Friday, November 28, 2008

Runway Close-calls

I found some pretty neat videos on YouTube that I hadn't seen before.

Rule #1 of ATC: Thou shalt not have two airplanes occupy the same space at the same time.

Here's a Mooney pilot who is apparently very disoriented and isn't communicating with ATC. He's completely oblivious to the danger he's causing.

Now we go down to lovely St. Maarten, Netherlands Antilles for some Boeing 747 action.

That rule doesn't apply to cars, though:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Turkey Day

I hope everyone has a terrific Thanksgiving Day. I'm thankful for many things: my family, my friends, the wonderful house we're in right now. I'm also thankful that I have a steady job, unlike many other families who are going into the holidays on shaky financial ground.

They let all of the trainees stay home today. This'll probably be the last Thanksgiving without a work schedule for a long time, so I'm going to enjoy it.

This will also be the first Thanksgiving my wife and I celebrate in our own home, and we're thrilled. She's making a wonderful homemade meal from scratch. The turkey's been in the brine since last night and will going into the oven shortly. Once that comes out of the oven, we're serving it with some roasted potatoes, blue cheese sauce, stuffing, and crumb-topped tomatoes. If we make it that far, we'll finish the meal off with the excellent birthday cake she made me yesterday. I'm so looking forward to it. And yes, I will be the sous-chef!

For some light-hearted ATC humor, here's a little clip from JFK tower. Just goes to show you never know what situation you'll come across. Gotta love that New Yawk accent they've got going on up there.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

New Camera

My family gave me a (much needed) new camera for my birthday, and I've been putting it to good use as of late. 9 megapixels plus 10x optical, image-stabilized zoom works great for airplane pics.

North American T-39 Sabreliner
The ubiquitous Navy jet trainer. Oldie but goldie. This one looks especially squeaky clean.

Gulfsteam International Beech 1900 getting prepped with PNS tower in the background. Our new TRACON building's going to be just to the right of the tower

Delta in the Evening
Delta MD-88 taxiing out. This and the AirTran Boeing 717's are the most common airliner we get here. Most of the other passenger carriers are technically air taxis: CRJ200s, ERJ-135/145s, Beech 1900s.

Bonus Plane
It took me a while to figure out just what the heck this thing was. I'm pretty good as far as aircraft recognition goes, and it stumped me.

If anybody here can figure out what it is, you get a cookie. Yes,I blurred out the N# - no cheating! From afar it looks like the bastard love child of a Cessna Skymaster and a P-61 Black Widow.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Into the Black

My family and I had a long weekend together in Orlando, FL. We came in from all over the place; my parents drove up from Miami, my sister flew in from the Baltimore area, and my wife and I drove down from Pensacola. We made the most out of it, celebrating my parents' anniversary, my mother's birthday, Thanksgiving, and my birthday since they all fall within three weeks of each other.

On Saturday, we took a drive over to Kennedy Space Center. Space Shuttle Endeavour had launched the night before, so there were no shuttles on the pad. My dad managed to snag a night shot of the launch from afar during their drive up and my sister saw it while she was waiting for us at KMCO. I was about the same distance as they were, inbound from the north, but I was under a solid overcast layer. I'm glad at least some of us got to see it.

I hadn't been to KSC since I was a very small child. As I've mentioned before on this blog, I've always been fascinated with space flight. I try to keep up with the newest developments in space technology, space travel, and launches via the internet, but actually being around the "real deal" was very interesting for me. KSC is simply a fascinating place.

My dad put it best: what other country has a fully operational space launch facility that is also a tourist attraction? I can't imagine just walking into Russia's Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome, the European Space Agency's facility in French Guiana, or any of China's multiple launch centers. Not to say that you can just wander anywhere inside KSC, but in any other country you'd need special permission just to be on the premises. I think it's great to be able to see the actual hardware up close and personal, and gives you a feel for how far we've come and where we (and our tax dollars!) are going.

Without further ado, here's the photo tour:

My dad's photo of Endeavour's night launch.

The Vehicle Assembly Building. To get an idea of the scale, the blue area of the American flag is the size of a regulation basketball court.

The Saturn V moon rocket. Words cannot describe just how immense this machine is.

Volkswagen? BMW? Mercedes? Nope - this is the pinnacle of German engineering, via Werner Von Braun.

Lunar Excursion Module

Third stage of the Saturn V.

Too... big.... Can't... fit... in... picture....

A recreation of the Apollo 8 Saturn V launch, featuring the original equipment used for the real launch.

