Over two years with AVweb, Atlanta ARTCC Controller Don Brown has discussed many safety problems caused by controllers and pilots who try to bend rules they don't understand. In this review, he notes some improvements and some ongoing problems, but he still loves what he's doing.
May 28, 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.
For those who haven't been counting, this concludes my second year of writing for AVweb. No one is more surprised than me. It doesn't seem that long. I guess it's true. Time does fly when you're having fun.
And it has been fun. Even more important, at least in my book, it's been educational. Everyone's heard that if you really want to learn something you should try teaching it. There's a truism if there ever was one. I've had hundreds of nice letters from folks thanking me for explaining something-or-other that they've always wondered about. Trust me on this one, folks; it's been my pleasure. You all have taught me more than I've taught you.
In that light, I thought it was time for a little refresher.
In my first article, A Wing and a Prayer, I stumbled across what is perhaps the most important piece of information I've learned in writing this column: the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM). It's not just the book itself that was so important, mind you. It represents a concept -- a piece of the puzzle -- that I was missing.
I see it in the controller trainees out there now. They're missing that piece of the puzzle too. At the end of every day, after their training session, their instructors will pull out their training sheet and the FAA Order 7110.65. The instructor will go down the list of mistakes they made for the day and cite the corresponding rule in the 7110.65 that they didn't follow.
The trainees understand they did something wrong. That's just an expected part of training. What they don't understand is why that particular rule is important. It's just a rule. It doesn't mean anything more to them than the speed limit sign that said 55 MPH they passed (doing 65 MPH) on their way to work.
It really hit me when I wrote The GPS Mess. That was the first time that I'd ever really read Chapter 5-1-7. Flight Plan - IFR Flights in the AIM and tried to understand it. Not just read it, but understand it.
When I got to the part about filing "a minimum of one route description waypoint for each ARTCC through whose area the random route will be flown," I knew that rule wasn't going to make any sense whatsoever to pilots. But I knew why it was there. Or at least I thought I did. More precisely, I knew one reason why it was there. It's there to facilitate data processing. But I still didn't fully understand all the reasons it was there.
And that's when it started to hit me. If pilots don't understand why they should follow that rule, they'll ignore it. And they do. That's just human nature. Well, controllers are human too. We have to follow some rules that don't make any sense to us. Could those rules that we as controllers tend to ignore be just as important to pilots? I bet right now every pilot out there has a particular rule in mind that some controller ignored at one time or another during their flight.
You don't have to be a pilot to be a safe, effective controller. Conversely, you don't have to be a controller to be a good, safe pilot. You just have to follow the rules. We'll talk more about it later.
In Tape Talk,
I started talking about what is still (and always will be) the largest problem in ATC: communications. Pick any problem between pilots and controllers and you'll bump into communication problems. The radio is our only link. We don't have light guns at the Center, you know.
Perhaps that's an example I can use to show you how subtle (and maddening) communications can be. In just about every article I write, I mention that I work in a Center. That's a simple statement. It's not difficult to understand. Yet invariably, I'll get a letter every month asking how some procedure at a Tower works. And every month I have to answer, "I don't know," because I'm a Center controller.
I've got a better example. I'm sitting here, trying to concentrate on this article and Mrs. Brown is trying to talk to me. I stop writing, look her right in the eye and listen. I still don't have any idea what she's trying to tell me. And we've been married for 15 years.
If communicating in writing is problematic, if communication with your spouse -- while in the same room -- is frustrating, is it any wonder that communication via radio is difficult? We hear but we don't understand. Or maybe we just don't want to understand. I'm pretty sure my wife understands what "unable" means but it never seems to have the desired effect.
By the way, did you do what I asked at the end of Tape Talk? Did you ask your instructor about including phraseology in refresher training? Or might I have been just as successful asking you to invent some standard phraseology for married couples?
I had an interesting event happen that reminded me of Decisions, Decisions the other week. Once again I was holding for CLT. I was trying to "work the stack" and get the airplanes down and over to CLT Approach.
That's the key to feeding Approach from a holding pattern: getting the airplanes down. If you can't keep the stack descending (the whole stack), then you wind up with the next airplane to go in still up in the flight levels, too high to make the runway if you turn him to the airport.
So I'm trying to walk about six of them down and I'm having to ask every one of them to "say altitude leaving" because I'm not getting a report when I issue a descent clearance.
