12 July 2004 -- Flock Of Rainbows
A few of the things I like in life: Waking up to find my cat sitting on my pillow GLARING at me
because I've been snoring; coming home from work to discover that the neighborhood kids have
covered my driveway with chalk artwork (it's the only smooth, paved driveway on the street);
watching the sprinklers on the golf course on a hot summer morning when the sun is just coming up
and creates a flock of rainbows; sitting on my porch in the evening and listening to the doves settle
in for the night; and sunrise on a winter morning as seen from the control tower, when the
temperature is well below zero and the entire world looks like it is coated in a fine dusting of ice
crystals. The sun's rays burst slantwise over the horizon and turn the entire landscape shimmering,
ethereal white and fragile, begging for a breath to whisk it all away.
Then there's the 'stuff' on the other end of the scale, most of it meaningless when weighed against true human suffering and loss, but no less
able to drive me NUTS! for being so trivial: Coworkers who slack off, expecting that their peers will do their work for them; people who think they
understand what motivates me when they don't have a clue who I am; and bigots of any variety. (Strange how this list consists of human
15 July 2004 -- Life Sounds vs Cat Sounds
Found something to add to the "dislike" list that has nothing to do with human beings. I reeeeeeeeeally dislike waking up at 3:30am to the sound
of what I think is the water pressure "chucking" in the pipes, only to discover that it's actually the cat puking on the bedspread. That's pretty far
up there on the list of things in life that I dislike ... in an "amused at life's ugly moments" kind of a way. LOL!!
8 August 2004 -- Thirty Years With A Frayed Left Pocket
I have reached an unavoidable conclusion. After signing up for, and never using, a LiveJournal, and then putting this pseudo-blog in place here
at Crash Debris and letting this languish as well, I am forced to admit that do not possess the blogging-gene. I believe the Human Genome
project has determined that it is located right next to the put-your-clothes-away gene, both of which seem to be dormant in my family. (In other
words, it's my parents' fault.) What I am, instead, is a storyteller. Again, it's not my fault. My father's side of the family is descended from the
telling long-winded and often un-funny jokes.
(Gentle reader, if you are taking me seriously, please step back, take a deep breath, and try again.)
Let me interject a riddle here for the readers who don't know me very well. Question: How do you tell when Crash is joking? Answer: Her lips
are moving. (This isn't entirely true, but it's a good starting point before anyone reads any further.)
So ... since I'm not a blogger, please let me tell you a verrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry long story.
One day about eighteen years ago, I was lounging around at work, my feet undoubtedly propped up on the consoles (that IS why they installed
all that nifty equipment, isn't it?), chatting with my co-workers, and we were joking about how some of the events that we witness would make a
great -- albeit frightening -- TV sitcom. And I began thinking that what would be more suitable would be a book. Just about everyone who knows
what an airplane is knows that air traffic controllers exist, and yet -- the movie "Pushing Tin" notwithstanding -- very few people actually know
what we do. For instance, on a recent flight from San Diego to New York I listened to some idiot two rows in front of me expound endlessly and
with great authority about how at the end of some flight the previous year they were stuck on a ramp for over two hours because ATC wouldn't
assign them a gate. Here's a news flash, Mr. Nitwit!! ATC doesn't assign gates. We don't track luggage either. The airline does both.
For years after that day in the tower, I kept thinking that it would be great to write a book about what life is like working in an Air Traffic Facility:
good days and bad, snow storms and ice storms, unequalled sunsets and sunrises, jokes, bawdy humor on the frequency, pilots and plow
drivers coming back with one-liners that have the controller laughing so hard he or she can't issue an instruction, tragedy, unbelievable saves ...
all of it, from the wretched coffee we will drink when we are in dire need of a boost to the nights when, after making sure there is no one trying to
land, we shut off all the airport lights and watch the Northern Lights from the best office building in the northeast. I even had a title for this
never-written tome: Thirty Years With A Frayed Left Pocket. (Yeah, it sucks, doesn't it?) This refers to the fact that some of us clip the
push-to-talk switch for our headsets onto our pants pocket, and after dragging a metal clip back and forth a half-inch about a gazillion times, the
pocket is usually the first thing to go on my jeans.
