The Last FAM

A look at the ATC system in the year 2011 in which cockpits and ATC are fully automated, the FAA has been privatized, and GPS provides the sole means of navigation. Written by an FAA air traffic controller, this biting satire originally appeared in THE NATCA VOICE, the newsletter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.


Editor’s Note:

In ATC parlance, a "FAM" isa familiarization ride in which an air traffic controller is permittedto ride jumpseat in an airline cockpit to observe what the ATCsystem looks like from the point of view of the cockpit crew.

As I entered the cockpit of the Boeing 787, I couldn’t help butbe impressed. My gaze quickly focused on the 787’s "brains"- the NOATC (Navigational Omni-Aviation Transit Center). The CHIMP(Collocated Human Integrated Monitor/Purser) followed my gaze,and offered a brief demonstration.

As the CHIMP deftly commanded, NOATC instantly displayed informationon our filed route, and real-time data on weather along the route,weight and balance figures, passenger information, and air trafficflows for the entire route of flight. Once airborne, NOATC woulddirect the 787 on the most efficient, direct path to our destinationwhile providing storm and traffic avoidance.

Once the CHIMP was sure that all passengers were aboard, he madethe proper entry in NOATC. After we placed the LSD (Laser SalivaDetector) under our tongues, instantaneous analysis by NOATC gaveus a green light, confirming we were both alcohol and drug free.NOATC then ran through its paces – checking and evaluating allsystems, starting the engines, automatically locking entry/exitdoors, stowing trays and moving seats to the upright position.The ground crew pushed us back.

As the CHIMP and I peered through the windows in vain at the fog-enshroudedairport, hoping for a glimpse at another aircraft, NOATC begantaxiing us out towards the runway. The CHIMP, noticing my slightlook of apprehension, asked when I had last been on a FAM.

"Late 1996," I replied. "Just after the demiseof the FAA. Things have sure changed a lot since then. The systemis sure a lot more efficient now that NOGA (National Organizationof Governmental Aviation) has complete control of the skies.""1996." the CHIMP said reflectively, "I was justgetting out of diapers about then."

1996, I thought to myself as I studied the peach-fuzz on the CHIMP’sface. Hard to believe that was only fifteen years ago. But ithas been an interesting career. I came aboard the FAA back inAugust of 1981. The FAA was disbanded in late 1996, after the3-way midair collision caused by a radar outage at Chicago Center.TCAS proved itself lethal that infamous day. NATCA’s warningswere finally proven true, but it was too late. Too late for 439innocent souls and too late for NATCA, as NATCA was decertifiedin mid-1996 by FAA sponsored legislation that eliminated Title5 of the United States Code (USC).

In the waning years of the 1990’s, I was witness to more bunglingof the air traffic control system by the newly privatized ATCcompany, GPAC (Global Public Aviation Company). Most employeescommonly referred to GPAC as the "Golden Parachutes AliveClub."

"But the satellites are not supposed to fail! NOGAhas proof that the NOATC system is over 99.94% reliable and accurate"

GPAC had successfully lobbied for sweeping procurement reformsand unleashed contracting powers through their impressive arrayof influence in the Cabinet, Capitol Hill, top-level airline officialsand hungry high-tech company representatives.

Top level GPAC officials procured multi-billion dollar advancedautomation systems, alleging an improved ATC system, while curryingthemselves future employment at the most favored high-tech companies.Other GPAC entrepreneurs created their own consulting firms, whichwould contract with GPAC for various services. Still other inventiveGPAC managers would incorporate as air traffic control servicingagents, writing their own contracts with GPAC to take over ATCservices formerly provided by GPAC at airports around the country.Many resourceful GPAC con-artists not only received full retirementbenefits throughout this debacle, but most also were rewardedwith retirement bonus incentives that they lavished on themselves.

This vicious cycle of fleecing the nation’s coffers continuedunabated while controller morale severely declined in the faceof constant layoffs and paycuts, ultimately leading to the "Dayof the Silent Skies". Former NATCA officials and other concernedcontrollers had beseeched the public for years about the improprietiesaffecting the failing ATC system, but in vain. Their cry wentunheeded until, on the "Day of the Silent Skies," nearlyall of the remaining controller and maintenance workforce refusedto participate in the charade any longer.

A special Presidential Task Force ultimately exonerated the 11,000controllers and technicians who walked off their jobs in frustrationthat day. The Task Force determined they were justified in lightof the "abhorrent mismanagement of all systems, people andfunds" The grassroots organizers of "Silent Skies,"officers of the defunct NATCA, were proclaimed heroes for "protectingthe U.S. public from another disastrous demise." The criminalsof GPAC were sentenced to prison.

The CHIMP interrupted my painful reminiscing. "We’re takingthe runway now," he said, pointing out the window at theMD-101 that had just landed. Looking the other way, up throughthe fog, I knew another airliner was preparing to land immediatelyafter we made our departure. Once, many years ago, I would haveprobably felt a bit apprehensive bout moving onto the runwayin such fog, but with NOATC, there was nothing to fear. Effortlessly,we quickly climbed through the fog to cruising altitude. The CHIMP,in full recline, dozed peacefully.

