Say Again? #49: Come Up a Bad Cloud

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A storm is brewing: Warm, wet air (increasing airline traffic) is about to collide with cold, dry air (decreasing air traffic controllers and FAA budget cutting) ... and the lightning spark will be all the new GPS approaches. ''Storm-Tracker'' (and AVweb columnist) Don Brown gives the forecast in this month's Say Again column.

Say Again?

If you've ever been to the South, you might have heard the expression, "It's fixin' to come up a bad cloud." It's just our quaint way of saying that storm clouds are brewing. If you've ever flown in the South, you know when we say, "A bad cloud," we mean bad. Big, bad thunderstorms are just a fact of life down here. You may not see the "cloud" I'm talking about this month coming up, but you can rest assured it's out there and trouble is brewing in the aviation world.

Like so many things in life, the signs are full of contradictions. Several major airlines are in or near bankruptcy; yet we're working a record number of operations at Atlanta Center (ZTL). The airline hubs are reaching or exceeding their pre-9/11 levels. Speaking of which, do you remember all the talk about delays prior to September 11, 2001? Can you remember how the press was describing airline travel as a "nightmare"? I hope in the coming months you'll remember all the talk about "Air Traffic Delays" went away when the demand for airline travel went down. I want you to remember because the demand is coming back again and so are the complaints.

Déjà Vu

Quick -- right off the top of your head: How many new runways at the airline hubs have opened in the last four years? Hmm ... Denver got one, but I can't think of any others. What do you think the chances are that we wind up in the same situation again as the demand grows?

Likewise, how long do you think it will take before the finger pointing starts? "The local governments don't build enough runways." "The air traffic control system has failed to keep pace with the traffic." "The airlines schedule too many airplanes." I'm trying to imagine the scenario where those "greedy airline pilots" can get blamed (again) but I can't. That probably won't stop somebody from trying, though. I feel certain somebody will find a way to point a finger at us, the air traffic controllers.

Déjà New

There are going to be a lot fewer of us to point fingers at this time, though. Air traffic controllers, that is. You can believe whoever's spin you like, but in my world there are a lot less controllers. We had a guy go over four hours on the sector the other night, without a break. I'm not talking about the midnight shift while you're sitting there twiddling your thumbs, either; I'm talking about a regular, evening, get-your-butt-kicked shift. (Even the FAA's own data say our ability to concentrate declines dramatically after two hours -- so a break every two hours is in our contract.) I've never seen that before. I get to say that a lot these days, by the way: "I've never seen that before."

Take yesterday, for instance. I had a helicopter shoot a special instrument approach at an airport in my airspace. I'd never seen that before. I didn't even know we had a special instrument approach. I know about special instrument approaches ... they're in the ATC's bible -- FAA 7110.65:

4-8-1. APPROACH CLEARANCE

a. Clear aircraft for "standard" or "special" instrument approach procedures only.

... but I just didn't know we had one in our airspace. I also discovered there was a "COPTER RNAV DEPARTURE" procedure to go along with the special instrument procedure. I've never seen (read or heard) that before, either.

How Wrong Was It?

I don't know if I can explain to a non-controller just how wrong this is but I'm going to try. The very first thing a controller learns is his airspace. You know how I'm always ranting and raving about using airways and VORs when filing your flight plan? Well those are the first things a new air traffic controller learns about the airspace. When we're in training we spend an inordinate amount of time drawing and redrawing our airspace, trying to memorize as much of it as humanly possible.

You get a piece of paper that is blank except for the VORs. Those VORs are your frame of reference. Everything else you put on your map is in relation to those VORs. You fill in the airways, the radials for the airways, the intersections, the DME distances for each segment of the airway, the MEAs for each segment of the airway, the airports, the NDBs, the ILSs, the MTRs, the MOAs, the STARs, the SIDs and every other acronym you can think of. The next thing you commit to memory is the approaches and the missed approaches. Again, the important part is the spatial relationship these things have to each other in relation to the framework of the VORs.

Does the missed approach procedure for the ILS RWY 01 UKF conflict with IR721? Does the procedure turn for the VOR DME 24 HKY conflict with the procedure turn for the ILS RWY 01 at UKF? The answers to these questions -- and a million more -- are committed to memory. You simply don't have time to figure it out in real time.

Learning Curve

Imagine having to read three different approach plates simultaneously and get it right -- every time. There's not even enough room to lay three different approach plates out where you can read them. That is the reason you have the basics memorized. Computers may be fast these days, but they're not nearly as fast as human memory. Especially when you type as slow as I do.

Let me take a little side trip (like I haven't already?) while we're here. I know that GPS is the latest-greatest thing around and that every chicken farmer in Carolina wants an approach to his private airport/pasture. I understand that. Really, I do. You might have even heard by now that the FAA is running out of pronounceable five-letter identifiers for all the intersections on the new GPS approaches because there are so many being published.