AIM 5-3-3. Additional Reports
a. The following reports should be made to ATC or FSS facilities without a specific ATC request:
1. At all times.
(a) When vacating any previously assigned altitude or flight level for a newly assigned altitude or flight level.
Finally, one pilot's curiosity got the best of him and he asked, "What's the matter Center? Is your radar broke? Can't you see our Mode C?" Well, no, I couldn't. Not to mention, it takes about 12 seconds for the Mode C to update. That's 12 seconds (times six airplanes) that I could spend moving other airplanes on their way.
After I explained that to him (using even more time that I really didn't have), it was like someone turned on the light bulb. I went around the scope one time, turning, switching, climbing the other airplanes I was working, and then got back to the holding pattern.
Airliner123 cleared to CLT via the SHINE 5 arrival descend and maintain 11,000.
"Leaving 14,000 descending 11,000 cleared to CLT via the SHINE 5 Airliner123."
Airliner 234 descend and maintain 14,000.
"Leaving 15,000 descending to 14,000 Airliner234."
Airliner 345 descend and maintain 15,000.
"Leaving 16,000 descending to 15,000 Airliner345."
Shazam! I got through the whole stack in half the time. I was feeding CLT Approach faster, the other aircraft in the sector were getting higher, lower or on course faster, I was taking aircraft from the high sector faster ... it was a miracle.
Bear with me a second while I try an experiment. Let's pretend that I'm not a Safety Rep. but I'm the Efficiency Rep.
According to my calculations, by the simple application of my new and improved procedure, the average airliner in my airspace that day saved $547. The average business jet saved $216 and the average general aviation aircraft saved $5.67 in fuel savings alone. This represents a possible savings of $31 bajillion dollars per year for the U.S. fleet. For a meager investment (printing and shipping the AIM) we have the potential to reap enormous benefits not only in direct operating costs, but in increased productivity and economic efficiencies on a national scale.
Does it make it any more acceptable if I try to "sell" you on the idea of following the rules? Do I need to dress it up in flashing neon and four-color brochures for you to "buy" into the idea? Would you feel better about it if I charged you for the advice? Here's the AIM. That'll be $39.99. Shipping and handling are free.
There's no "new and improved" procedure. It's a non-radar technique that's been around since Orville and Wilbur were still alive. You've already paid for the AIM so you might as well use it. And it might save you something a lot more important than money.
May I Have Your Attention, Please?
In reviewing ATC 102, the thing that jumps out at me is (surprise!) communications.
"Atlanta Center, Airliner123."
Airliner123, Atlanta Center, go ahead.
"Airliner123 requesting flight level 280."
You probably don't see anything wrong with that, do you? How about this one?
"Atlanta Center Airliner123 with you at three one zero smooth how are the rides down the road?"
See anything wrong with that? I hear that a hundred times a day. In the first one, it's an airplane already established on the frequency, in my airspace and most important, established in "the picture" I carry in my head. When I ask pilots why they do that, instead of just saying, "Atlanta Center, Airliner123 requesting flight level 280," to start with, they say they want to make sure they've got my attention so they don't have to repeat themselves. Well, OK. So how do you explain example number two?
You're not established on the frequency, you're not in my airspace and I really haven't integrated you into "the picture" yet. In the first example, you were worried about a single request being missed, but now you give me a check in, a ride report and a question. I'm missing the logic somewhere. The folks who wrote the AIM must be missing it too.
AIM 4-2-3. Contact Procedures
c. Subsequent Contacts and Responses to Callup from a Ground Facility.
Use the same format as used for the initial contact except you should state your message or request with the callup in one transmission.
"Atlanta Center, Airliner 123 request flight level 280."
AIM 5-3-1 b. ATC Frequency Change Procedures.
2. The following phraseology should be utilized by pilots for establishing contact with the designated facility:
(a) When operating in a radar environment: On initial contact, the pilot should inform the controller of the aircraft's assigned altitude preceded by the words "level," or "climbing to," or "descending to," as appropriate; and the aircraft's present vacating altitude, if applicable.
"Atlanta Center, Airliner123 level flight level three one zero."
Reckon we'll ever get rid of "with you"? I could live with that if I could get rid of the ride reports (in someone else's airspace, no less) and, "how are the rides ... any chance we can get ... do you still need the speed ... do you still need the heading?" questions on the check in.
