10 October 2004 -- ATC: How It All Works, Part 2
I would like to get into something a little more technical for a moment, because it is something that I get asked a lot when people find out I'm an
air traffic controller. (Answer to the most frequently asked question is: No, I have no idea where the airline sent your luggage. I don't do
How do the airplanes get routed from one airport to another?
To start with, in congested airspace like the northeastern U.S., they don't have much of a choice. The routes are pretty well established, and the
airlines and pilots are required to take whatever the airspace designers (FAA employees) lay out. But despite that restriction, either the airline's
dispatch office or the pilot (of non-airline operated flights) files a flight plan with another portion of the FAA, it gets entered into the National
Airspace System (NAS) computer, and we get something that looks like this:
This is called a Flight Progress Strip, it's made of paper, and it contains pretty much everything we need to get the flight into the air, and we
scribble all sorts of unreadable notations (because lousy handwriting is a prerequisite to being a controller) all over it to help us keep track of
where the airplane is and what it is doing: departure runway, special instructions, whether the crew has received the clearance, and so on.
LOF8092: This is the aircraft's callsign. When we transmit instructions to the aircraft, LOF stands for "Waterski" (please don't ask me why ... I
haven't a clue), and it is a United Express commuter airline. So this is WATERSKI EIGHTY NINETY TWO when we talk to them.
T/E145/F: This tells us what type of aircraft they are flying (an Embraer 145 commuter jet), that they have anti-collision equipment on board
(that's the "T"), and what navigational equipment they are using (that's the "F").
219: This is a computer identification number that allows us to retrieve the information from the NAS computer.
3460: Each aircraft within our airspace is assigned a unique 4-digit code that the flight crew sets into a special radio called a 'transponder'. This
allows the radar tracking computer linked to our radar to identify the aircraft, and display flight information right on the radar scope.
P2255: Proposed time of departure, in Zulu time. This used to be called GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), but is now referred to as Universal
Coordinated Time (UCT). No matter what the label, it is the single time standard used around the world for aviation. By using one method of
telling time, there shouldn't be any confusion about when a flight is due to depart or arrive regardless of how many time zones it crosses while
airborne. However, please note the deliberate use of the word "shouldn't", and don't ever ask me "Hey, Crash? What time is it?" because after
20+ years dealing with Zulu time, I still have trouble converting and often don't have a clue.
280: The flight crew is requesting 28,000 feet as a final cruising altitude.
BTV ALB J6 LRP DELRO1 IAD: Here's the guts of the flight plan. The aircraft is going to depart from Burlington, VT (BTV), and fly southwest to
pass over a hunk of navigational equipment located on the ground somewhere in the vicinity of Albany, NY (ALB). From there, they are going to
pick up a high-altitude highway in the sky (J6 -- the J stands for Jet Route), which may be a straight line, or may have some turns in it. They'll
stay on this 'highway' thingamabob until they get to Lancaster, PA (LRP), at which point they are going to pick up an arrival procedure (DELRO1)
that consists of turns and descents and speed restrictions that begin to set the aircraft up for landing at their destination airport, Washington
Dulles (IAD). Clear as mud, right?
At this point, I'm sure you're dying to ask, "Yo, Crash! Where's the GPS everyone uses for navigation these days? What are you? Running 10
years behind the times?" (No, it's more like 20 years behind the times, but I probably shouldn't go into that right now.)
The real answer is that the aircraft will probably use GPS, along with several other forms of navigational assistance, to fly this route. But in an
area as jam-packed full of airplanes as the northeast, allowing direct GPS routes (as in straight-line from Burlington to Washington) is a
prescription for mayhem. This particular aircraft will quite literally be in line for landing at Washington Dulles almost from the moment it takes off
from Burlington. It's that busy between here and there. To deal with the chaos, the airspace gurus have created, in essence, one-way streets in
the sky, and other streets that can only be used by aircraft going certain speeds (envision what would happen if a moped tried to hold its own in
the midst of bumper-to-bumper highway traffic). Slow guys go low, faster folks get the higher altitudes, and we do our best to keep the mopeds
from getting run over by the 85 mph SUVs.
And when it comes to using GPS and other cutting-edge equipment, you have to remember that this is the FAA, where our motto is:
"Proudly using yesterday's technology tomorrow!"