What I haven't heard -- not one single word -- in the pilot community or from the FAA is anything about the burden all this places on controllers. Keeping in mind what I said above about memorizing airspace, I now need to memorize (or at least be familiar with) the location of INKEH, OMERE, JONOX -- COREX, FAPGU, ZUGAT, JOMRA, GONLE -- WALSO, ZOMAR, KUVRE, JAKTO -- ZANUM, PEPNE, SOBAE, ZOGLA and IBIDE. Those are the GPS intersections for all the new approaches into HKY (Hickory, N.C.)

Brain Stuffing

Then I need to know the initial approach altitudes, the missed approach procedures and missed approach altitudes also. Are you following all this? HKY has gone from having three IFR approaches (ILS, NDB, VOR) for one runway to having seven IFR approaches to four different runways. That is over a 100% increase in the knowledge-base a controller must have at just one airport. And lots of other airports have new approaches, too.

Again, I know all these options are great for pilots. They can work in a controller's favor, too. I've worked approaches into HKY for over 20 years and I'll be the first to tell you that shooting an approach to RWY 24 and circling to RWY 6 is a pain. For everybody. That doesn't change the fact that there is a lot more information a controller needs to know to be able to do his job.

Cut-Rate Training

So (dragging ourselves back to the theme of this article), what has been the FAA's reaction to this massive increase of information a controller needs to know? They cut training. Why -- in the name of all that is safe -- would they do that? It's simple. They don't have the staffing.

When I started with the FAA, right after the strike in 1981, we had "team training" every week. Team training is where your team (all the controllers in an Area who share the same days off) meets in a conference room and goes over all new information for the week. You cover things like changes to the Letters of Agreements with other facilities, special procedures being put into place for the local NASCAR race and new approaches in your airspace. In short, it was a regularly scheduled training environment where you learned new stuff and reviewed old stuff. You could talk it out, ask questions and hash out any problems.

The last time I had team training was a few months ago. I can't remember the time before that. Maybe two years ago. Maybe more. If you don't have the staffing, you can't get out of the control room for training.

The More Things Change ...

I know it's been a long time but do any of you remember this little tidbit I wrote over a year ago?

Say Again? #32: Another Year

1) Low Staffing

Lack of staffing is still the root of all evil in ATC. It touches everything. That includes me as I was trying to work five sectors by myself just last night.

Low staffing was the number one item from the "Top Ten Safety Problems at ZTL" list I wrote in 1998 when I first took the job of Facility Safety Representative at Atlanta Center for NATCA. It would seem like a good time to say, "Some things never change," but they do. For the worse.

... The More They Stay the Same

The lack of staffing touches everything in air traffic control. Including briefings on new approaches to airports that we work. We have two new approaches into SVH (Statesville, N.C.), too. I had an aircraft request the new GPS RWY 28 approach. I looked up the approach plate in the approach plate book, cleared him to PEGTE and cleared him for the approach. No fuss, no muss. An hour or so later, I find out there's a NOTAM for that approach. The NOTAM says, "Original procedure not authorized." After consulting with a supervisor, who had to consult with a guy who had spent some time in the Airspace and Procedures office, and a little head-scratching, we determined that the procedure was indeed the original procedure and the approach was not authorized. Whoops.

I would explain the process on how the system broke down on that one, but I'm still trying to figure it all out. For now, suffice it to say that it did break down and I made a mistake. You don't want to make a habit of making mistakes in this business.

What I want you to see is that the current environment is conducive to making mistakes. In other words, the next time you're shooting a new GPS approach, if it sounds like it's the first time the controller has ever heard of the approach -- even if it's the same controller you know you've been talking to for years -- it may actually be the first time he's ever heard of the approach.

Contents Under Pressure

I also want you to see the enormous pressure controllers are under to keep things moving in the system. Remember the "special" instrument approach I was talking about above? It's a "copter" approach. The "copter" using it was a helicopter from the nearby medical center. I know this outfit and I know the type of missions they fly. It's not like the typical flights using a Lifeguard callsign that transport body parts for transplant operations -- you know, the ones that have "X" number of hours to get the organ to the waiting patient. No, the helicopters in question fly bodies that are in parts, trying to get them to doctors who can put them back together again. Forget "X" number of hours ... these guys deal in minutes.

Imagine sitting at a combined sector (two sectors combined on one scope because you don't have the staffing) by yourself (because you don't have the staffing) and this helicopter shows up requesting a special instrument approach that you've never heard of before. You take your eyes off the scope, stand up, grab the approach plates and search rapidly through the book until you find the approach they're requesting. Sure enough, it's in there.

Let's see, it starts here at the Initial Approach Fix, goes there, then makes a dog-leg there direct to the airport.

"Atlanta Center, one fifty-six needs to deviate left about 20 degrees for the next 20 miles."

Huh?

"Calling Atlanta Center, say again?"

