Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Christmas Story

I just got my my first short story publication, ever. :)

I've always enjoyed writing, but the NaNoWriMo novel writing contest really kicked me into gear. As I was working on the novel, I started looking around at other venues for shorter fiction. I found out about a new online magazine that was taking submissions, and decided to give it a shot.

The story itself is a Christmas-themed steampunk piece, and it's the first short fiction I've written in nearly 15 years. It's a style that I don't normally use - written from the perspective of a small child - so it was a challenge to tone down the vocabulary and still get across what needed saying. It was a lot of fun to create and provided a good learning environment for the edit/rewrite process.

Click the link below to give it a read:

"Darkness into Stars"

I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Habits to Break

I'm not sure exactly where I picked up these bad phraseology habits, but I'm trying really hard to break them.
  • Proper Grammar, Improper Places
    "N132MM, traffic at your two o'clock..."
    "USC395, contact Mobile Approach on 118.5."
    "RN645, radar vectors for the TACAN 14 approach, North Whiting."
    "EGF888, the airport will be at your 12 o'clock, one two miles. Report it in sight."

    Articles, possessive adjectives, and prepositions work beautifully when you're talking to people casually in person or on the phone. I can't imagine calling up my wife and telling her, "Sweetie, me, dinner, chicken." Or calling up a friend saying, "Dude, me, hang out." Yeah, that would garner me some odd replies.

    But on a radio frequency, they just clutter up precious space and sound unprofessional.

  • The Murder of Roger (Ackroyd)
    Deep down in my soul, I must believe that every pilot out there is named Roger. Why? Because I seem to call them that regardless of what they're doing, what they are, or what they want.

    There are only a few times when it's appropriate, usually when you really have nothing else to add. For example, lets say Citrus 453 checks in eight miles outside of my airspace with, "Pensacola Approach, Citrus 453 at 11,000 with Tango." He is outside of my airspace, so I can't descend or turn him. He also has the latest ATIS code, so he knows what runway and approach to expect. I literally can't do a thing with him. In that case, I can reply with, "Citrus 453, Pensacola Approach, roger."

    However, I have a habit of injecting a "roger" into "working" transmissions where it simply doesn't belong. And it makes me sound like the n00b that I am.

    "Citrus 453, Pensacola Approach, roger, descend and maintain 6000, radar vectors VOR runway 8 approach."
    "BB645, Pensacola Approach, roger, squawk 0123 and ident."
    "VV7E123, roger, I have your request."

    So, I'm trying to flush poor Roger from the majority of my working transmissions. He has no place there, so he needs to be offed.

    BTW, if you haven't read the Agatha Christie novel whose title I punned, it's a good one. Definitely one of her most controversial works. Do NOT read the Wikipedia article on it, for it spoils the ending.

  • Radar Contact... Again
    An aircraft has been cleared for a practice approach. He is handed off to the tower and switched to their frequency. Once the approach is completed, the tower hands him back to me and he is switched back to my frequency. He went through two radar handoffs and remained within radar coverage the entire time.

    So why, when he comes up on my frequency for his next approach, do I insist on saying, "VV7E123, Pensacola Departure, radar contact, fly heading 040, radar vectors ILS 17 approach."

    Radar contact was never lost. He was never unidentified. He didn't disappear mysteriously. So why the heck do I insist on re-identifying aircraft that are positively identified?
Self-critiquing is a good thing. People who get complacent eventually get sloppy and I personally think people should always strive to be better at what they do. Sometimes, that starts with the little things.

A lot of these phraseology hiccups occur when it's slow - and therefore, when I'm more complacent and relaxed. However, slow periods are the times I should be perfecting my phraseology. When the pedal hits the metal, I'll be doing everything I did during the slow times - just at higher speed and in higher quantity. Every second I waste with unnecessary words will steal time needed for other ATC functions. Using non-standard phraseology will also undoubtedly increase the occurrence of that wonderful, frustrating phrase: "Say again?"

Holiday Happenings

We're well into the holiday season here and I'm sure everyone's going nuts as the end of the year comes rushing towards us. There's a lot happening on my end, some of which I can't talk about at this time (no worries - all good things). However, I just want to let you guys know about a couple things that I've been working on lately.

First up, a $10 sign-up special for ATCHours.com, our OJT time tracking site. Just type "HOLIDAY" into the sign up form's coupon code field. As usual, the sign-up fee guarantees you a lifetime membership to the site. That includes unlimited facilities, positions, instructors, and hours.

One of our upcoming features is going to be the ability to print 3120-25 forms straight from the site. It'll automatically prefill the top of the form, including your total hours, name, date, and the various checkboxes based on what you've selected.

This is a screenshot of our current prototype:

Secondly, I've opened up a little online shop called ATC Gear, selling ATC-related products. I've put up some homemade designs for shirts, mouse pads, bumper stickers, beverage containment devices, and more.

Product suggestions are definitely welcome! What would you guys and gals like to see on there?

One of the cooler products - in my humble opinion - is a computer mousepad in the form of an ARTS keyboard. If you're so inclined, you can practice ditching your newfangled QWERTY keyboard in lieu of the ol' ABCDEFG. This is a reproduction of the same keyboards we use here on our scopes.

If you're looking to make a Christmas present out of anything on there, CafePress is having a special where if you order by Dec. 17th, they'll automatically upgrade you to two day shipping so you receive it by the 24th.

Anyways, that's all for now. I've got a few more blog posts in the runup area, checking their RPMs, vacuum pumps, and oil temps. They'll be coming out shortly.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

On Training

I've stayed in touch with many of my classmates from Oklahoma City classes. It's great to hear that so many of them are doing well.

