Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Technical Difficulties

Update: Everything is back up and running as normal.


I know a lot of my readers are also members of I was made aware that the site was down this morning by one of the other users.

I've been on the line with the web hosting service I use. They're aware of the issue with the server and assure me they are working diligently to correct it. I'm assuming it's a little more complicated than a simple reboot would fix.

There's also no need to worry about your information. The data is backed up in increments daily, and fully backed up every week.

I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused any of you. If you have any questions, let me know.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What's in a Number?

Over on, there's a discussion going on about what number of airplanes would be considered "busy". Someone was trying out a simulator that topped out at about 12 planes and was wondering how well that number measures up to the real world.

There's no answer to that. Every facility is different. A Center controller joined the discussion and said he'd worked 59 planes at one point (!!!). Here at P31, we typically wouldn't have more than 15 airplanes on a scope at once, though I've seen higher numbers than that on occasion.

Here's what I added to the thread:


It's not necessarily the number of planes, but what each of them is doing that makes things complicated.

If you have 12 airliners all wanting to land full-stop at the same airport, it's fairly straightforward. It's sequencing work, of course, but nothing strange. They all just want to land, and you just need to line them up somehow.

Now if you have...
  • Three military trainers doing multiple practice approaches and constantly changing their minds. Two of the students are foreign nationals, whose English is barely understandable and who disconcertingly answer every instruction - from approach clearances to traffic calls - with only a "roger".
  • One fast-moving F-15 with an automation issue who won't handoff to anybody, ten miles from the boundary and screaming along at 450 knots.
  • Three airliners trying to get down from your northeast gate, weeding through a swarm of VFR targets maneuvering in their way. It's like Resolution Advisory Bingo. Then you need to sequence them with your military practice approach trainers.
  • Two other airliners trying to climb out through the same northeast gate (playing chicken with 737s is fun!) and through the same VFR targets.
  • A military trainer doing aerobatic airwork right in the middle of your southern arrival gate.
  • A Lifeguard priority Lear Jet trying to beat the airliner pack in while dodging the aerobatic guy.
  • An ornery Mooney pilot who's bitching about getting vectored around so he doesn't get run over by the jets.
... then it's a little more interesting.

Those are just the guys you're talking to. Add on to that point-outs from other sectors - like military jet trainers climbing high through your airspace out that same northeast gate or a pair of slow-as-molasses IFR helicopters cutting across your final, trying to get to another sector - and it gets more fun.

That pretty much describes an average session on our East sector.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Golden Rule

  • "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise."
    - Christianity, Gospel of Luke, 6:31
  • "One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self."
    - Hinduism, Mahabharata
  • "Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you."
    - Islam, Muhammad, The Farewell Sermon
  • "Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain, and your neighbor's loss as your own loss."
    - Taoism, T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien
The Golden Rule has many incarnations, but one common message: treat others as you want to be treated.

It's Not All About You

All members of an Air Traffic Control facility operate as a single team. Sure, you may have six different radar sectors open with a controller at each position and each with their own individual traffic, but they all affect each other. As you work, it's important to not only monitor your own traffic, but keep an eye on what's going on in the rest of the room. One way or another, it will affect what you do.

I'll use our Z/AR sector as an example. I've written about that sector before in an old post. It's the one that looks like this:

... but lately has been looking like this:

Very tight quarters, and it can get out of hand quickly.

When others sectors are feeding the Z/AR, they need to be very mindful of what the Z/AR has going on. The Z/AR controller simply doesn't have a lot of room to work (essentially a 10nm x 10nm space and two usable IFR altitudes: 1700 and 3000). A misplaced feed can send things downhill very quickly.

Let's say our Z/AR South Whiting sector has a pattern full of helicopters doing 80 knots over the ground. I wouldn't be doing him any favors by force-feeding him a T-34 going 190 knots right into the middle of his pattern. Instead, I could reduce the T-34's speed all the way back, or vector him around a little, or - if the pattern's really full and the Z/AR controller is going down the crapper - tell the T-34, "Unable practice approaches to South Whiting, the pattern is completely full. Say request." (If his callsign is "Ghostrider", that'll be the icing on that cake.)

The fact is, an hour later I could be working the Z/AR sector and my coworker could be on the sector I was operating. If I'm covered up in slow-moving helos and he's got a few fastmovers wanting to join the party, I hope that he'll take a look at what I have going on and make a decision that will, if not help me, at least not hurt me.

Tonight, actually, I was working the Z/AR with a full load of traffic. My fellow controllers on my neighboring sectors did a bang-up job of feeding me additional aircraft. They paid attention to my traffic flow and vectored the aircraft into advantageous positions, simultaneously reducing the speed on the fast movers. We also coordinated on certain feeds. Big thanks to TZ and LA for the help. It really showed how one sector can affect the operation of the rest of the room.

The Art of the Slough

Slough. It's a dirty, dirty word.

The dictionary defines is as:
  • slough. Transitive verb: to get rid of or discard as irksome, objectionable, or disadvantageous —usually used with off
Or, to use the vernacular, you're dumping s*** onto your fellow controller.

