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.


radarluv said...

hey man (i'm assuming), i just started following your blog today and haven't left it for over an hour now. i'm an air traffic controller also, previously in the af at eglin afb tower. i'm currently working at a contract tower in the midwest and recently got an offer from the faa for dallas approach. wow, i wasn't expecting that, i was assuming since i have 5 years of experience in tower environments only the faa would more efficiently utilize my experience by placing me in a tower like dallas. but instead i was offerd a lvl 12 tracon with no radar experience, let terror insue. despite my initial feeling of confusion and anxiety i now, after consultin with some friends in the faa, have no doubt everything will work itself out. anyway i just wanted to say that your blog is outstanding and thank you for all the info and entertaining stories. btw, how much time do you spend on this blog weekly? again, thanks for a wonderful blog, actually the first i subscribed to.

Wicked Penguin said...

Thanks, radarluv - glad you like the blog. And I am indeed a dude. :)

I don't spend as much time as I used to on teh blog. Over the past few months, I've got a lot more writing projects going on in the background, so it's harder to make time for it. But I still get on here and bang away at it when I can.

Congrats on getting Dallas! Radar is not bad. This is from a guy that had never sat down at a real radar scope or talked to a real airplane before, well, sitting at a real radar scope and talking to a real airplane. TRACON can be pretty fun. You can get away with more using divergence and only three miles of separation. It gives you lots of room for squeeze plays. I saw some stuff just yesterday that would have made a Center controller squeal, but was perfectly legal under our rules.

Your tower experience should come in handy, actually, since as a TRACON you'll be working closely with the tower(s) in your area. I know over here we're on the landlines with them constantly, ApReq-ing all kinds of funky stuff.

Don't try to make any sense of the FAA's job placements. I have friends who had ZERO ATC experience, and were sent to level 11 and 12 TRACONs, Centers, and Towers. The ones I keep in touch with are doing just fine. It's not about the facility or the level - it's about what you put into it. You will be frustrated at times, but just stick it through.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Great post!