more unhappy they become, and the smaller the chance they will return. Pilots do not like being delayed unnecessarily. Try to be as efficient as possible in getting aircraft to their destination.
PhraseologyAll members of the restaurant team need to be writing and reading the orders the same way so that the orders are filled correctly.Controllers and pilots are expected to use standardized phraseology for issuing instructions, making requests, and gathering information.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Things I Learned in New Orleans

Public safety announcement: This post may be NSFW depending on how uptight your coworkers/boss are. If photos of women and men in drag and lingerie upset your moral center or whatever, skip it.

When you get assigned to a city you don't know that's far from everything you do know, you need to do a little research to keep yourself entertained. While we're far from our friends and family in Miami, we no longer have to drive 8 hours due north just to leave the state of Florida. Turns out we're only three hours from New Orleans and four hours from Atlanta. So, the weekend road trip planning began...

The missus and I made our first - and definitely not last - foray into New Orleans over the weekend. That city is just one big good time on so many levels. The nightlife, the music, the history, the unique character of the place - it's all right there on display. It's simply awesome.

Now, during our 36 hours in the city, we took the time to make a few important discoveries:
  1. It is possible for the sight of thousands of women and men in red dresses and lingerie running all over a city to become completely routine. This is what happens when you visit New Orleans on the day of the famous Red Dress Run.

    We spent our formative years on South Beach, so people going crazy and getting stupid drunk while dressed in drag and/or wearing next to nothing is frankly not at all new to us. However, living in the small, highly religious, and extremely conservative Pensacola for a year has caused those memories to fade slightly. When we arrived in the French Quarter at noon, we were saying to ourselves WTF is going on?

    By 2pm, been there, seen that.

    And that.

    Oh, and that too.
    And... that:

    And - OH GOD, NOT THAT!!!!

  2. A body-length fishnet, a Wicked Weasel thong (NSFW), and nipple tape is considered perfectly acceptable street wear at any time of the day, especially when you're a smokin' hot blond girl looking to snag a 3-for-1 beer deal.
    [sorry, no image available for this one guys. ;) ]
  3. Holy-rolling preachers slinging crosses and Bibles really need to pick better locations than Bourbon Street on a Saturday night. Fire and brimstone don't resonate too well when your audience is smashed on hurricanes and blow jobs and looking to get some action at the neon-lit strip bar 20 feet away promising its girls are "bottomless".

  4. The fine art of "getting to the point" is thoroughly explored in the T-shirt stores on Bourbon street. The subtleties of such captions as "F*** YOU, YOU F***ING F***", "I Got Bourbon Faced on Shit Street", "Tell your husband I said 'Thanks!'" and "It ain't gonna lick itself" are only lost on people with the brain capacity of a box of hammers.
  5. A leather-clad biker couple on a Harley will readily agree to the offer of a foursome with a cross-dressing couple in red spandex wearing pool toys. As you can see, the biker girl is offering the crimson duo a ride in their sidecar.

  6. If you're wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, whatever goes between them is truly irrelevant. As a "6b", if you drive a cool old-timey car across Bourbon street, be prepared to get it fondled by random girls in polka dot dresses - and there's nothing you can do about it but frown for the camera.

  7. The music in New Orleans truly lives up to the hype. Nothing funny there - only the straight-up truth.It's just awesome. Jazz, blues, rock, metal, whatever - it's there and it's there in spades.

  8. Cafe Du Monde only does two things, but they do them extremely well: coffee and beignets. And they do them fast and inexpensively.

  9. If you're gonna be a walking ad for your sex shop, you gotta work it, not just bullshit on your cell phone. Especially if the pale tourist standing five feet away is in better shape than you are.
  10. Nicolas Cage lives in a swanky house.

    And drives a Caddy with Beverly Hills plates.

    And... was apparently home, since the lights were on in the chandelier inside.

Consumption of Comestibles
We tried out a few places recommended both by locals and guide books. We normally eat fairly healthily, but decided to throw healthful caution to the wind. After all, we're in New Orleans, and next to music and public drunkenness, the food's one of the top reasons to come here.
  • Red Fish Grill: Good food, good service. Jambalaya rocked, as did the red bean and andouille sausage dip. The menu's a little seafood-intensive for my taste - even taking the name into consideration - but worked out well.
  • Cafe Du Monde: As mentioned above, the beignets and coffee were delicious. It's a total zoo, but it's fun and the dining room is outdoors. Open 24 hours, so you can get your fix anytime.
  • Arnaud's Remoulade: Decent food, but horrible service. The waiter was a clod with an attitude problem. A burger turned up cold and was sent back, a personal pizza was brought that wasn't the one we'd ordered, fries were totally unsalted, and the waiter was completely unapologetic. The gumbo was good, but didn't make up for everything else.
Quotes of the Night, courtesy of Random Drunk People:
  • "I am so drunk. Stop stealing my beer."
And the winner:
  • "Dude, do NOT trust the wizard! Wizards are BAD!"
Back to the Bayou

