Guest Commentary: Metro High

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A lot of stuff goes on behind the scenes at an FAA radar facility that pilots never see. And that's probably a good thing. Here's a guest commentary submitted by a loyal AVweb reader about a recent system deviation. It's a deviation that didn't really threaten any aircraft nor require abrupt maneuvering. But because of the ATC system's outdated equipment and often-overloaded sectors, it's a deviation that need not have happened. The "deal" was real, but as they used to say, "the names have been changed to protect the innocent."

Robert Jenkins had a system deviation today. He was working Metropolis-high R-side and the sector was down the tubes. Busy, busy, busy. Somewhere in there he ran a guy into Southwest Center's Capital City-high's airspace. Bad news. That's a no-no in air traffic control, running a guy into someone else's airspace without a handoff.

Southwest Center, at least the system we work with, is notorious for not taking handoffs. You get on the landline and start shouting at them, "Handoff! Handoff!" but they don't answer, they don't take the handoffs, and they cause a lot of consternation, trouble and, in this case, paperwork.

Radar tagsA system deviation is a bad thing. It causes a lot of grief for all hands. The controller usually has to go through remedial training of some sort and then be recertified on that position. In today's case there was a supervisor standing right behind him watching all this happen. This particular supervisor is checked out on that very sector Robert was working so he knew what to look for, what problems Robert was encountering and what difficulties he was facing. At one point Robert called for a "handoff man" which is really an extra set of eyes to watch what's going on but in this case the request came too late.

TargetsThe idea is that if a handoff cannot be made, the aircraft must be contained in your own airspace. Robert waited too long to spin the aircraft and it got down in Capital City-high about five miles before it turned back northbound. About the time it turned northwards Capital City-high finally took the handoff but by then it was too late the violation had occurred.

Sometimes the receiving controller, Capital City-high, would be receiving the handoff, and would say something like, "I've been watching him all the time," or "I thought I took the handoff." That would clear the offending controller, keeping everything legal and almost above board. Today, however, with a supervisor watching, there was no choice but to turn it in.

So it was turned in. Robert got pulled off the boards and the paperwork process started. Tapes are pulled, statements are taken and eventually something will happen, a decision made as to what sort of "rehabilitation" the controller, in this case, Robert, will have to go through before being recertified.

One problem here is that these incidents are fairly traumatic to the average controller, especially the older ones. For years management harped and harped about avoiding system errors and deviations, telling of the dire consequences that would befall any unfortunate soul who had one. Lately they haven't and the younger controllers have a different attitude towards deals and deviations. Older guys try to avoid them like the plague. Younger guys say, "What's the big deal? I'll just get recertified."

Tower cab at nightOne problem with the FAA's approach to system deviations and errors is that it, management, wants to blame someone, some person, and not the ATC system or a part thereof, as being responsible for the error. Today's deviation was caused by two factors, first and foremost being Robert's failure to make sure Southwest Center took the handoff. The other factor, however, was the fact that the "automated handoff" feature didn't kick in and the computer handoff had to be manually entered in the computer. This was done very late. Had the feature, which is supposed to work all the time, worked as advertised, today's deviation wouldn't have happened.

So Robert will get the blame. Contributing factors like the automated handoff feature not working, the Capital City-high controller not taking the handoff or even answering the handoff line, and the supervisor's failure to get the "handoff man" in there might be mentioned in the controllers' statements and might, might, even be listed as contributing factors, but will be discarded as the primary cause, if they are mentioned at all.