Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Radar Lab!

“Seawolf departure, United 364 with you climbing through eight hundred for four thousand.”

Is that Alaska jet past his departure course yet? Yes it looks like he’s clear, so I can turn this guy to the north toward his departure gate.

“United 364, Seawolf departure, radar contact.  Turn right heading three six zero, climb and maintain five thousand.”

“Three six zero and five thousand, United 364”

“Approach, Fedex 250 heavy, with you at one-five thousand with information tango”

This guy is flying the COUGA1 arrival, so I won’t need to give him vectors…just altitudes to keep him clear of the departures, whose paths he will have to cross to get to the final controller who will vector him onto the localizer.  The departures are climbing to five thousand, so he can safely go down to six.

“Fedex 250 heavy, Seawolf approach, descend and maintain six thousand, expect vectors ILS runway two-eight left final approach course.”
"uhh...say again for Fedex 250 Heavy?"
I repeat the instruction...but the wasted time from having to say it twice means I'm going to be late giving a turn to a departing Delta jet...I'll have to do some extra vectoring to get him lined up with his departure gate to the east of the airport.  When am I going to have time for that?

“Got it. Down to six thousand, Fedex 250 Heavy”

Point and click to accept three more handoffs from the center controllers adjacent to my airspace – looks like a big rush is coming in through the GILGN gate. And there are more departures popping up off the main airport, as well as the smaller satellite fields nearby.

“Seawolf departure, Baron two five niner whiskey papa, out of one for four.”

The radar scope is cluttered with data tags from the fifteen different aircraft under my control, as well as a few primary targets from VFR flights in the airspace, and more flashing handoffs from the center controllers.  Where is this guy?

“Baron two five niner whiskey papa, seawolf departure, ident”

A data tag near the Hillsboro airport starts flashing.  Check his flight strip…he’s heading north, out the KRATR gate…great, that means he’s going to have to join in with the stream of fast moving jet departures unless I want to give him a long reroute.  This will be fun, considering how slow he is.

“Baron niner whiskey papa, radar contact three miles north of the Newburg VOR, proceed direct KRATR, climb and maintain one zero thousand."

"Direct KRATR and up to one zero thousand, Baron niner whiskey papa"

Meanwhile the Fedex jet is about to pass over the top and just behind the United Airlines flight.

“Fedex 250 Heavy, traffic 12:00, five miles, crossing right to left – a 757 at five thousand.”

“Fedex 250 Heavy has the traffic”

By the time the words are out of his mouth they’ve nearly passed.

“United 364, traffic 3:00, two miles, eastbound, a heavy 747 at six thousand”

“we see ‘em, United 364”

Alright, they’ve passed and there’s nobody left in their way.  Our agreement with the Center says the jet departures need to be handed off climbing to 16,000 feet…

“United 364, climb and maintain one six thousand”

“one six thousand, United 364”

And the final approach controller wants arrivals descending to five thousand before I hand them off.

“Fedex 250 Heavy, descend and maintain five thousand”

“Ok, down to five, Fedex 250 Heavy”

A couple keystrokes and mouseclicks, and the data blocks for the two aircraft start flashing on other controllers’ screens, waiting for them to accept the handoffs.

The final controller accepts the handoff after only a few seconds, and the block stops flashing and shows an “F” next to it, meaning it belongs to him now.

“Fedex 250 Heavy, contact Seawolf Approach on one one eight point six, so long”

“Eighteen-six, and we’ll see you later. Fedex 250 Heavy”

Oh great - I forgot about the Baron… that United flight is going over a hundred knots faster than him and he’s about to climb straight into him.

“United 364, amend altitude, maintain niner thousand.  Traffic 12:00, four miles, same direction, a Beech Baron at one zero thousand”

“We’ll stop at niner thousand, and looking for the traffic, united 364”

It only takes a few seconds for the airline pilot find the little plane

“And we have the traffic, United 364”

He passes a thousand feet below the slow-moving Beechcraft.  A small aircraft following a 757 needs five miles between them to keep from getting flipped over by wake turbulence, but with such a speed difference, that doesn’t take long.  Still, I don’t want to keep the 757 pilot down low any longer than I have to…he’s burning tons of fuel, and he can’t speed up to cruising speed until he climbs past 10,000 feet.

“United 364, climb and maintain one six thousand”

“Out of niner thousand for sixteen, United 364”

There’s nobody left that the united flight could conflict with, so it’s time to give him over to the center controller.  Now why hasn’t he accepted the handoff yet?  He’s getting close to the point where if the handoff isn’t taken, I’ll have to turn the plane around, and he’s really moving fast now that he passed 10,000 feet.  That would be inconvenient for everybody involved.   Time to call the center controller.

“Seattle Center sector four, Seawolf North Departure on the landline”

“Seattle four.  Go ahead”

“Handoff, seven south of KRATR, United 364 climbing through one four thousand”

“ummm…I need him at eighteen.  Radar contact. C.Y”


Okay, he's just leveled off at sixteen thousand, but the center controller only accepted the handoff on the condition that I climb him to eighteen thousand.  It sounds like he has a lot on his plate as well.  This has already taken too long, though – there are other planes I need to talk to, and time is precious.

“United 364, climb and maintain flight level one eight zero. Contact Seattle Center on one two four point two”
I'm speaking so fast now that I feel like a rapper.  Luckily, this pilot has flown out of this airport plenty of times and he knows the frequencies by heart, or else he might not have under stood that "wuhtooforpointoo" meant "124.2".  He can tell I'm hurried and harried, so he wastes no time responding with his readback.

“Out of sixteen for one eight zero, switching to center, G’day, United 364”

Thankfully the center controller remembers to accept the handoff for the baron, so I don’t have to call him again.

“Baron niner whiskey papa, contact seattle center on one two four point two, have a good flight.”

“going to one two four point two, so long, niner whiskey papa."
Finally the Baron is out of my hair...now why is there a conflict alert flashing between those two jet blue flights?

With the arrival of the summer semester, it's time for the long-awaited ATC Radar Simulator class.  The radar simulator lab consists of 12 radar scopes (plus three smaller, computer monitor-sized screens for each radar screen with airspace charts, weather information, flight strips, voice switching control system, etc.) and the accompanying hardware (ARTS style keyboards, trackball mouses (mice?), etc.)  Half of the class takes the role of air traffic controllers, and the other half act as psuedo-pilots and have the planes do what the controllers say by entering commands into computers across the room.  The professor loads up a problem and tells us a little about what to expect and what he wants us to work on, we put on our headsets, and the fun begins.

Usually we work the traffic in the scenarios for about half an hour before switching roles between controllers and pilots so the other half of the class can have their turn.  Throughout the problem, the professor and a couple lab techs wander around correcting us on incorrect phraseology, offering suggestions (when needed) about how to work through difficult kinks in the scenarios, and generally observing our performance.  After that the professor tells us what we did well and what we need to improve, and we move on to the next, more complex problem and repeat the process.

The fast pace and having to keep track of so many different things at once makes it very involved, and sometimes stressful.  Things can go from a smooth flow of traffic to chaos in just a few minutes if you start getting behind or make a mistake - every little slip-up ripples outward and disrupts the whole problem.  Despite it all, I can't help but feel like this is just like playing a video game. (albeit the most expensive game I've ever played in my life)  I can't believe they actually pay people to do this!

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