With its entire system of sensors, monitors, computers and redundancies,NOATC took command of the aircraft from pushback to arrival atthe destination’s passenger gate. NOATC would sequence taxi, takeoff,cruise, and landing functions through a maze of complex systemsand coordinated calculations. Lives were no longer entrusted tothe living. NOGA saw to that.

"NOATC indicates it’s an ‘Omni-Satellite Heterokinesia Interruption/Termination'(OSHIT) anomaly,"

Soon after the turn of the century NOGA was created, forever replacingGPAC. The government took complete possession of the skies, banningall forms of private aviation. The general aviation communityhad been in an uproar, but the government would not be dissuaded;general aviation was too dangerous, too inefficient. Private andcorporate aircraft owners could not afford the extensive equipmentupgrades necessary to function according to NOATC’s design specifications.

NOATC, the crowning achievement of NOGA, became fully operationalin 2008. For the past 3 years, I had served as one of the fewremaining Air Traffic Monitors in the country, but we were nolonger necessary. We are expendable "relics of the past"they said. NOATC’s track record is unbeatable; the system is safe.

A sudden jolt startled me. I glanced at the CHIMP as he gazedwide-eyed at NOATC.

"What is it?" I asked, using my years of controllerexperience to disguise any alarm in my voice.

"NOATC indicates it’s an `Omni-Satellite Heterokinesia Interruption/Termination'(OSHIT) anomaly," he blurted. NOATC continued evaluatingthe situation.

"What the hell does that mean?" I asked in my old familiarauthoritative and commanding controller voice.

"Apparently one or more satellite sending units are off-lineor out of alignment," said the CHIMP as he continued touch-entriesto NOATC. "It’s quite feasible that a NOGA satellite wasknocked off course by space debris, another satellite, a meteorshower, or even knocked out of commission by any of those events,"he added, his pitch rising.

"So what does that mean for us?" I demanded.

"We’re without navigational guidance," he offered resignedly.NOATC confirmed the situation when moments later, "OSHIT,"emblazoned across the multi-colored screen.

"So now we just manually steer this baby home, right?"I asked, a hint of uncertainty creeping up in my throat.

"I’m afraid not. We have back-ups for everything, but thesatellites are not supposed to fail. We’ll just have to wait forNOGA to get the satellites resynchronized, or worse case launchup replacement systems." "What do you mean?" Iqueried, sarcasm rising in my voice.

"Look, old-timer, let me explain. I’ve had over 3 monthsof intensive training at NUMSKUL (NOGA University for MonitorSystems Knowledge Under Law) in order to become a CHIMP! The systemis safe! There are redundancies after redundancies. NOATC hasthought of everything. We have dual engines, dual LSD units, dualcomputer systems, dual sensors for everything, and the latestversion of coordinated traffic avoidance units: ONO-TCAS (OmniNational Orbital-TCAS)!"

"NOATC efficiently guides this aircraft on its optimal routeat the optimal altitudes and speeds; something no human is capableof. NOATC safely guides us around storms, other traffic, and evensenses and corrects for turbulence. NOATC precisely sequencesour aircraft to runways, constantly adjusting for all conditions.All of these systems are integrated through computers and sensorslinked through NOATC to NOGA’s satellites."

"But the satellites are not supposed to fail! NOGA has proofthat the NOATC system is over 99.94% reliable and accurate – soaccurate that there are no manual override capabilities on anyaircraft within the system. It’s simply not needed."

I sat there stunned. No manual overrides for interfering, imperfecthumans. I knew of the automated properties of NOATC, but somehowI thought there would be some option for human intervention. Evenearly astronauts had insisted on modification that would allowa modicum of piloting if need be. But not with NOATC. Besides,I’m sure cost/benefit analysis calculated that such capabilitieswould be cost prohibitive.

"So what now?" I asked, breaking the silence.

"The aircraft remains at its last assigned altitude, courseand speed until we either get back online or we run out of fuel,"the CHIMP sighed dejectedly, hands folded in his lap.

I closed my eyes and let my head rest against the back of theseat, feeling rather nostalgic for the old days back in the earlynineties.

The ATC system had numerous problems back then, but it worked- thanks to the dedicated controllers and technicians that heldthe frail system together. Despite billions of wasted dollarsthrown at flawed modernization programs, the drive to reduce costscontinued to focus on the labor force-the very ones that had struggledto keep the system operating safely and efficiently.

And to heap insult upon injury, wasn’t it some FAA Administratorback than that referred to the concerned voices of once proudair traffic controllers as "burrs under the saddle?"

"Look at this!" the CHIMP blurted.

NOATC’s STOP (Situational Traffic Overview Program) display depictedair traffic in real time over the entire country. Multiple targetsof active traffic were rapidly disappearing from the screen. Soon,I realized, our target would be deleted from the screen.

"If only they would have listened to us. If only they hadlistened," I sighed.