Speaking of chaos, that brings us to Air Traffic Chaos. It's thunderstorm season and I have some good news. Bet you never thought you'd read "good news" and "thunderstorm" in the same sentence, did you? Warped huh? Well, that's the good news: WARP.
Weather and Radar Processing. And we've got it. WARP is data taken from the National Weather Service's radars (the ones designed to paint thunderstorms instead of airplanes) and displayed on our ATC radar scopes. In color, no less. You can expect us to have a much better picture of thunderstorms now ... maybe.
It goes like this. At the recent Communicating for Safety Conference in Denver, a gentleman from the Air Safety Foundation sat down between me and my friend Eric and said, "Tell me what you think about WARP." I told him I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I believe it will literally save someone's life.
Eric wasn't as thrilled as I was about WARP. As a matter of fact, he wasn't thrilled at all. Seeing as Eric is NATCA's guru on radar, the guy I call when I want to know something about radar, I guess I better fill you in.
The NWS's radars were designed for weather. The FAA's radars were designed for ATC. There's a big difference. If you want to know what those differences are, you'll just have to show up for Communicating for Safety next year and ask Eric yourself. (Yes, that's a shameless ploy to get you to come.) Two big differences are the update cycle (or refresh rate) and the placement of the radar site. The NWS radars only update every six minutes or so. They are placed to cover population centers. The FAA's radars (the ARSR kind) update six times a minute and are designed to cover air traffic. Then you have data shedding, color distraction, tilt, something about blossoms and a whole host of stuff that makes my head hurt when Eric tries to explain it to me.
So who's right? Me or Eric? We both are. I work airspace that is blessed with a lot of NWS radar coverage. Eric works airspace off the coast of Florida. No population centers, no NWS (or limited) radar coverage. What coverage he gets doesn't update fast enough. In other words, WARP is a lot better than what I had to work with, but not a lot better than what he has to work with. He has a nice ARSR-4 (Air Route Surveillance Radar Model 4) that already has some good weather capabilities. I've just got a junky old ARSR-1.
Same Old, Same Old
Did someone mention a junky old ARSR-1? Gee, that must be Maiden. As in Maiden and Me. Nothing new to update you about Maiden. It still goes down with depressing regularity.
I've done my best to make it famous, though. Take a look at this NOTAM:
ZTL MAIDEN ARSR OTS TFC NON-RADAR ON AIRWAYS/NO FLT FLWG AOB 10000 W/I 50NM BZM VOR WEF 0212081300-0212122100
You can read the whole thing at this link.
You'll have to scroll way down the page until you get to paragraph "n."
Now, I know that no one except a safety geek is going to get excited about getting a National Document Change through the system (even if it did take two years), so here's what is important. If you're a pilot and you see one of these NOTAMs, you've got to do some mental adjustments and some extra planning. First, you're going to have to fly the airways in the affected area. Then you're going to have to chant, "No radar, no radar, no radar," a hundred times until it sinks in. No vectors for the approach. No VFR flight following. No radar traffic calls. No vectors around thunderstorms. No radar, no radar, no radar. Don't forget to report over the compulsory reporting points.
If you're a controller, pay attention. This is important. This is a brand-new procedure (issuing a NOTAM for a ARSR outage) and it's going to take a while to get people educated. That probably includes the people in your airspace office. You'll find the procedure in FAA Order 7930.2H, Notices to Airmen (NOTAMS). It's in Chapter 5, NOTAM Criteria, Section 3. NAVAID NOTAMs (yes NAVAIDs, think vectors to the final), paragraph 7 NOTAM (D) NAVAID, subparagraph n.
I don't know if your airspace office reads that publication, but I suspect they're like mine and they're already buried in work. Don't expect a warm welcome when you bring them more. But what you need to do is inform them of the impact an ARSR outage has on your airspace (if any) and write up the NOTAM before you need it issued. You need to think about what you want the NOTAM to say and you'll need to chant "No radar, no radar, no radar" a hundred times before you commit it to paper.
All kidding aside, this stuff isn't as easy as you might think. I tend to fixate on Maiden and rarely give the Lynch ARSR a second thought, even though it goes out more often than Maiden. Tri-Cities (TRI) Approach owns the airspace right next to Lynch, so the impact isn't as great as Maiden. It was a real surprise when we were vectoring a guy for the approach at TRI on the midnight shift and he disappeared. TRI Approach was closed, Lynch ARSR was out, and we weren't thinking. So think.
