Say Again? #18:
War Stories

There are some really great things about how the U.S. military forces interact with civilian ATC. There are also some not-so-great interactions. AVweb's Don Brown has seen them all, and has a few stories to tell about them.


Among the many things that have surprised me in writing for AVweb, one of the most surprising has been the number of military fliers that I’ve heard from. I don’t know why it surprised me. There certainly are enough of them. I guess I just never thought they’d be interested in what I have to say.

If John Q. Public only listened to the media, he’d think there was nothing in the sky but airliners and “little” airplanes. But I’d be willing to bet that the largest single user of the National Airspace System is the United States Air Force. Seeing as they “own” about half of it (you folks out West know what I mean), that’s a pretty safe bet. Add in the rest of the Department of Defense and it’s no contest.

Air Armada

I read in an article one time that the U.S. Air Force owns more C-135s (Boeing 707s) than United Air Lines owns airplanes. We tend to forget that when we’re working a constant stream of airliners into the hubs day after day. But if you could ever see the armada airborne when we’re going to war, you’d be astounded. I know I was during Desert Storm. Speaking of which, I hope you’ll forgive me if I seem a little vague about some things in this article. We don’t speak quite as freely about military operations since September 11.

I have this love/hate relationship with the military. You can’t help but love the folks who are willing to be shot at just so you can sleep soundly in your king-size bed, that’s in your wall-to-wall carpeted bedroom, inside your air-conditioned two-story house. But some of their operations drive controllers insane. They’re complicated, they chew up huge portions of airspace and then there’s the radios.

Snap, Crackle, Pop

If you civilian types think VHF radios are bad you ought to hear UHF. Good golly Miss Molly. And they always use UHF in the worst circumstances. The guys flying the transports in the smooth air use VHF like the rest of the world. It’s always the guys sucking on an oxygen mask or vibrating in synch with the rotors that use UHF.

“Center-hssssss-Gunfighter2-whooooosh-request-ssssss two seven oh-ssss.”

“Cceenntteerr, GGuuaarrdd365 rreeeqquueessttiinngg ffoouurr tthhoouussaanndd.”

Every controller in the country would gladly pay a hundred bucks extra on their taxes just to get rid of the UHF frequencies. Besides the static, there’s always the overlapping transmission problem as people on the VHF can’t hear the UHF. Which is not only the problem but the point of having UHF, I suppose.

Passing Gas

Air-to-Air Refueling

One of the most common military operations in my section of Atlanta Center (ZTL) is air refueling (AR). We have three different AR areas/routes in our airspace and hardly a day goes by when one of them isn’t being used. From a separation standpoint, it’s relatively straightforward. We block off the airspace and let the refuelers do their thing. It’s getting them into and out of the airspace and handling the flight data that’s the trick.

There’s a lot of verbiage involved, hence a lot of frequency time. Time is the eternal enemy of air traffic controllers. There’s never enough of it. That also ties into the flight data processing part. The regular users of the AR routes do a good job of entering the flight plans. But let another group schedule the AR route, or if there’s someone new at flight ops, and you’re just about guaranteed that the flight plan will “triple X.”

Dirty Flight Plans

Whenever the computer can’t process a flight plan it puts three “X”s in the route of flight and then prints the rest of the flight plan. The “triple X” code signifies that the flight data processing stops at that point and any sector beyond that point will not have any flight data. The rules say that the first sector in the facility will fix the flight plan. But that sector may not be familiar with that particular route. So they’ll have to get out the Military Training Route book and start going through the flight plan, fix by fix, looking for the error.

Just in case you civilian pilots are nodding off, pay attention. If you’re out flying and you hear a controller start asking a military flight a lot of questions, it is NOT a good time to be making requests or idle chit-chat. We’re trying to fix what is probably a very complicated flight plan for an aircraft who’s mission is probably a little more important than the one you’re on.

Where were we? Oh yeah, flight data processing. Just the other day I had the misfortune of having four separate military flights show up at basically the same time and all four flight plans needed correcting. I’ve never been so sunk in my entire career. I had to pawn two of them off on other controllers while my brand new D-side (data controller) tried to fix the tanker and receiver’s flight plans for the AR route. I told my D-side there was a reason “they pay us the big bucks.” I think he’s a believer now.

