Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Good Day

Yesterday was a good day. I'm feeling much more confident about things.

I had three training sessions in a row yesterday. The first, I worked both the East and West sectors combined. Basically, the entire northern 2/3 of our airspace was under my control, and I actually had a lot of fun with it. The ceiling was dropping steadily all day, so I got some IFR and marginal VFR experience in the mix. I handled everything pretty well, I think. I kept very good control over my traffic and my coordination. I didn't fall behind, even when I was seeing things that I had never seen before. I'm pleased.

The second session was just the West side, and the third had me working the P/AR sector - the final sector. It's a small area of airspace that extends 15 miles along the Pensacola Regional final and owns up to 3000 feet. Normally, the P/AR is combined up into the East and West sectors, but for a change of pace our supervisor had it split off on its own. It forces the rest of the room to think differently when feeding any aircraft to the Pensacola airport. It was actually a pretty cool exercise.

I also spoke with my supervisor a bit concerning the skill check he gave me last week (which ultimately led to my "Frustrated" post). A lot of what we discussed revolved around what I mentioned in that post: my speed and scan need improvement. Once I let those slide, I start getting behind and getting into trouble. I placed a lot of emphasis on those yesterday and it paid off well. I stayed ahead of the game.

One of the things he also mentioned was that the level of traffic I was working during that skill check could have been handled by a CPC, but that CPC would have been on the very edge of needing an assist position. It made me feel better knowing that even a CPC would have had a difficult time with that workload and complexity. It wasn't just busy for me, but plain old busy for anyone who would have been working it.

After the training sessions, I worked the Whiting NAS sectors a couple of times on my own. It was more of the usual squirrelly IFR stuff: lots of IFR pickups, aircraft deviating all over the place, a stack of holding aircraft the full height of my airspace, and VFR On Top departures needing to climb to 10,000 feet to cancel IFR. In addition, one of my neighboring sectors gave me several bad feeds that had me reworking my plan several times. That particular controller - a CPC - seems to make a habit of passing on problems to other sectors with the attitude, "let 'em figure it out." They're a cool person outside of the radar room, but not exactly someone who I want to emulate very much at a radar scope. Regardless, I just made it work and everyone got where they needed to be.

Good things continued after I got off work. My wife found out her work schedule change request went through. She and I only have one car between us, and the public transportation system in this city is very limited. I have access to buses at the airport, but she works out in the boonies. So, the car situation is constantly being juggled.

Her new schedule gives us a lot more time together since she'll be getting home much earlier now. Mon and Tues, I still have to hang out at the airport terminal cafe for a couple of hours before I go into work, but not nearly as long as I used. They've got free Wi-Fi and it gives me some time to catch up on writing, phone calls, and e-mails. On Thursday I can ride my bike home. I don't mind the latter at all - it's 4.5 miles and good exercise. It helps combat the effects of a very sedentary job.

Besides, we don't have a gym at our place like Miami Tower does. :)

The only downside to yesterday was my laptop dying on me. It seems either the power adapter or the power plug on the laptop itself went kaput. I have most of my writing and music projects on an external drive, so those aren't affected. I really don't want to have to buy a new laptop at this time, but if it's dead I will definitely do that. While I've got a kick-ass machine at home, I use my laptop everywhere - at work (no, I'm not responsible for the data breach...), the airport, on the back patio, at restaurants, and pretty much anywhere else that has a power plug. Everything depends on how much it will cost to replace it versus repair it. If it comes to replacement, I'll likely get a Toshiba for about $700.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Kinda Frustrated

I guess you could call this a venting post.

To put it bluntly, I'm getting a little tired of getting my butt kicked.

I've been training on our main Pensacola bank for about six months now. It's usually divided up between two scopes: East and West. The West side is a wide open expanse without much in it. It only really sees some action when we're on runway 8. The East side, however, is the most screwed up, chopped up, and overly used sector in the house.

I'm doing fine on the West sector. And when I get some pro-time on the Whiting sectors, I feel good. I know the airspace, the traffic, all that, and I just work it. I keep up with it well, because I work off of instinct. I don't have to think too much about what my traffic needs - I just do it.