I Prefer Safety
I feel like I need to clarify some remarks I made in ATC 201 -- IFR Departure When I said pilots and controllers prefer that you just call ATC directly to get your clearance off an uncontrolled airport, I fell into my own trap. What we should "prefer" is the safest method. That usually means going through FSS and getting your clearance.
The reason I'm mentioning it is that I'm noticing a growing trend in the corporate aviation area. The use of business jets seems to be growing, and they seem to all fly on the same schedule (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.). It's one thing to delay giving a clearance to a Cherokee climbing out at 300 FPM for two or three minutes. It's another thing when it's a Lear climbing out at 3,000 FPM.
If I've got something else going on and it takes me five minutes to actually get you your clearance, the Cherokee will probably still be in my airspace. The Lear probably won't. That's led to some interesting situations lately. Just something else to keep in mind when you're factoring the safety vs. expeditious equation.
In the article I Think, Therefore I Rant, I talked about some operational errors that looked really dumb. Yes, most operational errors look dumb (at least on the surface) when you review them. But these were really dumb-looking. I regret to inform you that nothing has changed in that department, either. The problem is that some really good controllers are having some really dumb-looking errors. I don't like what I'm seeing, and it'd be really dumb to just shrug our shoulders and move on. They're warning signs and we'd best take heed and find out what's really going on below the surface.
I also mentioned what I call "the reason behind the rule" knowledge gap. I'm more convinced than ever it's important for us to understand why particular rules were written. But there's a limit to how far you can go with that reasoning. Do you want to task a trainee that's struggling with just remembering the sheer volume of rules he needs to know with even more work? It's already expensive to get flight training and to train a controller. Can we afford to make it even more expensive? Probably not.
Then we really run into a brick wall. Should controllers train to be pilots? Should pilots train to be controllers? That's really the only way we'll ever fully understand each other's role in this system. I don't think the FAA can afford the additional training for controllers, and I don't think the pilot community wants to endure the washout rate of controllers. What's the answer?
The Good Life?
That's what I spend my days doing. Looking for answers. I tried to give you a sense of what I do in A Week in the Life, but I really don't think it came across very well. It's hard to give you a sense of what it's like fighting for a NOTAM process for two years just to mitigate a radar problem I haven't been able to solve in 15 years. You'd think I'd just give up and go home. But no, I take on nuts that are even tougher to crack. I already know I'm nuts, but thanks for pointing it out anyway.
Putting the Pieces Together
Remember way back at the beginning of this article when I was talking about missing a piece of the puzzle? We all are. Getting people to understand that, accept it and deal with it is probably going to be the most frustrating thing I've ever done. But I believe it's worth the effort.
The reason it takes so long to change anything in this system is because the system is so complex. To put out a seemingly simple NOTAM about an equipment outage requires going through dozens of offices. The controllers who know the details on the effect of the outage need to be consulted. It has to go through the airspace office. Flight Service has to make it work. It has to be written in a way that you, the pilot, can understand. The needs of the maintenance people have to be taken into account. The list goes on and on.
And just when you think none of this is important, you run across a situation that you didn't think of, where it turns out it really was important. The reason "you" didn't think about it was that it's beyond your area of expertise. You aren't a controller. You aren't a radar technician. You aren't a pilot. You aren't a Flight Service specialist. You aren't a human factors specialist, airspace specialist, data system specialist, etc., etc., etc.
Simple or Complicated?
You just want to hop in your plane and check out the scenery on such a pretty summer day. And you can. That's what is so amazing about this system. You don't have to concern yourself one bit about the difference between an ARSR-4 and WARP. You can get VFR advisories while you're still a student and you don't have to understand one thing about flight plan data systems. All you have to do is follow the rules and the system will work.
I encourage you to explore all the "reasons behind the rules" that you can discover. I think it's healthy if you want to know the differences between an ASR-9 and an ARSR-4. I welcome your interest in my side of the business: ATC.
The more you know, the more you will be impressed with the system. The more you know, the better you will understand the true shortcomings that need to be addressed. The more you know, the more your appreciation of the rules and your willingness to comply with them will increase.
Have a safe flight.
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association