We'll probably be heading back to New Orleans in November when it's a little cooler. The Mississippi river delta in the middle of August is just too damn hot and humid to really enjoy the walking. There's still a lot of damage from Katrina evident in some parts of the city, but the main "touristy" parts have bounced back perfectly.

I will say that it's one of the seediest cities I've been to on this side of the Atlantic. It reminded me of Madrid, Spain. Over there, the streets and plazas are full of suspicious looking people standing around like vultures, scanning for prey amongst the crowds and sometimes working in teams. They will actively follow you until they get their opportunity. New Orleans has a few sections that are like that. Bourbon Street and Royal streets themselves are usually crowded and loud, but one turn around a corner and you're suddenly on your own on an unlit street. Do not go to New Orleans without some means of protecting yourself and do not walk around by yourself at night.

That PSA aside, it's a great time and an interesting city. You'll see a lot of things here that you'll never see anywhere else. C'est bon!

Friday, August 08, 2008

omg, ur rdr cntct. clrd 2 lnd, lolz

This is one of the coolest things I've read in a while. Talk about "thinking outside the box".
Irish air traffic controller uses 'text' to land plane
Thursday, 7 August 2008

A quick-thinking air traffic controller's texting saved an aircraft with five people on board which had lost all communications and electrical power.

The Piper Seneca light aircraft had taken off from Kerry airport on a flight to Jersey last November when it had a complete electrical failure.

The pilot flew south to clear the coast and clouds and to see the ground. He tried to contact Kerry airport and air traffic control in Cork on his mobile phone. He briefly made contact with Cork, telling them about the problem.

He then received a text message on his mobile from the controller at Cork advising him that he was on radar and that Cork would allow the plane to land.

He followed the controller's instructions given by text. The undercarriage gear had to be lowered manually. The aircraft did a fly-by of the control tower so that controllers could check visually that the wheels were down.

The aircraft landed safely and an air accident investigation report published yesterday said the loss of all aircraft electrics during such a flight was considered very serious.

The report, by investigator John Hughes, praised the "positive and proactive " initiative of the air traffic controller who texted his instructions to the pilot.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

LOA Hell

Going through the FAA Academy, the Tower and RTF courses touched a little bit on Letters of Agreement. The LOAs they used for AAC airport and Academy Approach were very simplified and stripped down, but - like the facilities they covered - served to introduce newbie controllers to the concept of an LOA.

For those who have yet to see an LOA, if the 7110.65 is the "Big Bad Book of Rules", Letters of Agreement tell you how to apply those rules between your facility and others. I've been trying to think of an analogy to compare them to the 7110.65. The closest one I can think of is, well, driving.

When you learned to drive, you became familiar with all of the rules and regulations necessary for operating a motor vehicle. You studied the handbook issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles, quizzed yourself, and took the written exam to get your learner's permit. By learning those rules, you now knew how to drive safely.

However, while those regulations tell you what's legal and what's not, they don't actually tell you how to get from point A to point B. If you want to drive from Miami to New Jersey, the DMV handbook won't point you in the direction of I-95 and tell you "go north". However, it will tell you about speed limits, passing slower vehicles, exit signs, usage of mirrors and other things that you will use along the way to make your journey safe.

The 7110.65 is like that handbook: the basic rules of driving remain the same everywhere you go, but how they're applied changes from facility to facility. That's where LOA's come in; they tell you what to do, and the 7110.65 tells you how to do it safely.

Down to the Letter

At our facility we have 28 letters of agreement with other facilities and operators. A sampling includes:
  • En Route procedures between us and Jacksonville Center, Houston Center, Mobile TRACON, and Eglin RAPCON
  • Tower procedures with Pensacola Regional, North Whiting NAS, South Whiting NAS, and Sherman Pensacola NAS
  • Other Procedures dealing with flight school and banner towing operations.
To be truly proficient, you need to go beyond familiarity and have an actual working knowledge of them. These LOA's are just as important as the 7110.65 in working traffic effectively, because they bring order to your traffic. You do not want to handoff an airplane to another facility in a manner that does not comply with the LOA, unless you coordinate otherwise.

