Thursday, March 26, 2009

Contrast and Compare

Just for fun...

Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) - 5pm airliner departure push

Pensacola Regional (PNS) - 5pm airliner departure push

Any questions? ;-)

Incidentally, that DFW shot was taken on my return trip home from Oklahoma City in Summer 2007. That was the last time I've flown on an airliner.

Of course, I am just talking only about airliners. The Pensacola shot doesn't show the two naval air stations within 15 miles loaded with hundreds of navy jets, props, and helos who make that 5pm departure and arrival push far more interesting!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Traffic Call of the Day

I was working a flight of T-34s outbound from Whiting at 5500 feet when I got a surprise handoff from Jacksonville Center: an F/A-18 Hornet screaming along VFR at 4500 feet.

The Hornet's route would take him directly under the T-34s. They were my only traffic and the T-34 flight lead sounded thrilled to be in his cockpit. I figured I may as well give him some added excitement and point out the Hornet, since there's usually not much in that neck of the woods other than, well, other T-34s. Besides, they were only 1000 feet apart vertically so a traffic call was in order.

Me: "Blackbird 123 and flight, traffic, twelve o'clock, four miles, southwest-bound, 4500, F-18 Hornet."
BB123: (excitedly) "Oh! Roger! Searching for traffic."
Hornet: (chimes in) "Radar."
Me: "Blackbird 123, do you have him in sight?"
BB123: "Negative."
Hornet: (somewhat exasperated) "Approach, I've got radar contact on him."
Me: (thinks about it) "Errr... Oh! Hornet, roger."

It was pretty amusing to hear an airplane say "radar contact" regarding another aircraft. I guess I just don't work too many aircraft that have their own onboard Hughes/Raytheon fire control radar suite.

Now, things would have gotten real interesting if a moment later the Hornet driver yelled out, "Fox three!" :)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Good Morning!

It’s only 8:30am and I’ve already had two "firsts".

Numero Uno

I’m working the Whiting departures this morning. Standard operation, the usual bunch of VFR Navy T-34 departures heading out into the beautiful, clear morning sky. Multi-ship flights, solos, dual trainers. Nothing out of the ordinary. The push has died down some and I have about four aircraft on my frequency.

My facility manager is standing next to me and we’re discussing how my training is going on the Pensacola bank. Things are quiet.

Due to the light traffic at that time, there are only three scopes active, one for each of our Class C airports. Each of those single scopes is responsible for all the airspace relating to its respective bank. I'm working the NSE scope.

Suddenly, the ARTS on my scope goes down. At that second I have my head turned so I don’t see it when it flicks off. My manager notices it and speaks up.

I look back. All the alpha-numerics on the scope are gone. Datablocks. Departure tab lists. Activations. They’re bye-bye, their ghosts fading into blackness. All I’ve got are my primary targets and my map. A quick glance around the room reveals that the other five scopes in the room that feed off our Whiting radar are blank as well.

Well, shit.

I immediately crank up my primaries to the max. Bright slashes glow on my scope now, each representing an aircraft. Our Whiting VFR departures are written down on traffic count sheets. I examine my targets, review the “flick” in my mind, and correlate them mentally to the call signs on my sheet. I’m not quite in “radar contact lost” territory yet. The good thing is they’re all VFR anyway and therefore ultimately responsible for their own separation.

For the non-controllers out there, here's a little before and after so you can picture what I'm seeing (or not seeing):

At least I didn't lose my entire radar. This is similar to what air traffic control used to look like, back in the day. No datablocks, no transponders, nothing. If you've got targets of some kind, you could work - if you can tell who each target is. At this point I'm considering checking Ebay for some secondhand shrimp boats.

In the meantime, one of the techs bursts in from the system room. A computer hardware swap went awry and reset the Whiting radar's hardware. It should be back up quickly. Cool. Tech knows about the issue and they’re working on it.

While he’s telling us this, our Flight Data person has called up Whiting tower and tells them to stop departures. We've already got a few birds in the air. We don't need more at the moment. Doing that gives us time to figure out the next step.

Okay, so I know who’s who, what’s wrong, and that it’s being worked on. Now what?

We have two ASR-11 radar sites in our airspace: one about 15 miles north of Whiting field, and another located directly at Pensacola Regional. The issue took out the ARTS for the Whiting radar, but the Pensacola radar is just fine. Both are redundant systems and either one can operate the entirety of our airspace.

At the moment we lost the Whiting radar feed, we were left with this:

If it had been a single Whiting scope that went down, no big deal. Scopes die like any other piece of hardware. Just slide over to another Whiting scope, key up the frequencies, and keep working.

