Say Again? #27: 12 Minutes

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AVweb's Don Brown is trying something different this month: 12 minutes of fictional radio transmissions (just like those NTSB CVR transrcipts) to show how a few innocent errors and omissions in communication can start to overload an air traffic controller on what sounds like a quiet shift.

Say Again?

If you've been reading my columns, you know I'm always going on and on about following the rules and the way things are supposed to work. I try to explain why and how, but I always feel like I'm not getting through to some folks. So this month I thought I'd try something a little different.

I've cobbled together what could be mistaken for an actual ATC transcript. You might think it's an actual transcript, but you'd be mistaken. First you'll note that all the call signs are fictitious. Then you'll notice that there's no coordination between controllers. The only thing in this (fictitious) transcript is radio transmissions. In other words, it's just like what you would hear over your radio.

Scene One, Act One

Wilkes Sector (5 Kb)
Wilkes Sector
(Click graphic for wider area -- 5 Kb)

Before we get started I guess I ought to set the scene. I'm at the Wilkes Sector once again. It's an ultra-low-altitude sector at 10,000 feet and below. It's easiest to think of it as an Approach Control for Hickory, N.C., (KHKY). Except, of course, that it's in Atlanta Center so we have to use Center rules. This (fictitious) session was as busy as I've seen it in a long time. Fortunately, I've got the best D-side (data controller) anybody can ask for. See, I told you it was fictitious. Not only do I have a D-side, but I've got the best one. Like that would actually ever happen.

I have noted the passing of each minute to give you a time reference. "CENTER" is me. "AIRCRAFT" is anybody else. You'll have to figure out who it is, because I do too.

And one other thing: I'd like to thank the late James Michener for showing me (through his wonderful books) that you can reveal a lot of truth while writing fiction. I'd also like to thank Earl S. Stein, Ph.D., Federal Aviation Administration, William J. Hughes Technical Center, for showing me how important memory is to Air Traffic Controllers. I don't want anyone getting the idea that I've ever had an original thought pass through my head. I haven't.

We join our session already in progress.


00:00:00

CENTER: ... Zulu Mike then direct Norfolk.

AIRCRAFT: Charlie india direct be zee em then Norfolk direct charlie india.

(How appropriate. The first thing you get to hear is me rerouting an aircraft around CLT Approach. I have to spell the identifier for him because he doesn't know where Barretts Mountain is. See the rant in "The GPS Mess" if you don't understand what I'm talking about.)

CENTER: Roger. November four six niner eight oscar contact Charlotte Approach one three four point seven five.

AIRCRAFT: Thirty four seventy five niner eight oscar.

AIRCRAFT: Atlanta Center good morning Mooney six niner five two oscar one zero thousand.

CENTER: Verify that's six niner four two oscar?

AIRCRAFT: That's affirmative sir.

(I don't know why but this guy has a way of making "four" sound like "five." Some things I can't explain.)

CENTER: Mooney six niner four two oscar level one zero thousand Atlanta Center Hickory altimeter three zero two eight.

AIRCRAFT: three zero two eight five two oscar.

(I swear I heard "five" again.)

00:01:00

AIRCRAFT: Atlanta Center Navajo eight seven sierra india.

(I have no idea who this guy is. Can you tell what he wants? Me neither. Let's see.)

CENTER: Navajo eight seven sierra india Atlanta Center go ahead.

AIRCRAFT: Yes sir. We can't get Charlotte to answer on thirty four seventy five ... ah ... we're hearing them but they apparently aren't hearing us.

(Interesting huh? I bet I didn't switch him more than two minutes ago. Yes, we drop call signs from our memory that fast. Especially when we're busy. We'll talk more about memory later.)

CENTER: November eight seven sierra india remain this frequency, traffic ten o'clock one mile northeast bound VFR indicating five thousand six hundred.

AIRCRAFT: Looking for traffic ten o'clock ah in sight.

CENTER: Roger.