Another example: I'm working the West (W/AR) side and I don't have much going on. My buddy is working the East (E/AR) side and is getting his butt handed to him. I have nary a plane, and his scope's lit up like a Christmas tree - on fire. I'm twiddling my thumbs. He hasn't stopped talking in 30 minutes.

An airplane calls me up. "Pensacola approach, KATT153, with request." The KATTs - a T-6 Texan II squadron from NAS Pensacola - can be inbound from anywhere, so I say, "KATT153, Pensacola approach, remain clear of Class Charlie, say position and altitude."

He tells me where and how high he is. I find the VFR target on my scope. He's at 7500, tracking eastbound, already 5 miles inside the East's airspace and getting farther from mine every second. I am not required to talk to this aircraft, since he's not in my airspace.

I now have two options:
  1. Slough him. He's not inside my airspace, right? Let my buddy deal with him. "KATT152, contact Pensacola approach on 119.0." See ya. Not my problem. Back to twiddling my thumbs.


  2. Help my fellow controller out and take some of the workload off of his hands.

    Me: "KATT153, remain clear of Class Charlie until identified, say request."
    KATT153: "Uh, KATT153, remaining clear of Class Charlie, uh, I'd like a localizer two-six approach at Pensacola Regional, an ILS one-seven approach at Pensacola Regional, a TACAN seven-left at Navy Sherman, and a PAR seven-left full stop at Navy Sherman. I'd also like some holding at Saufley before the TACAN. And I have information Tango."

    As he's telling me this, I'm writing all of his requests down on a strip. I verify the ATIS he gave me is current. I also type the following into my ARTS keyboard:



    That input will:
    * Generate a VFR squawk code for KATT153
    * Add TEX2 for the aircraft type
    * Put L26 (for Localizer 26) in the scratch pad
    * And - last but not least - put the aircraft's squawk and information on our "E" scope, a.k.a. the East sector. My partner's sector. When the radar tags him up, he'll be displayed automatically on the East's scope.

    Me: "KATT153, squawk 0104. I have your request."
    KATT154: "KATT153, squawking 0104."

    I write the squawk code on the strip and lean over to my partner, strip in hand. I wait until he's got a second, then pass him the strip. As I talk, KATT153 is already tagging up on his scope, displaying his "E" tag, since that's where I put him.

    Me: "KATT153 is going to be calling you, seven southeast of PENSI, wants Localizer 26, not identified."

    He acknowledges it. I gave him only the information he needs to know immediately: where the guy is, what he wants right now, and his radar identification status. The strip I wrote and placed in his hand has everything he needs to know about the pilot's intentions after the localizer approach, so when East gets a moment he can formulate a plan.

    Me: "KATT153, contact Pensacola approach on 119.0, they have your request."

    When KATT153 checks in on East's frequency, all my buddy needs to do now is:

    East: "KATT153, Pensacola approach, radar contact seven southeast of PENSI, fly heading one-four-zero, vectors localizer two-six."

    No taking down long-winded requests. No stripmarking. No keyboard entries. No target-hunting. No issuing squawk codes. I took care of all that. The busywork is done. Now he can concentrate on the real work: providing that aircraft with what he's requested.

Friday, April 03, 2009

A Night at the Circus

I just came back from seeing Cirque du Soleil's Saltimbanco performance over in Mobile, AL.

If you've never seen a Cirque show, I highly recommend them. Great music, wonderful performers, and truly incredible feats of physical skill. It's definitely filed under "something different." I understand that they're not everyone's cup of tea. Some people prefer the traditional three ring circus - with elephants and lions and all that - and that's fine. Different strokes for different folks.

This was my fifth time seeing a Cirque show. My wife and I started with La Nouba, the resident show at Downtown Disney in Orlando, FL, and then we saw three shows in Miami: Dralion, Quidam, and Alegria. The latter were "tent" shows, where they actually set up an enormous circus tent in a park for the show.

All of them were excellent, but my two favorites were La Nouba and Dralion. It's hard to compete with the amazing theatre custom-built for La Nouba, which allows some really complex set pieces. On the other hand, I think Dralion's soundtrack is the best of them all. It's both powerful and beautiful.

La Nouba's "Power Track" sequence:

The intro to Dralion:

was different. Firstly, opening in 1992, it's Cirque's oldest running show. Secondly, it was recently redesigned to be shown in standard arenas, as opposed to the tents. Our performance was in the University of Southern Alabama's sports arena. Because of both the age and the venue (a basketball arena? for Cirque?), I originally my doubts.

I'm happy to report that my expectations were very much exceeded. The show turned out to be very, very good. The clown/mime was hilarious with his heavy use of audience participation. The Russian swing was freakin' trippy. My favorite, though, was the boleadoras - essentially percussionists that use a mix of drumming, boleadoras, and flamenco dancing. Poly-rhythm heaven. And the music had taiko drums involved. Hell yeah.

Our next project is to get over to Las Vegas at some point to see:
  • "O" (pronounced "oh", as in "eau", the French word for water) - a Cirque show designed around water.
  • Zumanity: Leave the kids at home. Cirque for the adults.
  • Blue Man Group: I'm a huge fan of percussion, and these guys are awesome.