Tuesday, September 30, 2008

In the Cockpit at FL390

It's interesting to put on someone else's shoes for a while, at least via their writing. There really is something for everyone in the blogosphere, written by good authors who make their unique subject matter come alive for those of us on the outside.

Today's example is a blog I read from time to time that drops its readers in the cockpit of an Airbus A320. The author, an airline captain with a major carrier, has a very succinct writing style that just lays it out for you, making technical things simple. It's given me some good insights into the world of commercial airliner piloting, from the mundane to the exciting.

For instance, ever wondered what's it like to fly into the outer bands of a Hurricane on a scheduled airliner route?
We have penetrated the outer ring of clouds of the northwest sector of Hanna. The turbulence is annoying and the clouds are thick but not wet (wet will come in a few minutes). The forward shields are up (anti-ice systems ON) which automatically turns on the engine igniters. Seventy miles ago I told the lead flight attendant to batten down the hatches and get ready for a goat rodeo. The weather radar is on the 120 mile range and the returns are in the category of you got to be kidding me.

25,000 feet and descending...

Ice is starting to form on the windshield wipers and the outside air temperature probe. The turbulence is getting worse; I call the lead flight attendant to double check that everyone is strapped in; she confirms and says there are some worried looks in first class. No kidding...

We are leading the arrival stream into Philly at 310 knots indicated air speed, but we have to slow down... The turbulence is getting bad. It is hard to read the instruments. I select 280 knots for the engine management computers and watch the engines spool down further. The co-pilot tells ATC that we are slowing. No problem... They know it is a rough ride into Philly today. The controller starts slowing the stream down behind us by issuing instructions for "280 knots."

20,000 feet and descending...
Read on here at Flight Level 390.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Things Gone Awry

ATC is a complicated, dangerous, challenging job... and that's when everything is working correctly. There are so many technical things in the balance - radars, communications, data lines, navigation aids, airport lighting, etc. - that it's fairly common to see things fail or malfunction. When that happens, you're required to work with it and continue moving your traffic safely.

Usually the problems - and their resulting workarounds - are simple. If one of your runways is closed, you use another one. A dying radio involves you moving pilots to a different frequency. A navigation aid failure may just result in you substituting a heading in lieu of "Proceed direct [NavAid]". These are the kind of things you'll see up on your information board above each radar scope, in our Outages and/or Remarks sections. They don't make your life especially difficult, but they do alter your operation somewhat.

However, what happens when things really go wrong? How do you react, change your tactics, and keep moving traffic? I found that out first-hand on Friday. Let's just say it was an interesting day....

Early morning.

I arrive at work around 9:15am. Things are working more or less normally. It's a beautiful VFR day and the traffic is typical Friday: steady but not as plentiful as the rest of the week. We have all of the following equipment available to us.


Maintenance pulls all of the main transmitters. We're now working on the secondary backup radios, except for two frequencies that are completely out of service (OTS) so MX can swap the parts. The operation is not really affected; airplanes using those two OTS freqs are just moved to different frequencies.

Now our equipment looks like this:

2pm. Commence poo flinging at nearest fan.

The day is moving along. All of a sudden, commotion breaks out in the radar room. Maintenance folks storm in and there is lots of discussion between them, the controllers, and the supervisors. Somewhere, somehow, we've had a data cut. The T1 data line that carries the data in and out of our building is completely dead. That's very, very bad news.

We've lost all data links with external facilities. The National Airspace System is essentially a huge computer network, and we've lost our connection to it. We have zero computer interaction with Jacksonville Center, Houston Center, Eglin Approach, or Mobile Approach. Our computers also aren't communicating with the control towers within our airspace, namely Pensacola Regional, Whiting NAS, and Sherman NAS.

What does this mean in concrete terms?
  • No flight plans are being transmitted to us from the Jacksonville Center host computer or any of the other facilities within or outside of our airspace.
  • Due to the above, no flight progress strips are printing out on our end.
  • We cannot take or receive handoffs via our radar scopes.
  • We cannot make amendments to existing flight plans via our Flight Data Input/Output (FDIO) systems.
  • Our local database is no longer being updated, so there are no updates to our arrival/departure tab lists on our scopes.
Remember what the equipment image looked like a few hours ago? This is what we have left:

Our radar scopes themselves, our backup radios, and our land lines. That's it.

The Big Picture

Inbounds and Overflights: We have aircraft coming towards our airspace from throughout the southeastern United States. All kinds: airliners, corporate jets, general aviation, military. Without that data line, we get no printed strips and therefore no information on any of these planes. We have no idea who they are, what code they're squawking, where they're landing, or what they're doing. We are in the blind.

Outbounds: At the same time, we have departures wanting to come off our airports for which we have no strips. Our airports' FDIO systems are working fine, so the flight plans are in the National Airspace System. However, they're not transmitting to us due to the data cut. As a TRACON, we obviously have to talk to these departing aircraft, but we have no clue what they're supposed to squawk, where they're going, or even what their call sign is.

General Automation: Everything that is supposed to operate via computerized automation is dead. No flight plans, no hand offs, no amendments, nothing. If we need to amend someone's altitude or routing, we have to call someone else to do it for us.

The Workarounds

Before we can continue working traffic, our functioning equipment is assessed.
  • We still have our radar, our (secondary) radios, our scopes, and our land lines, so we're not exactly ATC-Zero. We can still talk to other facilities without a problem.
  • We also have full internal functionality, so if we tag an airplane manually we can still hand it off or point it out to other sectors within our facility.
  • We can also still generate local squawk codes for aircraft that won't be leaving our facility's airspace.
Workarounds are therefore put in place to deal with the situation.

Manual Coordination
  1. Without automation, we have to perform all handoffs manually - regardless whether they're outbound or inbound - via the inter facility voice lines. It was definitely good practice for that phraseology: "Eglin North, Pensacola Whiting, manual IFR handoff. Ten miles southwest of Crestview VORTAC, squawking 4255, call sign VV1E097."
  2. Whenever an aircraft departs landing somewhere outside our airspace, we have to tell the departing tower to send a Departure Message via their FDIO to let other facilities down the line know that the aircraft in question is airborne. That results in strips printing out at the receiving facilities.
Cut Controller Workload
  1. Add a handoff controller to our busier radar positions, namely the two Pensacola scopes and the Sherman NAS scope, so that the radar controller doesn't have to do all the manual coordination himself.
  2. Immediately stop automatic releases for IFR departures from airports within our vicinity. That gives us complete control over when an aircraft will depart, so if we're going crazy coordinating we won't have a surprise IFR airplane pop up.
  3. Cease all practice approaches within our airspace, forcing all of our Navy trainers to do full stops. We frankly have more important things to worry about than whether or not Mr. Student Pilot gets his lessons done today. I don't mean that in any offense to our Navy or civilian trainees out there, but it's simply a matter of priority and safety.
Voice Transmission of Flight Plans
  1. When an airport is activating a departing aircraft, we have them call us with just the basic information:
    1. Call sign
    2. Type
    3. Departing Airport
    4. IFR/VFR
    5. Requested Altitude
    6. Destination
    7. First Fix outside of our airspace (for our routing purposes)
    8. Beacon Code
  2. The Centers, Eglin, and Mobile call us over their respective shout lines to convey arrival information to our Flight Data person. "Pensacola Data, Eglin South, Flight plan."
  3. Our Flight Data person hand-writes strips for each departure or arrival by hand, and then deposits then next to each radar position.
  4. Flight Data also manually enters the call sign, beacon code, and departure gate for each plane at each scope. While our Tab List is no longer fed from the NAS, we can type it in by hand so departing aircraft will tag up locally.