(Let's see how this will help sink me. I'm not supposed to be talking to this guy. That's one more thing on my plate. He has VFR traffic. That's another thing I have to do. And now I've got to call CLT Approach and see if they know what the problem is. It's a good thing I'm already busy otherwise I might get busy.)

AIRCRAFT: Atlanta seven three seven five oscar.

CENTER: Calling Atlanta say again.

AIRCRAFT: Ah ... seven three seven five oscar.

(Now who is this and what does he want? I don't know. This is the way it is in the Wilkes sector. People just call you up out of the blue.)

CENTER: November seven three seven five oscar Atlanta ... go ahead.

AIRCRAFT: ... on the miss can you vector us back where we can try it again VOR/DME?

(About that memory thing I mentioned? Did you know you can hold between five and seven things in [what the eggheads call] your "short term memory"? They also refer to it as "working memory." After that, your memory starts failing. You start forgetting. If you've got 12 airplanes in your sector and there are 31 separate actions you need to take to successfully work those airplanes, how many of them do you think you can remember without some sort of "memory jogger"?

All that is just a technical explanation for why I forgot this call sign. I didn't forget the airplane. I knew I had someone on approach to SVH. I just didn't remember his call sign. What are "memory joggers," you might ask? Flight Progress Strips are memory joggers. So are data tags on the targets. So is proper phraseology: "Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345 missed approach Statesville.")

CENTER: November seven three seven five oscar Atlanta Center radar contact one mile east of Statesville execute the standard missed approach maintain VFR.

AIRCRAFT: Maintain VFR standard missed approach.

(This will let you know how far down the tubes I am. This guy isn't VFR, he's on an IFR flight plan. Interesting that the pilot didn't correct me isn't it?)

CENTER: November eight seven sierra india contact Charlotte Approach one two eight point three two.

AIRCRAFT: Twenty eight three two for eight seven sierra india good morning.

CENTER: Good morning.

00:02:00

AIRCRAFT: Good morning Atlanta Skywagon five eight seven two india seven thousand.

CENTER: Skywagon five eight seven two india Atlanta Center roger. Are you IFR sir?

(I didn't forget this guy. I'm looking right at his data tag when he checks in. The problem is his data says he's VFR and he just checked in at an IFR altitude. Did he get an IFR clearance and someone messed up the data? As if I weren't already behind the power curve, now, once again, I've got something else to become unconfused about.)

AIRCRAFT: No sir we were just uh Center asked us I mean Approach wanted us at seven thousand we were at sixty five.

CENTER: November five eight seven two india VFR seven thousand Atlanta Center roger Hickory altimeter three zero two eight.

AIRCRAFT: Tell you what, we'll go on to ... I think we're past our traffic now we're going back down to six point five.

CENTER: November five eight seven two india maintain VFR.

AIRCRAFT: Seven two india.

CENTER: Skylane five six two one india Atlanta Center you are clear of the traffic climb and maintain eight thousand you're cleared direct Beckley.

AIRCRAFT: Understand direct Beckley and climb to eight thousand for five six two one india.

CENTER: Five six two one india affirmative.

00:03:00

CENTER: November five six two one india amend altitude maintain seven thousand.

(The next sector called up and asked us to stop him off. They had traffic at 8,000.)

AIRCRAFT: We'll stop at seven thousand now two one india.

CENTER: November seven three seven five oscar Atlanta turn left heading three six zero vector for the VOR/DME runway two uh one zero maintain three thousand five hundred.

(The confusion on my part is over anyway. Now I'm back to treating him as an IFR. 3,500 is the Initial Approach Altitude.)

AIRCRAFT: Left three six zero maintain three thousand five hundred seven five oscar.

AIRCRAFT: Atlanta four nine zero golf india out of two for five in a right turn.

CENTER: King Air four niner zero golf india Atlanta Center radar contact climb and maintain eight thousand.

AIRCRAFT: Okay out of two for eight thank you.

(The sound you hear is my blood pressure rising.)

CENTER: I'm sorry, your call sign cut out on you. Four niner zero golf india climb and maintain eight thousand.

