The Fisk Funnel
AVweb continues its coverage of EAA AirVenture 1998 ... .
Picture yourself at the skinny end of a funnel. You have to decide how much of what went in the fat end gets to come out the skinny end, and in what order. Now imagine that airplanes are what went in the other end. All kinds of airplanes. From cabin class twins to tiny single-seat experimentals. Controllers have nightmares like this after eating spicy foods right before bed. That's what it's like to work at Fisk.
Fisk is a temporary ATC facility located in a house trailer about eight miles southwest of OSH. Four controllers with nerves of steel and great spotting skills use a radio and binoculars to sequence the airplanes into a single file line that initially follows the flashing strobes to Fisk then follows the railroad tracks east to land on whichever runways are active at OSH. Chicago and Atlanta may battle it out 364 days a year, but it's hard to imagine a busier bunch of controllers than the team at Fisk on the day before OSH opens. From 1000 to 1100 this morning, Fisk sequenced 149 airplanes. That's an average of two and a half airplanes a minute.
Sometimes airplanes arrive at Fisk already having formed a nicely spaced single file line from Ripon. More often they arrive in random clusters and Fisk has to bring some order to the group. Pilots monitor the Fisk frequency and every single airplane gets talked to and given a preceding airplane to follow. The controllers at Fisk keep up a non-stop litany of instructions and pilots acknowledge them with a rock of the wings. If standard AIM radio phraseology were used, the flow would be cut at least in half. It's the way things have been done at Oshkosh since almost forever and it works great as long as the surrounding area is at least a thousand and three.
Work As A Team
They work as a team. First an approach spotter calls out the color and type of the approaching airplane. Next the radio person gives the traffic instructions. Then another spotter verifies the wing rock acknowledgment as the airplane passes over Fisk. Each job requires a different talent. The first spotter needs good airplane identification skills. The radio person needs good lungs and a strong voice. The departure spotter has two jobs: verifying the wing rock and coordinating with Oshkosh tower. It's fairly light duty until an airplane fails to acknowledge a call. Then the departure spotter has to alert the tower that they may have a NORDO (ATC lingo for an airplane with no or lost comm) in the inbound mix.
Most of the time the approach spotter I watched was right on the first try, which is pretty amazing considering that the only profile he saw was the front of the airplane as it approached. He didn't always get it right the first time, though, and sometimes the radio person has to try something else to verify contact. Here's a sample from this morning. The spotter called a grey taildragger, a red and white Cessna, a yellow Quickie, and a blue Bonanza.
Approach Spotter: "grey taildragger"
Radio Person: "grey taildragger, rock your wings"
Departure Spotter: "he's rockin"
Radio Person: "thanks for that rock, follow the Cherokee ahead, have fun at Oshkosh"
Approach Spotter: "red and white Cessna"
Radio Person: "red and white Cessna, rock your wings"
Departure Spotter: "he's rockin"
Radio Person: "thank you, follow the taildragger ahead, welcome to Oshkosh"
Approach Spotter: "yellow Quickie"
Radio Person: "yellow Quickie, rock your wings"
Departure Spotter: "looks like he might've rocked"
Radio Person: "thanks for that attempt to rock, follow the red and white Cessna ahead"
Approach Spotter: "blue Bonanza"
Radio Person: "blue Bonanza approaching the strobes, rock your wings"
Departure Spotter: "nope"
Radio Person: "how about blue Bellanca over the strobes, rock your wings"
Departure Spotter: "nope"
Radio Person: "uh, blue low wing single just past the strobes...follow the yellow Quickie ahead, have fun at Oshkosh"
Departure Spotter: "now he's rocking"
Watching the controllers at Fisk work the traffic reminds you of the "Lucy" episode in the chocolate factory, but they don't have the option of stuffing Bonanzas in their mouths. Their only out is to hold airplanes. When OSH tower gets temporarily overwhelmed, the phone rings at Fisk and the controllers start holding airplanes over Rush Lake. Sequencing airplanes at this break-a-sweat pace is a challenge for the Fisk controllers and you can hear a tinge of disappointment in their voices when they have to hold airplanes. One trip around the perimeter of the lake takes about nine minutes and that's usually all it takes to work out the flow at the airport. Then the funnel starts to fill up again.
By the time they get to Fisk, pilots are so conditioned to radio silence and following the airplane in front of them that it's kind of hard to get the hold started. It took a few requests this morning before a twin broke off into the left turn and led the parade.
Sometimes things don't go quite so smoothly. This morning an Ercoupe was asked to join the parade around the lake and mumbled something about minimum fuel. When he came over the trailer the Fisk controllers spotted him in the crowd, let him through, wished him luck, gave a landline heads-up to the tower, and went back to the job at hand. (The Ercoupe landed safely at Oshkosh.)
Second Prize Is Two Weeks At Fisk
You might think that sending controllers into this lion's den is some sort of penance for having committed some awful sin against the FAA. Nope, it's actually a coveted job. Every November the Great Lakes region of the FAA sends out 320 bids for working the extra traffic of EAA's AirVenture Oshkosh. Sixty three lucky souls are chosen from the pool, plus the controller of the year from this year's Sun & Fun. (this year's controller of the year from AirVenture Oshkosh automatically wins a spot on the Sun & Fun team for next year.) Each day the crew is organized to contain a veteran, a controller with limited experience, a rookie and a team leader. Because it's such a unique, challenging experience for the controllers, each of them wants as much time running the gauntlet as they can handle.
Operating out of a trailer can make the job interesting, too. Fisk veterans remember the squall line that passed through in 1995, nearly wiping Fisk off the map. But, like the pilots who camp at OSH, they just hunkered down in the trailer and sequenced what few intrepid souls there were still willing to fly in that weather.
So if you're west of OSH and you're on your way to AirVenture Oshkosh, or if you're planning for a trip next year, remember the hard-working folks in the hot pink shirts at Fisk as you pass over those strobes. When they ask for the wing rock, rock 'em like you mean it.