Say Again? #55: What I Want for Christmas

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This Christmas, AVweb's Don Brown would like a few things to make his job better. Many of them are things that pilots already have, but that doesn't make it any easier to get them for Don.

Say Again?

It's time to pick annual leave for 2006 at Atlanta Center (ZTL). We pick our days off and two weeks of leave at the same time. I've been senior enough to get Saturday and Sunday off for some time now. Lots and lots of controllers get really excited about seniority. Me, I never give it much thought. I've been a controller since day one (no "bad" time), I've worked in Atlanta Center since day one and I've been in the National Air Traffic Controllers Association NATCA since the day we were certified. It doesn't matter how we decide to determine seniority, I've got all the bases covered.

What made this year different was -- after almost 24 years -- I could get Christmas week off. Wow! My wife will love this. That is the one thing that is always tough on the family. They can understand when you miss the school play because you have to work, but missing Christmas is a major sin. One not easily forgiven.

You see, the guy senior to me is retiring before summer so he didn't need to pick ... hey, wait a minute ... I'm retiring before Christmas in 2006! I've got the whole month off! I can be such a dummy. I got all excited for nothing.

Oh well. That just means this is the last year you can get me something for Christmas. I know you want to spend your hard-earned tax dollars on something that is not only nice but also useful, so I thought I'd tell you what I want.

A Computer

AirNav

I've got one at home, but I want a computer at my sector. Not just any computer but one with a high-speed internet connection, too. It's really amazing what you can do with one of these things. You know how I'm always having to look up those three letter airport IDs in that big, thick, red book? Look at AirNav. You go to the site, click on "Airports," type in "GEV" and presto! It will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about Ashe County, N.C. Now, I know some folks will be tempted to type in those Lat/Longs that show up at the top of the page, but if you scroll down the page a little you'll see that it tells you where the airport is in relation to the VORs, too. GEV is the HMV094034 (094 radial at 34 nm) or the BZM352035 or the GZG129040. Scroll down even further and it will show you the instrument approaches for the airports. I don't even have to flip through the approach plates anymore; I could just pull the approach plate up on the computer. If you'll get me one of those big, flat-panel displays, I bet I could even look at two or three approach plates at the same time.

If you think that is cool, you ought to look at FltPlan.com. They'll let you try it out if you type "Pilot" in the sign-in box. Do you remember the column where I talked about how hard it is to figure out what the route of flight looks like when pilots file direct to some obscure airport? Well, watch this: You go to the site, look down the left side and click on "Charts." When the new page comes up, click on "Low Alt Charts" and type "SVH" in the "Dep Arpt" box and "I05" in the "Arr Arpt" box. Click on the "Press Here When Done" box and wait a few seconds.

Shazam! Will you look at that, Gomer? Golly. He couldn't fly a straight line and miss the BZM or CCT VORs if he tried. If I wanted to bend him around the CLT arrivals, I could send him over HMV without sending him too much out of his way. It's so simple even a government worker could use it.

But wait, it gets even better. What about an airport with a STAR or a SID? Let's look and see. Go back and type in GSP (Greenville - Spartanburg, S.C.) to HEF (Manassas, Va.) Don't forget to wait a few seconds while it builds the charts. Will you look at that? It says there's no SIDS for GSP and there are bunches of STARs for HEF. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page and look at the list of STARS, you can see that several of them are "Issued By ATC Only."

Looks like it will be direct SPA.V605.GENOD (Come on, you know you aren't flying through Charlotte's arrival gate) V222.LYH.V16.FAK.COATT4.HEF. OK, you might file LYH direct CSN, but don't be surprised if you wind up over FAK anyway. At least you'll be expecting it; and when you get the reroute, you won't have to say, "Can you tell me what the identifier for Flat Rock is Center?"

It's amazing, isn't it -- you can do all this on a small laptop, but we can't do it at the sector.

A Radar

It's time. It's past time. I'm still working with an Air Route Surveillance Radar- Model 1. Take a look at it. Please notice that Web page is for a radar museum. As you can see from the page, that type radar was put into service in 1958. That is the year I was born. I'm retiring. It should too.

