Say Again? #56: The More Things Change

There is a lot of new technology coming to aviation and -- amazingly -- to air traffic control. But that doesn't mean things will get better; nor does it mean things that already work OK won't get corrupted by the latest and greatest. AVweb's Don Brown steps back from the bleeding edge of high-tech in this month's Say Again? column.


I said it before but I’m going to say it again: The job of an air traffic controller epitomizes the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Imagine my surprise this morning when I saw a flight plan with BZM.T203.PSK in the route of flight. What the heck is T203? Turns out it’s an RNAV airway. I think the “T” is supposed to stand for “Terminal” but I don’t really know. I knew AOPA had been working on RNAV airways through CLT Approach (Charlotte, N.C.), but I didn’t know we were going to get them in my airspace too.Somehow I knew it would work out this way. It always does. When we got briefed on the new airways through CLT my first question was, “How do they work with non-radar procedures?” Just as I suspected, I got the ol’ blank look and a “We’ll get back to you on that one.” I’m still waiting.I used to get really fired up about this kind of stuff. It really is pitiful. Now, I just shake my head and chuckle. I laugh at mistakes a lot more than I used to, also. The attitude change probably has something to do with the fact that I’ve got less than one year and one month until I retire.


What I really find humorous is that I asked for some RNAV airways about 10 years ago. We had a young fellow that decided to “go upstairs” and start working on his career in management. I tried to talk him out of it; I thought he needed some more seasoning before he went into management. Sort of a “You need to figure out what we make here before you try to tell folks how to make it” kind of talk. Not to mention, I thought he was a talented controller and I like talented controllers to stay as controllers.I couldn’t dissuade him, so I gave him another piece of advice: I told him we needed an airway structure around CLT. GPS was getting to be “the thing,” so I told him to work on developing “GPS airways” for the route structure. I’d get a route structure around CLT that was needed and he might get a feather in his cap for thinking “outside the box.” Funny, I find that funny too. Airways shouldn’t be outside-the-box thinking, but everybody else was thinking GPS equates to “Direct.”So, here we are, 10 years down the road. The airway structure doesn’t go around CLT Approach (it goes through it on the edges) but GPS is being used to build airways. I bet that wasn’t what you had in mind when you bought your GPS was it? I bet “T – routes” and “Q – routes” weren’t what you envisioned when you heard folks trying to sell you on “Free Flight” either, were they? (Note: We wanted to supply a link to the FAA Free Flight office but we can’t find one that works.)

Air Ways

While we’re on the subject of airways, I have to mention a couple of other things. I hang around a few other internet bulletin boards frequented by pilots. Not long ago I had a pilot trying to convince me how great the Tower En route Control (TEC) program was in the Los Angeles basin. I didn’t really need convincing. It’s really ironic that a pilot tries to convince me (a controller/safety rep) that airways (and the predictable structure they provide) are a good thing while most of the pilots on the board file airport direct airport.There are thousands upon thousands of IFR flight plans filed every day with nothing but the departure point and the destination in the route of flight. But the second the system hiccups, they’re all put back on airways. Radar goes out? Back on the airways. When Washington Center had their recent radar problems they put a restriction out for everyone entering their airspace (the whole ARTCC) to be on the airways. When Hurricane Katrina struck and knocked out some infrastructure (radios and radars), we had to put flights back on the airways. When every midnight shift ends — when traffic starts building back up to normal levels — we start putting more and more flights back on the airways (or structured routes: departure routes, arrival routes, etc.) When “Free Flight” is all said and done, you’ll be on airways. They’ll just have a “T” in front of them instead of a “V.” Oh, and T-routes or no T-routes, I bet we still send more folks around CLT Approach than through it.

Go Navy

One of the more serious mistakes my wife made in our marriage recently was upgrading the satellite TV service. I now get The Military Channel, so I have yet another reason to vegetate in my Lazy-boy. I assume other people are like me in that they relate their experiences to what they are watching on TV in between naps.Anyway, I was watching a program on the F-4 Phantom the other day. The first thing that struck me was the discussion about the two-man crew in the F-4. It centered around how tough it was to communicate with each other in such a fast-paced environment. “Hmmm,” I said to myself, “that sounds a lot like the relationship between a radar controller (R-side) and a non-radar (D-side) controller.” Each has a separate job but they must work well together and communicate effectively to accomplish the mission.The program went on to highlight the differences between how the Navy and the Air Force operated the same airplane (the F-4) and how successful each was. The Air Force pilots would often have a different back-seater every day. The Navy pilots usually had the same back-seater day after day. I probably don’t need to tell you which combination was most effective.

Technology vs. Human Factors

In addition, as each service started addressing the problems they encountered with the F-4, they took different tracks. The Air Force focused on technological solutions. The Navy focused on the human side of the equation. One program that came out of the Navy’s efforts was the “Top Gun” program, just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. “The problem” both services were trying to address was the “kill ratio,” or how many enemy planes were “killed” compared to how many we “lost.” The ratio got as bad as a 1 to 1 at one point. The Navy wound up improving to a 12 to 1 ratio. The Air Force didn’t.I realize must people aren’t comfortable with a comparison between air traffic control and something that involves “kill ratios,” but that seems to be my specialty: making people uncomfortable. I personally found it interesting. If you’ll remember, just last month I was writing about the need for “a formal system of continuing education” for controllers. I can’t help but wonder what a “Top Gun” school would do for the FAA and for air traffic safety.Before I leave the military behind, I saw something else that caught my eye. Again, it was on The Military Channel and involved the Navy. On an aircraft carrier, the airplane handlers have a tabletop model of the flight deck known as the “Ouija board.” They literally push toy-like models of airplanes around this tabletop to keep up with the position of aircraft on the flight deck.On the latest show I saw, the sailors were still using the Ouija board. I had heard the Navy was going to automate that process and I was surprised that they hadn’t. Just in case any of my readers have first-hand knowledge of that program I’d be interested in hearing about it. Drop me a line.