The East sector, however, is deceptive. This is one of those where if you think you have enough time to do really don't. You can literally have zero airplanes one moment, and the next you're covered up with 15 airplanes doing 15 different things and going down in flames. All the stuff you thought you had time to do... you don't anymore. You're constantly on the land lines with Jacksonville Center and Eglin Approach, and on the internal lines with every other sector in the room. It feels like your attention is pulled a hundred ways at once,.

I think my problem boils down to one word: speed.

When I sit down and it's slow, and then it gets busy, I'm having trouble ramping up my pace to match the traffic. It's like I over think things too much, and it slows me down.

Basically, I know what to do with the aircraft. I know my rules, my airspace, and my procedures. I just don't do it fast enough. I know that AirTran needs to be turned and descended for a visual to 35. I know that Navy trainer needs to be sent direct to the Saufley VOR for holding. I know that departing Gulf Flight needs to be climbed and handed off to the Jax Center. I know I need to make that point out to the West sector. But I think about it too much. I dwell a little too long on each decision.

Of course that wastes time. Then I start playing catch up, and my scan goes to hell. I get distracted trying to put out one potential fire, and miss another situation. A frequency switch. A traffic call. A point out. An aircraft that's unexpectedly changed direction. (All of these happened in the last session.)

And it's frustrating. There are times where I get up and want to go play some drums - hard. I'm just so annoyed. I know I can do it better, and I, well, just don't sometimes. I don't why. I'm trying to figure it out. I just hate that feeling when you get up and feel like you screwed up bad.

Everything about ATC is trust. The pilots trust you to get them where they're going and keep them out of harm's way. Your coworkers in the room around you rely on you to do your job well and not set them up with situations they need to fix. We're all supposed to be working as a team and when I don't do my part well enough, I feel like I let people down. That's the worst part of it for me: I don't like disappointing people who are relying on me.

So, I play some drums. Play some guitar. Chill out. And I get back in and hack away at the training again. Each time is better, not perfect, but edging towards that finish line. I know I'll get there. I've got my incentives in my family and friends and coworkers who are rooting for me, and my own desire to succeed at this most intense of careers.

I just look forward to the day I've mastered these sectors. And for the day I can sit down and not feel like a pitbull's been chewing at the seat of my pants.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

A Forgotten Era

Today's "image in need of a caption"...

More at the end of the post. :)

The Problem of Detail

As I mentioned a few months ago, I'm in the middle of writing a novel. It's set largely aboard a fictional rigid airship during the early 20th century. Given the relatively obscure subject matter, it's been an interesting journey trying to get the operational and period details as correct as possible.

I've never written anything on this large a scale before. The biggest problem I've been having in writing historical fiction is not the "grand events", but the details that bind them together.

Let's say I'm writing a fictional story about the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Finding the overall information is easy. Heck, you can just grab it from Wikipedia. "On the night of 14 April 1912, during her maiden voyage, Titanic hit an iceberg and sank two hours and forty minutes later, early on 15 April 1912. The sinking resulted in the deaths of 1,517 people..." Great. Now you've got the general info.

However, what about the details? What did the passengers eat? Did the decks have names? What were period clothes made of? What kind of wood were the floors made of? What kind of music was popular at the time? How was royalty addressed? What books were being read? How were the engines operated? How many crew members would be on the bridge at any one time? What kind of slang was popular?

It's those kind of details that make a story come alive, I think. The kind of information that doesn't just tell about a place or time, but puts the reader right into the middle of it. They may seem unimportant on the surface, but I think their presence adds life to the story by creating a believable setting. That's what I'm trying to achieve.

My History's Got Gas

So, I've been trying to dig up as much stuff on rigid airships as I can.

