Do you dare say what's really on your mind? Do you dare take a stand for what you believe in even if it's unpopular? AVweb's Don Brown took the dare and writes about his pet peeves in this month's Say Again? column.
April 2, 2003
|About the Author ...
Don Brown worked his way through high school and college as a lineman at the Spartanburg (S.C.) Downtown Airport (SPA), graduating from the University of South Carolina (Spartanburg) in 1980. Hired by the FAA in November 1981, he graduated from the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City the following February 1982, and was certified as a Full Performance Level Controller in August 1984, at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZTL). Don has spent his entire career at ZTL, earning numerous Letters of Appreciation and four Letters of Commendation, including an Outstanding Flight Assist, during his tenure. Don was also one of the initial founders of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and was the very first general (non-officer) member. He was appointed the NATCA Facility Safety Representative for Atlanta Center in 1997 and has served in that position since. He also serves on NATCA's Southern Region Safety Committee. A full-time controller, you can find Don in front of a scope and on the frequency five days a week, just like every other controller at the Atlanta Center.
The rest of Don's "Say Again?" columns are available here.
"I dare you," Jim said. How many crazy ideas have started with that line? "And I double-dare you to mention Delta chop." I feel like I'm in the movie "The Christmas Story." What's next Jim? Are you going to triple-dead-dog-dare me?
Jim is a friend of mine and fellow controller. He reads my column every month and is always saying nice things to me about my writing. He's also kind enough to let me bounce ideas off of him on a regular basis. Jim and I are about as far apart on the controller/personality spectrum as you can get. I'm wound up tighter than Dick's hatband and Jim is laid-back South Florida cool. I lean toward cowboy hats and boots. Jim looks like Jimmy Buffet's cousin.
Yet, somehow, we remain friends. Even when we talk about air traffic control. During one of our conversations last week he brought up the subject of controller pet peeves. I saw something turn the idea light bulb on behind his eyes as the words came out. "That's what your next column needs to be about," he said. I hesitated and he saw it. And that's when he dared me. Oh well, here goes nothin'.
My Favorite Pet
Let's see ... where do I start? I've got more pet peeves than Georgia has peaches. I'd guess that number one on my list (at least this week) would have to be flight plans. Can anyone tell me just exactly how we ever got here?
L/L B TMKJ
For the uninitiated, in plain English, that reads: Adrian, Mich., direct to some Lat/Long (that I don't recognize), direct to some fix that the computer doesn't recognize (TMKJ). So the computer quits processing the flight plan and inserts "XXX" into the flight plan to warn the controller that there is a problem. The remarks section reads: Lat/Long be TMKJ. Well ain't that cute.
In case you're scratching your head wondering what exotic port of call TMKJ is, cease scratching. It's not exotic at all. It's supposed to be KMKJ (if you insist on putting the "K" in there) and that's Mountain Empire, Va.
The Usual Suspects
Before we delve any further into all the problems this particular flight caused, let's play "detective" and investigate this "crime." Just what was this pilot thinking when he filed this flight plan? What guidance did he use? Did he read the AIM? Ever?
Chapter 5. Air Traffic Procedures
5-1-7. Flight Plan -- IFR Flights
b. Airways and Jet Routes Depiction on Flight Plan
1. It is vitally important that the route of flight be accurately and completely described in the flight plan. To simplify definition of the proposed route, and to facilitate ATC, pilots are requested to file via airways or jet routes established for use at the altitude or flight level planned.
I don't think he read that part. If he did, he must not understand what "vitally important" means. I hate it when people quote me the dictionary, but I'll do anything to convince you how important this stuff is. Vital = Necessary to the continuation of life.
I know what you're thinking. "But ... but ... but he has advanced navigational equipment. Can't he go direct?" Sure he can. Up to a point. The AIM tells you how to do that too.
c. Direct Flights
1. All or any portions of the route which will not be flown on the radials or courses of established airways or routes, such as direct route flights, must be defined by indicating the radio fixes over which the flight will pass.
Do you see any "radio fixes" in that flight plan? A Lat/Long isn't. MKJ isn't. What about this part?
(d) File route structure transitions to and from the random route portion of the flight.
Did he do that? Nope.
(e) Define the random route by waypoints. File route description waypoints by using degree-distance fixes based on navigational aids which are appropriate for the altitude stratum.