    For instance, if it was a Navy bird departing South Whiting, going out the Sikes gate, and departing from the "Z" position, FD would just type the following on any radar scope's keyboard to put the aircraft in the appropriate tab list:

    VV7E113 (call sign)
    ΔSIK (delta symbol + 3 letter departure gate abbreviation)
    1234 (beacon code)
    B06 (aircraft type)
    Z (departing sector in whose tab list it should appear)
And so it goes....

It was quite an experience. Having never seen anything like this before, it was pretty cool how everyone pulled together and just worked around the problems. Sure, no one was thrilled, but things got done. There wasn't much anyone could do about it other than get through the situation. At times it got pretty tense, but everyone adjusted to the new operation.

For the pilots, all of these operational workarounds were completely invisible. Whether it was a Delta wanting to land at Pensacola Regional, a Cessna 182 en route to New Orleans, or a Navy helicopter departing on a cross country to Panama City, they didn't suspect a thing. Nor did they have a reason to. All they heard was the usual phraseology, despite the controllers having to do everything by hand. Thanks to the efforts of the controllers here and our neighboring facilities, the operation kept going and the traffic kept flowing.

The traffic started to die down a bit towards the end of the day and those of us who had stayed for overtime got to go home. Last I heard, it was going to take up to a couple days to get the data line back in operation. Thankfully, the weekends over here are relatively slow since the Navy doesn't fly too much those days. That should make it somewhat easier on the folks working this Saturday and Sunday.

As they say about ATC, every time you plug in you've got to be prepared for anything, and that means anything on either end of the radio. You can't just throw up your hands and walk away. People are depending on you to get the job done with whatever means you have at your disposal.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Break for Commentary

I'm going to deviate for a moment here from the usual and do something I've never done before on this blog: make an observation on the current presidential campaign.

// Begin commentary

I know just about everyone in the world has seen this excerpt from Sarah Palin's ridiculous interview with Katie Couric. I just needed to weigh in on something here that struck me hard.

Much has been said about her foreign policy being based on her being able to see Russia from her backyard. That's obviously an absurd idea. That's like saying you're an expert on dentistry just because you can see a dentist's office from your balcony.

However, it's another, related statement that had even more alarm bells going off for me. Namely, this one starting at 0:53:
As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border.
Okay, so what I'm to gather from that one statement is this:
  1. Man, those air traffic controllers in Alaska sure are multi-taskers! Not only did new trainees have to pass the ATSAT exams and Oklahoma City, but they must also pass the Foreign Service Exam. Why? Well, since they work Russian overflights, they're now apparently diplomats.
  2. Secondly, if I was flying from Moscow - you know, the capital of Russia, where Vladimir Putin is actually located - to Washington, D.C. I sure as hell would not travel the long way over Siberia and the Pacific Ocean. You know those aforementioned Russian diplomatic overflights? They're likely going westbound over the Atlantic or north via a polar route. I guess those poor controllers won't get to practice their diplomacy skills for a while.
  3. Lastly - and the most important thing for me - is: she talks about Vladimir Putin as if he was an outbreak of the flu or a temperamental puppy. I mean, complete with dipsy-doodle hand puppets.
Amongst my many interests is the study of Russia. I've read up quite a bit on its history, its people, and its politics. Over the past year, my reading has progressed from the WWII and Stalin eras to more recent events in the country's history, most importantly the rise of Vladimir Putin. The immediate post-Soviet era promised the rise of a new, democratic Russia. Putin has reversed that trend at an alarming rate, consolidating power, flexing his military muscles, and silencing the voice of the Russian people.

The fact that this governor treats this powerful individual with such irreverence and naivety is inexcusable. Does she not recognize at all the kind of person she would be dealing with? Her inexperience is staggering.

Putin doesn't "rear his head".
This hockey mom is talking as if all she'd need to do with little Vlad is look into his dead lifeless eyes, waggle a finger, say "Dontcha know that's wrong?" and Putin would just stop what he's doing. It doesn't work like that. We're talking about a truly evil man with unspeakable power under his command.

I mean, just picture this:

While there's no question of Putin's malicious intent, at least he is a somewhat known quantity with a modicum of reason. He's a total bastard but at least he's a cold, calculating one. But what about those countries with bona fide nutjobs as their heads of state? How would she deal with President Ahmadinejad from Iran? Hugo Chavez of Venezuela? Kim Jong-Il (or his successor) from North Korea? These are leaders with little-to-no scruples and who already have little-to-no respect for our country. What exactly could she bring to a diplomatic table? Moose hunting tips? She has nothing to offer on a national or international level, no background that would help bridge the divides we have with many of these rogue states.

Neither presidential candidate is perfect in this campaign, but wow... having this woman anywhere near the White House just seems so profoundly dangerous. I cannot bear the thought of her representing our country in the national arena. Anyone who thinks she is somehow qualified or capable of holding the second highest office of this great nation needs to have their head examined. That goes doubly true for the presidential candidate who chose her. The grace period for her to prove herself has completely expired.

I almost feel sorry for her. Almost. She is way in over head, but she should have known that before she accepted McCain's offer. Those elected to the highest offices of this country should be given that privilege based on their ability to make this country better than it was before they took office. I fail to see how anyone, on either side of the aisle, could possibly believe Palin has that ability.

// Commentary complete

3D Film Updates

I've been continuing to work on that short 3D film I mentioned a little while ago. Here's a couple new renderings. So far, no characters, only set designs.

Interior shot of FBO Set

Rough lighting, untweaked textures, but the layout is complete.

Exterior shot of airport
Rough lighting, no shadows, very basic.

I'm still in Tutorial Hell at this point. I haven't designed a 3D character in a long, long time, so I'm playing catch-up. There's so much that goes into designing a character, and if you don't use that knowledge it fades. Modeling the face and body, building the skeleton, attaching the skin to the bones, making the appropriate "cuts" in the skin so the figure bends properly without distorting - all that is highly technical stuff that, if not done right, can ruin the character outright and/or make life difficult when animating them.

The last character I designed was the Bee fellow, a mascot for a web site client I had a couple years ago:

Not exactly the level of realism I'm going for on this new project. But it was fun. :)

Congrats to SpaceX

After three failed launch attempts, SpaceX's Falcon rocket became the first privately funded vehicle to reach Earth orbit. While Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne may have been the first private vehicle to go into space, it never reached orbit (nor was it designed to do so). Good luck to SpaceX on their future launches.

For those unfamiliar with SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the guy is a real visionary. Not only is he the co founder of PayPal (where a significant amount of the fortune he spent on SpaceX's funding originated) but he is also producing the very sexy Tesla roadster, an all-electric sports car, and is involved in a number of other companies and organizations combating global warming. How many other 37 year olds can claim to have built their own rocket, started their own sports car company, and changed the way business is done on the internet?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Airplane Sightings

Just a short post today. I've been working on some longer pieces, but they're taking a little more time than expected.

I've always been an aircraft junkie. I find every type of flying machine interesting, no matter the shape, size, or purpose. As you can see by the list in the right column, I like to keep track of the different aircraft types I've worked. I guess you could call it an airplane enthusiast version of a trophy wall. :)

These are some of the more recent items in the "collection":

T-38 Talon

The primary supersonic jet trainer, there's about 500 of these in the United States armed forces. While they're used by the USAF for flight training and the Navy for aggressor ops, the ones we see here are actually from NASA. These are typically all overflights, although occasionally they'll land at Navy Pensacola.

What gives those specific birds a "cool factor" for me is the fact that they're flown by NASA astronauts for astronaut training. So, whenever I work one, I'm speaking with someone who's either flown in space or going up into space at some point. It's like one of those Six Degrees of Separation things: if I can't go into space myself, well, at least I can talk to someone who has!