Many of them are already fully checked out. JR is done at DAL. JZ has been certified for nearly a year at ACK and is transfering to JFK. JT transfered to SRQ two months ago and is nearly certified. JA's been done for a long time at MTY. CW is done at Potomac TRACON.

I'm thrilled for them all. I remember when we were all starting out in the tower or RTF classes, trying to get a handle on things. How far we've come from there. I even recall some of them getting "you'll never make it" dress-downs from certain instructors in OKC. Yet there they are, fully certified CPCs a year later, some already transferring to better, bigger facilities.

I look forward to that feeling. I know I've still got a while left here. Of all the CTI, VRA, and OTS trainees here- most of which started when I did -not one has fully certified. In fact, until last week, none of the trainees had certified on more than one bank of three scopes. Another one is getting close. Maybe it's the facility. Maybe it's something else. I don't know.

Overall, I feel I am progressing. I'm definitely light years ahead of where I was three months ago. However, sometimes I don't think it's fast enough. Training really is a brutal roller coaster ride. I'll have a great session that's wall-to-wall good vectors and radio presence, and then do something utterly stupid the next one. I'll get down on myself really hard about it too, because I usually know better. Somehow, the most idiotic things I've done always seem to come on a skill check with my supervisor.

Learning Curve

I was talking with one of my coworkers the other day. He's the newest hire, and has only been here about three months. It's very interesting watching him go through the same initial learning curve the other trainees and I went through a year ago. He said something which I think exemplifies the training mindset perfectly:

"I like training. I just hate not knowing."

That is exactly how I feel about it. Everyone says training has its ups and downs. The peaks come when you're in your comfort zone, exercising procedures and rules that you know already. The downs occur when you cross into uncharted territory. It can feel like you've entered a desert wasteland without water or a map. The sun's blinding you, you're feeling mighty uncomfortable, and there's a sandstorm brewing from which you have no shelter.

Plenty of things can send you over the edge when you're training. Maybe it's the volume of traffic (like what happened to me yesterday when the number of planes on my frequency quintupled in the space of a minute). Maybe it's an unresponsive pilot who's causing all kinds of safety issues and distracting you (happened to me the day before yesterday). Or maybe you'll get an aircraft or facility in your ear asking for something you've never heard before (happening to me less frequently with experience, but every once in a while I get stumped).

Now, obviously, you can't train for every single scenario. That's why we learn our rules and procedures, so you know what's legal or illegal. The 7110.65, LOA's, and SOP's are all starting points, but they don't teach you technique. That only comes with experience.

If someone asked you how to drive from Miami to Los Angeles, you may not know the exact roads to take but you do know you have to drive on the right side of the road and obey speed suggestions limits. That's a start. That's the 7110.65. With experience and working knowledge, you'll be able to tell them more than "head west". After some time, you can tell them which highways they should use. Soon enough, you can give them shortcuts and tell them which exits to get off on for a good local meal.

But that takes experience. When you're training, you have none to fall back on. Unfortunately - and quite frankly - the pilot or other controller don't care whether you've been talking to airplanes 3 months or 30 years. They want something from you - whether it's an approval, a denial, or an action - and no matter what it is, you need to sort it out. That's the job.

The trick is to sort out those existing issues without causing more of your own.

Example: How to Make Your Life More Difficult

IFR day. I'm working the West sector of the localizer split - i.e. East and West sectors are divided right along the ILS 17 localizer for Pensacola Regional. A Cessna 172 requests a practice ILS approach (note the practice part) and afterwards wants to head to his home field 15 miles northeast. I'm vectoring him in and he is slow as heck in the headwind, showing 60-70 knots over the ground. He's at 1700 feet.

Uh oh. A Learjet's inbound from the northwest. Even though the Lear's 30 miles away, he's going to beat the Cessna easily. So... I give the Cessna a very short vector - maybe 4 extra flying miles - around on the west side of the final, getting him out of the way. I dunk the Lear in and clear him, and bring the Cessna back around. Sounds like a fine plan.

Well, not so fast. The East side suddenly gets a flurry of arrivals, most of them airliners. Then I get a few myself. All of them are jets. We keep boxing the poor Cessna on the west side of the final, trying to make a hole for him. Unfortunately, with a 60 knot ground speed, he's just incompatible with the Embraer 170s and the MD-88s coming in. Also, he's a practice approach, which takes lower priority than the scheduled airliner traffic.

Things deteriorate. The weather keeps getting worse. The Cessna's home base - an uncontrolled field within our airspace - only has a GPS instrument approach. The Cessna is not GPS equipped. The weather has now gotten so bad that he can't cancel IFR and is now requesting a full-stop at Pensacola.

My instructor and I get relieved and the guy is still out there. I stay behind to monitor the next controller. To make a long story short, the Cessna pilot ends up being boxed around for nearly an hour total. Once the flurry of arrivals passes, he's cleared and lands safely. I feel pretty awful about it and half expect a phone call from the pilot. I know that pilots can't always get what they want, but I think I could have done something better; I just don't know what it was.

Afterwards, in talking with the controller working the East side, she makes a simple observation:

When I first had the Cessna coming in for his approach and the Lear appeared, why didn't I just climb the Cessna to 3000 feet?

Such a simple and obvious solution. I could have left the Cessna on his original vectors, but at 3000 feet. I could have dropped the Lear underneath him at 1700, cleared the Lear, and then cleared the Cessna once the Lear was past him. The Cessna would obviously never catch him, and wake turbulence would probably not have been a factor since he would have been far above the glidepath of the jet.

Instead, I had taken the hard road, and caused myself - and the relieving controller - a tremendous headache while leaving some poor student pilot and his instructor tooling around in IMC conditions for an hour.

Just goes to show: the easy road is usually the best road. You just need to be able to recognize the exit ramp that takes you there. :)