I had this great idea, see. I’m always getting questions like, “What’s it like being a controller?” and, “So, what does a Safety Rep. do, exactly?” I never really have a good answer for either of those. At least, not an answer that I can give in less than a minute. So I thought I’d drag you through the week with me.
Like all my bright ideas, they never seem to work out quite like I planned. I woke up at 6:00 this morning (day one of the week), and already I’m behind. I knew I should get started on this column but I also knew it was going to get hot. So I took off early to do some volunteer work. By 7 a.m., I was puttering around with petunias and being vexed by the vinca. Odd – gardening humor doesn’t work any better in writing than it does on the TV.
A few hours later, after a shower and a nap, I’m preparing to go to work. I download the email (65 of them), and I call up the national radar loop that I didn’t get to this morning. I see the thunderstorm gods are putting the squeeze play on my airspace. I have to admit that the thought of taking a mental health day crosses my mind. But Mrs. Brown likes her holiday money, so it’s off to work I go. Hi-ho, hi-ho, and all that nonsense.
It’s nice weather here in Atlanta (if you like hot), but at 3:10 p.m., that ceases to be relevant. There’s this strange line of thunderstorms building up from Greensboro, N.C. (GSO) to Toccoa, Ga. (ODF), and, of course, every airplane I’m supposed to work is going to deviate around them. I say they’re strange because they started off as the popcorn variety of thunderstorms and seemed to hit a wall at GSO. At that point, they just stacked up and started turning into a red line.
So my day starts on the printer (like normal). Stuffing strips (flight progress strips) for seven sectors is bad enough. Toss in the SIGMETS and the flow control restrictions, and it quickly gets to be a pain in the … well, you know where. After about 20 minutes of that, some kind soul comes back to relieve me so I can plug into a sector.
I Got the Blues
Just as I’m reaching for an R-side (radar position – the one you usually talk to), the supe sends me to plug into the D-side (data position) over at Bristol/Spring. Being a low sector (surface to FL230), you’d think I’d like it. I don’t. When these sectors are split, they’re among the slowest in the building. When they’re combined, they have the highest traffic count in Atlanta Center (ZTL). At least, that’s what we were told once. So, of course, we keep them combined 90% of the time. There’s that efficiency thing again.
But the best part is who I get to work with – one of the “blue boys,” as I call them. With the new radar scopes we have, you can turn the background blue if you like. I don’t like. I like not being able to see the targets and the weather even less. And after 18 years of looking in the same place for the clock, I really don’t like having to look all over the scope trying to find it. Yeah, I know I’m an old dog. I don’t like new tricks either.
After an hour and a half of that, I’m back on break. In that I’m writing this article, I don’t get to check my email or read any of the 65 that I’ve already downloaded. With the weather and the holiday staffing, the supe also warns me to keep it short. I walk down to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. Closed. I walk over to the coin-operated coffee machine. Empty. My day just keeps getting better and better.
Thirty minutes later, I’m back on the A-side (assistant controller) stuffing strips. Ten minutes later, I’m back at Bristol/Spring. At least I’m on the R-side this time. But only because there isn’t a D-side. The first thing I see is that heavy precipitation is all around Snowbird (SOT). So, of course, the first three airplanes I’m working are right in the middle of it. “Bugsmasher99, say flight conditions.” “We’re in the clear, Center. Smooth ride.” But of course. I look over at the glorified big-screen TV and squint at the weather radar loop. It’s hard to tell because I can’t see the VORs on it, but it doesn’t seem to look anything like what is on my scope.
I do notice a big red splotch just north of TYS though. I look back at the radar scope, and that’s about the only clear place on my scope. But of course. I tell the supervisor about it. Nothing changes. Of course.
I muddle through by myself for about an hour. Have I mentioned I don’t like working combined sectors? That’s because they have more than one frequency. It’s like trying to talk on the phone while your wife is trying to talk to you, and the soap operas are on the TV, playing in the background. Mrs. Brown and the pilots both want to know why you can’t pay attention to what they are saying. All the while the person you’re trying to talk to on the phone wonders if you’ve got half a brain because you keep saying “yes dear,” and then you lose your train of thought when the old battle-axe (on the soap opera) pulls out the six-shooter and starts blasting away.