If there was an ATC equivalent to watching paint dry, it's working one of these. We've had a few come here from time to time, some for political campaign matters, others for scientific work like air sampling. With a good tailwind, it'll take forty minutes to cross your scope. In a good headwind... I've seen them fly backwards. They move so slowly that the *T function on our scope - the function that allows you to click on a plane, click on a point on your scope, and calculate how long it'll take for that airplane to get to that point - doesn't compute and spits back an error. It's as if the computer's saying, "Dude, it's a blimp. Nuff said."

At the very least, they make traffic calls very easy. "N123, traffic, 12 o'clock, four miles, two thousand, a huge great white whale of a blimp. Don't harpoon him, Ahab!" I've also stood outside on the back porch to watch them land. It's pretty entertaining, with some of the smaller, more maneuverable ones - like the Skyship 600 - doing these surprisingly quick and low slides/slips/skids into position. Then there's all the folks on the ground running around, reaching for the lines and tying them to the mast truck.

Stearman Biplane

The infamous "Yellow Peril" of Navy training fame. The sky over Pensacola must have been thick with them in the 40's. Given the area's history, there's bound to be at least a few of these still in the vicinity.

We have a fellow that flies one out of an uncontrolled field just west of Whiting. You immediately know it's him on the radio, even before he starts speaking, because of the WOOOOOOSSSHHHHHH in the background from the open air cockpit. "WOOOOOSSSSHHHH - Pensacola App - WOOOSSHH - roach, Stear - WOOOOSH - man 567 - WOOOSSHH - 89 is ten miles north of - WOOOOSH - Pensacola Regional, req - WOOOSH - questing full stop with - WOOOSH - information Tango."

The first time I ever worked him, I didn't understand a word he said to me. S0, naturally I replied, "Aircraft calling, say again?" And what did that get me? Yeah. "WOOOOSH - Pensacola App - WOOOSH - roach, Stear - WOOOOSSSSSSSHHH...."

CV-22 Osprey
This is the Air Force variant of the V-22, the tilt-rotor transport aircraft that takes off as a helicopter but flies like an airplane. It's designed to replace standard helicopters such as the CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-47 Sea Stallion. Very cool airplane and I'm glad they're finally getting them in operation after nearly two decades of teething problems.

Based out of Hurlburt field about 10 miles east of our boundary, these guys don't come over too often. When they do, however, they like to play low and fast.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Scenes from the Military Town Airport

I'm sitting at the airport cafe, across the way from the security checkpoint. It's a quiet weekday morning and I'm enjoying a sandwich and a soda, blogging and surfing for a bit before I have to go into work. Dozens of people wait their turn in line at the security line while more flow out away from the airplanes and into the terminal area. It's a disjointed parade of people, all sizes and shapes, all of them on their way somewhere, whether it's home or some distant destination.

I look up to see a group forming at the greeting area where the arriving passengers enter the terminal. An elderly couple. Another couple in their early fifties. A couple in their twenties with a baby in their arms. A few other relatives stand around with them, holding signs. They're anxious, yet quiet. One of them watches the terminal clock tick away the minutes.

The one watching the time suddenly speaks excitedly to the others and they all turn toward the arrival door. The elderly couple unfurls a large red flag, holding it at chest height. The United States Marine Corps banner, proud and four feet across. These must be the grandparents. The middle-aged couple, I'm assuming to be the parents, unfold a similar-sized United States flag and hold it high. The red, white, and blue are radiant against the drabness of the terminal. Several of the other family members grip their homemade welcome signs, standing on tip-toe, trying to see past the multitude of passengers exiting the concourse.

And then they see their son. The grandmother yells "Urrah!", holding the USMC flag high over her head with the grandfather. The parents wave the American flag excitedly yet silently. The relatives hoot and cheer. The young couple lift their baby and point down the way, the baby's father telling his infant boy, "Heyyy, there's your uncle!"

The son comes into my view. He's tall, lanky, dressed in his BDU's and carrying an enormous backpack. He's got a desert tan compared to the pale skin of his family. He looks so young, maybe twenty, and he's got this shy "Hi mom" grin on his face. All eyes turn to watch him as he enters the arrivals area. He looks humbled by the welcome.

His mother breaks ranks and rushes to him, throwing her arms around him. She's a good two heads shorter than he is, and even so she seems to swallow him up in her embrace. They hug for what seems to be forever, and what must not be long enough for them.

All around them, the entire terminal breaks out in applause. Cheers and shouts ring up from the security lines and those waiting for their own relatives and friends. The store clerks, the security officers, and the ladies from the information desk join in. And through it all, mother and son seem lost in their own world. One can only guess how much worry and fear must have passed through their lives since the last time they saw each other.

The rest of the family joins them. The soldier's father grabs his son and holds him hard. The grandparents give him a two-way hug, the grandmother touching his face with a glowing smile. A moment later, the brother is introducing the new uncle to the new nephew for the first time. Other relatives take turns hugging him and shaking his hand. There is only brief conversation, overshadowed by raw emotion, as they look into each others' eyes.

The flags are soon folded up - carefully, in the traditional honor guard method - and the completed family now moves on. As they head for the terminal exit, the soldier's face is peaceful. His mother leans against him, her head fitting into the crook of his shoulder. His father claps him on the back and asks if he can help him with that enormous rucksack. "Naw dad, I've got it," the soldier says, smiling. The proud father grins back and puts his arm around both his son and wife.

And then they're out of sight and down the steps.

It's so easy to talk about war in the detached, abstract terms of politics and economics, of dollars and time. But when I see things like this, it drives home the magnitude of what's at stake in terms of the human cost, the hundreds of thousands of young men and women that have volunteered to serve their country. And behind each soldier in uniform, there's a family that misses them and worries about them, hopes that the mission their son or daughter is asked to fulfill is a just one, and prays for them to return safely into their arms.

It doesn't need to be Memorial Day or the Fourth of July to recognize the contributions of these fine people who have taken up arms in the name of this incredible country. Hopefully our leaders will someday realize that the sacrifices of these troops - and their families - are not to be made in vain.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Ins and Outs

So, my training on the Pensacola bank of scopes continues.

My biggest problem at this point, I think, is actually just that: thinking. I "over think" things, especially when the traffic is slower. Instead of doing and scanning, I sit there mentally going over my LOA's and SOP's and think to myself "Is that the right choice?". I have too many questions at this time that keep me from working it correctly. There's also a lot more coordination on this bank, as you're constantly talking to Jacksonville Center, Mobile Approach, Eglin Approach, and occasionally Houston Center. The end result is that I'm still moving far too slowly for the traffic.

On the Whiting NAS bank of scopes, I'm confident. I know the airspace. I know the rules. I know the procedures. I know the aircraft performance. Obviously I'm no where near as good as the CPC's I work with who have been doing this for 20+ years, but I feel good when I sit down on those scopes. I don't have to think "Ok, what's the proper downwind feed on this runway configuration... and how slow can I get that guy... and how much time is he going to take to turn...." That doesn't happen on Whiting. Over there, I have fun with it, because there I just do it.

On Pensacola... not so much. I'm not comfortable yet, though my comfort level is steadily increasing. I don't ask as many stupid questions as I did before.

Part of my problem has to do with getting used to the general flow of traffic we work with on Pensacola. I don't know what traffic flow is like at other facilities, but in my limited experience I've never heard of anything like the arrangement we have here (outside of maybe Potomac TRACON). Badly chopped up airspace and a lot of MOA's keep it interesting. If anyone can relate to this, please comment on it. I'd love to hear about it.

Tasteful Analogies

I'm sure many of my readers are familiar with the term DSWYE: "Don't shit where you eat." Yeah, it's a nasty saying, one that I've seen used to describe military rifles designed with direct gas impingement, like the "jam-o-matic" M16. However, I think it aptly describes some of our arrival and departure flow.