See any "degree-distance fixes" in his flight plan? Me neither.
(f) File a minimum of one route description waypoint for each ARTCC through whose area the random route will be flown. These waypoints must be located within 200 NM of the preceding center's boundary.
How about that one? You get the point. What was he thinking? Was he thinking "the AIM is just information" so he can ignore it? What the AIM doesn't tell you (unfortunately) is that the "information" is provided so that you can file a flight plan properly and it will process properly. I guess "vitally important" is too vague.
But it doesn't stop there. Who put the flight plan in the computer? FSS? What were they thinking? DUATS? That's all automated so there's no thinking going on there. Technology will save me. Horse hooey.
A Town Called Destination
You may forget it while you're reading my articles, but I don't. I'm not a pilot safety rep, I'm a controller safety rep. Just exactly where did the controller who issued this pilot a clearance clear him to? TMKJ? Does that even exist? Did the controller clear him to "Tango Mike Kilo Juliette" and the pilot just ignored the "Tango"? Or, as I suspect, did the pilot get cleared direct to his "destination"? I don't know where "Destination" is but when I retire I'm going to buy the FBO there. They must sell a bunch of fuel because I sure hear a lot of planes being cleared there.
This is the kind of stuff that makes me nuts. The pilot didn't take the time to do it right. FSS or DUATS didn't fix it. The controller that issued the clearance didn't fix it. And every controller between Michigan and Virginia didn't fix it. As a matter of fact, the cutesy remarks section (L/L B TMKJ) leads me to believe an en route controller may have messed it up. I call this mode of operation "pass the trash" and I'm real tired of playing garbage collector.
In this case, because of the "XXX" in the flight plan, the computer didn't process the flight plan to the sectors between the flight's cruising altitude and the sectors below that flight level, to the airport. So I'm sitting at the sector fat, dumb and happy and the next thing I know I've got a handoff flashing at me on an airplane I don't know. It's a jet screaming down at 4,000 feet per minute going to an airport that's IFR and I have to coordinate with another facility before I can issue the approach clearance.
A Plan? We Don't Need No Stinking Plan
So much for my plan with the other dozen airplanes I'm working. I guess they and my blood pressure will just have to suffer because somebody can't file a flight plan correctly. And that's what really irks me.
How do you keep it from happening again? Did the pilot really file it wrong or did FSS just put it in wrong? Did FSS have anything to do with it or was it DUATS? Or neither? It could have just been some "friendly" controller en route that cleared the flight direct.
Do you think this is an isolated incident? Guess again. Try this one:
FRC L/L ARE FTY
Is it Chilly in Here?
Don't you think that someone flying a multimillion-dollar airplane would have heard of a STAR? I get this reply a lot when I question pilots about these routings -- "I figure you will give us the STAR." Well, you figured right. We'll stop vectoring aircraft for spacing into one of the world's busiest terminal areas to read you, Mr. I'm-the-only-pilot-in-the-sky, the STAR into Fulton County (FTY).
"November One Victor India, cleared to Fulton County via direct Snowbird, AWSON One arrival."
"Uh, Center say again for One Victor India."
"November One Victor India, cleared to Fulton County via direct Snowbird, AWSON One arrival."
"Uh, OK, direct Snowbird AWSON One. What's the identifier for Snowbird?"
"November One Victor India, Snowbird is Sierra Oscar Tango."
"Uh, OK, we've got it now. Any chance we can just go direct AWSON."
Yes sir, just as soon as Georgia freezes over in July.
"November One Victor India, unable."
And don't think I didn't notice that "FRC" (Full Route Clearance) in the remarks section of the flight plan. Something was messed up in the flight plan before you ever got off the ground.
Look guys, if an airport is busy enough to have a STAR, that means it is a BUSY terminal. I know that FTY isn't the busiest airport in the world, but it's right next door to one that is. We don't have time to read the STAR to every airplane inbound to a BUSY terminal because we're BUSY. And if you make us take the time to do it, that means we have less time for all those other things you like for us to do. Like keeping you separated from all the other airplanes inbound to that BUSY terminal.