30 October 2004 -- Tinkerbell In Snowshoes
I would like to wander away from ATC for a moment. (It also looks like I wandered away from the Mushroom Patch for a bit ... again. Ahhhh, the
difficult decisions in life: whether tis nobler to write NC-17 rated Farscape Fanfic, or blather on about topics important only to me.) But I already
digress, and I'm barely three lines into this entry.
Four days ago the weather here in northern Vermont was remarkably hazy (a condition normally reserved for summer), gray, overcast, and
warm. In short, the air was full of moisture. Overnight the skies cleared, and cold air moved in from the north. (That is 'north' as in Canada,
Alberta, icebergs, eskimos, and the arctic circle). And something interesting happened. We got a thick frost -- the soft, squashy type that is
easily removed from your car windshield with the help of an Urban Ice Scraper (i.e. a credit card).
"Whoa, Crash! A frost?", you ask with scathing sarcasm, adding, "I'll bet you NEVER get those in Vermont!" as you roll your eyes.
Yep, a frost. And being something of a budding insomniac, I was awake at 2:00am when it began forming. I just happened to step outside to
grab something out of my car just as the first, tenuous crystals had begun to appear, forming along the streaks of dirt and dust on the
windshield. And with all the moisture in the air from the out-going system, the frost was forming so fast you could almost watch it build up. It
wasn't so moist that crystals were forming on me or my clothes, but anything that had dissipated its heat (such as the grass or leaves) was
already showing signs of the first, glittering layer. I nabbed some warmer clothes, and the big "for emergencies" flashlight, and went for a walk.
(Where I live you can pull this off at 2:00am without getting mugged or stopped by the cops.) It is difficult to describe this without it sounding like
a scene out of Peter Pan, but I'm going to try anyway, because it was one of those rare moments that so many of us miss out on while we are
(quite understandably) occupied with the billions of details involved in simply getting on with our lives.
Initially, it was only visible wherever the flashlight was shining on it, as though most of the leaves and grass had been dusted with ground glass.
Sweeping the flashlight around the back yard, it was as though the plants sprang to life only for the length of time that the beam of light hit them,
and then sank back into the ground when it had passed. As I stood there slowly freezing to death, it started to build up, but never fast enough
that it could actually be seen happening. It was like a horror picture where the creepy monster thing is always lurking just behind the intrepid
hero. I would look at a bush or the leaves on a tree or the wilted Siberian iris, and then go check on something else for a few moments, and
when I looked back, everything was coated even deeper in glistening crystals. There was a mischievous fairy flitting about just over my shoulder,
equipped with a spray can of sparkling, magical dust. When I turned left, it darted to the right and added a little more to the trees and to the
dried, frost-crisped flowers. When the beam of the flashlight arced right, the fairy went dancing through the dark and shook another layer of
glistening crystals onto the grass.
It was magical. Every time I turned around, something I had looked at just twenty or thirty seconds earlier had a new, thicker coat of sparkling ice
crystals. The only thing missing was a hushed tinkling of tiny chimes -- that soft shattering glass sound that says something other-worldly is
going on in this suburban back yard -- and maybe some giggling Tinkerbell laughter.
Very cool. (No pun intended.)
After about 40 minutes of wandering around slowly freezing my extremities off, I went back inside to the subdued clanking of the electric
baseboard heaters, the hum of the appliances in the kitchen, and the 'whoosh' of the cooling fan in my computer, and the spell was broken.
I wish there was someway to express it more accurately, or better yet to bundle those 40 minutes up and provide a download here so everyone
could share them. It was one of those rare moments in life when all the trappings of logical and industrial civilization dropped away for a short
time, and the sprites and pixies, garbed in something warmer than gossamer and cobwebs, had a brief opportunity to rule the natural world.
"Dont quit your day job" ... or ... "Why controllers aren't hired as stand-up comedians":
Definition of a Near-Midair Collision (as explained by an air traffic controller):
A near-midair collision is when the lady sitting in 14A (next to the window) turns to her husband and says, "George? George? Why are they
eating steak when we have chicken?"
(If you don't get it right away, keep working on it. It'll come to you. It is funny in a very warped, Crash-Debris kind of a way.)
4 November 2004 -- The Day The Controller Yelled STOP!!
By request, and as promised in an earlier entry, the management of Crash Debris would like to bring you the thrills, the chills, and the heart
pounding excitement of ... The Day The Controller Yelled "STOP"!