You’re It

The reason I’m interested is that I have URET training coming up very soon. URET (pronounced “You’re it”) stands for “User Request Evaluation Tool.” Please notice that it doesn’t say “Controller Request Evaluation Tool.” Before I skip a step in my carefully thought-out mental process (cough, cough) let me say that URET is being used to replace the Center controller’s Ouija board — that is, the strip board.Some of you have probably heard about URET. For those who haven’t, the FAA is ripping out all the strip bays — the place we put flight progress strips — and replacing them with a computer screen. This computer will be running the program called URET. It is a profound change in the way we do business. By the way, this program is for Center controllers only — this isn’t an Approach controller’s program.Just how big a change is it? Let me put it this way: For years upon years, the way controllers distinguished themselves from others (the folks upstairs) who call themselves controllers was by referring to our job as “working the boards.” Flight progress strips have been around from the very beginning of air traffic control. A little ATC trivia for you: When ATC first started it was (of course) all non-radar. Flight Progress Data was written on blackboards with chalk. (We’re talking about way back at the beginning.) Erasing that data and rewriting it every time an aircraft’s time estimate over a VOR/fix changed was a major pain. Some individual figured out it’d be a whole lot easier to saw the blackboard into pieces (think “strips”) and shuffle the pieces of the blackboard around instead of rewriting the data. That is how controllers handle data to this day: The flights with the earliest times are put in the bottom of the “board” and stacked up in time sequence. Hence the term “working the boards.”Flight progress strips have survived every single change in air traffic control: radar, “shrimp boats,” FDEP (flight data electronic processing), radar data processing — everything. Working the boards — shuffling those little pieces of paper around, marking them with your pencil and making sense of it all — really is an art. It’s a lot more mysterious than any Ouija board.

Bad Boy

I’ve been fighting against the URET program since the day I had an inkling of what it was all about. It would take a while to explain it all so I’m not going to do that in this article. I will one day — trust me on that one — but not today. This is just background information.Anyway, I’ve made quite a reputation for myself (in the controller community) because of my opposition to the URET program. Controllers, being controllers, have cut up a shipping label that says “URET MATERIAL” and taped it to the slot where I keep my headset. Not a day goes by that one of my friends at work doesn’t ask me, “Have you been scheduled for URET training yet?” with a gleam in his eye that says, “This will be fun to watch.” Again, I’m just trying to be honest with you so you won’t be misled by my opinions. Most Center controllers like URET. I don’t. They have their reasons. I have mine.As I said earlier, the “U” in URET stands for “user.” MITRE developed URET to support Free Flight. Free Flight came about because that is what the “user” wanted. The user that dreamed up “Free Flight” was Captain William B. Cotton. That covers an awful lot of ground in a little bit of space so let me sum it up for you from my own unique perspective as a safety rep working in the busiest facility in the world.We’re going to replace a tool (flight progress strips) that has existed since the first days of air traffic control with a computer program developed to run the air traffic control system the way a pilot thinks it ought to run. Sure we are. And the next thing you know air traffic controllers will be designing airplanes to fly the way the ATC system needs them to fly, cars won’t ride on roadways and your office really will be “paperless.”

Headed for Home

I know you probably think I’ve lost my way but stick with me. We’re almost home. Mr. (or Ms.) FAA looked at “Free Flight” and the proverbial cartoon light bulb clicked on above his head: Funding! “The users (i.e., taxpayers) want to give us more money.” The controllers were handed URET and said, “We can get rid of strips.” Nobody really “likes” strips. They really are a pain — ripping them off the printer, stuffing them into holders, shuffling them around in the strip bays, writing on them, etc. It’s just that nobody has figured out how to replace them. URET wasn’t designed to replace strips; it was designed to be a “conflict probe” and to suggest a resolution to solve any detected conflict by routing one of the aircraft direct to another fix in the flight plan. Think of it like a “strategic vector” instead of a “tactical vector.” As I was saying, it wasn’t designed to replace strips any more than it was designed to provide the FAA with a new program it could “sell” to the users. It wasn’t designed to replace the D-side controller either, but that won’t stop folks from trying to use it for those purposes.Free Flight, GPS, T-routes, URET. The buzzwords and the technology are always changing. But controllers are still controllers, bureaucrats are still bureaucrats, politicians are still politicians and pilots are still pilots. You can dream up “the next great thing” but you can’t control how it is used. Any idea or piece of technology can not only be used, it can be abused. Projects have a way of taking on a life of their own. People will take an opportunity and figure out a way to use it to further their own agenda. They always have and they always will. So when you find yourself programing your GPS to fly an airway, and I’m writing down information on a scratch pad (or as I call them, “Non-strip strips”), just remember: The more things change, the more they stay the same.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.