But a couple of things happened that means the book will never get written. First of all, there's the little matter of the federal government
possibly objecting to my publicizing stuff they'd rather not have the entire world finding out about. Oh, I'm sure that if the book were good
enough, and I had an agent who was enthusiastic about it, we could probably beat our way past the FAA eventually; but this is a battle I am
REALLY not interested in fighting. And believe me! The FAA would have the right to review the book prior to publication. I think I may have
even signed an affadavit to that effect some time about 20 years ago. Oh well. All of this is kind of moot point anyway, because somewhere
along the line I lost interest in the idea. The difference between putting together a series of rambling anecdotes about the job, and organizing
everything into a dialogue suitable for a book is a vast one, and as much as I enjoy talking about air traffic and the good moments and the bad,
putting that much work into writing about it just isn't something I want to do any time soon.
So instead of writing a coherent book, please allow me to blather on about it here! Oh ... Wait! This is MY website! I can blather all I want! (I
need a diabolical laugh .wav file right now!)
So where do I start? I suppose I could start with the day that 487 other potential air traffic
controllers and I stood in a huge assembly hall at the Air Traffic Academy (part of the
Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center, in lovely Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), raised our
hands, and were sworn in as government employees. Yep, I'm a Fed. And I took an oath
and signed a long affadavit thing with a bunch of conditions that I don't even remember
now, although I know it had some stuff in there about it being illegal to strike against the
United States government. (For those of you who don't know what that refers to, go look
up the PATCO air traffic controller's strike that occurred in August of 1981). But doing
this chronologically would be BORING, so I'm going to head off in another direction in a
couple of paragraphs. Before I do that, however, I would like to expound on those 488
eager, hopeful souls for a moment.
At the time I was hired by the FAA, the Air Traffic division was still in the throes of trying to recover from the strike I just mentioned. Approximately
15,000 controllers had been fired, and the Air Traffic Academy was running 24 hours a day (yes, 3 shifts) in an attempt to pump enough new
people through to restaff the system. They stepped back to 2 shifts just before I got there, but every other week I was going to class from
mid-afternoon until around midnight. Urgh. Not an easy time of day to get your brain to retain information. The program was a 4-month
screening process. If you flunked, you were out. Period. They do it much differently these days, in the interest of saving money. I'm not going
to get going on my opinion of THAT particular decision because I get kind of foam-at-the-mouth rabid about it. The point that I'm taking a very
long time to make is that when I was hired, the washout rate at the Academy was massive. I don't remember the number, but between the
Academy and training failures once new people got to the "field facilities" (towers, approach controls, etc.), about 70% of the candidates didn't
make it. So of those 488 people standing in the auditorium that day, there are probably about 140 of us left (all coming up on retirement).
One more side note, and then I'll finally talk about ATC a little bit. The strike in 1981. You will never hear me state an opinion about whether
those folks were right or wrong in their decision to strike -- I wasn't there, I don't know the ins and outs of the issues, and I don't have a crystal
ball that will show me what sort of messages were being sent from union management down to the workers. It happened. They all lost their jobs.
Ronald Reagan fired them for conducting an illegal strike (and it IS illegal ... they signed the same document I did). What I will say is that if it
weren't for that travesty in their lives, I would not have ever applied for, let alone become an air traffic controller. I am perpetually aware that my
standard of living rests on the backs of some very decent people who never recovered from the devastation of losing a stable high-paying job,
and I never forget that. It is the sort of thing that helps put your life in perspective. Ups and downs. My pleasant, affluent life had a price ... and
it was paid by someone else. There's no guilt involved here. They made their decision to walk, and in the long run, I benefited from their
misfortune. (Just for the record, I didn't scamper right in there. I got hired a year and a half after the strike.) I simply see it as a life-lesson about
how a person's lot in life can sometimes hang on the actions of someone they don't even know.
But enough of that seriousness stuff.
On to ATC ...
So you're going on a trip, eh? Perhaps you're flying off to sunny Burbank, California for a Farscape convention? You survive the check-in and
security screening process (having wisely allowed an extra THREE hours for explaining the plastic pulse pistol in your luggage), and now you and
your knee caps are jammed into a seat in coach, and you've got your head tucked in under your armpit in order to look out that itty-bitty window,
and you're wondering which sections of the airport are subject to ATC's jurisdiction.
Let me shock the crap out of you.
None of it.
ATC doesn't "OWN" the airport. The airport authority, with just one or two special exceptions, controls the airport.
BRRRRRING BRRRRING!!! (Sound of phone ringing.)
"TOWER!" (Coffee and adrenalin can have a peculiar affect on your ability to talk at normal volumes.)