Down and Dirty

IFR Chart with Military IR Routes

Let’s get out of the Flight Levels and go play in the dirt. As simple as the AR routes are, the IRs (IFR Military Training Routes) make up for them in complexity. Many are highly complex in terms of both the route and the altitudes.

My “favorite” IR runs through the middle of our low altitude sector and all but wipes out the entire sector. It “owns” anywhere from 6,000 and below (minor problem) to 10,000 and below, which is every altitude in the sector (major problem.) In some places it’s five miles wide on either side of the route centerline and in other places it’s 20 miles wide on varying sides of the route centerline. It has more turns and twists than a soap opera. Oh, and in case it hasn’t hit you, the “and below” part means it’s a terrain-following route. That means it’s a non-radar route. Yeah, it’s ugly.

Big Ugly Fat Fellows

Speaking of ugly, you might think these type routes are limited to fighter/attack type aircraft. You’d be wrong. We once had a route through the mountains of North Carolina that was used mostly by aircraft with callsigns like “Doom.” Gee … talk about truth in advertising. I’ll never forget receiving a NMAC (Near Mid Air Collision) report from one of them. It seems he had a close encounter with a hang glider. I know I’m supposed to be a serious safety rep. and all, but the mental image of what that hang glider pilot’s expression must have looked like has always made me chuckle.

I never heard anything else about the incident so I assume the guy escaped unscathed. He has a heck of a story to tell his grandkids one day though. The military quit using the route a few years back so I don’t guess there will be any more stories about that route.

Fast Movers

There’s not much I can tell you about the VRs (VFR Military Training Routes) We don’t even know they’re out there most of the time. We may see them go in and we may see them come out, but what happens in between is mostly a mystery. There is one particular route that has provided a continuous source of “excitement” over the years. I don’t even know which route it is. It runs up a river valley and when they (the pilots) decide to come out of it they do so in a hurry.

If they go vertical they go from below radar coverage to 17,500 in less than two minutes. I’ll let you do the math. If they stay low, I’ve seen speeds in excess of 600 knots. You have about as much chance of maneuvering to avoid them as I do in calling the traffic in time to do any good. Some folks like to comfort themselves with the thought, “Well, they have radar so they’ll see the traffic,” but I suspect there’s a lot of other things they’re trying to keep up with besides just the radar.

Traffic, Traffic

Which reminds me. Just in case you start feeling too comfortable with your TCAS, the military flies a lot of things that will render TCAS as useless as a request for direct DCA. For instance: a Boeing 737 equipped with TCAS versus two Tomcats. No contest. TCAS can scream whatever it wants but those Tomcats will outmaneuver a 737 every time. That’s the point in having a Tomcat you know … being able to outmaneuver other flying machines.

That brings me to another point about military versus civilian aircraft with TCAS. If you have two Tomcats in a flight, the wingman doesn’t normally even have his transponder on. TCAS is tracking the lead aircraft and doesn’t even know about number two. And guess what? The military routinely flies in groups a lot bigger than two. And those flights don’t fly in airshow-tight formations. As a matter of fact, some formations can be several miles long.

I’ve always considered this the biggest “hole” in the TCAS “theory.” We’ve all seen the D-Day movies with the zillion C-47s dropping paratroopers on France. Replace the C-47s with C-130s or C-141s and plug TCAS into the equation. The lead ship may be squawking Mode C and maybe the trailer, but there’s a whole passle of airplanes in between that don’t even have their transponders on.


Sectional Chart with MOA

It’s a good thing they invented MOAs (Military Operating Areas) isn’t it? That doesn’t cure the TCAS problem en route but at least it takes care of the guys that are jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. You did check to make sure that airport-direct-to-airport flight plan you filed clears the MOAs (Restricted Areas, Prohibited Areas, etc.) didn’t you? Good. Because there are a lot of things in MOAs that could ruin your day beside paratroopers. The artillery guys have to practice too you know. You might want to check that flight plan again.

MOAs can be in the most unlikely places. Well, at least I think having one in the middle of one of the worlds’s busiest sectors is an unlikely place. But there it sits, the Snowbird MOA, right in the LOGEN and LANIER sectors at Atlanta Center. LOGEN (the low-altitude sector) and LANIER (the high-altitude sector) run the MACEY STAR into Atlanta Hartsfield International (ATL.) That’s the STAR on the northeast side of ATL. Being as that is the side that New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington are on (the side with all the people), it’s by far the busiest arrival into Hartsfield.