But with the actual Whiting radar being down, it's not that simple. While we have six working scopes in the room that run off the Pensacola radar, I can’t just slide over to any scope and just pull up the frequencies. Out of our twelve total scopes, only five scopes have the required radios ("NSE" in the radio list), and four of those are unusable since they run off the Whiting radar! The remaining one is the Pensacola East sector, which is currently manned and is unaffected by the outage since it runs off the Pensacola radar.

So, the controller at the Pensacola East sector – which runs off the Pensacola radar – has now pulled up my targets and is seeing the aircraft datablocks just fine. He’s also standing by to key up the frequencies if needed. The East sector is the "mother sector" for all of the sectors in the house, so it has all frequencies for the PNS, NPA, and NSE banks available.

In short, we can see the airplanes clearly, and we can talk to them. Good. If I can’t get fully back online, all the East sector needs to do is type a keyboard command and my traffic will be combined with his.

This gives us time to enact the next phase. As part of our system redundancy, we have the ability to reset all scopes in the room to use either of the radar sites. It just takes another keyboard command to implement it. Once entered, the scopes swab over to whichever sensor is needed automatically. After that’s done, all you need to do is reset the radar maps on each scope to center them on the new radar.

Resetting the Whiting sectors to the Pensacola radar would bring us back online as such:

Luckily, as we’re about to switch sensors on the dark scopes, the Whiting radar comes back. Huzzah! After that, everything works great. No problems. Naturally, the pilots never knew anything about it.

Overall, not really a big deal. All of this took place over maybe two minutes. That’s one of the great things about redundant systems. We were back to normal in no time. Even if tech hadn’t been able to fix the original issue, once the scopes were switched to the Pensacola radar we’d have been just fine.

Even if it was a worst case scenario and the Whiting radar scopes were completely knocked out, we have options. The East controller could physically move over to the unused West sector. Since the West is the companion sector for the East, it has radios with the East frequencies. Then, the Whiting controller - a.k.a. me - could take over the East scope and just key up only the Whiting frequencies there. So, we’d have the West scope acting as the East, and the East scope acting as the Whiting, and both would be running off the Pensacola radar.

It would look like the following. It’d be strange, but it would work.

I’d never seen anything like this before. Not in training. Not ever. Unlike my flying days, where you’re constantly reviewing emergency and fire checklists, there is no checklist for this. You just have to be flexible and figure it out. After it happened, I was asking my coworkers a ton of questions about best practices for those kinds of situations.

There were several things I could have done better. For instance, I should have jumped faster on the “stop departures” call to Whiting tower to keep them from adding more to the fun. Thankfully, the experienced CPC on Flight Data took care of that.

As they say, a pilot’s license is a “license to learn.” The same thing applies to ATC certifications. There’s no better teacher than new experiences.

Numero Dos

Now for the (very) anti-climactic second "first": primary target-only radar identification using turns. Woo hoo! Same session as the radar outage too. Packed full of fun with primary targets....

A Forestry Service aircraft calls me up departing an uncontrolled field. As I'm typing in his callsign to issue a squawk, he reports that his transponder is out and he wants to land at Pensacola Regional to get it looked at. Of course, his current stated position and heading put him southbound, right in the middle of a flock of other VFR targets. He could be any one of them.

Some legalities to consider. He's a primary target only, and he wants to enter the Class C airspace containing Pensacola Regional.

The FAR's say the following:
Sec. 91.215 - ATC transponder and altitude reporting equipment and use.
(b) All airspace. Unless otherwise authorized or directed by ATC, no person may operate an aircraft in the airspace described in paragraphs (b)(1) through (b)(5) of this section, unless that aircraft is equipped with an operable coded radar beacon transponder [...] and that aircraft is equipped with automatic pressure altitude reporting equipment having a Mode C capability[...]

(1) All aircraft. In Class A, Class B, and Class C airspace areas;
Without a transponder or Mode C, he doesn't meet the standard equipment requirements for Class C.

However, the end of FAR Sec. 91.215 has an exception:
(d) ATC authorized deviations. Requests for ATC authorized deviations must be made to the ATC facility having jurisdiction over the concerned airspace within the time periods specified as follows:
(2) For operation of an aircraft with an inoperative transponder to the airport of ultimate destination, including any intermediate stops, or to proceed to a place where suitable repairs can be made or both, the request may be made at any time.
According to the rules, since he's landing at Pensacola in order to get his transponder fixed, he's allowed into Class C without prior notification.