Yes, sweet Virginia, there was a day when I was working Ground Control, and had to yell "STOP!" to everyone on the frequency. I would like to
point out that this is the sort of last ditch instruction that is reserved for Ground Control -- it does NOT work particularly well when the aircraft are
in the air. If they come to a stop, they tend to fall down. Very messy ... not to mention distressing to everyone involved.
So, presented to you here by special request from several people, is the saga of my brush with a fate worse than death ... that of being involved
in the hideousness of a Golden Towbar Award.
Please allow me to begin by defining two potentially confusing terms.
Towbar: A towbar is that long pole that connects the aircraft tug to the nose wheel of an airplane when they are BACKING the airplane away
from the terminal gate. Without the towbar to connect the tug to the airplane, there would be no "Reverse" gear. So what you have to
concentrate on here is the relationship between the towbar and the capacity for the aircraft to go backwards.
Golden Towbar Award: This is one of those not-real awards that no one ever actually receives, and yet any controller worth her or his salt will
bust a gut trying to make sure they never earn it anyway. Pictures speak louder than words, so ... THIS is a Golden Towbar Award:
When a controller (through inattention or excessive workload) manages to create this, or fails to prevent this situation from occurring on a piece
of pavement too narrow for either aircraft to turn around, it is just embarrassing as all hell! This is NOT a "Go to your supervisor and confess
your stupidity" kind of a moment. This is a "Move out of town, out of the state, and out of the country because you're too embarrassed to ever
unlucky to pick a couple of DC-10's, as shown here) sitting in their cockpits, waving at each other, and saying, "Man, is that Ground Controller a
cluck or what?" Kind of tough to cover this one up, ladies and gentlemen. If you're having a really bad day, you pull this in front of the terminal
there looking out the window, saying, "Man, is that Ground Controller a cluck or what?"
And what's even better about a Golden Towbar Award, it just refuses to go away quickly. It sits out there on the frelling taxiway for stinkin'
HOURS until the airlines can get one or more tugs out to the aircraft (and you just KNOW the tug drivers are saying, "Man, is that Ground
Controller a cluck or what?"), back them up, turn one or both around, and get them moving again.
So you hang your head in shame, get someone to relieve you from position, ask for some Trauma Leave (and get turned down since there isn't
any such thing), sign out early, and head home. You stop at the Quickie Mart for a tank of unleaded gas, a six pack of beer, a package of
Ho-Ho's (because controllers are into health food), and a bag of popcorn for dinner, and when you get to the register, the high school kid looks
at you, and you just KNOW he's thinking, "Man, is this person a cluck or what?"
Suffice it to say that you are well-advised to do ANYTHING to avoid a Golden Towbar Award.
What did I do to get myself in this situation, you ask?. NOTHING!! Reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally! It wasn't my fault!!
I'm afraid the remainder of the story is a bit of a letdown, but here it is anyway.
As often happens with a northeastern airport during the summer months, on this particular day there was construction going on. It seems as
though each year once the snow melts, the airport authorities of every airport north of Washington D.C. simultaneously develop an overwhelming
need to dig up as much pavement as possible, without regard for how it affects the movement of air traffic. (For a number of years I've been
harboring a suspicion that there is some sort of training course provided to airport management personnel instructing them how to identify the
stretches of pavement that will most adversely affect ATC's attempts to keep airplanes moving if a small legion of bucket loaders were to tear up
the asphalt.) On this particular day, the clu-- ... er, the Ground Controller had to cope with the small detail that every taxiway leading to/from the
main terminal ramp, save one, had been transformed into an excavation site reminiscent of the Big Dig (the I-93 project in downtown Boston).
Unfortunately, the only remaining taxiway led out onto one of the two primary runways. So every single aircraft moving to or from 3/4 of the
airline terminal was being funneled into one small taxiway. (This did NOT happen at Burlington Airport, by the way. It was a larger, busier airport
several hundred miles south of Burlington.)