"Climb and maintain [altitude]" and "Turn right heading [heading]" is said the same at every ATC facility. However,what the [altitude] and [heading] are completely depends on the LOAs.

LOA's between radar facilities such as TRACONs and en route generally outline boundary crossing procedures, including altitudes, crossing points, headings, and speeds. They also spell out who has control for turns or climb/descent prior to boundary crossings. LOA's with towers typically define the tower's area of responsibility (a.k.a. airspace), missed and practice approach guidelines, and datablock usage (a.k.a. what you need to put in the aircraft's scratchpad so the tower knows what to do with him). Procedures vary if the aircraft is arriving, departing, or an overflight.

It's all about predictability. In a career where anything can happen at any time, it's good to have least some order. The basic point of an LOA is so that parties on either side of the handoff have a good idea what to expect from the other facility. It takes out a whole lot of question marks. You know that if you get an arrival strip with a certain type of aircraft arriving from a certain direction landing at a certain airport, he will be within a certain altitude range, a certain speed range, and on a certain heading. Now, nothing is written in stone and anything can be accomplished with coordination, so you need to be flexible enough to work aircraft that are operating outside the things outlined in the letter.

The Practical Examples

As usual, I'll provide a couple quick examples.

TRACON to Tower: We're working the Pensacola West sector and Pensacola Regional is landing runway 17. We have a Cessna 172 that wants a practice VOR approach to Runway 8, so we need to inform the tower of their intentions. Per our LOA with PNS tower we do the following:
  • Scratchpad Entry: Specify an approach type, a climbout, and frequency. the only climbout we can give him is a west climbout, which will keep him from crossing the active runway. The LOA requires us to put the following in his scratchpad: RWW - (R) VOR approach, (W) West climb out, and (W) West frequency so that tower knows what he's doing, where to miss him, and who to switch him to.
  • Handoff: The LOA requires that aircraft landing or doing an approach to PNS be handed off to the tower prior to 10 miles from the airport.
  • Separate: He will also be sequenced with other arrival traffic dependent on the weather conditions. If the weather is good, the tower will provide visual separation. Otherwise, it's up to us to do it.

That's just a small fraction of the information within the letter. But as you can see, it outlines responsibilities and procedures for both facilities. They know what to expect from us, and we know what to expect from them.

En Route to TRACON: Jacksonville Center generally feeds us airliners from the northeast and northwest. Our LOA with them specificies that jets landing at PNS will be:
  • Descending to 11,000
  • Slowing to 250 knots
  • Direct to the PENSI fix (right in the middle of the chart below)
Now, notice what the letter does not say: it does not differentiate between westbound or eastbound aircraft. No matter where they're coming from, they will always be at 11,000, 250 knots, and pointed at the same fix.

So, if that hasn't clicked yet, picture this: An MD-88 from the northeast, a CRJ-700 from the west, and a Cessna Citation from due east, all descending to the same altitude, pointed right at each other. Now, before you say "That's crazy!", they do start out about 70 miles away from each other. They're not about to swap paint the moment you get them. However, it is obviously a situation that calls for action. When you're talking 500 knot closing speeds and jets loaded with passengers that take time to turn, you'd better make your move.

The idea behind this procedure, of course, is to get the aircraft around the multitude of MOA and restricted areas in our airspace, while simultaneously getting them setup for an approach into our main runway. That PENSI fix that I mentioned before? That's the initial approach fix for Runway 17 at PNS.

Now, in practice, the second these aircraft cross our boundary we're usually turning at least one of them. However, there will often be times where the aircraft are much higher and faster than they're supposed to be (like, oh, 17,000 feet and 420 knots versus 11,000 and 250kt). There's not much you can do about that other than just work with it and make the sequence happen.

TRACON to TRACON: Like other approach controls, we have what are called Gates - otherwise known as Departure Transition Areas/Arrival Transition Areas (DTA/ATA). Like the name suggests, these are specific areas where aircraft cross back and forth between facilities. On the east side of our airspace, we have two gates with Eglin AFB:
  • To the north, we have the Crestview gate, named after the Crestview VORTAC (CEW) in the middle of it.
  • The south one on the coast is called VARRE, after the Navarre bridge and VARRE fix.
Here's a quick overview of some of these DTA/ATA's:

Eglin AFB has a huge amount of activity. This affects us in that they are constantly shutting down different areas in order to conduct their operations. Our LOA with Eglin therefore takes this flexibility into account by creating different routing for our inter-facility traffic. These different routing conditions are as follows:
  • Randoms: Gates are not used. We can send our aircraft across the boundary at any point.
  • Gates: Gates are required. All aircraft, regardless of destination, must be routed via either CEW or VARRE.
  • Flow: The most restrictive. All aircraft landing east of Eglin's airspace must go via CEW. Aircraft landing within it can go via CEW or VARRE.
Eglin also has the option to close off the coast and not permit any traffic whatsoever. Even if we are "Flow" and the aircraft is landing within Eglin's area, we have to route them to CEW. Sometimes, however, they'll strike a compromise where they'll only close certain altitudes along the coast instead of closing it off completely.