All high altitude traffic landing at Pensacola Regional - including airliners, corporate jets, etc. - is required to be descending to 11,000 and pointed at a single fix called PENSI, 20 miles north of the airport. It doesn't matter whether they're coming from the east or the west, the rule is the same - 11,000, direct PENSI. That's right: airliners pointed directly at each other from opposite directions descending to the same altitude. It's the kind of situation where if you don't do anything, well... yeah, problems will occur.

Doesn't that make you want to fly into Pensacola? :)

These airplanes are also supposed to - emphasis on the supposed to - be slowing to 250 knots. Doesn't always happen, but generally they're good about it. They're also about 60 miles apart when we start talking to them, so we have room to work with them. The second these airplanes cross our boundary, we're turning them, descending them, or both.

On top of that, our high altitude departures are flying out the same areas through which our inbounds are arriving. The departures will be climbing to 10,000 feet (per our letter of agreement with Jacksonville Center) and angled out the gate (330-340 heading for the NW, 020-030 for the NE). In essence, while we're trying to get our arrivals down, we have departures that are climbing up through them. The "ins" meshing with the "outs". See what I mean now by "DSWYE"?

To make things more interesting, right on top of our airspace is the Pensacola South MOA which is under the control of our Sherman NAS sector. This block of airspace sits directly above our Pensacola sectors and runs from 11,000 up to FL230. So, this basically means that if you get an arrival out of 11,000, you can't turn him southbound until he's AOB 10,000. And if you have a departure climbing to 10,000, you can't switch him until he's out from under the MOA - otherwise, Jax Center (who has control for climb to 15,000) may climb him right into the MOA. This MOA is active quite often, so you need to be paying attention to what the Sherman sector has in it.

So, to sum up:
  • Inbounds: 11,000 /direct PENSI / 250 knots
  • Outbounds (NE): 020-030 heading / 10,000
  • Outbounds (NW): 330-340 heading / 10,000
  • South MOA: Cannot climb or descend through it when active.
Setting Up The Problem

Let's take a look at a color-coded graphical representation of this. Visual Aid time! I kept it simple with just six airplanes in the "problem", and all the colored flight plans below indicate what they'd be doing if there was no other traffic in the airspace.

We have, from lowest altitude to highest:
  • DAL1234, an MD88, released off of runway 17, requesting FL310 with Jacksonville Center.
  • CHQ2223, a Regional Jet, climbing through 6000 to 10,000, northwest bound to Jacksonville Center.
  • KATT613, a T-6 Texan II, departing from NAS Sherman, climbing to 10,000, requesting 17,000 with Jacksonville Center.
  • N2220C, a Piper Seneca, riding the victor airway eastbound level at 9000.
  • EGF789, a Regional Jet, descending out of 13,000 for 11,000, direct PENSI.
  • TRS456, a Boeing 717, out of 14,000 for 11,000, direct PENSI.
KATT613's a single engine turboprop that moves pretty quickly, upwards of 300 knots. DAL1234 is just rolling now while KATT's already airborne. However, the Delta builds speed quickly even in a climb, so even though he gets off the ground later than Katt, there's a significant chance they'll become a DAT (Dead Ass Tie) on their way out. If the Delta winds up behind the Katt at the same altitude, he will eat him up quickly. Center controllers don't really like it when you stuff a fast mover behind a slower-mover.

KATT and DAL are trying to go northeast and are climbing to 10,000. At the same time, you have TRS456 (AirTran) coming in from the northeast, descending to 11,000, direct PENSI. If DAL doesn't climb fast enough or TRS doesn't descend fast enough, there will be conflict. Since DAL is stopped at 10,000 and TRS at 11,000, they won't hit, but Delta will be stuffed down for a bit til he gets out from underneath TRS. And if DAL can't climb, that means we can't descend TRS.

Climbing out to the northwest is CHQ2223, out of 6000, shooting for 10,000 and a handoff to Jax Center. Nearly opposite direction to him is EGF789, inbound, descending to 11,000, direct PENSI. Same thing as DAL vs. TRS: if CHQ doesn't climb fast enough, he'll be held down at 10,000 and EGF will be held up above him.

Right in the middle of it all is N2220C, cruising along at 9000 along our one and only airway. CHQ's current flight path is pointed directly at him, and at this point we're "betting on the come" that he'll top him. On top of that - literally - is EGF, who needs to descend through his altitude. EGF's high speed will close the distance on N2220C significantly.

So, to sum up, we've got multiple potential conflicts here:
  • DAL and KATT racing each other out the northeast
  • DAL and TRS - one descending, one climbing
  • TRS descending through N2220C's altitude, opposite direction
  • DAL climbing through N2220C's altitude, perpendicularly
  • CHQ climbing through N2220C's altitude, opposite direction
  • EGF descending through N2220C's altitude, same direction, 150+ knot overtake
  • CHQ and EGF, opposite direction, one descending, one climbing
  • TRS and CHQ - head on, same altitude, pointed at the same fix
Making it Work

There's no single way to fix things. You have a ton of options available to you as a controller - vectors, altitude changes, speed control. It's just a matter of how you apply these tools.

So let's experiment... Let's see how this would work just using vectors and a couple altitude changes. I'll exaggerate some of the turns for effect:

  1. Leave KATT on an easterly heading for a few more miles to square off his route and then turn him north. This will build in a few more flying miles between him and DAL.
  2. Keep DAL going due north, giving him time to speed up and climb. Once you're sure that KATT won't be a factor, crank DAL on a 020 or 030 heading to slip behind TRS.
  3. Descend TRS to 6000, widening him out a bit north of PENSI. This will dunk him under DAL and under N2220C, and on that heading DAL should pass behind him. Once TRS is below DAL and N2220C, turn TRS towards the airport.
  4. Descend EGF to 5000 and crank him south/southeast. This will ensure he doesn't descend on top of N2220C and get him out of CHQ's way. Once he's below CHQ's altitude, turn him east to base him for Runway 17 at PNS.
  5. Bend CHQ on a more westerly heading - like a 300 - to ensure he'll pass behind N2220C. With EGF on a more southerly route, they should also miss cleanly. Once CHQ has divergence, altitude, and/or lateral separation on EGF and N2220C, crank CHQ to a 340 heading and ship him to center.
This is by no means the only way to approach this. Ask a dozen controllers how to work this and you'll get a dozen answers.

While we're talking about it, there are a couple other things you can do as well using inter-facility coordination.
  • Leave KATT and DAL on their original headings from example 1, but call Jax Center and ApReq higher for KATT. Since their plans diverge 25 miles NE of PNS, if you can get Jax to approve 15,000 the KATT can keep climbing and then turn due east, will the Delta will speed off to the northeast.
  • Or... using the second version of the vectors from example 2, ApReq higher for DAL to get on top of TRS. If Jax can approve a climb to FL230 - the highest altitude they can approve for us- DAL won't have to level off and will continue climbing, topping TRS. If they approve it, we can just issue him the FL230 climb, wait until we're certain TRS will pass underneath him, and switch DAL to Jax.

    That serves two purposes: 1) getting DAL well on his way up to his cruising altitude and 2) allowing us to turn TRS directly to the airport (and away from N2220C) once DAL tops him.
Like I said, that's just six airplanes. Now add in a few more airliner departures and arrivals, four or five Navy trainers and helicopters shooting practice approaches to different runways at PNS, two or three check cargo haulers in and out of PNS, random Cessnas and Tomahawks out in the practice areas, a bizjet or two landing PNS, a few more IFR overflights, and we've got a party! :)

So, that's what I'm working with right now.. I feel like I've been handed a pile of wood, a hammer, and some nails, and told to go build a house. I have all the materials in front of me, but I'm not quite sure how it all fits together yet. I know it can be done, but I'm currently thinking too long and too hard about it, instead of letting it just come naturally.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Do You Have the Flick?

I just found out that Mr. Don Brown from Get The Flick posted an article about this little blog. Truly a wonderful way to start off a weekend.