Ride 'em Cowboy
Next on my list of pet peeves is ride reports. I've already mentioned this problem in another column so I'm not going to explain it in detail. I am going to tell you a story about what I observed a couple of weeks ago, though. I was on the D-side (Data Controller) working a high-altitude sector. The R-side (Radar/Radio Controller) was being relieved to go on break. He gave a good briefing to the next controller, taking the time to give him a detailed description of how bad the rides were.
As these two controllers were trying to conduct their briefing, they were (of course) interrupted several times by pilots complaining about the rides. They finally managed to get through the briefing and the new controller immediately started sinking. In the minute or two that it took to get the briefing, he was already three to four transmissions behind. Every one of those transmissions was about a ride report.
Let's step back a minute and let me take the time to state the obvious. The rides were bad. There are dozens of transmissions being made about it. A pilot on this frequency would have to be deaf not to understand that. The other thing that should be obvious (but may not be to a pilot) is that controllers have to separate airplanes whether the ride is bad or not. We're busy on days when the ride is good. When the rides are bad, we go beyond busy.
It's not just the increased workload of the ride reports either. If an airline pilot is getting a bad ride he's not going to stay at that altitude long. He'll keep trying different altitudes until he finds a smooth one. All the changes in altitude makes the task of separating airplanes that much more complex. If an airplane is level at FL330 you only have to separate it from other airplanes at FL330 or those transitioning through FL330. If the ride is bad and he wants to go down to FL290 you now have to keep him separated from the other planes at FL330, FL310 and FL290. It doesn't take many airplanes changing altitudes to really ratchet up the complexity factor.
Back to the story. The controller is getting dozens of complaints about the rides, requests for altitude changes and a boatload of questions about how the rides are going to be. Then you have the inevitable "You got stepped on," "Blocked," "Blocked." In all the resulting confusion he missed telling one airplane about the one area of known moderate turbulence. That one airplane now has one very unhappy captain.
I can't say as I blame him. Moderate turbulence is serious stuff for an airliner. Passengers, crew and food carts can get bounced around. People can get hurt. I don't even want to contemplate what can happen to the guy in the lavatory.
The irony of the situation was that the controller forgot to warn that one airplane because he was so distracted by all the other complaints of light chop. He couldn't get his head above water long enough to key in on the one airplane that he really needed to be talking to. And I'm not blameless either. I knew about the moderate turbulence. I allowed myself to become distracted by all the chaos too.
So what's the solution? Should every pilot who checks on the frequency ask about the ride ahead so that we don't forget to warn them? Should every pilot on the frequency tell ATC about every "bump in the road" so we can tell every other pilot headed that way about it? That is what is going on now. It's the problem, not the solution.
I don't claim to have the solution but I know about something that can help. EFAS. Enroute Flight Advisory Service. It's also known as Flight Watch. I know what you're thinking. The vast majority of general aviation pilots know about Flight Watch. Call the friendly Flight Service Station on 122.0 and there's all kinds of information available to you, including ride reports.
As well-known as Flight Watch is in the lower altitudes, I'm finding it's virtually unknown in the high altitudes (FL180 and above). I only found out about it a few months ago. The few airline pilots I've mentioned it to didn't know about it either. Read this:
"Pilot participation is essential to the success of EFAS by providing a continuous exchange of information on weather, winds, turbulence, flight visibility, icing, etc, between pilots and flight watch specialists. Pilots are encouraged to report good weather conditions as well as bad, and to confirm expected conditions as well as unexpected to EFAS facilities."
Well Golllly, Gomer
Shazam! Who'd 'a thunk it? Did you catch the part about turbulence? Even better, they want to know if it's smooth. I don't. I don't know any other controller who does, either. For us, silence is golden. Silence equals smooth rides. We know that you'll tell us if the ride is bad. That must be why the new craze is, "Atlanta Center Airliner 123 with you at three one zero smooth." Now I can tell them to call someone that actually wants you to use their frequency time for smooth ride reports.
The best part about it for me is that there is only one high-altitude frequency for each Center. If you're an airline pilot who flies through Atlanta Center please click on this link:
FREE! FREE! FREE!
Call now! Operators are standing by. One call does it all. Atlanta Flight Watch on frequency 135.475.
Reports on turbulence, winds, icing and it's absolutely free! 135.475. That's all you need to remember.
How's the ride on the MACEY arrival at FL310? 135.475. How about FL350? 135.475 How's the ride on J22?