One of the launching pads, originally used for the Apollo rockets and currently used for the shuttle. They were still in the process of cleaning it after the launch the night before.

The world's largest clean room, where they assemble and test the components of the International Space Station.

A mock up of the ISS' cozy little "space john".

Crawler-transporter with the VAB in the background, shrouded by rain.

The rain cometh!

Detail of one of the crawler-transporters.

The venerable Rocket Garden.

Mercury/Atlas, Mercury Redstone, and Atlas-Agena

The very impressive astronaut memorial. This photo shows the crews of Challenger, Columbia, and Apollo I.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day

Reader Mail

Here's a little something different for today. I get a lot of e-mails and questions each week relating to the job and the environment. It's good to know people are out there and interested in the content I post, and I do my best to answer each e-mail as promptly as I can.

Below are some of the more common questions I've had over the past few months. If there are anymore questions out there, please feel free to fire away.

  • What is your schedule like? Do you get any weekends off? Does the facility stay open at night or on weekends?

    ATC is generally a 24/7 job and you should be prepared to have a very whacked-out schedule. The schedule completely depends on your facility, your traffic and your instructor. When you're in training, you will likely be matched with your primary instructor's schedule. So... if he has Tues-Wed off and works 12pm-8pm Thurs-Mon, that'll be your schedule too.

    My own schedule is generally Mon 2:45pm / Tues 1:45pm / Wed 10:00am / Thurs 8:00am / Fri 7:00am. I'm just lucky in that my instructor has Sat-Sun off, so I'm matched up with him.

    Sometimes, for special reasons, schedules can be adjusted for training purposes. Let's say you're close to getting checked out on a sector but haven't seen much nighttime traffic since you and your instructor always work the day shift. Arrangements can be made so that you're both put on a night schedule for a week or two so you can get the appropriate experience. All of that depends on staffing needs, of course.

    Some towers do close at night, but I haven't personally heard of any facility that has weekends off (though there may be some). TRACONs tend to be 24/7 facilities and En Route Centers are all 24/7.

  • Looks like you went to a CTI school. Were there many "off the street" folks with you at OKC? Were they at a disadvantage?

    None of the people in my OKC classes were OTS. All of the ones in my tower class were CTI and the ones in my radar class were a mix of ex-military and CTI.

    There's no real disadvantages to either side. From what I've heard, however, it all depends on a person. Someone may have a CTI degree, but it could be from a crappy school that had no simulators and only a basic curriculum. On the other hand, you may have an OTS hire who's a professional pilot and worked in airport management. Or... you may a CTI student that went to top-notch school like University of North Dakota going up against a guy who maybe drove an airport snowplow and couldn't tell a VOR from an NDB.

    However, don't get too hung up on background. If you're reasonably smart, study hard, work hard, and fully recognize that this job will likely be the hardest (and occasionally scariest) thing you've ever done, you're well on your way. This job will humble you. When you walk in the facility door, nobody gives a hoot whether or not you were CTI, OTS, or military. They just care if you can do the job or not, and that does not come down to the presence or lack of a piece of paper from a school.

  • The FAA said I should be scheduled for the AT-SAT in XXX. How would you recommend preparing? ASA has a book with CD ROM I was going to order.

    I haven't looked at the ASA book too much, but from what other people have said it's not really needed. When I took the ATSAT, there were no study materials in existence and I didn't know anyone who had taken the test. It was all this big mystery and the only thing I had was a pamphlet from the FAA with a screenshot and very brief description of each test. I ended up studying on my own, finding different ways to get my mind in gear.

    Of the different things I tried, the following seemed to work best:
    • Study word problems, mainly "distance = rate x time" type problems. if you're a pilot, you should be familiar with that calculation.
    • Do sudoku puzzles. This builds your scanning capabilities, which is nice for the gauges and air traffic portions of the test.
    • Play tetris. The letter factory is basically a ramped-up tetris game using letters and colors.
    • Do online IQ tests. That's essentially what the ATSAT is.
    • ATCSimulator2. If you're going to invest some money in something, put it towards that. It's a great and reasonably accurate TRACON simulator.

    Doing all that, I scored a 94.2. When I took it again over a year later in OKC for their testing purposes - without having studied for it - I got a 93 or so. So, yes, I studied like crazy, and only boosted my score by 1.2 percent. LOL. However, the studying did make me feel more confident and prepared.

  • Is a pilot's license an advantage? I'm hoping that having an aviation background will help a bit.