It's not uncommon to see the following on our status screens: "RNOC GSOC CST CLSD AOA 70". In Pensacola TRACON-speak, that means "Random procedures north of the coast. Gate procedures south of the coast. Coast closed at-or-above 6000 feet." As it states, north of the coast our eastbound aircraft can cross the boundary at any point. South of the coast, aircraft need to go through the VARRE gate but must be below 5000 feet.

Working With the Pilots

Say we're on "Gates" with Eglin and we get an eastbound Baron from Mobile who is on his way to Jacksonville. When the pilot checks in, we tell him something along the lines of: "Baron 123, due to Eglin flow restrictions, eastbound traffic must proceed via the coastline at VARRE or over the Crestview VOR. Say intentions." I've been looking for the best phraseology to use per the 7110.65, but sometimes plain English works best. In any case, we leave it up to the pilot to decide his route.

Once he makes his choice, we get him pointed in the right direction. Let's say the Baron chose VARRE. If the aircraft is GPS-equipped, we spell out the fix for him so he can type it into his GPS and go direct. If he has no GPS, we put him on a heading that will take him out the gate. The situation changes each time. You just need to remember which aircraft is direct and which is on a heading, as the latter can get you in trouble.

A Little Homework

Where I'm at right now in my training is learning how to apply these LOAs in the new sectors, and it's been an uphill fight. There's just so much to absorb and apply. It really sucks when you start getting busy and you're being held up because you can't remember what altitude or heading you need to use for a certain flight plan.

As you all know, I'm a fan of visual aids. I've been working on a chart that I'm using as a study guide. This image below represents only three out of the 28 letters, namely the ones dealing with Jacksonville Center, Houston Center, Mobile Approach, and Eglin RAPCON. And even then, it only covers a few of the basic procedures for each of the facilities.

Hopefully this gives you an idea of the knowledge you need to keep on tap at all times.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

R.I.P. Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian author whose books chronicled the horrors of dictator Josef Stalin's slave labor camps, has died of heart failure, his son said Monday. He was 89.
This man was living proof that the written word is far more powerful than any weapon, method of torture, or system of repression. Beginning in 1943, he was imprisoned for 10 years for the simple act of writing badly about Stalin in a letter to a friend. For the next decade, he managed to survive the labor concentration camps of the Soviet criminal system. This system of camps was likened to a string of islands, hence the title of his most well-known work, The Gulag Archipelago.

After his release, he wrote profusely and secretively, afraid to allow his friends to read them in case the KGB got wind of his work. When his works began to surface in the west - earning him the Nobel Prize - they brought the gruesome realities of the Stalinist gulag out of the darkness of Siberia and into the view of the world. Nothing the KGB did could possibly discredit the amount of information and eyewitness accounts contained within his work.

Solzhenitsyn reenacting a search from his gulag incarceration.

For anyone that is interested in the history of Russia and the Cold War, this man's works are essential reading. They provide a unique perspective of life behind the Iron Curtain and how horrifically the communist governments treated their populace. The methods and abuses inflicted on innocents rival those of the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Hunts, where the accused were always guilty despite evidence to the contrary.

Books by Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Funny Things You Hear

So I'm training on the East Pensacola sector and I take a handoff on an eastbound Cessna 150. The guy is VFR, low at 500 feet and flying a serpentine path through the sky, riding the coast line. He comes over on my frequency and I ask him his intentions.

Firstly, his radio sucked. Secondly, there's confusion over what his call sign is, since he's calling himself something different each time. After we come to a mutual agreement on what he should be called, it turns out he's looking for a stolen yacht, of all things. Apparently someone jacked a 50+ foot Hatteras and he and his passenger are the heroic SAR team selected to go find it.

He continues on his way; with his altitude of 500 feet and our sector MVA of 1700 feet he is well below anything I'm working. He overflies every inlet, cove, and possible harbor looking for this vessel. In the meantime, we're all musing A) how someone can just make off with a freaking yacht and B) if said yacht is in Jamaica or Mexico by now.