You'll hear the argument that the FAA's radars have been upgraded, but that's like saying your '58 Chevy has been upgraded. At the bottom of the page is the FAA's best, long-range radar: An ARSR-4. From what I hear, they are so much better than the ARSR-1s. I wouldn't know because we don't have one in ZTL airspace. As you can see on this map, all the ARSR-4s were placed on the borders of the U.S. They're joint DOD/FAA sites -- in other words, they're used not only for ATC but for Air Defense also. Of course, after 9/11 everything is used for Air Defense.

By the way, did anyone else watch that new TV show Threshold last month? I had one of those "Twilight Zone moments" while watching it, and it had nothing to do with the fact that the show is about aliens. The good guys were having to check some FAA radar data and one of them asked, "It's not Maiden is it?" because he knows that the radar is old and prone to outages. I looked at my wife and asked, "Did he just say what I thought he said?" You could have knocked me over with a genetically altered, triple-helix feather. I wonder where they got that? Could it be ... Maiden and Me?

A Building

Yeah, I know. It's a lot to ask. And it won't really improve safety, but it might help with morale. It's just a thought. I mean, the building was dedicated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It's old -- 45 years old, to be exact.

The wallpaper has so many layers of paint that it's too heavy to stay glued to the walls. They've drilled so many holes in the walls and floors over the years that I'm surprised the whole building doesn't fall down. Can anyone tell me where the government got that putrid green paint they use? I asked a painter about it one time and he said the government was the only one that uses it. He called it "Government Green." It really is horrid. And speaking of horrid, you ought to smell the bathrooms when they have to work on the 45-year-old plumbing. It's a good thing I can't provide you a hyperlink to an odor. Oh well.

A Simulator

I know you think we already have a simulator in the Center (because we do) but I want a real one. I mean a good one. Realistic. Flexible. Robust. I want to be able to replay real incidents from the actual control room and learn from them. Something at that level will require a real investment -- an investment in equipment and people. In 24 years I'd guess that I've only been in the simulator lab once every two years on average. Maybe less. And it's always for "box checking." No real education was being provided. We were just checking the box on the form that says we're supposed to get simulator training.

While I'm here and dreaming, let me shoot for the moon. I'd like to see our simulator tied into other facility's simulators. Let's say we wanted to design a new West Departure sector for CLT (Charlotte, N.C.) Approach (That sector has been on my Christmas list for many years, by the way.) Wouldn't it be nice if we could tie ZTL's simulator in with CLT's simulator and work out the kinks ... instead of experimenting with "live" traffic? I bet US Air would think it was a good idea. Who knows? US Air might be so excited about it that they'd like to tie in their simulators with our simulators. Can you imagine? Real Center controllers working with real Approach controllers, helping design new airspace and procedures with real pilots in a virtual ATC system. Where do I get these crazy ideas? Look at VATSIM. They've managed to tie the whole world together. I'm just asking for the United States of America.

An Education

Yes, I want an education. I know some of you think I know a lot; but I have to tell you, I'm shocked at how little I really know at the end of my career. It scares me to think of the level of ignorance I'd still enjoy if AVweb hadn't presented me with this golden opportunity to learn. The old saying really is true: If you want to learn something, teach it.

There is this culture that has taken hold at the FAA among controllers: Once you reach CPC (Certified Professional Controller) status, your education is over. Part of the blame for that is the confidence level you have to have to be a controller. When you're certified to operate a sector on your own -- without anybody looking over your shoulder -- it's only natural to think you're pretty well trained. Once you're checked out on all your sectors and you manage to work a few years without scaring yourself on a daily basis, it really is easy to believe you know all you need to know.

You know what you need to know to survive, but not what you need to thrive. I've harped on this subject before but I believe it may be one of the most important to my profession. This thought needs a lot more attention than I'll be able to give it in this article, but I'm going to throw it out there anyway.

If becoming a CPC is like graduating from college (and it's actually longer and a lot tougher) then we need to come up with a Master's degree. The ATC equivalent of a Ph.D. would be nice too, but first things first. Our controllers are among the best in the world. In terms of volume, there is simply no comparison. If you don't realize how lopsided any comparison between our system and any other system is, take a look at the video on this page. Watch the counter on the bottom-left side to see how many airplanes are in the system at any given time -- it bottoms out at around 600 airplanes on the midnight shift. That is more airplanes than some countries ever work at one time.