Anyway, Snowbird MOA can be active from 11,000 all the way up to Flight Level 290. Like I said earlier, the military can chew up a lot of airspace. Snowbird sits just outside my airspace so I can’t tell you exactly what all goes on in there but I see lots of airplanes moving real fast. They can be at the bottom of the airspace when I first see them and then at the top of the airspace when I look again a few seconds later.

Just Another Target

I honestly don’t know which would be worse for the average general aviation pilot: to blunder into an MOA and the fighter jocks not know you’re there … or blunder in and they know you are there. When I mention my love/hate relationship with the military I always save a special place for the fighter pilots.

There’s no denying that what fighter pilots do has a huge “cool” factor built in. It’s been that way since World War One, long before “Top Gun.” But I’m a safety rep., remember? Pointing an airplane at another one isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you’re a safety rep. Evidently it is for fighter pilots. For me, being “safe” means adding in an extra mile or two on a difficult vector. For a fighter pilot being “safe” probably means launching a second Sidewinder in case the first one doesn’t do the job. (Please, no mail telling me what fighter pilots are really thinking. I’m not sure I want to know.)

Close Encounters

I’ll never forget working one fighter-pilot-in-the-making that was flying a low-level route. I saw a VFR rising up off an airport in the general path of the military trainer. When they were about 10 miles apart I started calling the traffic.

“Trainer456 VFR traffic 10 o’clock, one zero miles, east bound, indicating 7,100 and climbing.”

“Trainer456 looking.”

They were going to be really tight so I called it again in a few seconds.

“Trainer456 VFR traffic now eleven o’clock 2 miles indicating 7,600 and climbing.”

“Trainer456 I’ve got him.”

Now with a normal pilot you always detect the sound of relief when you hear that. With this guy, I thought I detected the sound of glee.

The VFR is now out of 7,800 and the military trainer is level at 8,000. As the targets merge the Mode C “scrambles.” (When two targets overlap it tends to confuse the Mode C readout on our radar scopes.) About 10 seconds later, as the targets come apart, the trainer is still level at 8,000 but the VFR is back down at 7,300. I switch the trainer over to the next sector and then I hear, “Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345 requesting VFR advisories.” Yeah, I just bet you are.


F-15 Going Vertical

I’ve had worse than that. I remember when I was working the departures out of CLT (Charlotte, N.C.) one time. I had about six of them down in the southern portion of the sector and this one lonely turboprop in the northern portion of the sector at 14,000. So naturally, I wasn’t paying any attention to the guy at 14,000, I was concentrating on all the folks bunched up, coming out of CLT, when I hear …

“Center! Commander 567. You got any traffic for us?”

I knew I didn’t so I keyed the mic and said no before I even took a good look. When I did take a good look, I saw a target trail. Not an actual target mind you, but where a target had been. I told the Commander that and he told me that he had heard him go by. I won’t bore you with the calculations but that means “somebody” had gone from below radar coverage to 14,000 and back down below radar coverage in very short period of time.

Bold vs. Old

Gee, I wonder who flies an airplane that can do that? Needless to say, the Commander pilot wasn’t happy. I wasn’t either. I was impressed though. Well, maybe impressed is the wrong word. But it was amazing. See what I mean about the love/hate thing?

They (fighter pilots) remind me of young, talented controllers. I see them do amazing things also. Their minds are sharp, unhindered by memories of a dozen things that can go wrong. Their reflexes are fast and caution comes slowly. It’s a sight to see, watching them perform. The smile you feel is reduced to a sly grin by the knowledge of just how close they are to the falling off the edge. You just hope experience will be a gentle teacher, letting them find their limits without too much pain.

You’ve Got to Love ‘Em

I’m sure civilian pilots share many of the emotions that controllers have concerning the military. I know pilots hate the reroutes around the MOAs. And there’s nothing to like about the close encounters. But we ask the military to do some incredibly difficult and dangerous missions. The only way to do that is to train, and train hard.

Invariably, the military pilots rise to the occasion. The missions require the military to make huge demands on the system, yet their pilots are the most accommodating of any that we work. When we need something, they say “yes” and find a way to make it work. You’ve got to love that.

Have a safe flight!

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