A quick primer: a rigid airship (RA) differs from today's blimps by having their shape kept by an actual metal skeleton. On an RA, you have an exterior metal "shell" that's covered in fabric, and then inside you have individual gas cells which hold the lifting helium or hydrogen. A blimp's gas envelope keeps its shape using only gas pressure and a system of "ballonets" that inflate or deflate with regular air to keep the ship's form at different pressure altitudes. If you were to completely deflate a blimp, its envelope would collapse, where as an RA keeps its shape even if the gas is completely pumped out.

Another advantage of the RA is that any room within the hull that is not used for gas cells can be used for living quarters, storage, fuel, weapons, and more. With a blimp, you're more or less much limited to the control car gondola that hangs underneath the gas envelope, which limits your range and facilities.

There are also vessels classified as semi-rigid ships, which mix elements of both designs. In fact, the first the aircraft to overfly the North Pole was the semi-rigid airship Norge in 1926, designed by Umberto Nobile and operated by a crew of Italians and Norwegians. Heck of a story, that one. That ship's envelope had a metal keel and metal reinforcements for the nose and tail, but the remainder of the envelope's form was maintained through pressure. Nobile's subsequent ship, the Italia - also a semi-rigid - would meet its fate over the polar ice caps in 1928. What ensued was an Arctic survival story nearly as incredible as Ernest Shackleton's ordeal and escape from Antarctica over twenty years prior.

But, like I said, I've been focusing on rigid airship design. Below are some images of an RA under construction, where you can clearly see the internal skeletal structure as well as one of the internal spaces.

It's an era of aviation that not many people know about, or even really care about. Frankly, I find it fascinating. Everybody knows about the Zeppelin Hindenburg. "Oh, the humanity!" and all that. That was merely the end of the airship era, and so much came before that fateful day over Lakehurst, NJ.

My focus has been on military rigid airships. In the 1920's and 1930's, the United States Navy operated four enormous aerial vessels: the USS Shenandoah, the USS Los Angeles, the USS Macon, and the USS Akron. Of those four, only the Los Angeles survived; the rest were lost in crashes. The story of each ship and their eventual end actually reads like the Titanic's: avoidable and tragic.

One of the things I like about these vessels is that they really did operate like seagoing ships. No yoke or throttles. Instead, you had helmsmen and engine telegraphs.

The latter two - Macon and Akron - operated like flying aircraft carriers. They carried up to four or five Curtiss Sparrowhawk fighters in their hangars, and would launch them and recover them in-flight via a "flying trapeze" system. The fighters were used to increase their reconnaissance range. In operational use it was extraordinarily successful.

Doing My Homework

My research has spanned a ton of books and a few DVDs. However, when it comes to seeing real artifacts, there's only one place I can go: The Naval Aviation Museum.

I've written about it before, and here I go again: it's hands-down my favorite aviation museum.

This past Friday I went down there to get a close look at their exhibit. They have an excellent section on lighter-than-air (LTA) aircraft on the second floor, which covers both the aforementioned rigid airships, as well as the Navy's more modern blimps.

There are several display cases of artifacts from each of the RA's. The collections include such odd things as a piece of metal girder, radio antenna weight, and pieces of fabric stolen from the USS Shenandoah's crash site...

... to the skyhook from one of USS Macon's Sparrowhawk fighters, dredged up from the ocean depths...

... to the ship's helm and bell from the USS Los Angeles.

Later Airships and the Library

They also have some excellent displays on WWII and Cold War-era blimps, including the K-class which were used for anti-submarine convoy work. No blimp-escorted convoy ever had a ship sunk by an enemy submarine. These ships operated until the 1960's, when they were replaced by fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

They have an entire control car for a K-class hanging from the ceiling.

In addition, they have several parts from an N-class airship. While it was indeed a non-rigid airship, it had several metal structural components within its envelope, such as its nose cone, to provide support for load-bearing areas. They had the nose cone, ruddervator, and outrigger engine, amongst other things.

After I was done with the physical exhibits, I headed down to the Emil Buehler Library on the first floor. It's basically a single room with three walls covered in ceiling-height shelves of books.

I had poked around in there a few months ago, but it was long before I had any specific research interests. At the time, the only things that struck me were a 16th century samurai sword presented surrendered by a Japanese officer on Okinawa (freaking beautiful sword) and a sextant belonging to Amelia Earhart's navigator.