Well, he reaches the eastern boundary of my airspace, I terminate radar services, and tell him he can get flight following from Eglin next door. He contacts them. Traffic was pretty slow and he wasn't that far off to the east, so I keep half an eye on his data block as he tools around. Eventually I see him start circling a single point off Navarre Beach.

Now he comes back, wanting to land at his home airfield in our airspace. He calls me up for flight following and - once again - is using a strange callsign. The last three digits are the same as before, but the first two are different. I won't use his real call sign, but let's say his original callsign was N11077. He calls me up with N10077. What follows was a frustrating back-and-forth.

Me: "Cessna November 10077, squawk 0101."
Pilot: Silence.
Me: "Cessna November 10077, Pensacola, squawk 0101."
Pilot: Silence.
Me: "Cessna November 10077, Pensacola, how do you hear?"
Pilot: Silence.


I'm a private pilot and have been in my share of busy traffic patterns full of similar-sounding call signs. ADF77, ADF11, ADF72, N55182, N52811, etc. I've heard the tower screw up call signs on more than one occasion, and when I hear them repeatedly issuing instructions to a call sign that sounds similar to mine - with no one responding - I'm not afraid to speak up and say "Tower, was that last instruction for ADF seventy-three?" That usually clears up a lot of the confusion on both ends.

Obviously this pilot didn't think along those lines. He kept plugging along and didn't put two-and-two together. I decided to try truncating his call sign, just to experiment.

Me: "Cessna November 077 [note: no "one-zero" at the beginning], Pensacola, how do you hear?"
Pilot: "Loud and clear sir!"
Me: *Sigh* "Cessna November 077, I've been calling you for the past few miles. Squawk 0101."
Pilot: "Roger, Cessna 077, squawking 0101."

Great. Finally. A method of communication established. But wait! Just when I think this finally resolved...

...his microphone proceeds to get stuck!!

For the next 10 minutes, the main frequency for Pensacola Approach is filled with the chatter of two guys in a Cessna. They're talking about salvage possibilities, towing companies, the stats on the yacht itself, all kinds of stuff. Here they think they're having a private conversation over their intercom, and here it's being broadcast for hundreds of miles around. On and on they go, and the entirety of northwestern Florida and southern Alabama is listening to it (if they happen to be tuned into 119.0).

In the meantime we're laughing on our end. I mean, what else can we do? Now, we were the East sector and PNS was landing from the east, so we were working the final. Well, while these two guys continue their conversation, we take multiple point-outs from the West sector, West keeps his traffic on his frequency, and he just works them to the final our side of the airspace. Luckily we didn't have any inbounds from Center, and if we did we'd put them on the West frequency. In the meantime, other aircraft who were on our frequency reverted back to their last-assigned frequencies, namely our West sector and South sector. We give those sectors control for those aircraft, while also taking care of getting them handed off to center or Eglin as appropriate.

Well, Cessna 077 never did come back one the radio while I was there. He tagged up just fine and I handed him off to the South sector, but there was not much else to do. One would think that if someone requested flight following he'd eventually check back to see if he'd been radar identified. This pilot never once wondered - at least aloud - why it was taking so long to identify him. Shortly before my instructor and I got relieved from the position, the pilot unkeyed his mic. Even then, he wouldn't answer calls, possibly because he was so low or because he'd changed to a different frequency.

Whatever the case, what I do know is that they got one thing right: they found the yacht. :)

From the Pensacola News Journal:
Stolen yacht abandoned off coast of Navarre Beach
From staff reports • August 1, 2008

The Full Moon, a 55-foot yacht stolen from Orange Beach, Ala., earlier this week was recovered Thursday afternoon near the Santa Rosa County and Okaloosa County line.

The yacht belongs to T.E.A. Investment Inc., and was taken between Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning from a boat dealership, Gulf Coast Hatteras at The Wharf.

The craft was adrift off Navarre Beach on Wednesday afternoon near the fishing pier, witnesses said.

Lt. Stan Kirkland, spokesman with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the vessel was found about three or four miles west of the Santa Rosa-Okaloosa county line.

"It was about 30 yards offshore," Kirkland said. "Whoever took it got close enough to shore, threw the anchor over and was gone."

No one was aboard the vessel when it was found, Kirkland said.

Evidence, including some clothes and a duffel bag, were recovered from the beach near the abandoned yacht. The items were given to the Orange Beach police for analysis, Kirkland said.