Don't waste your time with that air traffic controller who only knows what the rides are like in his sector. One call to 135.475 and they can tell you what the rides are like from PSK to VUZ. At all altitudes! Remember, it's toll-free!
What's that frequency again? 135.475.
Sorry. I didn't mean to get carried away. But don't you find it amazing that we (and I do mean we) can work in this business every day and not know these things? Here's a perfectly good program that isn't being used as intended while we abuse another part of the system to the point that it breaks down.
Spread the wealth.
Atlanta Flight Watch -- 135.475
Washington Flight Watch -- 134.525
Jacksonville Flight Watch -- 134.175
Miami Flight Watch -- 132.725
Memphis Flight Watch -- 133.675
If you don't see the Flight Watch for the Center you're interested in, all you have to do is look on the inside of the back cover in the AIRPORT/FACILITY DIRECTORY (A/FD) for the Flight Watch frequency in your area.
All this is leading me to come up with a new pet peeve. Yes folks, as crazy as it sounds, I'm out here trying to figure out a new pet peeve. Actually it's not new, it's just that I've never taken the time to figure out how to put it into words or put it down on paper.
There's something wrong with a system that doesn't penalize the people who abuse the system nor reward the ones who use it correctly. Take the case of flight plans. Is a pilot rewarded for following the guidance in the AIM? No. Is the pilot who ignores the AIM penalized? No. As a matter of fact, he's often rewarded.
How about the pilot who takes the time to call Flight Watch and inquire about the flight conditions ahead? Is he rewarded or encouraged? Conversely, how about the pilot who uses his check-in as an opportunity to ask about the ride and/or give a ride report? Is he reprimanded or even corrected? Even worse (in my book), how about the pilot who uses his check-in as an opportunity to ask for direct "down the road"? Every time he checks in on a new sector. There are tons of those, and a lot of them have stripes on their sleeves.
And lest you think I'm talking about just pilots, this system operates the same way on the controller side. Almost every procedure for a controller contained in the 7110.65, Letter of Agreement or local directive contains the clause "... unless otherwise coordinated." That gives us the flexibility we need to handle unusual situations.
Most controllers use that flexibility judiciously. It's really a matter of judgment and, as you can imagine, judgment varies widely from controller to controller. Because I believe in the system, I'm at the far end of the scale. I stick to the rules and procedures as a matter of habit. If the procedure says, "Issue the Expanded East Coast Plan route to LGA," then that is what I issue. Trust me, it's not a popular attitude with pilots or controllers.
On the other end of the spectrum you have controllers who use the "unless otherwise coordinated" clause to it's fullest effect. They'll coordinate anything they think they can get away with. Every facility has a least one of these guys. If you are unlucky enough to get stuck at a sector between two of these controllers, you soon wind up drowning in a flood of phone calls as they try to coordinate something on virtually every airplane they work.
Multiple Choice: Stick or Carrot?
Other controllers have ways of dealing with this type of controller but that isn't what I want to point out to you. Let me use an example to make my point.
Controller A: N123 is cleared direct FTY.
Controller B: N123, cleared to FTY via direct PSK direct HMV direct SOT AWSON1.
I want you to be honest. As a pilot, which controller would you think is the best controller? To which one would you be likely to say, "Thanks you're the greatest"? I already know the answer. I know it because I hear it -- or more precisely in my case, don't hear it -- every day. I also know it's a major source of job satisfaction (those words of thanks) to some controllers. After all, no one says "thanks" for adding 20 miles to their route, even if it is the correct (i.e., safe, orderly, expeditious) procedure.
When you get a hundred miles down the road from Controller A and Controller H says, "N123 cleared direct SOT AWSON1 FTY," what are you thinking? Are you thinking that Controller A led you down the primrose path? Or that Controller H just isn't as good as Controller A? Or are you thinking, "Ah, shucks, I almost beat the system?"
Yes, We Have No Carrots
Here's what I'm thinking. I'm thinking there's a growing problem with this system that I have so much faith in. And all the technology in the world -- GPS, TCAS, Data-Link, WAAS, ad nauseum -- isn't going to solve it, either. I think when the system rewards those who abuse it, instead of those who use it properly, something is wrong. I think a system that puts expediency ahead of safety is headed for trouble. Big trouble.
What do you think? Go ahead and tell me. I dare you.
Have a safe flight.
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association