AIRCRAFT: Out of two thousand for eight golf india roger.

(Well, I guess half a call sign is better than no call sign. Anybody read the AIM lately about shortening your call sign? Take note in the rest of this and see how many people are doing it.)

00:04:00

CENTER: November two one four whiskey india contact Greensboro Approach one two four point three five.

AIRCRAFT: Twenty four thirty five for four whiskey india.

CENTER: King Air four niner zero golf india fly heading three six zero vectors traffic.

AIRCRAFT: Heading three six zero golf india roger.

(About right here is where I know things are going to get worse. I see a handoff flashing on a regional jet that is landing Hickory, inbound from the east. Because I'm so busy, I haven't had time to review the strips on the aircraft that are still coming. Now I'm in what I call the "reactionary mode." Instead of having a good plan to get airplanes where they want to go I'm now just reacting.

When I see the handoff flash on the regional jet is the first time I become aware of him. I don't really know where the King Air off HKY is going -- yet another GPS airport direct to an airport flight plan -- I just know it's to the northeast. I was going to let him outrun traffic above him at 9,000, but with the regional jet head on to him, that's no longer an option. In other words, I've got no plan and I'm sticking to it.

CENTER: November four niner zero golf india roger one of them is due west of you two miles he's northeast bound level niner thousand.

AIRCRAFT: We'll be looking for him thank you.

CENTER: Freightdog two fifty eight contact Greensboro Approach one two four point three five.

AIRCRAFT: (unintelligible)

CENTER: Freightdog two fifty eight contact Greensboro Approach one two four point three five.

AIRCRAFT: One two four point three five Frieghtdog (unintelligible) good day.

CENTER: Good day.

00:05:00

AIRCRAFT: Atlanta Commuter eighteen nineteen one one eleven thousand at two seven zero assigned heading.

CENTER: Commuter eighteen nineteen descend and maintain one zero thousand Hickory altimeter three zero two eight.

AIRCRAFT: One zero ten thousand Commuter eighteen nineteen roger.

(This regional jet is on a westbound heading to take him away from the 9,000 traffic that was head on to him. I had the previous sector put the regional jet on the heading. Of course, that's not going to stop him from telling me his heading. Don't forget, you're not reading [nor do pilots hear] the coordination being accomplished on the land lines between controllers.)

CENTER: Commuter eighteen nineteen expect a visual approach runway two four Hickory report the airport in sight.

AIRCRAFT: Expect the visual two four Hickory we'll let you know when we have it Commuter eighteen nineteen.

CENTER: And Cirrus six one eight charlie india traffic ten o'clock two miles northbound leaving six thousand climbing eight thousand a King Air.

AIRCRAFT: Charlie india looking for traffic.

(Besides just calling traffic, if I can use visual separation between these two it would speed the process up.)

AIRCRAFT: Atlanta zero golf india that was seven thousand for us right?

CENTER: King Air four niner zero golf india climb and maintain eight thousand.

AIRCRAFT: ght thousand golf india.

(How many times have I said to use the phraseology from the book? If you'll say "leaving" or "climbing" or anything except your altitude first, then you won't cut off the important part: your altitude)

CENTER: November one zero six india Victor contact Charlotte Approach one three four point seven five.

AIRCRAFT: One three four seven five one zero six india Victor.

00:06:00

CENTER: Commuter eighteen nineteen VFR traffic two o'clock seven miles eastbound indicating niner thousand three hundred should pass well off your right.

AIRCRAFT: Watching for the traffic Commuter eighteen nineteen thank you.

CENTER: Commuter eighteen nineteen roger additional traffic now at eleven o'clock and one two miles northeast bound level niner thousand a Cessna Centurion.

AIRCRAFT: Watching for both of them Commuter eighteen nineteen.

(Again, I'm trying to set up another visual separation situation.)

CENTER: Skyhawk five six two one india contact Atlanta Center one three two point niner.

AIRCRAFT: Thirty two nine two one india good day.