I don't think there's too many folks involved with ATC that have not experienced Mr. Brown's fantastic writing. While other ATC blogs lean towards unabashed sarcasm and savage bombast, his writing is mature, thoughtful, and highly educational. No rumor mills, no hearsay - just well-researched articles that put the issues facing air traffic control in a passionate yet intellectual perspective. Mr. Brown's writing goes far beyond simple blogging; it's bona fide journalism that should be required reading for everyone involved in aviation.

For those coming in from the GtF links, welcome to my little space on the web. I hope you find the blog informative and entertaining. In general, when I discuss a subject I lay out the concepts and then put them into a practical perspective using real-world examples. I'm also a big fan of using "visual aids" to get my point across - I was a creative director for a design firm for nearly seven years, so I like to keep my Photoshop and coding skills sharpened.

I'd like to the touch on a couple things Mr. Brown mentioned:
  • With regards to the contents of this blog, I actively try to keep it positive and nonpolitical. Of course I have my own politics and viewpoints, but I choose not to employ them here. I'm here to write about the ups and downs of ATC training, not engage in political combat. There are other folks on both sides of the issues that can do that far better than I ever could.
  • Mr. Brown is absolutely correct: I make plenty of mistakes. That's actually one of the things I want to start writing about: what happens when things go wrong. What it's like to go down the shitter... or get countermanded on-frequency by your instructor... or get pulled off a scope when you're just not able to keep up... or even scare the hell out of yourself. Believe me, training can suck hard. But when those things happen, that's when you learn your lesson. ATC is by far the most humbling, difficult thing I've ever done in my life. It's a great job and you can have some real fun with it, but I just want to make it clear to people coming into it that it's not a cakewalk for most trainees.
So once again, a warm welcome to the newcomers and thank you for checking out The Flying Penguin. Feedback is always appreciated; feel free to comment on the postings as much as you like. Also, if you have any questions on anything I've written about or about the job itself, fire away! I always do my best to answer.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Weather Days

You're heading into work soon at your radar facility. As you're getting dressed, you look out the window to find that it's overcast and the sky outside looks like:

It's definitely a bad day to be ramp rat, but how will this affect you in your radar room? To get the full idea, you jump on your favorite weather site or channel, and get the following forecast for the day:

Thunderstorms. Heavy rain. Gusting winds. Low ceiling. Reduced visibility. General nastiness.

From what I've heard from the "big facility" folks, a forecast like that is enough to give some people the shakes. Instead of relatively orderly flow patterns of airliners in and out of their airports, you've got chaos. Airliners tunneling through the weather, Boeings and Airbuses doing the "holding pattern dance", and pilots electing to take their alternates as the fuel runs low. Ground stops and flow control notices go banging out of printers nationwide as Traffic Management Units go to work instituting methods of slowing the inbounds until the traffic already in the vicinity gets handled.

Around here, it's a very different story. We love days with atrocious weather.

While we do have airliner traffic - something between 20-40 a day, mostly regional jets - the majority of our traffic is military. And not just plain military, but military trainers. Practicing navigation, aerobatics, and approaches is essential to the Navy's syllabus, but it's not essential that it gets done in adverse conditions. Most of our military trainers are single engine props and light helicopters which have limited IFR capability compared to large and heavy airliners. When the weather gets nasty, the Navy simply doesn't fly.

The main reason is that none of these pilots have to go anywhere. These pilots don't have to get 250 passengers to their connections at Dulles or 20 tons of FedEx packages to Memphis for sorting. All they need to do is get a check mark on a training syllabus, and while it's better to do that in a timely fashion, it's not something that needs to be done rain or shine. While the T-34s, TH-57s, T-6s, and all the other "T" airplanes are excellent aircraft, what's light turbulence to a large MD-88 is going to knock those "T's" around.

Marginal Insanity

Now, when I said "we love weather days", I'm talking about days where it's crappy conditions from morning to night. The Navy sees that they're not going get any worthwhile flying in, so they just keep their birds on the ground. This makes it easy for us, since now all we're working with is a little bit of commercial traffic that come two or three at a time every half hour.

On the flipside, the worst days around here are when the weather starts off nice and then goes to hell. Why, you ask? Well, on that beautiful clear mornin, the Navy will have launched all of its aircraft and their T-34s and helos will be out, frolicing in their training areas. But then, Mister T-Storm rolls into the area in the afternoon, along with his friends Low Overcast and Low Visibility. So, you may have started out with a blue sky, but what you end up with is Marginal VFR. And somewhere out there are all these Navy birds that need to make their way home through it.

The majority of our T-34 arrival and departure traffic is VFR and on a beautiful day they're procedurally separated vertically to prevent the inbounds from going head-on with the outbound. However, toss in Mr. Overcast at 2200 feet and now you have:
  • Outbounds stopping their climb at the same altitude as the inbounds, aimed right at them.
  • Reduced visibility that destroys the effectiveness of traffic calls.
  • Pilots deviating from assigned courses and altitudes at all times.
  • Pilots requesting higher to punch through a hole, requiring either case-by-case coordination with the sector above or a negotiated agreement.
  • Course rule traffic that would have been separated by altitude from other sectors now need to be handed off and/or coordinated.
And with Overcast's buddy Reduced Visibility you have:
  • Haze and misting that makes traffic harder to see for the pilots.
  • Lost pilots that can't see their VFR fixes on the ground.
In ATC, you already need to be flexible. But when the weather rolls in, you're constantly changing your plan to coordinate with other sectors and other facilities to keep your traffic safe from the perils of uncooperative weather.

And, that's just with regular marginal VFR on a cloudy day. But when the weather gets even worse in the middle of an operational day, the Navy can drop a bomb on you. Read on.

Weather Recall

You're working Whiting and the day is very marginal VFR. All throughout the day, they've been launching aircraft to the different practice areas, so there's fifty-odd T-34s milling around within 50 miles or so, to the south, west, northwest, and due north. Sooner or later those guys will be coming back. And in the past few hours, there's been weather building in the area.

Suddenly, you hear a transmission go over Guard (emergency) frequency. "All TWA-5 aircraft, contact your base for instructions," it says, or something to that effect. Then you hear the shoutline from North Whiting's tower go hot, asking for your supervisor. A minute later your sup walks over and tells you "Whiting's doing a weather recall."

In short, the weather recall is exactly what it sounds like. The weather's going to pot and the Navy has recalled every single one of their aircraft. Rather than coming in a few at a time like they normally do after they finish their training assignments, they will all be turning tail and headed directly for you en masse. Similar altitudes, inbound from all directions, all requesting IFR pick-ups and vectors to the same TACAN approach.

Unfortunately for us controllers, the Navy seems to wait until the last possible minute to recall their airplanes. By the time they finally get in our airspace, the thunderstorm that caused the recall is near or right on top of the field. Not only are you dealing with dozens of pop-up IFR aircraft, all of which need clearing, vectoring, and sequencing, but the weather conditions are causing all kinds of issues.

A lot of times three or four T-34s will come back in a cluster, only a mile or two between each aircraft. Since they're requesting IFR clearances, you need to pry them apart using altitude or lateral separation to get your 3 miles, 1000 feet, or divergence. Once they're separated, you can start clearing and vectoring them.

Once you find out there's a recall in effect, it's a good idea to call for a handoff to handle the stripmarking work and a position split so you can focus on the arrivals only. Weather recalls are very big deals around here, and they're rare, so not many people have experience with them. There are CPC's in the building that have never seen one, and for us new guys it can be a daunting experience.

What it boils down to is an insanely busy and hectic hour that will truly test you. On the good side of things, all the aircraft you're dealing with are of the same type. This makes speed control and vectoring much easier. They're also small maneuverable aircraft, so their course changes are very quick, simplifying "squeeze plays".

Friday, September 12, 2008

Some Pilots...

