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....
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.
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.
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.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- When an airport is activating a departing aircraft, we have them call us with just the basic information:
- Call sign
- Departing Airport
- Requested Altitude
- First Fix outside of our airspace (for our routing purposes)
- Beacon Code
- 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."
- Our Flight Data person hand-writes strips for each departure or arrival by hand, and then deposits then next to each radar position.
- 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)
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.