About the time my blood pressure reaches FL600, the supe sends a D-side to help me. I switch about six airplanes in 30 seconds, and poof! We’re done. I swear I don’t know how the supes do that. They always manage to send you some help just as you’ve about got the mess cleaned up. I guess they think I need someone to keep me distracted when I don’t have but one or two airplanes.
It’s 6:30 p.m., and I’m off to supper. Thankfully, Hampton (where the Center is really located) has grown enough that we actually have some places to go eat now. When I first started, we really were out in the sticks. But that wonderful Atlanta sprawl has now blessed us with a few fast-food joints. It’s really quite fortunate. If I still had to brown-bag it, Mrs. Brown would probably be feeding me bran-bean-tofu-sprouts by now, trying to keep my cholesterol in check.
Forty-five minutes to fuel my ulcer and I’m back at it. Bristol/Spring again! It happens. Sometimes you get locked into a rotation and can’t get off a sector the whole night. Because it’s a holiday, things are quieting down now. So it’s not too bad.
Yeah, I knew I shouldn’t have said that. Nashville (BNA) FSS calls for a clearance off Deerfield. I won’t draw you a picture, but let’s just say that Deerfield couldn’t have been placed in a worse spot if somebody tried. I tell BNA FSS to hold the line while I make three phone calls to coordinate the departure. I make the calls, lose the line to BNA FSS, call back the wrong FSS, and then finally find the right guy at BNA FSS. A few “say again’s” on the frequency and things are back to normal. I knew I shouldn’t have said that. Now they combine the Wilkes sector on mine. More frequencies. More fun.
One more session and I get to call it a night. At 11:10 p.m., I depart the fix and head home. It’s a nice night. The heat is gone and there’s a beautiful full moon rising up through some thin clouds. I reach my humble abode at 11:45 and I’m greeted by my faithful dog. Okay, I know that she just wants to go outside, but she still greets me. Mrs. Brown is already in bed, as are my kids. I kiss her good night and total up the time for today. That’s about 20 minutes and 15 seconds that I’ve spent with her today. I never saw my kids. Not once.
I open my laptop as I sit down in my chair and the computer decides to restart itself. I hate it when that happens. That means that I have to look at the desktop when it’s finished. My virtual desktop is as cluttered as my real desktop used to be. How utterly depressing.
Currently awaiting my attention are a submission on phraseology for the 7110.65 that I wrote three months ago and never got around to submitting, a new accident/incident investigation field guide that I promised to review and haven’t read yet, some numbers on a technical program at ZTL that need addressing, the survey results from AVweb’s “question of the week” about phraseology that I stumbled upon the on the other day, the transcripts from the Tenerife crash in 1977 (can you see a connection?), an Unsatisfactory Condition Report about Lat/Longs in flight plans that I’ve been trying to write for a week, and the latest update from my regional vice-president that I haven’t managed to read in the last three days.
Oh well. Putting it all off for one more day won’t hurt. It’s past midnight, so I guess that one more day is already here. I’m going to bed. Oh yeah, don’t forget the dog. Now where did that mutt run off to?
But Tuesday is Just as Bad
After six hours of tossing and turning that passes as sleep, I’m at it again by 7 a.m., butchering more plants. It’s pretty much a carbon copy of Monday, except I get to work at 12:30 p.m. Trouble must be brewing because all the supes are in a meeting, leaving us to fend for ourselves. Well, at least there’s no weather today. So far that is.
Somebody must have some thunderstorms, though. We’re sending airplanes to Washington Center (ZDC) with spacing 30 MIT RALT(miles in trail regardless of altitude) to each airport for most of the major airports in the northeast. Okay, one of them is only 25 MIT RALT, but DCA and BWI are to be treated as one airport so it all evens out. Toss in the in-trail to PIT, ORD, CVG, and DTW, and the restrictions take up an entire mini-strip board. So far, I’ve missed out on the fun and games, and when I’m offered a break I jump at it.
It’s 3:30 and I’m already on my second break. I just love shift change. For about an hour we actually have some bodies. Download the email (which is mercifully light) and look at the national radar loop. It looks like someone is dropping little red and yellow balloons all over the southeast. Unfortunately, it’s more organized in the midwest, and New York has an area of thunderstorms bearing down on it. I can see where this scenario is heading and I don’t like it.