This time, however, I had a mission. I searched the shelves, and finally came across the airship section. It was small, but backed with goodness. A lot of their books appear to be donated by museum patrons. I found some real jewels in there, including several 1st editions dating back to the 1940's.

As I mentioned earlier, the reason for my research is that I'm trying to achieve both a proper "feel" for my novel, as well as technical accuracy.

Within these rare books, I found things like:
  • How the Sparrowhawk fighters airplanes were able to perform their reconnaissance and eventually locate to their mothership. In other words, how do you get your airplane back to an "airport" that's constantly moving laterally and vertically.
  • First hand accounts from the captain of the famous Graf Zeppelin (the first airship to circumnavigate the globe).
  • Proper ground handling techniques for airships.
I'm sure you guys must be going, "And that's interesting how?"

Think about The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. How much of that book revolves around the concept of sonar? Does he go into great detail about every button, every knob, and every display in the USS Dallas' sonar room as it tracks Ramius' submarine? Of course not. He didn't set out to write a manual for a Los Angeles class SSN's sonar system. But the detail he does provide is as accurate as possible. He did a lot of research and learned a lot of things which may or may not have been applicable. Then he streamlined it and used only the parts that were relevant to the story.

That's what I'm intending to do: pick and choose from the research I've done and apply it where it's necessary to add to my story. That one hour sitting there in that small library filled so many gaps in the technical knowledge I've been seeking. I've also been able to track down several newer copies of the books I found via

One last thing: I spoke with the librarian, and he mentioned that they also offer free research services. You simply e-mail them a question and they'll do your homework for you. He mentioned some of the queries people had sent in. Very obscure stuff, and these fine folks at the museum gave them the answers they were seeking.

An Added Bonus

You never know what you're going to find when you go to this museum.

As I walked outside to check out the outdoor displays, I saw a crowd gathering by the aircraft restoration annex. As I approached, I saw a huge crane, and one of the most beautiful P-38 specimens I've ever seen. What an amazing machine.

Turns out it was Lefty Gardner's old CAF bird White Lightning, bought and rebuilt by Red Bull after its 2001 crash in a field. They flew it in to Pensacola NAS and brought in a big-ass crane. They spent nearly an hour getting it over a fence and down a road so it could be loaded onto a barge and shipped to Germany. From Germany, it would be flown to Red Bull's HQ in Austria.

I shot some video of the plane-lift and cut it together. I'd never uploaded a widescreen HD clip to YouTube before, so I decided to use it as a test case.

So anyways - that was my Friday morning. Saw some neat artifacts, learned some useful shit, and saw a beautiful Air Force warbird at a Navy museum. A good start to a good day. :)

P.S. If you're interested in reading more about the airships, I highly recommend picking up The Great Dirigibles by John Toland. It's a reprint of a mid-20th century book that is packed full of first-person accounts from the survivors and crew of these vessels. It's extremely well written and really puts you in the middle of the action. It really allowed me to see what it would be like inside an 800 foot airship, a mile in the sky, as it's torn in half by a violent storm, coming apart and venting gas like a sieve.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Super Bowl Rush

Sunday night and it's slow. It's been slow all day, actually. I did a shift swap with my coworker this week - his Sunday for my Friday. I've never worked a Sunday before and it's been pretty quiet so far.

I get the page from downstairs - they want me in the TRACON. So, I amble downstairs, thinking I'm going to work another round of Flight Data, maybe do some training on the East sector, or count some traffic. Something quiet.

Not so much.

They tell me to open up the Whiting NAS sector. I walk over to the scope, and I see this:

There are about a dozen or more T-34s holding all over the place. They're all coming back home from their weekend cross countries. More are calling up. They all want in at the same time. But... Whiting Tower isn't open yet. So they're holding. And more keep calling up, wanting to get in.