"Hey, this is Dave in Airport Ops."
"Yo!" (Coffee and adrenalin can have a peculiar affect on your ability to hold a polite, coherent conversation.)
"We need to close both runways." (Not a problem unless you only have 2 to start with.)
"They're closed right now."
CRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAASSSSSSSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!! (Sound of phone being SMASHED into the cradle)
"Hey! Ops says runways are closed! Right now!"
Next transmission you hear: "UNITED TEN SEVENTY-SIX, GO AROUND, RUNWAY IS CLOSED. FLY RUNWAY HEADING, CLIMB MAINTAIN
THREE THOUSAND. CONTACT APPROACH CONTROL FOR HOLDING INSTRUCTIONS. WE'LL TRY TO GET AN ESTIMATE OF THE
LENGTH OF THE CLOSURE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE."
Air traffic controllers are responsible for providing a safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of traffic within the areas to which they have been
delegated jurisdiction. (If that sounds like a bit of memorized governmentese, you are an intelligent, perceptive person.)
I ask that you exercise some restraint with this new knowledge. The next time a pilot tells you that your flight can't go somewhere because "ATC
has closed the airport", do NOT be standing up in the aisle and yelling, "Liar, liar, pants on fire!!" First of all, the captain has NOT turned off the
seatbelt sign; and secondly, we are the scapegoat for just about every delay and piece of lost luggage out there, so we're accustomed to the
fibs. A neighbor of mine once asked me why we wouldn't let his plane land one afternoon. After asking several questions to figure out which
flight he had been on, it turned out that his plane had simply made one of the most god-awful instrument approaches we had seen in a very long
time. This isn't dangerous, folks, but it does mean that 1) the pilots are embarrassed as all hell, because they're the ones who didn't get the
aircraft established on the approach; 2) they've got to climb up and go out and try it again; and 3) most importantly, they are going to be looking
for some other explanation than "Well, folks, we just frelled the life out of that approach, and instead of flying this thing into the water tank
southeast of the airport, we've decided to ask ATC for vectors around to try it again." Statistics show that this particular explanation will have at
least 50% of the still-conscious passengers screaming in abject terror. It is much easier on everyone aboard the aircraft if the pilots try, "ATC
wouldn't let us land, so we're going out for another approach."
Let me stress one thing here. A fouled up approach is NOT dangerous. It happens. Flying an aircraft down a precisely aligned electronic beam
to reach the runway in bad weather is run-of-the-mill in this day and age, but it does require some finesse. Winds, turbulence, distractions,
cockpit workload, or a crap intercept by the controller (oh, now THAT would NEVER happen!) can all result in a poor setup for the approach. It is
not dangerous unless the pilots try to salvage it when they should just loop around and try it again. And that's what they do. If you are told that
you're going out for another approach, it's not something to worry about. It means you have a conscientious, competent flight crew up there.
The point of all this meandering drivel is that we don't have the authority to open or close airports or runways or restrict airspace or assign gates.
Our job is to make sure that when airplanes are moving, they don't bang into each other.
So let's get back to you and your kneecaps, which were just removed by your tray table when the guy in front of you leaned his seat all the way
back. "When does ATC start mucking around with my flight, Crash?" you ask.
To which I answer, "The moment your pilot asks to leave the gate." See how easy this concept is? Your airplane wants to start moving. That's
when we get into the picture.
And with that, I've got to go get groceries. I'll be back with another installment later, starting with the beginning of your trip.
Coming Soon to the Mushroom Patch: "Ground Control -- Menace or Menagerie Manager?"
6 October 2004 -- ATC: How It All Works, Part 1
Well, that was a lovely sabbatical from working on this website, wasn't it? I missed the two month's absence mark by only two days.
Picking up nowhere near where I left off two months ago, I've got a question for you folks out there in Reader's Land that is going to sound
suspiciously like a kid's riddle: How many controllers does it take to get a flight from departure airport to its destination? (Yeah, it's another of
those trick questions. I confess, it's a trap.)
As a starting point for what promises to become a typically Crash-ish epic, let me outline for the non-aviation types out there how the progression
works. Aside from providing some terms and a few references so my non-aviating visitors know what I'm talking about, it gives me an excuse to
ramble on at length ... which is what this section of my website is all about. The number of controllers involved in getting a flight from start to
finish will vary depending on the complexity of the airports (complexity is an ATC word for "busy") and the length of the flight, so what follows is
just an overview, not a hard and fast situation.