So, how does one figure out which target he is? ATC can radar identify primary target-only aircraft via three methods, as specified by FAA Order 7110.65.
  1. Departing aircraft: Identify an aircraft within 1 mile of the runway departure end.
  2. Position correlation: The aircraft tells you where he is, and you simply look for a target there. "Approach, Cessna 123, we're five miles south of Milton airport."
  3. Identifying turns: Direct and observe an aircraft to make a turn of at least 30 degrees.
#1 wouldn't work, since he's already airborne. #2 would be feasible, if not for the eight other targets in the vicinity of his reported position. So, that leaves me with just #3.

I’d studied it a while ago, knew the phraseology, knew what to look for, but I’d just never actually done it. The 7110.65 requires a minimum of a 30 degree turn. I choose to give him a 90 degree right turn since A) it's easier to spot and B) due to his reported southbound heading and position, it would point him at Pensacola Regional, his destination.

"FFXX, this will be a turn for radar identification. Turn 90 degrees right."

All of the other targets are milling about, but I spot one making a definite sharp turn to the west, breaking out from the others. No question it's him. Our radar and ARTS can tag and track primary targets, so I type “FSXX”, slew on the primary target, and press "Enter" . It tags up with his callsign. “Radar contact."

I write up a strip, scribble "Transonder Inop" on it, and pass it on, then inform the next controller via landline that FSXX is a primary only target. Handoff. Switch. All done on my end. Not much to it. Surprisingly painless.

So that was two valuable learning experiences on the job, and both within an hour of punching in. An interesting start for what turned out to be an interesting day.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Day at the Movies

I just watched a couple of excellent documentaries.

The first was One Six Right. It's a beautifully filmed documentary that specifically relates the history of California's Van Nuys Airport, but generally relates the importance of an airport to its surrounding area. It's told largely through interviews with pilots, historians, controllers, and busness owners who rely on the airport. The cinematography is fantastic, including perfectly composed shots of warbirds, biplanes, aerobatic aircraft, bizjets, and more. I had the most serious case of rentaplaneandgoflying-itis ever after seeing this.

It's a counter to all the NIMBY people and real estate developers who view general aviation airports as either a noise nuisance or a waste of valuable land that can be used for, I don't know, a strip mall. The irony is that if either of those groups succeeds in killing a GA airport, they'll likely be the first to complain about increasing delays at the larger airports in their area. Well, remember those corporate jets, police / medical / TV helicopters, flight schools, and other essential aviation services? They need to go somewhere.

Opening Sequence:

(Man, I love the sound of that P-51's V-12 Merlin)

On First Solos:

Second was Speed and Angels, a documentary that came out last year about two Navy pilots wanting to become F-14 Tomcat fighter pilots. Each pilot has their own specific issues. One is a woman, which of course invites all of the "man's world" stigmas. The other is a guy whose callsign is "Faceshot", named as such because he was shot in the face as a teenager and recovered, but now has trouble convincing doctors he is medically qualified to fly. It follows both pilots through their dogfight training, carrier qualification training, and eventual deployment to Iraq.

I found the movie quite inspirational without being jingoistic - it's not anti-war or pro-war. It just tells an honest, straightforward story about two people fighting against the odds and succeeding.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Checking In

So, I keep plugging away at the Pensacola bank. Ups and downs. Last week was good, this one, not so much. Tomorrow and next week will be better. I know it.

Aside from that, this week had its usual assortment of regular traffic plus the odd "funky thing" that spices up the norm.
  • Yesterday I had a couple of PEL's (Precautionary Emergency Landings) in a single session. Both involved Whiting T-34s. The first was a flight of two who departed, and whose wingman developed a stuck gear issue. They split up the flight, I issued the wingman his own squawk, and both came back into land.

    The second was a T-34 with an unresponsive power lever (I believe that's their prop pitch control). Fuel and souls on board, a heads up call to the tower, and a point out the East sector later, he got in ok. Both were pretty much non-events. The worst part about emergency situations is trying to talk around the other pilots. This second guy's trying to tell me what's going on, and in the meantime other T-34s are stepping all over him.

  • I had a couple Navy helos go NORDO on me in a bad spot, the left base to Runway 32. The issue is that South Whiting's pattern borders Eglin's restricted areas and gunnery ranges. If we lose comms with an aircraft and he flies too far east, he actually stands a fairly significant chance of being blown from the sky by an AC-130 or whatever they have going on out there. Obviously, we call Eglin and get a point out. It's just not a good feeling watching our guy fly eastbound into alien airspace.

    Note to the Whiting pilots: If you guys are doing a practice approach, execute your climbout, and then don't hear from us for 10, 15 or 20 miles, please check your radios or try reaching us on another frequency. You should be talking with us right after you make your turnout.

    It's perfectly acceptable to call us up on a different freq and say "Hey, we couldn't reach you on [original freq]." Whether it was an equipment failure on our end or a bad button push on the cockpit radio stack, it doesn't matter. We just want to know you're communicating with us.

