Tuesday, November 11, 2008

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.


Annie said...

I see you've completed NaNoWriMo already. CONGRATULATIONS!

This is my third year of participation, and I am so far behind that I'm not sure if I'll even get a first chapter done. *g*

Wicked Penguin said...

Yeap - NaNo is done for me, although the book is definitely not. I estimate it'll be around 80,000 to 90,000 words once it's all drafted out. However, the research is killin' me as I try to make things historically accurate. Here's my NaNo profile.

Good luck with your novel! Do you have a title for it yet? If you feel you're getting stuck, you should try Write or Die. It's an online program that prods you into writing a certain number of words in a limited number of minutes. My sister tried it a couple days ago and cranked out 1000 words in the space of 20 minutes. Very effective!

Dale Kettring said...

The Flying Penguin said:

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.


From the description of the PEM (Position Entry Module), I would guess that you are working on an ARTS-IIe. If that is correct, then the display were probably installed in the 1975 to 1983 time frame. However, the ARTS-IIe and it's displays have been upgraded to more modern electronics several times through the years. Still they are old technology and need to be either replaced or tech refreshed.

I'm glad you are getting a new radar facility, but I wonder where it is that you are located, and where (how) you are getting a STARS? Especially since no STARS have been manufactured for at least 5 years, and Congress pulled any additional funding for STARS.

Wicked Penguin said...

We are using ARTS IIe.

Regarding the STARS equipment, what I was told a while ago was that the equipment itself - the CRT monitors, the keyboards, and other components - were manufactured ages ago for another, canceled FAA project. When the time came to create STARS, they realized they had all this gear sitting around in warehouses and essentially dusted them off for STARS. That's what I was told by a NATCA rep at another facility that does have STARS.

In any case, we are indeed getting STARS. We've all been discussing and voting on different options for the radar room, such as carpeting, desk ergonomics, keyboard placement, and the design of our touchscreen displays. It's like playing The Sims with a radar room.

Anonymous said...

Gee, a couple of years ago, Fort Wayne was scheduled to get STARS for their new tower. The FAA then claimed that there were no STARS available, and gave us a crap ARTS-IIe that had not even been refurbished. After months of fighting, we at least got the ARTS equipment refurbished. Our Congressman, Mark Souder, even went to the Program Office and was told that there was no STARS equipment for Fort Wayne.

Now, it seems that the story has changed.

Well, I'm happy for you at Pensacola. Good luck with your new digs. Hope you get everything that you are working for.

Dale Kettring said...

Sorry, I was the one that posted that last comment.

Wicked Penguin said...

Wow. I'm kindly going to step back from that one, as I don't have more information to add to it. Sounds like there's a lot of bitterness over there. The person who told me about STARS had already been using STARS at their facility for ages, so maybe - at the time they were installed - there was still quite a bit of gear sitting around. I'm simply not in a position to know more about it.

I will say that initially they were going to do the same thing here what they did to Fort Wayne: put us in a brand new building, but fill it with the old ARTS IIe gear. A couple of people here fought very hard for a very long time to get that turned around and get us funding for STARS.

Dale Kettring said...

I intended no criticism towards you or Pensacola. Sorry if it seemed that way. I was commenting more on the irony than anything.

We complained about the situation, also, even to the point of having our Congressman very involved (see above post). Point is now, that the FAA lied to the Congressman. I knew there were STARS assets around because I was very involved in the STARS development and deployment. Still, there was no budging from the FAA.

That's okay. I'm retired now and don't have to suffer those fools any longer.

By the way, I emailed Congressman Souder about the situation and asked that he check out your blog. Specifically these comments.

Thanks for the information. If there is ever anything I can do for you, please contact me at d.kettring@mchsi.com.

Anonymous said...

Speculation! - PNS is getting STARS because of some crashs that their system took in ~2002. Analysis of the crashes showed that one area of the airspace had an overload of traffic and the internal timing of the program could not handle it. (I worked on it.) Some work around was devised after I left that program. I'm back now working ADS-B for the ARTS III-E. RADS will probably be around as long as ARTS IIE is due to how they are integrated in the system.

Dale Kettring said...

"RADS will probably be around as long as ARTS IIE is due to how they are integrated in the system."

ACD's work with ARTS-IIE as well as the ARTS-III. Lockheed has one in Minneapolis. The FAA refuses to upgrade the IIE to the ACD's though.