The first air traffic controller the flight crew normally contacts is known as Clearance Delivery. This controller issues the routing and altitudes that
the aircraft will fly. And any pilot who has ever flown in congested airspace knows that the routing will last about two and a half minutes after
takeoff before some other controller modifies the routing and starts vectoring the aircraft toward Anchorage (which is a little out of the way if the
flight is supposed to be from Los Angeles to Burbank). Pilots are convinced that we take an inordinate amount of pleasure out of directing them
as far off their preferred routing as possible. (They really should stop putting the idea in our heads. It's very tempting some afternoons when we
would rather be out sunning ourselves than sitting in the gloom of the radar room.)
So now your fight has its clearance. (If you don't have a clue what a clearance is or how a routing works, don't sweat it, I'll come back to that
later. But for now, imagine drawing a route on a highway map that you're going to follow while driving from Arizona to San Diego to attend
ComicCon. It's the same concept, only further off the ground that you would get in your 1975 Gremlin.) Once the passengers are all on board,
the pretzels and Eagle snacks are securely stowed in the galley, and your seats and tray tables are in the upright and locked position, the
cockpit crew contacts Ground Control.
The Ground Controller is responsible for the movement of all aircraft and vehicles on the taxiways and on any runway that is not in use for
landings and departures. Telling the airplanes to taxi from the airline terminal out to the runway may sound like child's play, but if you've ever
watched the comings and goings in the vicinity of the terminal at a busy airport, you are watching a specialized form of ballet. Large jets like a
Boeing 757 don't stop or start easily, and those suckers don't exactly turn on a dime either. A good Ground Controller won't make a jet stop and
then ask them to move again because of the amount of braking and thrust involved. A rule of thumb given to trainees (also known as Trainees
Under Rigid Discipline ... or TURDs) when they are first learning to work Ground Control is that they should keep the moving airplanes moving,
let the stopped airplanes sit. There are only a billion or so variations that can override this rule. It's a starting point that illustrates a little of what
is involved in juggling all those planes. There will be lots more on Ground Control later, but suffice it to say that this person is working as hard, if
not harder than anyone else in the tower. The only luxury they have is the option to yell "STOP!" to everyone on the frequency. Having said
that, I don't know a controller worth their salt who ever wants to get in the position where they have to do this.
What's that? Have I ever been forced to yell, "All aircraft on Ground Control ... STOP!!", you ask? Well, that would be another story wouldn't it?
Yes, I have, and I promise to come back to that small bit of embarrassment later.
But back to your journey. So now your aircraft is sitting out at the runway, but not on it, and the pilot is very suavely saying, "Ladies and
gentlemen, we're number one for departure. Flight attendants please prepare for takeoff." At this point the flight crew is talking to Local Control
(pilots know this controller as "Tower"). The Local Controller has jurisdiction over the active runways, and they usually "own" airspace within
roughly 5 miles of the airport and up to about 1000 feet above ground level (AGL). In brief, this person's job is saying "Cleared for takeoff" and
"Clear to land".
Now this is just my opinion, but in my estimation this may be the most important function in the air traffic system. The cat's cradle of arrivals and
departures at a busy airport is woven by a lot of controllers, but the process of heaving that much tin into the air, and the transition to getting a
flying bus back onto the planet in a controlled fashion are things that cannot be easily interrupted. When the planes are in that close to the
airport there is not a lot of room for mistakes in judgement, and when things start to go NOT as planned (for instance a pilot decides they need
to "reject a landing" for any reason and the controller suddenly has an airplane in the air that was supposed to be on the ground) the number of
factors that have to be dealt with multiply very fast.
And I just gotta tell you ... It is SO MUCH FUN to work Local Control. There is no way to describe the rush you get when it is busy and everything
is working right. And when things get a bit crazed, and you straighten them out, and all the planes are where they are supposed to be, that's
even more of a rush. (Yep, it's conclusive. Crash has got a screw loose.)
At a small airport (one like mine), one person may be doing all three of the jobs I've just described all at the same time. A place like Atlanta or
Chicago or LAX is at the other end of the spectrum. They use automation to get 90% of the clearance information out to the aircraft because
there are too many planes to do it all on the radio frequency. There are often two Ground Controllers and two Local Controllers working at the
same time (they split up the airport into sections). There may be one or more controllers up there working as Coordinators, providing assistance
and helping to keep track of the airplanes. So already we have an answer to my original question of either "1" or as many as "7".