"Uh, yeah, Center, one fifty-six needs to deviate around a cell out there about 20 miles. We want to go around the left side."

One fifty-six ... one fifty-six ... who the %$#@! is one fifty ...

"Commuter one fifty-six, Atlanta, deviation left of course approved. Cleared direct Volunteer when able."

"Any chance we can just get direct VOLLS when we're done?"

"Commuter one fifty-six, unable."

Altitude. What's the initial approach altitude? 4,000. Is that good in that area? You stand up and look at the MIA map to see if you can imagine where the IAF is and match it with the MIAs.

"Atlanta Center, Cessna one two three four five."

What now?

"Cessna one two three four five, Atlanta Center, go ahead."

"Atlanta Center, Cessna one two three four five is a Cessna one seventy two. We're leaving three thousand climbing to six thousand five hundred. We just took off Mountain Empire, Mike Kilo Juliet, and we're heading for Morganton, Mike Romeo November. We'd like to get advisories if you have the time."

"Cessna one two three four five Atlanta Center, unable advisories."

"Atlanta Center Lifeguard five six seven is approaching the initial approach fix we need SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH."

"Lifeguard five six seven, Atlanta, stand by one. All aircraft this frequency stand by."

4,000 is good. What about the missed approach? Where's it go? You look back at the chart and see ...

"Atlanta Center, this is Cessna one two three four five. Can you give us the frequency for the next controller so we can see if we can get some VFR advisories from him."

"Cessna three four five STAND BY!"

... the missed approach goes to the west. Right towards the other airport where that guy hasn't canceled yet. What's the missed approach over there? I didn't get a briefing on that one, either. %$#@!

Tick, Tick, Tick

What would you do? This isn't for fun ... this is for real. Do you put the Lifeguard in holding until you're sure that the other guy has canceled or until you can pull out yet another approach plate and figure out where the other missed approach goes? Could you make yourself do that if you knew there was a person on the ground bleeding to death?

I don't think I need to explain what real pressure is to pilots. Pilots subject themselves to as much pressure (or more) as controllers every time they strap themselves into an airplane. All I'm trying to explain is the types of pressures controllers face.

Congratulations!

As I'm furiously typing, trying to finish this article on the midnight shift, the traffic count for yesterday is being posted: It was 11,150. That's the new, all-time record for Atlanta Center. My Area did its part with 11 + 2 on the day shift. That's 11 controllers plus two more in training. There are 15 controller positions in my Area: seven R-sides (radar positions), seven D-sides (data positions) and one A-side (assistant controller). Fifteen positions to staff before you can think about taking a break or eating lunch. We did it on a record day with 11 controllers. Plus two. Take the two out of training, put them to work, and you get a "lucky" 13. Of course, you don't get any new controllers if you can't train them.

Barely an hour ago, I was working -- hanging on by my fingernails -- five low-side sectors combined up on the midnight-shift configuration. The third member of our crew was trying to help out on the D-side and pull the strips off the printers for my sector and the high-altitude sector.

I'm sitting here wondering how we're going to do this if the FAA carries out it's plan to close the Knoxville, Tenn. (TYS), Roanoke, Va. (ROA) and Greensboro, N.C. (GSO) Approach Controls on the midnight shift. Or how we're going to handle what we have, much less more, if the FAA has to cut our midnight staffing from three people down to two.

I'm not the only one wondering how we're going to pull it off, either. There are a lot of controllers in the same boat we're in. There are a lot of people in the entire industry facing similar (or worse) circumstances. I was just reading an article yesterday about an airline pilot who took a 50% pay cut. Same job, half pay. I've got a lot of things on my mind but at least trying to make my mortgage isn't one of them.

Failure is Not an Option

There are a million and one factors that affect the safety of this system. Right now a lot of those factors aren't looking very good. And it's going to get worse before it gets better. The two guys I'm working with tonight have less time until retirement than I do and I've only got 588 days left. Yes, I am counting them.

Will the system continue to operate? Sure it will. Will it fail? Who knows? I'm nervous about it, but I've been nervous about it before. It's failed in the past and we learned our lessons, picked up the pieces and moved forward. It's a horrible price to pay for an education, though. I find it as unacceptable as I'm sure you do. Failure may not be an option but it's always a possibility.

Keeping Your Wits

I want to close with this thought: In the coming months and years we --as an industry -- are going to face some serious challenges. The pressures to get the job done -- faster, quicker and cheaper -- are going to be enormous. We are being forced to do more with less and still try to get it done on time.

The finger pointing is going to start, people are going to vent and there is going to be more public rhetoric than you can listen to and still retain your sanity. I want you to try your best to keep one thing in mind: There might be some things in this world worth dying for, but trying to save two minutes flying time isn't one of them. Be careful out there.

Have a safe flight.

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


Want to read more from air traffic controller Don Brown? Check out the rest of his columns.