    Absolutely, on both personal and hiring levels, since it shows A) you've already got working knowledge of the system and B) have the wherewithal and commitment to complete something that is highly technical and challenging. You'll also have less mic fright, less trouble understanding a lot of the technical matters (you can tell the difference between an ILS and a VOR :P ), a general grasp of how things should operate, and more confidence in yourself. The more knowledge you have, the better off you are.

  • How do you like working there?

    Overall I like it, but it has its good days and bad days. I like the people and facility here, but the airspace is quite a handful. We have three Class C airports within 20 miles of one another, each with completely different procedures/aircraft and all built around the Navy's operation. Our entire airspace is actually one huge Alert Area (A-252) blocked in by MOAs above it, a warning area to the south, as well as a ton of restricted areas to the east belonging Eglin AFB. We are also sandwiched between Jacksonville Center, Houston Center, Mobile Approach, and Eglin Approach. This results in a lot of manual coordination and a lot of, errr, "funky" procedures.

    As far as the traffic, it's all Navy, all the time. Well...about 90% actually and 99% of that is training-related.

    • Whiting NAS is the single busiest NAS in the world. Split between North Whiting (NSE) and South Whiting (NDZ), they have hundreds of T-34Cs and TH-57s which they use for initial pilot training, so you need to be prepared for anything when working with student pilots.
    • Sherman Pensacola NAS (NPA) has the more advanced aircraft, a mix of T-6 Texan IIs, T-1 Jayhawks, Sabreliners, and T-45 Goshawks that are used for navigation training and jet training. The Blue Angels are also based there and have their own procedures. They also get a lot of itinerant military traffic; it's not unusual to see F-15s, F-18s, C-130s, A-10s, and P-3 Orions playing around down there.
    • Sandwiched in the middle you have Pensacola Regional (PNS) with about 30-40 airliner operations throughout the day and a bunch of GA. The Navy comes here to do practice approaches as well, so they're definitely in the mix. You'll commonly have sequences to final that consist of an MD-88, an Embraer 145, a Cessna Citation, a Baron, a C-172, a T-34, and a couple Navy helicopters, all requesting different runways. You just make it work.

    Many of the controllers here, including those with 20+ years of experience at busier ARTCCs and TRACONs, agree that this is some of the most complicated airspace they've seen. The general consensus is that there are better places to start out learning the ropes due to the "strangeness" of the place. I'm not talking about the difficulty level per se, but more about the procedures. Since we're built around the Navy, we use a ton of site-specific procedures here that appear nowhere else in the country. Basically, you kind of do things "the Navy way" as opposed to "the FAA way" that's used throughout the rest of the FAA world.

    The irony of all this is that when I joined the FAA, I didn't want the following: (A) a TRACON, (B) an airport with lots of training, (C) an airport with a lot of military, and (D) an airport with heavy helicopter traffic. What do I get? A TRACON whose airspace contains the Navy's largest fixed-wing and helicopter training operation. Karma's obviously got a sense of humor. :)

    So, to answer the question again, I do like it. It's a very challenging but cool job in a unique area. I will say that it wasn't my first choice, but it's grown on me. The area itself is nice to live in, with low housing prices and great weather. If you've got a boat, it's even better. The only drawback is that flying out of here is expensive, since we're not exactly a big hub; if you've got family out-of-state it'll cost some $$$ to fly in and out of here. On the other hand, I-10 runs right through here and I-65 runs near here, so it's great for road trips to New Orleans or Atlanta.

  • How old is that equipment you're running?

    Our current building is 45 years old, looks 45 years old, and and we use the old monochrome round "green between" ARTS scopes. I'm not sure exactly how old the ARTS scopes are, but I'm pretty certain they're older than I am. We don't have even trackballs or mice to "slew and enter" on a target; we use a PEM, basically a larger, uglier version of one those "pointing sticks" you see on certain laptops. You do get used to it.

    On the positive side, our swanky new building is on schedule to be completed in October 2009 and will have the STARS radar system, touch screens, and other newfangled widgets. We're all looking forward to that.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Pulling Teeth

Imagine this radio conversation:
N123: "Pensacola Approach, N123."
Me: "N123, Pensacola Approach, remain clear of Class Charlie. Say position and request."

N123: "Pensacola Approach, N123, roger, remaining clear of Class Charlie."

Me: "N123, Pensacola, say position and request."
N123: "Pensacola, N123 is two-five miles northwest of the airport."

Me: "N123, Pensacola, two-five miles northwest of
which airport?"
(Remember: we have three Class C airports plus a slew of uncontrolled fields. He probably means Pensacola Regional, but it could really be any airport.)
N123: "Pensacola, N123, we're two-five miles northwest of Pensacola Regional."