Suffice it to say that Ground Control was a bit more chaotic than usual. There may have been 10-15 aircraft moving at that particular moment,
many of them just truckin' along otherwise uncluttered bits of pavement, but getting in and out of the ramp required some pretty fancy juggling
with the Local Controller who owned the runway I needed to borrow quite frequently in order to move any ground traffic. Just to make things
more interesting, that single taxiway was directly opposite the "bay" formed by two of the terminal building concourses. It is a good guess that my
efforts were being fueled by more caffeine than Juan Valdez can load onto the back of a single Columbian burro, so we have to assume I was
revved up, bouncing off the walls (windows actually, since it was a control tower) and really grooving on the whole "keep the big bumper cars with
wings from bumping into each other" thing. (I really do enjoy doing the work. There is no better job on the planet. Better employers than the
federal government, yes. Better jobs? Not possible.)
In addition to whatever assorted aircraft I had moving around the airport, I had two jets coming into the ramp, and two going out, and it was
maaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhvelous, dahling. It was just going to work. There was just enough room for them to get by, and I had it all figured out,
and they knew who was first, second, third, and fourth, and I had to pull one aside on a stub of un-demolitioned taxiway to let the others through,
and I had control of the runway, so the two departures were going to be able to keep moving and let the arrivals in, and ... IT WAS GOING TO
When what to my wondering eyes should appear?!?!?! But a FIFTH airplane coming off the ramp that was NOT talking to me!!! And if he didn't
stop, he was going to clog my single remaining bit of pavement that I was relying on to make this entire cat's cradle not turn into an aviator's
Gordian knot of aluminum!! My lovely plan was going to dren right before my eyes!!! It was going to wind up looking like THIS!!! ...
"Just yell STOP, Crash!" you all cry out!
(It's such a simple solution, isn't it?)
Here's the kicker. Until the pilot calls you and tells you his callsign, you, the controller, don't
know who that is!! There are half a dozen aircraft down there all wearing the same paint job,
and all of their callsigns start with the airline name. That doesn't help if you don't know the
flight number of that rolling collection of tin and rivets. And it was going to happen right in front
of the terminal!! It was going to be the end of my life as I knew it!! I'd never live down a
five-way Golden Towbar Award!! It was unheard of in the annals of air traffic!!! I was going to
go down in the ATC history books as the "Is she a cluck or what?" controller who had a
Five-Way Golden Towbar. Ohhhh, the humiliation, the humiliation.
I yelled "STOP!"
(I told you this was going to be an anti-climactic ending.)
Actually, I yelled, "All aircraft on Ground Control, STOP! Everyone just stop!" <insert lots of screeching tire noises here ... just for effect>
EVERYONE ... even the mystery jet on the ramp ... came to a stop. *WHEW!!* I won't have to move to Outer Mongolia, change my name, hide
my face under a paper bag for the rest of my life, and take up yak herding after all.
My next transmission: "<Airline Name> jet on the terminal ramp, say your callsign." After he confesses his identity and I tell him not to move a
single rivet, I get everything else on the airport moving again, and then finish untangling the little starburst pattern on the main ramp.
So there it is: my brush with ignominy. The next time I offer to tell a story, you'll decline the invitation, won't you? <G>
Background: When a controller first arrives at a facility, be it as a newly minted, ready-to-learn controller or as the result of transferring from one
facility to another, depending on the size and complexity of the facility they face anywhere from months to years as a "developmental" ... which is
a fancy word for "trainee". It is at best a highly stressful period of time, since failure can result in an involuntary move to a less difficult facility, or
possibly being removed entirely (i.e. fired). Given the wrong environment, it is nothing less than complete degradation, a total tearing down of
every bit of your self-esteem, and thorough servitude to every whim of your trainers (these are just controllers). However, given the RIGHT
attitude and environment, it can be a great deal of fun. It is challenging and exciting, and some of the situations you get into can be downright
As you approach checkout (certification) on a position, a rite of passage normally occurs that is known as "Stump The Dummy". Again, in the
wrong environment this becomes nothing better than a session of mental and emotional brutalization of the developmental, designed to ensure
that they know how stupid they are and to demonstrate the mental superiority of their trainer.
But in the right environment, "Stump The Dummy" is intended to make sure that the instructors have done their job correctly, that there have
been no oversights in the training, and that there are no knowledge gaps that are going to create a problem for the newly ordained controller
once they are standing there all by themselves. (I gotta tell you ... the very first time you are turned completely loose as a facility-rated
controller, it CAN be absolutely terrifying. You've been doing exactly the same thing with someone standing behind you for MONTHS, and
suddenly the "Safety Net" is gone and you're responsible for your down decisions. EEK! You have no choice except to get over it in about 3-4
Back to Stump The Dummy ... I've been fortunate enough to be in the RIGHT environment a number of times. It is teamwork in pursuit of
competence at its funniest and its best. Soooooooo ... (finally) ...