CENTER: November two three one lima oscar traffic ten o'clock five miles due westbound a Canadair regional jet.

AIRCRAFT: And no joy yet we're looking lima oscar.

CENTER: King Air four niner zero golf india Atlanta Center verify squawking code three five one seven.

AIRCRAFT: Yes sir that's what we've got.

CENTER: All right, the computer lost you all of a sudden ident for me please.

AIRCRAFT: Here she comes.

AIRCRAFT: Traffic in sight one lima oscar not a factor.

CENTER: November two three one lima oscar maintain visual separation from the regional jet ten o'clock and four miles he will be descending.

(I realize that all the Approach Controllers and half the pilots are laughing at that. Approach controllers only need three miles separation, and four miles to a Cessna looks like forever. But that's the rules we live with in the Center. I need five miles or I need the pilot to maintain visual separation.)

AIRCRAFT: Maintain visual separation one lima oscar.

00:07:00

CENTER: Commuter nineteen eighteen, make that eighteen nineteen traffic off your left has you in sight and will maintain visual descend and maintain four thousand three hundred.

AIRCRAFT: Descend to four thousand three hundred Commuter eighteen nineteen.

CENTER: King Air four niner zero golf india climb and maintain one zero thousand turn right heading zero four five.

AIRCRAFT: Out of eight for ten uh zero four five golf india.

CENTER: Four niner zero golf india roger I still didn't see the ident hit it again please.

(The ident probably worked, I just didn't see it because I was too busy.)

AIRCRAFT: (unintelligible)

CENTER: Four niner zero golf india roger I got it that time and let me see what your on course is here ... and I'll have a clue here ... four niner zero golf india is cleared on course direct to ... Harrisonburg I hear.

(Yep. I am way behind now. My D-side is telling me what airport this guy is headed for as I am transmitting.)

AIRCRAFT: Yes sir.

AIRCRAFT: Atlanta Center Lear five six seven india charlie just off Statesville runway ten runway heading.

00:08:00

CENTER: Lear jet five six seven india charlie Atlanta Center roger you picked a really bad time sir squawk code seven two four six and I can't promise you anything.

(Not exactly standard phraseology there is it? But I do get the point across.)

AIRCRAFT: Seventy two forty six india charlie.

(That tears it. It's all over now. Way back [about 20 minutes ago] before we got busy, my D-side and I had both reviewed this guy's flight plan. He's departing SVH, VFR, which is exactly five miles from CLT Approach's airspace. In that a Lear climbs the way it does, before I can get him coordinated with CLT Satellite he'll be in CLT Departure airspace. Or maybe even in the sector above them. In other words, he couldn't have picked a worse spot, at a worse time, if he had tried and I don't stand a dog's chance of getting him a clearance in anything approaching an orderly fashion.)

CENTER: King Air zero golf india let's get a new code and see if that helps squawk code six three two four.

AIRCRAFT: Six three two four roger.

(Have I mentioned how you should make it a habit to use your call sign every time? If you don't, you'll find yourself in an odd situation one time where your bad habits will really shine though. And it won't make the situation any better. Trust me.)

AIRCRAFT: Commuter forty three forty two with you level niner.

(I swear I'm not ignoring him [although I have before]. I never even heard him call. It's called sensory overload. Your brain can only accept so much input at one time. I passed my limit about four minutes ago.)

CENTER: Commuter eighteen nineteen turn left direct to the Hickory airport.

AIRCRAFT: Left turn direct Hickory Commuter eighteen nineteen thanks.

CENTER: Five six seven india charlie make the code two zero four seven twenty forty seven.

AIRCRAFT: Twenty forty seven india charlie.

(I'm ready to throttle someone now. The beacon code is only good for about an hour after the proposed time of departure. If the aircraft doesn't depart, the computer sends a message to the sector controller, taking away the code. The controller is supposed to cross out the beacon code on the strip so we don't assign it. When the aircraft does depart, the computer will assign a new code.