(Okay, now I know that he's in my sector. I key him in and get a squawk.)

Me: "N123, squawk 0105 and ident. Say intentions."

N123: "Squawk 0105 with a flash, N123."

Me: "N123,
say intentions."
N123: "Uh... Pensacola, N123 would like some touch and goes at Pensacola."

Me: "N123, roger, verify ATIS information Zulu."

N123: "Pensacola, N123 is negative ATIS."
(I read the ATIS off our TIS screen above the scope.)
Me: "N123, Pensacola ATIS Zulu current. Wind 040, altimeter 3014, runway 17 in use."

N123: "Altimeter 3014, runway 17, roger, N123."

Me: "N123, radar contact two-five miles northwest of Pensacola Regional. Proceed direct to the airport, enter right base runway 17."

Annoying, isn't it? A ton of transmissions just to get to the meat of the issue. I have to drag every single thing out of the pilot, bit by bit. When I'm talking to fifteen other airplanes, that's a whole lot of time taken up. It can get very distracting, especially when you're working a final or another busy sector. It's just a lot of frequency congestion.

Let's try a different way:
N123: "Pensacola Approach, N123, with request."
Me: "N123, Pensacola Approach, remain clear of Class Charlie. Say position and request."

N123: "N123 is two-five miles northwest of Pensacola Regional at two thousand five hundred with information Zulu. Requesting touch and goes."

(I look and see a target 25 miles northwest of PNS at 2500 feet. I get his squawk code. He also said he has the ATIS code.)

Me: "N123, squawk 0104 and ident."

N123: "N123, squawking 0104 with the flash."

Me: "N123, radar contact two-five miles northwest of Pensacola Regional. Proceed direct to the airport, enter right base runway 17."

There! Much easier. The pilot was prepared and told me in an organized fashion what he wanted. I did not have to yank it out of him piece by piece and he had done his bit by getting the ATIS code already. Also, by giving me his position right away, it immediately took a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. The second he told 25NM at 2500, my eyes went there immediately and spotted him.

Below is a list of things we need from a pilot, in order of priority:
  1. Who are you? Speak your call sign clearly.
  2. Where are you? Say your position and altitude relative to a well-known fix, such as an airport, a major landmark, or an airway intersection. This lets us know if you're inside our sector, another sector, or another facility's airspace. If you're not inside our sector, we can at least give you the frequency for someone who can help you.

    Keep in mind that we don't have a VFR sectional in front of us. If you call us over the "railroad tracks" or the "trailer park", we have no clue where that is. Now, if you told us "7 miles southeast of Brewton airport", "Directly over the PENSI intersection", or "Over 3 mile bridge." that works wonders.
  3. What do you want? In short, controllers like to plan. In order to do so, they need information. Be clear yet brief about what you're requesting. It's likely that the controller will be passing your information around the radar room to other controllers, either verbally or via a flight progress strip.

    For instance, if you're doing a photography flight, don't just say "We want to fly around." That gives us nothing. Instead, say something like "We're on a photo mission, wanting to fly south to three mile bridge, then cut east to Navarre beach, then go north to join I-10 westbound, with a full stop at Pensacola Regional." Now we have a solid idea of what you need. If so inclined, the controller can even write "BRIDGE->VARRE BCH->I-10->PNS" on the strip. At the very least, he can verbally pass that info on to any controllers who will be working your flight. Obviously, if it's a long request like that, you might need to pick your moment if the controller seems very busy.

    Also, if you're unsure about anything you're requesting, say that up front. "We want to fly south to three mile bridge. After that, we might need to go west about five miles, and then turn around to the east to go to Navarre beach, north to I-10, and west to full stop at Pensacola Regional." At least you're telling the controller there's a question mark in there somewhere.

    As an example of the "planning" I mentioned, if was working the Pensacola East bank and got the above transmission, I'd know right away that I'd have to:
    1. Work you south over the bridge.
    2. Either hand you off or point you out to the Navy Sherman sector if you turned west.
    3. Work you again myself as you turned back to the east towards Navarre.
    4. Hand you off to the South Whiting sector as you went north to I-10.
    5. Work you again as you returned to Pensacola.
  4. What are you? Often times a pilot will call up with their type as their call sign, such as Stationair 123 or Decathlon 456. If you don't give it to us on your initial transmission, it's not a big deal. We'll get it from you eventually.
On the Flip Side