The point is, when it comes to working the airplanes -- moving the metal -- our guys know what they're doing. The area of knowledge that I'm talking about is knowledge of the system. There's a disconnect between what it takes to run a sector and what it takes to run a system. There is a lack of awareness on how a controller's actions in one piece of the pie affect the whole system. I could spend hours on this subject, but I have to keep this short. The system of depending on the current culture to hand this knowledge down from generation to generation is breaking down. There needs to be a formal system of continuing education put into place and taught by people who are recognized -- and respected -- as expert controllers.

I hope you'll read that last sentence again. And really think about it. Quite possibly, it may be the most important thing I'll ever say in one of these columns.

There is one other issue that might be more important. But before I bring it up, I want to say this: Don't try to read "between the lines" in this next segment. Don't try to politicize it. Take it at face value because that is the way I intend it to be taken. Good government is important. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, a failure of government -- on whatever level -- can have disastrous consequences.

The last thing I want to put on my list is ...

A Leader

When you look at a potential FAA Administrator, what are you looking for? Somebody who will serve your needs? Your needs as a pilot? That's understandable. It's perfectly normal.

Now, try to pretend you're a controller for a moment. What would you look for in an Administrator?

When you thought about it as a pilot, did you want "one of your own" as Administrator -- that is, a pilot? Do you think controllers are looking for "one of our own?" It's an intriguing concept (fantasy?) but we don't expect it. The FAA serves the flying public. Not controllers. We do, however, expect a leader. Somebody to set the agenda. Somebody to fight for the resources we need to do our jobs. Somebody who will fight for what is right. And, yes, someone that will fight for us when the situation calls for it.

Controllers aren't easy to lead. Considering how individualistic the typical controller is, that isn't hard to believe. Controllers can be hardheaded, obstinate and downright difficult. Trust me, I know. I have to deal with them every day.

But, there is the flip side to that personality. As a whole, they are extraordinarily bright people. By the very nature of their jobs, they willingly accept awesome responsibilities and know that they must meet those responsibilities every single day -- without fail. They expect the same from anyone who wants to lead them.

A crisis always presents an opportunity. An opportunity to succeed or to fail. Hurricane Katrina is the latest crisis that controllers faced. Some stepped up to volunteer. Some didn't have any choice. Fate reached out, said, "Tag, you're it," and they would either meet the challenge or not. From all reports -- in every instance, in every facility -- the controllers rose to meet this latest challenge. You've probably read some of the news stories. The fact that Baton Rouge became one of the busiest airports in the country is just one of them.

I've been reading our internal union communications during this period. The stories in the press don't even scratch the surface. There are real heroes out there among us. Some of them literally risked their lives to help their fellow controllers so that they, in turn, could continue doing their jobs. I know some of them; some, I've never met. I could not be prouder of them or the fact that these people, all of them, choose to belong to an organization I helped build -- NATCA.

I want a leader worthy of these people. When you look at the FAA -- the organization running your National Airspace System -- and you try to figure out what needs to be fixed, I want you to keep this in mind. Controllers got together and formed NATCA in 1987 -- during the Reagan Administration. Needless to say, it wasn't exactly a labor-friendly environment. Since that time, NATCA has been more successful than I ever dared hope.

NATCA's success is wholly attributable to its members and their talents. I'm constantly amazed at the wealth and diversity of talent we have within our ranks. Our members have volunteered for duties involving everything from finance to law to accident investigations. During Hurricane Katrina they became truck drivers, coordinators, roofers, counselors and supply clerks. And they've succeeded ... no matter who was president of NATCA, Administrator of the FAA or even President of the United States.

The concept I want you to focus on is volunteer. These folks volunteer to do these jobs. In other words, they work for free. These are the very same people that work for you. If NATCA can be successful with volunteers ...

... Imagine -- just imagine -- how successful they could be for you. After all, you pay them. All they need is the tools, the education, the leadership -- in short, a system -- that allows them to be successful. John Carr (the current NATCA president) has a saying he uses when he's asked to explain NATCA's success: "I'm standing on the shoulders of giants." You could too.

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.