...just make you want to pull your hair out, smack the desktop, and go "For God's sake, just listen to me!" Of course, yelling at a pilot over the radio will land you with a phone call from the pilot, a sit-down with your supervisor, a tape playback, some kind of reprimand, and maybe even a fine of some kind. Just like a person at a call center, you just have to be professional and courteous no matter the situation.

From a pilot's perspective, when a controller asks me to do something, I do it. The exception is obviously dangerous situations, like, say, the controller points me right at a thunderstorm or a mountain. At that point, I would exercise my Pilot in Command rights and say "Approach, unable heading due to terrain / storm / certain doom." But in general, I realize that the controller has the big picture and is asking me to do something for a reason.

From a controller's perspective, we're not sitting at our scope issuing "vectors for controller amusement." There is thought and purpose put into the things we ask pilots to do. It's in the controller's best interest to get the aircraft where they're going as quickly as possible with as little complication and coordination as possible. Along the way, we may tell them to change altitude, speed, or heading, but it's mainly for the safety and efficiency of the operation. This is drilled into us constantly during our training and is the very mantra of ATC: "Safe, orderly, and expeditious".

Meet Bob

Every pilot wants to be number one for the runway or number one out the departure gate, but sometimes it just doesn't work out that way. So, we work with the traffic, runways, and airspace we have and try to accomodate the pilots as best we can. Some pilots don't seem to get that, however, and take it personally when they get vectored.

We have one pilot who flies around here in a high performance airplane. He's a local, an easily recognized voice on the frequency. I don't know what he does for a living, but he must be a lawyer or something outside of the cockpit. Why do I say this? Because he likes to question every single instruction issued to him.

For the sake of this blog, we'll call him "Bob".

  1. We're departing runway 26 at Pensacola. Departures are coming off westbound climbing to 1700' .

    "Bob" is in his fast single-engine airplane, eastbound at 1700' about 15 miles west of the airport. While Bob is VFR, most of our departures are IFR. Right there, that demands at least a 500 foot vertical separation requirement between IFR and VFR. There's also the little matter of TCAS: if an airliner takes off and levels off at 1700 and winds up with a face-full of Bob, that will result in a Resolution Advisory. Those are ungood, resulting in scared pilots, called-in complaints, and a lot of paperwork on the part of the pilots. (Obviously, if Bob was in the way, I wouldn't have released an airplane for departure anyway.)

    I tell him to climb and maintain 2200. He responds "You...you want me to climb?" in this really snide, sarcastic How dare you? voice. I explain that Pensacola's departing runway 26 and we have departures coming off, opposite direction, climbing to 1700. He begrudgingly climbs to 2200.

    A minute goes by. And then... Bob snidely requests to land Runway 17 instead. The tone in his voice is arrogant, as if he's saying "I'll teach you to climb me!". The copped attitude made me laugh.

    Well, I'm of the "kill 'em with kindness" mindset, so I ApReq the 17 arrival with the tower. I then radioed the pilot and told him to enter right base for 17. The smugness in his readback was palpable. He continued with his "I'll show you" tone right up until he switched frequencies. It was so very ridiculous.

    I kept thinking: a person with that kind of obnoxious attitude should not be anywhere near a pilot's seat.

  2. That was slightly annoying. However, the first time I dealt with this character it was much more entertaining.

    We were landing Runway 17. Once again, Bob is inbound VFR from the west at 1700' landing Pensacola. However, Navy Sherman was on Runway 19, so their final cuts directly across this guy's flight path. They have an IFR T-34 in the pattern over there at 1700' who's on a right downwind, and even when they're twenty miles apart I can tell they're going to be a conflict for our friend Bob.

    This is what I see:

    As you can plainly see, that's a developing conflict. Converging courses, same altitude.

    Now, we have a bunch of aircraft inbound to Pensacola. However, Bob's lined up to be #1. He's VFR and his high speed and direct flightpath will put him smoothly into a right base for Runway 17. All I need to do is make sure he misses that T-34, so I'll just give him some vertical separation.

    Guess what I do? (Tell me if this sounds familiar) Yup! I tell Bob to climb to 2200'. Little did I know at the time that 500' could mean so much a person.

    What follows is a back and forth argument with the pilot. He starts off with the "You want me to climb?" bit. I say "affirmative". He says he's "just fine" at 1700'. I tell him about the T-34 traffic. He confidently states he'll just keep an eye out for the traffic and get a visual on him. I begrudgingly consent and just leave him at 1700'. The sky is clear and I figure Bob will get an eye on the glaring orange and white T-34.

    They continue to close the gap and I continue to keep an eye on them. At five miles I issue the traffic. Bob doesn't see him. At this point, it's obvious that they're going to get really close. The "green between" (a.k.a. lateral spacing) between the targets is not guaranteed.

    Three miles. Doesn't see him. At two miles, my instructor and I stop taking chances on this guy's eyeballs and tell him, "N123, traffic alert, 2 o'clock, two miles, 1700 feet, northbound, T-34. Turn left heading 360, vectors for traffic."

    Bob takes the turn, complaining the whole way. After a little bit, he finally gets the T-34 in sight.

    Now, of course, he just wants to keep going straight to Pensacola. Not so fast, my friend! Because of the turn and the resulting additional flying miles, he is no longer number one. We have to sequence our arrivals into the airport - both VFR and IFR - and now his slot's been blown. We had quite a few arrivals inbound that were already lined up behind him from the north and east, and now #2 has become #1. Bob goes from being number one to number five!

    So we tell him, "N123, fly heading 030, vectors for sequence." He snaps back, "But I can see the airport! I'm almost right on top of it!" That's unfortunate for Bob, but we needed to rebuild our sequence. "Unable direct to the airport, fly heading 020 for sequence. You are number five for the runway." Let's just say he wasn't thrilled with his number in the line, the stress in his voice coming through over the frequency. However, he quickly stopped fighting the inevitable and just took our vectors without further complaint. Bob landed eventually, just a little later than he had planned.

    The stupid irony to this is that if the guy had just climbed the freaking 500 feet as I had asked originally, he'd have been #1. He would have saved the gas and the time on the airplane. He'd have given us piece of mind on our end as far as the T-34 goes. He would also have saved us a whole lot of additional work in vectoring and rebuilding our plan around his resequencing. I mean, it just goes to show that one action in ATC can have a ton of repercussions.

    Are there other things that I could have done? Sure, I could have put on a vector right from the beginning to keep away from the traffic. That still would have put him in as #5. I was just trying to be efficient with him and took a bet on him being able to see the T-34 - as he said he would. That didn't work out, so we just rebuilt the plan around the new developments.
So, lesson learned here: don't let the airplanes control you. It's bad for you, and for them. I tried to comply with a pilot's request and it resulted in a lot of additional frustration on both sides of the radio. You need to have the pilots do what's best for the operation's safety and efficiency, even if they don't like it.

In Memory of Trooper

Earlier today my parents gave me some depressing news: they had to put our family dog to sleep.

I know everyone thinks their dog is the best dog in the whole world. Well, Trooper was the best. Incredibly intelligent. Loyal to the nines. Good-hearted, without a mean bone in his furry 22lb. body. He had a wonderful personality that was equal parts joyful and stubborn. When you wanted to play, he could be a real wise guy. And when you were in the dumps, his companionship was unconditional.

He'd been with us for 17 years, since I was 13 and my sister was 9. She and I were just talking today; we can't really remember a time before we had him. He'd been a part our family's life forever.

Lately, he'd been going downhill. He'd lost his eyesight to cataracts, his hearing was gone, he had a bad case of arthritis, and was developing a myriad of other health problems. Inside, he was still the same dog we grew up with, but his body was letting him down. For the past year or so he'd been a roller coaster, with some good months and bad months. But last night, he couldn't stand. He was nearly comatose, his heart pounding, not reacting to anything. My parents made the difficult decision to not let him suffer any longer.