I've done the same thing to pilots and fully admit my guilt. I sometimes don't combine my transmissions as well as I should. It's something my trainer's been on me about and I have been trying to improve on it. Basically, it seems to come from "working out the problem" on the frequency. I find it happens to me when I'm unsure about the current traffic situation.
SH456: "Pensacola Departure, SH456, leaving 800 for 1700, executing climb-out instructions."
Me: "SH456, Pensacola Departure, radar contact, radar vectors TACAN 14 approach."
SH456: "Roger, SH456."
(Okay... if I turn him, is he going to be a factor for that Citation I cleared for the visual approach? No? Cool.)
Me: "Uh, SH456, Pensacola, turn left direct Trojan."
SH456: "Turning left direct Trojan, SH456."
(Alright, is that helicopter out of 4000 yet? He is? Here we go.)
Me: "And... SH456, maintain 3000."
SH456: "Maintain 3000, SH456."
(Shit. Did he have the ATIS code for North Whiting?)
Me: "Oh.... and, uh, SH456, verify ATIS information Victor at North Whiting."
SH456: "Affirm, SH456."
If I was the pilot, I'd be ready to smack someone. It really makes it seem as if the controller doesn't know what they're doing, like they can't process more than one instruction at a time. What's really happening is that I'm playing it too safe. I haven't processed all the information fast enough to be 100% sure SH456 is clean.

The far more efficient version starts with me making sure he's clean even before I really talk to him. Then it goes:
Me: "SH456, Pensacola Departure, radar contact, turn left direct Trojan, climb and maintain 3000, radar vectors TACAN 14 approach."
SH456: "Left direct Trojan, maintain 3000, vectors TACAN 14 approach, SH456."
Me: "SH456, verify you have ATIS information Victor for North Whiting."
SH456: "Affirm, SH456."
That sounds much more professional and in control. You know, like I actually know what I'm doing (Ha!). Just say as much as you can in as few transmissions as you can.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Moment of Truth

Update: November 5th, 2008
It is done. My mood right now is "cautious optimism". We'll see what is delivered. I hope the crazies who are expecting messianic miracles get back to reality.


For me, the choice was simple.

One candidate has been intelligent, proactive, and tried to unite the American people. He is a decent family man who came from nothing and, with dignity and confidence, fought the largest smear campaign the world has ever seen. He has shown good judgment, a willingness to listen, an open mind, and a strong interest in the well-being of all Americans, not just some Americans. He is not perfect, but he is straightforward and respects the people of this country.

The other has been petty, profoundly negative, and driven rifts between the many people of this country. History has shown him to be an ill-tempered elitist philanderer whose party's ideals have driven this country into the ground. He may have been a maverick at one point in his life, but he has dropped to pandering to the lowest elements of his party's base. He has shown no indication that his administration will differ much from the current administration in its ready-shoot-aim foreign policy, ignorant approach to hotbed issues such as abortion and gay marriage, the treatment of unions and federal workers, blind trust in corporate self-regulation, and the overall fracturing of our nation. I do not think he is "McSame"; however, I do feel is he is "McCloseEnough".

To be clear, this election is not about "change" for the sake of change. There is always some level of change whenever a new president takes over. It's about the future of our country and selecting the one candidate who will lead this country with intelligence, forethought, an even temper, and - most of all - respect for its own people. It's about selecting someone who can chart a course towards calmer waters and a brighter future. John McCain is not that person.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

50k Run

50,300 words in 29 days.

Due to some plans with family in November, I decided to do the NaNoWriMo novel writing challenge in October instead. I completed my outline on October 2nd and started writing later that day. I took about 5 days off from it in the middle of the month, then resumed the story. On October 30th, at around 5pm at the local Panera Bakery, I crossed the finish line.

Let me tell you, it feels freaking awesome to look at your word count and see the 50,000 mark crossed. The other customers at Panera all looked at me weirdly as I stood up and gave a "YESSS!" out loud. Then I calmly sat down and texted everyone who knew I was writing.

Here's the proof below. This image was taken on the 31st, so the "Project Modified" date shows that date. However, even if I had crossed the finish on the 31st it would still have been inside 30 days.

Just to give you an idea of how long a 50,000 word book is, here's a list of famous, comparable sized novels:
  • Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Brave New World
I've had some friends and coworkers ask if they can read it. It'll be some time before I can let even an excerpt out of the bag, as I've yet to complete the entire first draft. At the 50k word mark, I had maybe 2/3 of my chapters drafted. I also have some more research to do on the time period - 1914 Imperial Russia - that I need in order to make everything as authentic as possible. Everything from weapons to clothes to food to language to culture to politics has to be taken into account.

Anyways, back to my tale set in the land of vodka and balalaikas.