I almost dodged the bullet. I got stuck on Bristol/Spring again. I’d written down the time that the air-refueling route was going active at the Spring sector when it was split earlier. When it got combined back up, the time wasn’t written down. Just like always, as soon as I said I was okay and they could take my D-side to track at the Pulaski sector, here come the refuelers. Down the tubes I go.
Which reminds me. About 20 minutes before the refuelers showed up, I’d rerouted an aircraft off of the sector border. The aircraft would be in my sector for awhile, then enter an approach control, and then re-enter my airspace and ride the border for about 40 miles. Yeah, a combined sector is a large chunk of airspace. The route I gave him would keep him off the border. Of course, as soon as the pilot talked to the approach control, he requested and was given direct to the airport again. Right when I was going down the tubes, the approach control calls up with a point out on him. Just what I needed, right when I needed it: another phone call.
Even worse, about five minutes later, I was being relieved to go home. We were still cleaning up the mess, and I was trying to get the new controller briefed before the refuelers joined up. I think it was just last month I was saying, “Haste makes waste.” I forgot to tell the new controller about the limited data block riding the border. It’s really embarrassing having to call the supe on the phone (after you’ve left) and tell him to make sure your relief sees the traffic. It beats having a deal while you’re on your ride home, though.
Wednesday is Worse
Who’s bright idea was this article anyway? I fell asleep in my chair about 10:30 last night, so my wife ran me off to bed. I slept pretty well, too. Right up until 5:15 a.m., that is. Seeing as I’m up, I might as well get at it. I download more email I don’t have time to read, and fire off a half-dozen about a special event scheduled for our airspace later this summer. It seems there’s a shortage of overtime money in the FAA. We can make it work (there’s that phrase again) without the extra bodies, but it’s going to be slow. Painfully slow. I thought some folks might like to know how painful.
I sign in a 7:30 a.m., work the A-side for 30 minutes, and then I get the R-side at the Shine sector. All right, this is more like it. I like running arrivals. It’s fun for about 15 minutes, and then the arrivals and the departures show up. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. The arrival sector (Shine) and the departure sector (Moped) are combined. It’s that two-frequency thing again. After having to pull the crowbar out to pry two apart (right where I keep telling them we need to redesign our airspace), I decide I’ve had enough fun and take the next break offered.
After that, it’s a relatively quiet day. The traffic is a little light this week, and I don’t have an explanation. I’m not going to complain about it, either. At 3:30, I’m headed for home. A little nap, a little email, a little more plant butchery, and I’m eating supper out of a sack by 8:00 p.m. I know it’s glamorous, but you get used to it.
Thursday is So Sad
Okay. It’s official now. I’m dumber than a box of rocks. Just as I was headed for bed last night, I remember it’s publishing day and I haven’t reviewed my article. Lucky for me my editor lives a few time zones away.
The day starts at 4:15 a.m. Anybody want to make jokes about my naps now? In yet another smooth move on my part, I moved my shift up. So I’m plugging in at 5:30 a.m. A quick briefing from the zombies and I’m vectoring freight haulers for various and assorted airports. If you ever want to see what Free Flight looks like, just show up for a mid. Just about everybody is going direct. Except for the ones going into a freight hub, of course. It works just fine if you don’t have any airplanes.
The transition back to the real world isn’t always pretty either. Thursdays always seem to start off with a bang. About 6:15, the fairy tale is over, everybody turns into a pumpkin, and we start putting planes back on the routes. By 6:30, all the approach controls are open and slinging airplanes out. Fortunately, that’s when the next shift shows up. I’ll go.
Bacon, eggs, and email for breakfast today. For those of you that take the time to write me, I really can’t thank you enough. Just to show you what a little positive reinforcement can do … I cleaned out my email inbox today. Really, the letters I get from readers are the highlight of my month. Thanks.
It was almost a perfect day. I got to open my favorite sector, and I camped out there as long as the safety rules allow. More email on the break, and back to my favorite sector. “You want a break, Don?” You couldn’t blast me out of here with dynamite, buddy. If I have to serve my sentence, I’d just as soon do it here. I did get trapped on the Salem sector for a short stint, but even that wasn’t too bad.