He lived a good life and it was his time, but I wish I'd been able to see him once more. I hadn't seen him since Christmas. My parents had offered to bring him up with them when they came to visit a couple months ago, but I didn't think a 24 hours of driving to and from a strange new place would have been good for him. If I'd only known... :(

Below are some photos from better days.

Trooper in his younger years.

Now the elder gentleman, enjoying the breeze in the yard.

Looking pitiful after a bath

"Oooh! Steak-cake!"
For his 14th birthday, my wife cooked him his very own steak.

I swear, it's like losing a little brother, a companion, a friend. People say that dogs know how their owners are feeling, and that was definitely the case with Trooper. He may not have understood literally what you were saying, but he could sense when you weren't doing well . Even if everything in your world seemed to be going wrong, he'd just sit down next to you quietly and look up at you as if to say "Hey, you look like you could use a friend right now." And you couldn't help but feel a little better.

I miss him. :(

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Getting Creative

I've been flexing the creative muscles lately. Ever since I got back from Dragon*Con, I've found myself inspired. I guess being surrounded by all the films, animations, music, and crazily creative people just lit off a spark in me.

I'm currently working on an animated short film that revolves around aviation. It will be completely in 3D, but rendered in a cel shaded look. If you look at the background art in Futurama or Ghost in the Shell, that's the style I'm going for.

I've done a lot of 3D modeling over the years, but it's mostly been for custom game vehicles, game maps, and web videos. Game art is a completely different animal from film, since game models are generally low resolution in order to lighten processing loads. For the film, I'm shooting both for High Definition 1080p output and for the cel shaded look. I've never done anything on this scale before, so I want to make sure I do it right. The past few days have seen a lot of self-study and a ton of tutorials to ramp up my skills. Thank goodness for the Internet and helpful people on web forums.

The film is largely set on an airport. Here are some of the sets that I've been designing.

Fixed Base Operator Office

AvGas 100LL Fuel Tank

I hope the end result comes out well. It's one thing to think of an image or shot, and quite another to execute it. I hope I'm up to this...

Based on the script, the film should be about five minutes long. With regards to completion time frame, I'm adopting the Valve Software "When it's done" mantra. This is a labor of love and I'm not going to rush it, especially since I'm doing it all on my own. Not only does that include the animation, but I'll also be writing the music for it, recording the sound effects, creating special visual effects, motion graphics, etc.

It's a pretty big project. Wish me luck!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Radar in Pictures

When you're trying to explain to someone what a radar controller does, it can get a little confusing. I mean, everything on a radar scope is essentially abstract.

You're not looking at airplanes, you're looking at targets. No wings, no engines, no noise - just little "/" parading around the scope. Tagging along with these targets are these blinking, changing data blocks comprised of strange numbers and letters. These targets and data blocks are moving all over the place, many of them on collision courses. You may know they're all separated vertically by altitudes, but to the outsider they're depicted on a flat two-dimensional screen.

And what about the rules? Lateral separation. Vertical. Longitudinal. 5 miles at 40 miles from the antenna. RVSM. Divergence. Quite a lot to digest.

I mean, seeing one data block with a 220 in a field passing directly over one with a 210 in the same field just seems so boring. I know it put my wife and sister to sleep when they visited my facility a few months back. But as a controller or trainee, you know that's two airplanes full of people that just crossed each other by less than a 1/5th of a mile at a closing speed of 900 knots.

So, here's a few photographic "visual aids" to help out the imagination.

Note: The "contrail" images were shot with extremely long lenses - 600mm to 800mm - which makes the aircraft appear much closer than they really are. I can't recall the technical term for it, but the longer the lens, the more compressed the perspective. In other words, they look close, but they're not that close!

Crossing paths at altitude. Vertical separation.
Source: Steve Morris

Parallel approaches into SFO. Visual separation.
Source: Peter Kesternich

Similar photo, but from the outside.
Source: Boyspot

Vertical separation, parallel courses.
Source: Steve Morris

Beautiful shot, with increased vertical separation.
Source: Alex Fabeck

At least 5 miles lateral separation. Opposite direction. Nearly same altitude.
Source: Krzysztof Malek

That 1000 feet of vertical looks awful close.
Source: Ander Aguirre

So, there you go. Radar controlling in photos.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Lay of the Land

N123: "Pensacola approach, N123"
Me: "N123, Pensacola approach, remain clear of class Charlie airspace. Say intentions."
N123: "Yeah, Pensacola, we're a Cessna 182 at 2500 over Milton airport. We'd like to take some pictures up at Bear lake, head down the Blackwater river, cut across Garcon Point, and then head up I-10 to Pensacola Regional for a full stop."
Me: "N123, Squawk 0111 and standby."
N123: "Roger, 0111, N123"
I lean over to my instructor or the controller next to me.
Me: "Uh, where's Bear Lake, the Blackwater River, and Garcon Point?"

Stranger in a Strange Land

I hate not knowing the answer to a question, especially when the person asking the question is depending on me for something.

A great many of us new hires were placed in facilities far away from home. Whether that's by choice or not depends on when we came into the FAA and how we came into it. When I came in, I could only pick by state and we had no option to turn down our assignment without threat of being booted out of the hiring pool. The fact is that we're now working in unfamiliar territory while working with many pilots who are local to the area.

I feel for the pilots in a way. Before they took off, they just got off the line with FSS and talked to a briefer who may have been a thousand miles away from the area he needs briefed. Based on the reports I've been hearing, many of those briefings are unreliable at best because the briefer simply isn't familiar with the area he's talking about. Now they're in the air and have to explain in detail what they want and where they want to go because the controller's unfamiliar with the local geography.

We Don't See What You See

One thing to keep in mind is that our radar maps don't exactly have names all over them. Airports are just symbols, fixes are just squares, and obstacles are just little ^ markers. The Midway Antenna may be a little tower icon on a sectional chart with lighting and height information next to it, but to us it's just a little ^ on a map covered in ^'s. We have to have its name, location, and related MVA memorized.

If you're a pilot and you've got a sectional chart in your lap, you've already got a ton more information that we do. Even the "Emergency" maps we can bring up on our scopes to show roads, rivers, etc. don't have any names listed on them. Without prior study, it all just looks like a bunch of unlabeled squiggly lines.

To try an alleviate this, I have studied the sectional and training area charts for our airspace. Also, when I go driving, especially on road trips, I pay attention to my surroundings. I've even driven by some of the outlying Navy fields just to get a close look at them. Eventually, once we get some money put away, I'd also like to take a flight around the area just to get a pilot's view of things. I haven't seen this area from the air since April 2007, when I flew up here to do some house scouting with my family.

I find that the more familiarity you have with the geography and cities within your area, the better you can work with the pilot. When a plane calls in over a certain landmark, it's great to know exactly what they're talking about. However, it can come in especially handy in situations involving lost pilots or emergencies.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Dragon*Con Experience

I went to Dragon*Con in Atlanta over Labor Day weekend. For those unfamiliar with the event, it's a science fiction/fantasy convention that takes place every Labor Day weekend. Over the course of five days, tens of thousands of people from all walks of life descend on the four hotels that host the event. It's a lot of insanity, but a lot of fun.

I've always been into science fiction, both films and books. I grew up reading the Dune series, watching the Aliens and Predator movies, and generally being into things that revolve around space or science. Currently, I'm very much into Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and other naturalistic sci-fi. While, yeah, I have watched Star Trek and Star Wars, I'm not really a big fan of either series at this point. ST is just too vanilla, and Star Wars... well... have you seen the Prequel Trilogy? Ugh.