Trainer: All right. I've got one for you. You're standing up here one night and you look out to the southeast, and up on the hilltop you see this
really huge, extremely bright fire burning. It's out there for about fifteen minutes, and then disappears completely. A plane checks in on the
frequency and asks what it was. What do you tell them?
Crash (who really doesn't have the slightest clue what the correct answer is): I tell them it's Druids sacrificing a virgin.
Trainer: SHE'S READY FOR CHECKOUT! Turn her loose!
1) Apologies to any Druids out there. I know you don't really sacrifice virgins, but I had to come up with an answer quickly.
2) Correct answer was that it was a tobbaco barn burning. They sometimes spontaneously combust, burn VERY hot and very fierce for about 15 minutes, and then the
fire will just go out.
25 January 2005 -- Life Is Good
Woohoo!!! I let this section slide something magnificent this time, didn't I? All in a good cause, however, since a good portion of my time away
from The Mushroom Patch was spent adding a very Browder-Centric Screen Captures section to Crash Debris. Let me begin a short explanation
by saying that I absolutely adore screen caps. If I'm watching a DVD on my laptop, I can't seem to get through a movie or an episode of a show
without pausing a couple hundred times or more in order to nab some screen captures. Especially with Farscape but equally true with an awful
lot of what is making its way to DVD these days, there are always a myriad small details to be appreciated in the background if you can just sit
and examine the scene long enough. (On the other hand, if Ben Browder is on screen, the details worthy of appreciation might be in the
So the day came when I discovered that I had several gazillion (no, I don't know how many zeroes there are in a gazillion) screen captures
stashed on my computer and couldn't think of anything to do with them other than look at them repeatedly and, depending on what the picture
was of, drool on my keyboard. In the end, I decided the best thing would be to share. Ta da!!! A Screen Captures section! It will take time, but
eventually I'll upload the whole shootin' match.
In the meantime, here I sit with a cat in my lap. (Sounds a bit like a Dr. Suess story, doesn't it?) Jadzia Dax (the furry one, not the one played by
Terry Ferrell) suffers from laptop envy. She is of the quite correct opinion that the purpose of a human lap is to provide a resting place for a
spoiled, over-fed feline. Unfortunately, that spot is all too often occupied by 'Moya', my Hewlett-Packard laptop. As a result, the Dax Factor
suffers from laptop envy and sometimes muscles her way into my lap with little regard for the effect cat fur has on electronic components. The
positive side of the situation is that I can blame typographical errors on a strategically placed cat's ass.
There are many things occurring in the far frozen north this evening that I could choose to be disgruntled over: subzero temperatures, an ice
dam on the shed roof that (if the temperatures ever rise to above freezing) should funnel melt-water quite nicely into where I store my motorcycle
for the winter, a coworker who believes that the appropriate response to a request to get back to work is "Fuck you", a new TV remote that
obstinately refuses to run the cable box, a cable remote that obstinately refuses to run either the TV or the DVD player, rising taxes, falling
arches, and a waistline that believes Jabba the Hut has a magnificent physique. But when you add it all up and compare it to a cat curled up in
my lap purring because she has managed to take "the spot" away from my laptop, then all that other crap doesn't amount to anything worth
The driveway is shoveled, the sun is shining, today is my version of "Friday" (even though it is Thursday), and the Tyrannosauras rex is extinct,
which makes going for a walk a whole lot less hazardous than it might have been several million years ago. Life is good.
30 January 2005 -- Reincarnation
Here's a stray thought -- apropos to absolutely nothing
having to do with air traffic control, Farscape, or life in
general -- that I felt was worth sharing.
If there is such a thing as reincarnation, in my next life I
would like to come back as my cat, Jadzia Dax. She seems
to have the correct approach to life, made possible by my
efforts to ensure that she is thoroughly spoiled.
|Mushroom Patch -- Page 2
October 9, 2004 thru January 30, 2005
"Dont quit your day job" ... or ... "Why controllers aren't hired as stand-up comedians":
2 November 2004 -- Don't Quit Your Day Job
5 November 2004 -- Don't Quit Your Day Job