Today I sat down to work the North Whiting sector, and both times the Navy was jumping.
For normal Whiting course rules traffic, we use specialized traffic count sheets. They have a blank column in the middle where we write down the call sign (RN047, SP641, MX047), a column on the left with departure airports, and a column on the right for arrival airports. They're designed to keep us from having to fill out a flight progress strip for every single aircraft. The sheet looks like this:
So, let's say a T-34 calls us up: "Pensacola Approach, Red Knight 641 at Conecuh River Bridge, off of OLF Brewton, with information Victor." He said he took off from Brewton airport, so I check off "12J" - Brewton's identifier - in the left column. In the middle, I write "RN641" for the call sign. On the right column, I check off "NSE" for North Whiting, his destination. There, now we have accurate count. We do this only for T-34's who wants the course rules in or out of Whiting. For overflights, practice approaches, etc. we use regular strips.
Each sheet has space for ten aircraft. I filled up about seven or eight of them in each session. Keep in mind, those sheets are only for NSE course rules traffic. That's not counting IFR departures or arrivals, civilian overflights, T-34s inbound wanting practice approaches, or T-34s going cross country. It was much busier than it's been lately.
For the Pilots
I know some Navy pilots read this blog, and I'd just like to say: please be patient with us. We want to work with you and provide you service. However, we have a hierarchy of priority we need to deal with. We never ignore pilots, but sometimes we just need to take care of other things before we get to you.
To Blackbird 123: I've heard you call at Conecuh bridge. I see you out there squawking 1200 just northwest of the bridge and your Mode C showing 3500 feet. I really would like to get you squawked up and on your way home.
However, right now I'm dealing with:
- A flight of two Red Knights who just departed whose transponder's inoperative and they're just a primary target.
- My IFR T-34 on the TACAN final just had his LA-LA go off (Low Altitude alert) so now I need to call the tower on the shout line.
- I have another T-34 on a base leg for the TACAN that I need to clear right now or else he's going to blow through the final.
- A T-34 flown by a solo student just got lost and went to Point Initial instead of Point Charlie (i.e. he thinks he's landing runway 23 instead of 5).
- Base ops screwed the hell out of Shooter 789's flight plan and now I'm trying to get our own Flight Data position to fix it.
- I've got the Pensacola West sector in my ear asking for a point out on a helicopter who's going to clip my airspace.
- I have a civilian Cessna 172 west of Whiting - who's on the victor frequency so the Navy birds can't hear him and keep talking over him - asking for flight following to Pensacola Regional.
- I've got two overflights who just checked in, one who is about to fly right through the Whiting departure corridor at 3000 feet (i.e. most ungood).
- And lastly, the tower just called me with approach requests for VV2E840.
Note that several of those things on the list involve me talking on the land lines to tower or to another sector. I might be chatting up a storm on my end, but you in the cockpit just hear dead air and no one responding. Or you hear the controller talking to a bunch of other airplanes whose responses you can't hear. Maybe you start thinking you've got the wrong frequency keyed up. Or maybe you think your radio's not receiving properly. I understand how that can be a little unsettling and/or annoying. I'm a pilot too, and if I was calling approach a few times with no reply I'd be thinking "WTF, over?"
When it gets to the point where I know I won't be getting to the inbounds, I just need to key up and say something ridiculous like "All inbound T-34s, stand by." and keep taking care of my business. Once I've taken care of what I need to do, then I'll go back and start picking the targets out. "T-34 just south of the bridge, say call sign." Squawk them. "T-34 three miles of the Chicken Ranch (a VFR reporting fix), say call sign." Squawk them. "Flight of T-34s north of Jay, say call sign." Squawk them. Then, once I've taken care of all the obvious ones, "Are there any other aircraft standing by?" I say the last, because there might be some who I missed or who are wanting something I don't expect, such as a T-34 who's wanting a practice approach or a Maintenance T-34 at Point Initial.
A Different Kind of Operation
I know the readers out there working at Atlanta and Miami and Chicago think it can't possibly be that hard. I don't pretend to think that the traffic we work here in any way competes with the complexity of feeding a billion airliners an hour to parallel approaches. You guys pump the airplanes in and out like nobody's business. Whiting is relatively simple air traffic control compared to that.
I obviously have no real point of comparison to other facilities, since this is the first place I've worked. That said, we have controllers here who came from LAX and other busy places who claim this is one of the most complicated places they've been. That takes into account our Pensacola Regional and NAS Sherman banks of scopes as well, not just Whiting.
Our operation here does have its own specific brand of difficulty. The four biggest problems on the Whiting NAS sectors are:
- Frequency congestion: You typically have anywhere between six and thirteen frequencies keyed up at once if you're working Whiting combined up. A VHF/UHF for each of three sectors, a monitor frequency for the Lakes operating area, and up to six SFA frequencies used for the PAR or ASR approaches.
- Volume: Whiting has 150 T-34s and a huge number of H-57s. When they get going, it's like Hitchcock's The Birds.
- Learning Environment: Every aircraft we talk to is flown by a pilot in training. Most have an instructor on board to keep them from getting into too much trouble. There are times where the instructor will let them go too far and it makes things a little messy.
- Airspace: We've got some badly chopped up airspace built up around our three Class C airports, requiring a huge amount of point-outs and other coordination.
I've met several Whiting pilots and I think they're some of the coolest, most professional, and patriotic people I've ever met. Of course, as with any flight school, they're learning their craft. We're talking pilots in high performance aircraft that have maybe a few hundred hours of flight time, not thousands like the guys in the left seat of a Boeing or Airbus. It gives it a higher level of unpredictability. Most of the time they fly well, but I've seen things go awry enough times to be very wary. It's not a bad thing; it's just the nature of the beast.
To add to the fun, the other side of the scope is learning too. We're talking about trainee controllers like myself who have only a few hundred hours of total time on position. A Boeing 747 captain has a wealth of experience to pull from versus the flight student who just passed his commercial check ride. Likewise, we have some time to go before we approach the capabilities and resourcefulness of the veterans who train us every day. Myself and several of the guys I work with are certified to work all of Whiting - North and South - on our own, but we're not at the level of the older guys. It takes time to build that level of finesse and confidence. It may take us a little longer to formulate a plan or understand what you mean. But we'll make it work, and over time it will get better.
And that's why, I tell you, it felt good today. Moving 160+ planes was pretty nice. I like it when it gets busy. It makes you more efficient, more proactive, and more confident.