That is what is happening in this case. Except we missed one important step. The controller who got the message taking away the code didn't cross it out. That's why I now have to go back and give this guy a new code. Like I need one more thing to go wrong, right?)

AIRCRAFT: Commuter forty three forty two is with you level niner.

CENTER: Commuter forty three forty two level niner thousand Atlanta Hickory altimeter three zero two eight.

AIRCRAFT: Two eight thank you.

00:09:00

CENTER: November seven three seven five oscar Atlanta Center turn left heading two five five.

AIRCRAFT: Two five five seven three seven five oscar.

CENTER: November six niner four two oscar traffic twelve o'clock six miles opposite direction level niner thousand.

(No answer and I don't have time to do it again. I didn't have time to do it to start with.)

CENTER: November four niner zero golf india the computer is refusing to track you sir uh ... you got a different transponder you can try?

AIRCRAFT: That's what we're trying I think we've lost the transponder.

CENTER: November four niner zero golf india roger say altitude.

AIRCRAFT: We're level at ten.

(Nice call sign huh?)

CENTER: November four niner zero golf india roger.

(That's OK, I'll say it for him. You have no idea how fast a malfunction like this [transponder] can put you down the tubes. But we can make it worse. I know, we'll file direct to some obscure airport and not use our call sign. That ought to do it.)

CENTER: November six one eight charlie india traffic twelve o'clock three miles opposite direction he's uh ... level at one zero thousand.

AIRCRAFT: Charlie india looking for traffic.

CENTER: Lear five six seven india charlie radar contact ten southeast of Statesville maintain VFR and remain clear of the CLT Class B airspace.

AIRCRAFT: VFR and clear of the Class B airspace eight charlie india.

AIRCRAFT: Four two oscar traffic in sight.

(Ha! He actually did hear the traffic call.)

CENTER: Roger.

00:10:00

AIRCRAFT: Atlanta Center Warrior seven niner niner eight oscar with you level seven thousand five hundred.

CENTER: Warrior seven niner niner eight oscar Atlanta Center roger Hickory altimeter three zero two eight.

AIRCRAFT: Eight oscar

CENTER: Learjet five six seven india charlie contact Charlotte Approach one two zero point five.

AIRCRAFT: Twenty point five india charlie.

CENTER: November two three one lima oscar contact Greensboro Approach one two four point three five.

AIRCRAFT: Go to Greensboro on one two four point three five for two three one lima oscar it's been a pleasure.

(I have no idea if this guy is pulling my leg or he's just being nice. I don't have time to dwell on it either.)

CENTER: November four niner zero golf india Atlanta I am getting some kind of reply off your transponder and I'm getting a ... uh ... an ident but uh I'm not showing any kind of beacon code at all. I don't know ... uh ... what to tell you about it.

(Do you ... uh ... think ... uh ... maybe I'm just ... a little ... uh ... behind? Notice how I stumble more and more the busier I get.)

AIRCRAFT: Well I guess we'll just have to stay below eighteen.

CENTER: Roger, you'll have to get on an airway or something too. I'll get to you just as fast as I can. It's going to take me a minute.

(In case you're wondering ... the last thing I'm going to do is let a guy with a malfunctioning transponder cut through the corner of four sectors where we have to point him out. "Point out, code 4231, no 0000, no now it's back to 4231 ..." Get the point? Just another benefit of airways. They don't cut through the corners of sectors. So you don't have to make point outs. Gee, that's almost like that efficiency thing people are always talking about.)

AIRCRAFT: It's no problem.

CENTER: Okay. Currently it's showing zero zero zero zero golf india.

AIRCRAFT: Thanks.

00:11:00

AIRCRAFT: Good morning Atlanta Center Bonanza two eight five two india with you level seven.

CENTER: Bonanza two eight five two india level seven thousand Atlanta Center roger the Hickory altimeter three zero two eight.

AIRCRAFT: Three zero two eight.

AIRCRAFT: Atlanta ... uhhh ... stand by a second we may take this airplane back to Hickory. Golf india.