The Eagle Flies on Friday
T. Bone Walker evidently wasn’t a government employee. Payday was Tuesday. So unless you’re junior and your Friday is on Tuesday … oh let’s just not go there. Just remember that most controllers don’t get Saturday and Sunday off. ATC is a 24/7, 365-day occupation.
The day starts again at 4:15 a.m. I know that sounds ugly to most of you, but at least I didn’t have to work the midnight shift. But somebody did. That means they got off between 1:30 and 3 p.m. and had to come back to work at 11 p.m. the same evening. Now that’s ugly.
The guys that made the quick turnaround from the evening shift to the day shift regale us with the stories from last night. The arrival to CLT from the northeast got shut of by some thunderstorms, so everyone got routed over to the arrival on the northwest side. People always wonder why controllers rotate shifts in such a crazy manner. That’s one reason right there. Thunderstorms generally come in the evening. Five nights of that kind of fun will make you old very quickly. Crazy shift rotations and 4:15 wakeups may sound ugly, but everything is relative
Dang it! They’re training at Wilkes today. I get booted off the sector and wind up at Pulaski. First I get to work Mr. Mumbles, then I get the old reroute-and-handoff-in-one-move routine, and then my favorite critter of all shows up: direct LGA. Note to self: Write future article entitled “ATC 500: The Dark Side.” Subtitle: “What we do to pilots that file direct LGA at lunchtime on Friday.” One more session with the arrivals, and it’s the weekend.
Saturday I Go Out to Play
Summertime in Georgia is here, and it hasn’t rained in two weeks. I never have understood how I can work around thunderstorms for a week and not get any rain on my yard.
I’m up at 6 a.m. to clean out my mailbox again. Earlier in the week I bruised my ribs. Mrs. Brown, in her never-ending quest to prove her love, gave me a bear hug about a day later. Love hurts. This limits my ability to do my yard work, so I wait for the field hands … uh … adoring children … to wake up and help me out. Quality time with Dad.
Sunday I Go to Church
Well, okay, I confess. I ditched church today. The weatherman says it’s going to 100 degrees today. I hate the heat like Yankees hate the snow. Just as I’m settling in for my Sunday afternoon nap, I get called in for overtime. I think I’ll go to church next week.
I walk in the door and I see the previous day’s traffic count. I try to make a habit of writing down the traffic count everyday in my calendar. Controllers live and die by their calendars, by the way. 6,585 for Saturday. I don’t normally work overtime, but I’m thinking to myself, “I can work 6,500 airplanes standing on my head.”
Yeah, I knew I shouldn’t have said that. On my first go-around stuffing strips, Pulaski has six bays of strips. I see two bays of strips on a sector everyday, three bays quite often, and four bays occasionally. I can’t remember the last time I saw six – that’s about 80 strips. Some airplanes have duplicate strips, but still, it’s a lot of airplanes and a lot of updating. And it’s not only how many airplanes you work, it’s how little time you work them in.
I won’t bore you with a detailed description of the entire shift. I’ve probably done that enough already. There were enough thunderstorms around to keep it interesting. Suffice it to say, it was a carbon copy of Monday’s shift.
Speaking of which, it’s already Monday again. Time to do it all over again. That’s pretty much what it’s like being a Center controller: You do it over and over and over again. Centers are separation factories, and controllers are just cogs in the wheel. It always surprises the FAA when one of the cogs breaks, or (heaven forbid) decides they want a say in how to run the factory.
Some of you are going to wonder what any of this has to do with aviation safety. Admittedly, because of space, I didn’t go into any great detail. You’ll have to fill in the gaps. Fatigue, equipment usability, frequency congestion, weather displays, airspace redesign, staffing – they’re all in there. Then you’ll have to notice what isn’t in there. I said I don’t normally work overtime. I didn’t say I wasn’t offered it almost every week. I didn’t say a word about refresher training either.
One more thing before I leave you. You know how I’m always telling you that this is your system, you paid for it? This is your system, you paid for it.
Have a safe flight!
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association