I split off the sector and take control of it. I've never seen anything like this before, and I'm trying to kick my brain into gear and go from "Easy round of Flight Data" mode to "Sequence like a mofo" mode. So I just start looking at altitudes, and positions relative to final, and start doing the "He's #1, he's #2, he's #3, and he... well, shit, let's just see how this gels...." thing.

I've got two things going for me:
  • They're all VFR. None of this 3 miles or a thousand feet stuff. Of course, once they're cleared for the approach I will need the 3 miles in between.
  • They're all the same type of aircraft. It's not like I'm sequencing a 757 with a Cessna 172.
I also get some contradicting messages regarding the approach requests, where I end up thinking they're expecting PAR approaches to get in. After some digging around, it turns out that's not the case - the tower wants them all on the TACAN 32 approach (the red line on the graphic above). The long and short of it is that I end up telling "all aircraft" that they can expect first the PAR approach, then the ASR approach, and then - finally - they can expect the TACAN 32 approach. By the third transmission, I bet the pilots were thinking "Oh boy... what's next? The ILS? The GPS?"

This is a heck of a Super Bowl Sunday night. I've got a sky full of Navy pilots wanting to get down to watch the Super Bowl, the game's already started, and I've got my hands tied waiting for the "all clear" from Whiting Tower. Nothing I can do now but wait.

In the meantime, more T-34s show up, requesting to land. Into the VFR holding pattern they go. Not much I can do with them now.


At last, Whiting Tower calls and asks for them to come in.

I start rolling them in one after another. As all the guys closest to the final are cleared, I start bringing in the others from up north and the ones that are holding directly over the field. I don't want there to be any gaps. I also get a blanket point out from the East sector, so I can borrow some of his airspace in case I need to run someone wide.

One of the tricks for tightening things up is to point aircraft directly at one another. I don't mean head on, of course, but like this:

If you have two aircraft at comparable speeds and over three miles apart, just aim aircraft #2 at aircraft #1's position, #3 at #2's position, and #4 at #3's position. By the time #2 makes the turn and gets to #1's former position, #1 will be long gone. It keeps your final from getting strung out too far.

The ones to the north are stacked pretty high. I develop a flow, where the further south I vector them, the lower I descend them. Basically, I'm stepping them down towards the final.

I give the ones that are stacked directly on top of each other divergent headings and descend them to the approach altitude of 1700, or 2200 if I need them to cross over another aircraft. I also open up holes in my sequence so that the Pensacola sector can feed me a couple more that are waiting to the south outside my airspace.

One of my coworkers plugs in next to me, giving me an extra pair of eyes. He works Sundays and has seen the Sunday night rush before a few times. According to him, the last one he worked was all IFR pickups, with the tower requiring PAR approaches. PAR approaches require each aircraft to be set on its own special frequency, or buttons as we call them, of which we only have 6. With this many aircraft, you're constantly trying to keep tabs of which buttons are in use. Not a good time. Thankfully, it's beautiful VFR out there.

All the pilots are on the ball tonight too. Sometimes, you get one or two pilots who just don't respond quickly enough. When you're building a final, a repeated approach clearance, a delay of five or ten seconds, or two or three wasted "how do you hear?" transmissions can throw things out of whack quickly. But tonight, everybody's listening up and doing as they're asked. I only had to break one out who took a 040 heading instead of a 140 (I probably missed the readback). I just worked him out west for a few miles and sequenced him right back in.

Eventually, the last of the stragglers make it down. In just forty-five minutes, it's all over.

Post-Game Analysis

Afterwards, as I'm recombining the sector back over onto our East sector, I'm doing a bit of self-critique. I could have confirmed the approach type earlier with the tower. I could have gotten a couple of the aircraft down more quickly. Overall, I'm happy with how it worked out. The final stayed pretty tight the entire time and I got them in as fast as I could.

So that's how I spent the first quarter of the Super Bowl. Definitely one of the most intense sessions I've worked so far on my own. Normally, you don't see a lot of heavy sequencing at Whiting. Once I got over the initial "oh crap", I was actually enjoying myself. It was a good challenge. Or, as one of my coworkers put it jokingly, a baptism by fire.