Is your head spinning yet? No? Great, let's move on.
So now your airplane is in the air, and if it's a new generation jet, you've got more of your weight resting in the back of the seat than on your butt,
and you're beginning to wonder if your aircraft has been rerouted to the moon. At this point, the flight crew talks to the first of a series of radar
controllers. This first sector is generally known as Departure Control. The radar controllers may be sitting in a dark, windowless room
somewhere below the control tower, or they may be in a dark, windowless room somewhere miles from the airport. In either case, your flight crew
is talking to the Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility (TRACON), which in most cases owns the airspace within 40-60 miles of the primary
airport and up to 10,000 feet. (Some of the busier facilities own up to 15,000 feet, but that's an exception.) A TRACON may have dozens of
airports under their control, or just a handful. It depends on geography, traffic density, and the availability of radar and radio frequency
coverage. If there is a big honkin' mountain range east of the radar antenna, there won't be any way for the radar to "see" on the far side of the
mountains, and the facility will do everything up to and including bribery to give away the airspace rather than work the traffic "non-radar". (We
loves our radar ... Yessssssss, precious. Loves our radar we do.) The purpose of the TRACON remains the same, however, no matter how
many airports the controllers deal with and regardless of whether they have some areas below radar coverage. TRACON controllers (also
known as Terminal Controllers) specialize in getting the aircraft in and out of the airspace in the vicinity of the airport(s).
(By the way, the first tower I worked at was in a radar "black hole". Back then I thought that was fun. I'm older and wiser now ... errr ... um ...
okay, I'm older now.)
But let's get back to your flight. You are now authorized to use approved electronic devices (please leave your cellphones turned off until after
the aircraft has landed, but you may now turn on your laptop and shovel a Farscape DVD into it, and attempt to 'Scape the passenger sitting
next to you), and after passing through one or more TRACON sectors, you are about to leave Terminal airspace. At this point the aircraft will not
only change to another controller, they will also be talking to a controller in an entirely different facility. Your flight is now entrusted to the care of
the Enroute Controllers.
There are (I'm going to get this number wrong, I just know I am) ... 22 Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC) across the country. As a rule of
thumb (with exceptions everywhere you turn) they control traffic above 10,000 feet, taking care of the aircraft once it's is airborne and until it is
ready to go back to a TRACON for arrival sequencing and landing. That's an oversimplification, but it'll serve for now. These facilities have
hundreds of controllers, as opposed to dozens at the TRACONs, and may control several hundred miles of airspace.
So your aircraft will soar along, dodging birds, Farscape modules, and high-fliying fools sitting in aluminum lawn chairs suspended beneath 42
helium weather balloons (if you don't know what I'm talking about, check out the introduction to Plausible Deniability ... it's a true story and I still
can't believe the guy survived it), getting passed from sector to sector, from one ARTCC facility to the next, until it starts its descent for landing.
And then you will reverse the process I've described so far. The crew will talk to the outer sectors of a TRACON first, eventually making it to the
Arrival Controller, who will get the aircraft sequenced (in line) for landing. Somewhere around 10-20 miles from the airport the crew will talk to the
Local Controller again, who will clear them to land, and once they're on the ground and off the runway, they'll talk to the Ground Controller, who
will direct them to the ramp, and you can finally turn on your cellphone.
So that's the rough and ready, over-simplified overview. When I come back I'll talk about how all of this neatly arranged mayhem can all go
wrong by something as simple as having a snapping turtle the size of a manhole cover wander out on the runway ... or better yet, a moose (he
was a bit larger than a manhole cover).
"Dont quit your day job" ... or ... "Why controllers aren't hired as stand-up comedians":
The aircraft to the right is a B747SP. It is a short-bodied version of the B747
designed for especially long trips (SP = special performance). There were only 11
of them ever produced. For those of you who are familiar with the B747, you can
see that this is a very short aircraft. Seen in real life, taxiing on the airport, this is a
very short, pudgy, squat-looking, CUTE airplane.
ATC Comedian to Pilot: "Do you have time for a question?"
Unsuspecting Pilot: "Sure, go ahead."
ATC Comedian: "We were just discussing your aircraft, and we were curious.
Was that manufactured by Boeing, or by Fischer Price?"
Yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck. (The pilot was NOT amused.)
|Mushroom Patch -- Page 1
July 12, 2004 thru October 6, 2004
9 October 2004 -- Don't Quit Your Day Job ...