CENTER: Roger.

CENTER: Mooney three four two zero oscar Contact Atlanta Center one three two point niner.

AIRCRAFT: Thirty two niner for two zero oscar thanks a lot.

AIRCRAFT: Atlanta Center Twin Cessna seven one seven kilo oscar level six thousand.

CENTER: November seven one seven kilo oscar level six thousand Atlanta Center roger Asheville altimeter three zero three three.

AIRCRAFT: Three zero three three kilo oscar.

00:12:00

CENTER: Skylane five eight seven two india Contact Asheville Approach on one two four point six five.

AIRCRAFT: Five eight seven two india so long y'all.

CENTER: So long. Commuter eighteen nineteen Atlanta Hickory is ... well ... turn left heading of uh ... one eight zero ... uh ... vectors for a lower altitude.

AIRCRAFT: Left twenty Commuter eighteen nineteen.

CENTER: Uh ... roger.

(I guess 180 is twenty degrees left.)

CENTER: November four niner zero golf india Atlanta for now, proceed direct Pulaski 'till I can work out a route for you maintain one zero thousand.

AIRCRAFT: Direct Pulaski one zero thousand golf india.

CENTER: November seven three seven five oscar you're one zero miles northeast of BZM join the seven mile DME arc BZM.

AIRCRAFT: Join the seven DME BZM seven five oscar.

CENTER: Commuter eighteen nineteen descend and maintain three thousand four hundred.

AIRCRAFT: Descend three thousand four hundred Commuter eighteen nineteen.


Break Time

Had enough? I have. Let's review. That's 19 different airplanes in 12 minutes. I've made some 70 odd transmissions in that time. That doesn't sound like much, does it? It really doesn't sound like much. It's a point I keep trying to make. You can't tell how busy a sector is by listening to the radio. You should always assume the sector is busy.

What is making it so busy even though it doesn't sound busy? First, there's the reroute. Then there's the confusion on the call sign. Then the guy calls back because he can't get CLT Approach. Next we have the guy who calls with just his call sign. If he'd have said "missed approach Statesville" I would have known where to look and we'd have saved one more transmission and -- more important -- one more mental gear shift. I thought he was just another VFR calling for advisories.

Next we have the VFR who checks in with the IFR altitude and the resulting confusion. Next I have to go back and level off an aircraft I had just climbed because of traffic in the next sector. And then my favorite critter of all shows up: The guy who can't remember to use his call sign. We're just three minutes into this and already six things have gone "wrong."

Things will always go "wrong." Nothing is perfect. The system is built to handle them. But there's a limit to how much it can handle in any period of time. Other sectors have traffic. We will have to go back and amend someone's altitude from time to time. Sometimes a frequency doesn't work and an aircraft will have to go back to his previous frequency. I can accept that. I can even accept the fact that student pilots aren't born knowing proper phraseology. It takes time (and good instruction) to learn.

What I find unacceptable is the frequency of mistakes made by people who should know better.

AIM Chapter 4-2-3: Contact Procedures

Acknowledge with your aircraft identification, either at the beginning or at the end of your transmission ...

FAA 7110.65 Chapter 7-9-7: Altitude Assignments

c. Aircraft assigned altitudes which are contrary to 14 CFR Section 91.159 shall be advised to resume altitudes appropriate for the direction of flight when the altitude assignment is no longer required or when leaving Class B airspace.

PHRASEOLOGY- "RESUME APPROPRIATE VFR ALTITUDES."

FAA 7110.65 Chapter 2-2-6: IFR Flight Progress Data

Ensure that flight plan and control information is correct and up-to-date.

If you hold a ticket to operate an airplane or a sector, you have a responsibility to try to minimize the number of mistakes you make. No one is perfect. You can see from this article that I certainly am not. I'm not asking for perfection. I'm just asking you to try harder. Mistakes -- even small ones -- can and do lead to more mistakes.

We can do better. We must.

Have a safe flight.

Don Brown
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Atlanta ARTCC