  • The Great Piper Migration of 2009 happened today. I was working Flight Data when the printer started spitting out a ton of very similar overflight flight plans. They were all Piper Warriors, all had very similar sounding callsigns (N642FT, N606FT, etc.), and all were flying from Melbourne to New Orleans Lakefront. In the end, we had something like 25 or 30 of them, all proposed at 4500 feet.

    Then the weather started getting bad. The ceilings dropped. Then the altitude amendments started coming in. 6500. 3500. 2500. Some of the strips had four or five altitude amendments. Then, because of the altitude issues, Eglin wasn't sure which frequency to put them on.

    Additional complications followed. All of these aircraft were running more than half an hour behind what was expected on the strip, so they began to time out of the system. As we tried to hand the first wave off to Mobile, they wouldn't flash. The flight plans had apparently timed out so we had to make manual handoffs. To try and prevent that from happening to the rest of them, I called Eglin approach up and asked them to update the progress of each flight plan to prevent them from timing out. It seemed to work better after that.

    I ended up Googling a couple of the callsigns. Turns out they belonged to a flight school called Florida Institute of Technology, located in Melbourne. I hope they had a good time in the Big Easy. They certainly made our early afternoon interesting.

    Here's their fleet. Practically every plane on that ramp flew through our airspace yesterday.

    I wonder what the return trip will be like....

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Flight Simulator Franchise Crashes to Earth

This bummed me out. It's a couple of months old now, but I hadn't heard about this until tonight.
Redmond, Washington-based ACES Studio, the Microsoft-owned internal group behind the venerable Microsoft Flight Simulator series, has been heavily affected by Microsoft's ongoing job cuts.

Development sources have told Gamasutra that a large portion of the dev house's staff has been let go - with multiple reports indicating that the entire Flight Simulator team has been axed.

The Microsoft-owned Flight Simulator is possibly the game industry's longest-running continuous franchise.

I've been playing Flight Simulator in its various forms since I can remember. It followed me throughout so many phases of my life.
  • As a child, I played the original version on my dad's Apple II computer in all its monochrome glory.
  • During my teenage years and the era of Flight Simulator 4, I had a ball swooping around Chicago's Meigs Field and exploring the seemingly endless polygonal world.
  • FS 2004: A Century of Flight opened up a whole new world of flying for me, with its mix of detailed vintage and modern aircraft. I still have the little metal DC-3 they released with it on the first day. Alaskan bush flying, helicopter piloting, airline routes - I tried it all.

    The morning of my first real flying lesson five years ago, I remember creating a custom session - a C172 departing Tamiami airport in Miami - and flying the heck out of it. When I got in the real 172SP's cockpit a few hours later, I already knew where everything was and what most of it did.
  • FS X Deluxe Edition was in my hands the day it came out. Along with my college classes and my consumption of everything ATC, its online ATC multiplayer component gave me my first taste of controlling live traffic piloted by live people. It definitely helped with my phraseology and helped me build situational awareness.

    To help myself out with my Virtual ATC-ing, I actually designed my own Strip Bay software to work in conjunction with FSX. One of the FS X developers mentioned it in his blog way back when.
Flight Simulator wasn't just a game. It was an institution, that rare piece of software that was both entertaining and a learning tool that opened up the fun and demanding nature of flight to everyone - from the novice going through the flight school tutorials to the virtual heavy driver flying the Level-D 767.

It will be missed by this particular Flying Penguin.

Monday, March 02, 2009

"A Controller's Checkride" - IFR Magazine, March 2009

"The weather was rolling in hard over Pensacola, Fla. A sky full of U.S. Navy training aircraft was struggling to get down before the worst of it smothered their airfield. Departing cross-country flights were making a break for it, fleeing the oncoming front. Pilot-requested deviations were the order of the day as military trainers tunneled under and over the building cumulonimbus.

For me, the FAA trainee radar controller seated before an aging scope, the darkening skies and mounting unpredictability brewed up the perfect conditions for my first checkride."

Opening excerpt from "A Controller's Checkride"
IFR Magazine
March 2009 issue

My first-ever published non-fiction article in a national publication. 1800 words (plus graphics) detailing what it was like to get my first radar certification as an air traffic controller. This was a huge step for me as an aspiring writer, and I thank the terrific folks at IFR Magazine for contacting me and offering me the opportunity to write for them. It was a great experience.

The magazine's web site is: They don't have an online version of the full article, but I know a lot of you guys and girls are pilots who either subscribe or might be around flight schools that have copies around. For the controllers out there, the mag opened up my eyes to a lot of things that go on in the cockpit, both from a technical and psychological standing. Good stuff.