Before I go on, I'd like to clarify a few misconceptions:
  • Misconception One: A convention like this is just a bunch of geeks running around in weird costumes yelling "Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!".
    The truth: That is really, really not the case. Yes... yes there is a bit of that going on, but it is a miniscule (and, um, frightening) part of the event. However, there really is something for everyone at this event. Sure, you can meet actors from your favorite sci-fi or fantasy shows, but that's a mere fraction of the activities.
  • Misconception Two: Everyone at these cons is a sweaty, fat, white guy with no life who spends his life playing WoW and D&D and wishes he could get a girl to talk to him based on the roll of a 20 sided die.
    The truth: While there are definitely some that fit the above description, we saw young and old, male and female at the con. Punks, goths, steampunk, and just about everything else was represented. Little old ladies in fairy costumes. African American Link from Legend of Zelda. Lots of fun, cool people enjoying themselves with people who share similar interests.

    As far as physical fitness goes: From a male perspective, there were a huge amount of unbelievably beautiful women walking around the con, both in and out of costume, and most did not look like they'd been dragged there by their boyfriend. From my wife and my sister's perspective, there was the platoon of Spartans straight out of 300, complete with abs and codpieces. The stereotypes did not hold up at all.
How it Works

The convention schedule is split up into what are called "tracks" - basically event schedules built around single subjects. For instance, there's the Tolkien track for Lord of the Rings fans, a Star Wars track for Force monkeys, and a Star Trek track for wannabe Klingons. That's the kind of subject matter you'd expect to see at a sci-fi convention, and they do have plenty of it. And of course, there are the prerequisite folks who dress up as Gandalf, Darth Maul, or Red Shirt #1 (you know, the one who always dies).

What you don't hear about often are all of the excellent artistic, educational, scientific, and entertainment tracks that run alongside the sci-fi tracks. Examples of these include:
  • Independent film track
  • Music track
  • Writing track
  • Robotics track
  • Science track
  • Comedy track
  • Asian track
  • Gaming track
This con really gives you value for money.

Let's say... you're an aspiring writer and want to learn how you can improve and sell your craft. You want to take some classes and talk to different people about different aspects of your work.

Option 1: You can go to a site such as http://www.ncte.org/store/webseminars (one-hour seminars at $75.00 to $95.00 a pop) or http://www.latimes.com/extras/festivalofbooks/writing_seminars.html (two-hour seminars at $100 a pop). That's a lot of money.

Option 2: Or, you can go to Dragon*Con. For the price of a 5 day pass - $90 - you have access to every event in every track on every day.

Just in the Writer's track, over the course of the conference's four main days (Fri-Mon) you can do all of the following. Each event is at least an hour long, sometimes two or more.
  • Friday
  1. How to Write A Story in One Hour
  2. Making a Critique Group Work for YOU
  3. The Secret to Selling Your Fiction
  4. What Editors Want from You!
  5. Interpreting What Editors SAY.
  6. Fightin' and Writin'
  • Saturday
  1. Goal, Motivation, and Conflict
  2. Writing for the Young Adult Market
  3. What Every Writer Needs to Know
  4. Writing in Shared Worlds
  5. Writing Bestselling Fiction
  6. 101 Delectable Ways to Kill a Character
  • Sunday
  1. Should I Kiss Him or Kill Him?
  2. Looking Back at SF/Fantasy/Horror Through the Years
  3. And, Then What Happened?
  4. The Long and the Short of It
  5. Writing for Small Presses and Magazines
  6. Today's Filmmaker - Big Productions or Indie
  7. Screenwriting 101
  • Monday
  1. Characterization and Plotting
  2. Now, That's Funny
  3. Developing Exciting Secondary Characters
  4. Question and Answer Roundtable.
I mean, there's just no argument. $90 and you get four days' worth of access to all kinds of information, education, and people. Not only are these events awesome, many of these events are conducted by best-selling authors, including Harry Turtledove, Laurel K. Hamilton, Kevin J. Anderson, Rachel Caine, and more. You get to meet and discuss all of these subjects both with people who write for a living, and with those who are in the same situation as you. You gain a lot of useful information and experience that can help your own situation.

Making A Decision

There is a catch, and to illustrate I'll bring some ATC into this. When you've got two airplanes inbound to one runway, sooner or later you're going to have to make a decision: "THIS guy is number one. And THAT guy is number two." You have to choose, because it's generally a bad idea for planes to share the same physical space. :)

Dragon*Con, unfortunately, forces you to make some pretty crazy decisions. Given that there's about 45 tracks going on simultaneously, it's a given that several things you'll want to see overlap. If you've got a lot of interests, you're going to be disappointed. Unless, of course, you can borrow someone Cloning Ray and make 50 clones of yourself.

I myself could literally spend my entire time at the convention going to events in that one Writer's Track. But... I also like music. And animation. And Firefly. And science. And...crap... there's a writing event, animation event, and Firefly event scheduled at the same time. You end up having to buckle down and force yourself to choose one thing over another.

For example, the things my wife, sister, friends, and I went to included:
  • Firefly panel: Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk, Jewel Staite, and Morena Baccarin from Firefly answer questions about their work from the audience. When you have those four in the room together - especially Nathan the prankster - hilarity ensues.
  • Evil Geniuses for a Better Tomorrow: 6th Annual Recruiting Session, Membership Drive and Bake Sale (?!?!): Actual scientists in a number of different fields such as biology and chemistry discuss the most efficient ways to conquer and destroy the Earth. It's all done in good fun, but some of the stuff they talk about will scare the crap out of you. Two words: "Weaponized anthrax". Two more words: "Yummy brownies!" :)
  • Indepedent animators: Up-and-coming animators talk about their films and their techniques.
  • Battlestar Galactica panel: The main cast of BSG - Edward James Olmos, James Callis, Michael Hogan, Tahmoh Penikett, Aaron Douglas, and more - answer questions from audience. An awesome and funny group of people.
  • Disney vs. Pixar: A very "animated" discussion between an animation expert and the audience over why Disney animation continues to suck while Pixar just gets better and better. This actually got quite heated.
  • Crossed Swords: A sword fighting demonstration where a pair of talented fighters dissected movie sword fights and demonstrated how so many of them are inaccurate. They also tore into all the sword
  • Paul and Storm: A musical comedy duo with song subjects including Nun Wrestling, Pirates, and the inventor of the chicken nugget. Absolutely hilarious. They were joined on stage by Dana Snyder - a.k.a. the voice of Master Shake from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Sheer insanity.
  • Emerging Infectious Horrors: My friend the micro-biologist went to this one as well. Biologists talk about all of the new diseases and organisms that can kill you, maim you, or otherwise ruin your day. Pretty scary stuff.
  • Mean Streets: Urban Fantasy: My sister's big into urban fantasy, so she attended this panel where some of her favorite authors talked about how they create living, breathing worlds in their work.
  • Live Music: Interesting music abounded, all of it themed around sci-fi, gothic, and fantasy themes. My favorites were Abney Park (steampunk) and the Rum Runners (pirate music).
  • Short Films: I sat through a couple of the short film segments they were presenting. Some excellent work out there by independent filmmakers. Each one or two hour segment contained films in a certain genre - action, superhero, horror, etc.
  • Star Wars Panel: We went in here literally to kill some time while we were waiting for the Firefly event. Guests included David Prowse (Darth Vader), Peter Mayhew (Chewie), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett in the original movies), Daniel Logan (Boba Fett in the prequel trilogy), Jake Lloyd (Young Anakin in Phantom Menace), and a sound designer. The room was like 1/5 full. It was kind of sad actually. While I don't have the interest I once did in Star Wars, in the end I found them all pretty charming.
It's a lot of fun. You just need to keep an open mind due to the nature of the event - you will see all kinds of crazy, "out there" people in all sorts of costumes playing the part of their character. It's just awesome to stand in a public area and people watch. You never know who's going to walk by, whether Link, Master Chief, Hellboy, or the Predator.

My next post's going to be photos from the events. You'll see what I'm talking about.