Friday, October 10, 2008

N00b Moment of the Week

I'm going to make a bet that most people reading this have had at least one "fall on my ass in public" moment in their lives.

You know what I'm talking about: you're striding along with purpose, feeling good about yourself, not a care in the world. You're humming your favorite song. You're not even paying attention to where you're going. Life's awesome. And maybe - just maybe - you might be too.

Unfortunately, you're just too cool to notice the wet tile floor ahead. And then... whoa!!! Your feet slip out from under you... oh shit oh shit... try to keep the balance... oh shit oh shit... not happening... WHAM!!!

You're flat on your back, looking up at blue sky, and everyone around you is having a good laugh at your expense. As Bugs Bunny would say: "What a maroon!" Somewhere, a trombone makes a sad "mwa-wa-wa-waaaa" sound.

All you can do is pick yourself up and keep shuffling along while trying to reassemble the shattered fragments of you self-respect. That spring in your step is gone - replaced by a pronounced limp - and now your eyes are wide open and looking ahead. Because, well, you'll be damned if you'll let that ridiculousness happen again.

Yeap, that's pretty much how I felt today.

I had a pair of helicopters that wanted to do a VOR approach into Pensacola Regional. Not a big issue at all. One wanted holding prior to the approach, one wanting vectors straight-in. I issued the hold at 4000 to the first one, and vectors for the other one at 3000. Everything was working out perfectly. They were two out of the grand total of three aircraft I was working, so I was just idly watching them come in. La-de-da...

And then I remembered: Pensacola Sherman Naval Air Station to the south of us had switched runways a few minutes earlier. Because of this new configuration, that sector's controller took a good chunk of my airspace up to 4500'. So, those helicopters I was working? I was actually about to bust that sector's airspace with them. On top of that, when I tried to hand them off, the other controller wouldn't take the handoff and said he was unable to do the VOR approaches.

So, my perfect plan went out the window, I had to scramble, tell both pilots "Unable VOR approach. Say request.", rewrite strips with new requests, get them on vectors for those same requests, and completely rework everything. I had all of three freaking airplanes on my frequency and got smacked around by two of them due to my lack of situational awareness. In my defense, it's a configuration that's rarely used, but still... I should have known better.

My instructor and the other controller got a good laugh at my expense. My instructor realized I'd forgotten about the airspace change and had already pointed out the helos in advance to the other sector. But... he wanted me to learn my lesson.

And boy did I ever.

Time to put on the hat:

Knowing Your Equipment

This is a perfect example of what happens when you're not familiar with your "tools".

The goal of ATC training is not necessarily to teach you the name of every single fix on every single GPS approach in your airspace. Rather, it's to teach you how to use a set number of tools properly and creatively.

It's like carpentry: if you know how to use hammers, nails, drills, and saws, you can apply those tools to different projects. You can build a house. Or a dresser. Or a bench. All are different difficulty levels, but they all rely on the same knowledge of your material and tools. And you have to know them all well; you can't be a carpenter without knowing how to use a saw. Or a hammer.

In ATC, the tools include things like airspace awareness, phraseology, vectors, and procedures. That way, when you're presented with situations of varying complexity, you can figure out a way through them using those tools. Whether it's two planes or twenty, you're always using that knowledge to sort through the problems.

And just like with carpentry, weakness in one area severely impacts the results elsewhere. When it came to those two helicopters today, my vectors, phraseology, and procedures were spot-on. However, none of that mattered since, well, I was using them in somebody else's airspace without prior consent. So, my "airspace awareness" tool is in need of some serious sharpening on that runway configuration.

Final Word

I'd also like to point out (pun intended) the ramifications of the incident. Had my instructor not pointed out those aircraft to the other sector earlier, that would have been an Operational Deviation. I would be violating the other controller's airspace - with two IFR aircraft no less - without their prior consent. Intentional or not, that's some bad juju right there.

In other words: a deal.

That should give you an idea of how one little mistake or oversight can balloon into something much more problematic if not caught early enough.


DisgruntledFlyer said...

No worries, a tower trainee nearly put the only two planes within 5 miles of the airport on the same runway at the same time. Approved one for back taxi while the other was on short final and cleared to land.

You coulda done worse... and got away with it.

Wicked Penguin said...

LOL. Wow.

Just goes to show: if you've got two airplanes in 50,000 cubic miles of airspace, they'll invariably find a way to get together. They're like magnets to cheap metal.

As a tragic example, just look at the Uberlingen mid-air collision in 2002, where the DHL 757 tore into the TU-152 full of school kids at FL360 over Germany. Obviously there were contributing circumstances: downed land lines, conflict alert out of service, one controller working two scopes, controller distracted by another aircraft with a problem, instructions from the controller conflicting with the TCAS resolution advisory on the Tupolev etc.

However, the fact is they were just about the only two airplanes in the controller's airspace, flying different routes, and on perpendicular paths. Yet they got together. Tragic luck on the part of the families and on behalf of the controller, who lost was killed by the father of two of those dead children.

Anonymous said...

You'd think with your fancy ARTS type radar display there'd be a spot to display this "AIRSPACE IN USE" info. Be something to read when a person's not busy - perhaps even a memory refresher. A little post-it note on the main bang would also work.