Air Traffic Controller

Air Traffic Controller

Factor

Woodstock, VA

Male, 65

My life in ATC began with 4 years Air Force then another 30 years with the Federal Aviation Admin. working tower & radar at some big international airports. I fought in the 1981 war with PATCO, survived the strike and kept a job that was just too exhilarating to walk away from. While there was nothing better than working airplanes, I did move on through several air traffic supervisory and management positions. It was a long, crazy career but I wouldn't trade a moment of it for love or lucre!

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Last Answer on March 16, 2014

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Do you see onboard radar technology improving to a point where traditional ATC ground control is rendered largely moot in collision avoidance? Also, what's your favorite line in Airplane:) ?

Asked by Captain Over over 4 years ago

To your first question, the short answer is “Yes.” I’m sure that one day, all “traditional ATC ground control” will be a thing of the past. For now though, there is already a pretty effective airborne collision avoidance system in use. It is referred to in the business as “tee-cas.” TCAS, or Traffic Collision Avoidance System, is a cockpit display, completely independent of ground control. The TCAS system warns pilots of other nearby aircraft that could become a problem. If a conflict is detected, TCAS advises the pilots of each converging aircraft to either climb or descend to avoid collision. Although TCAS has its flaws, I’ve seen it preclude some potentially ugly situations and have no doubt the technology will evolve and improve. As to my favorite line in “Airplane?” That could end up being the toughest question I’ll ever have to answer! There were so many great lines! For now I’ll go with McCroskey’s; “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.” Well gosh, it took me months to quit! Cheers, Factor

Were you on duty on 9/11? What was it like in the tower?

Asked by ZitoSucks over 4 years ago

In fact, I was on duty that morning. When confronted by sudden tragedy (such as an aircraft accident), controllers are generally quite stoic about it. They just push on. Any display of emotion is distracting, unhelpful and counterproductive. The focus has to be on the task at hand and doing what must be done. 9/11 was no exception. In the face of incredible horror and disbelief; everyone I saw deferred their shock until all other flights were grounded and we were reasonably sure that nothing more would happen. It was remarkable. Then came the empty stares, the disbelief and the tears. I felt especially bad for the controllers in the New York City and DC metro towers who could actually see the smoke - and for the controllers who were working those airplanes until communication was lost. Losing contact with a flight under your aegis is a controller's worst nightmare. It's about not knowing what will happen next and having no control over it. But that day was everyone's worst nightmare and we still don't know what will happen next.

I should leave it there for now. Thanks for your question.

 

Who has the ultimate decision-making authority in an emergency situation: the pilot or the air traffic controller? Is one required by law to follow the directions of the other?

Asked by dan79 over 4 years ago

Good question. Under normal circumstances, controllers are responsible for preventing collisions, organizing and expediting the flows of traffic. For controllers to accomplish that, pilots must, by law, comply with control instructions. However; if an emergency occurs on board the aircraft, the pilot is authorized to do whatever necessary to mitigate the situation. In such instances, controllers must do whatever they can to assist; even if it means moving other flights out of the way. Think of it like this. If you have to stop where the signs say "No Stopping" because your car is on fire; you'll stop. The police and emergency responders will do whatever they can to assist; even if it means redirecting traffic around you. Thanks for asking!

Did you ever read the chapter in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell where he talks about the assertiveness in some cultures affecting how their pilots dealt with ATC? Did you find pilots from some countries to be noticeably easier or harder to deal with?

Asked by Tim over 4 years ago

I have not read Gladwell’s book. While there likely are assertiveness issues in the way some cultures deal with ATC, there was clearly a culture of assertiveness existing within U.S. airline cockpits up until the 1980s. Before then, the Captain asserted near dictatorial authority over the cockpit crew and questioning his judgment or decisions could place careers in jeopardy. As in the military, one never questioned the orders of a superior. The assumption was that the Captain, by virtue of his position, had far more knowledge and experience than the other crew members. While that might have been true, no one can be right or exercise flawless judgment 100% of the time. Couple that with a cockpit environment that discouraged questioning of the Captain’s decisions and you are not only closing the door on vital input from others; you are opening the door to disaster. NTSB accident investigations are full of examples. Back in the Eighties, United Airlines was the first to provide Crew Resource Management (CRM) training for their pilots, which resulted in a more level playing field in the cockpit. The idea was that full use should be made of all available resources – including the input of a junior First Officer. Regarding the interface between foreign flight crews and controllers, assertiveness was not much of an issue for us. They knew they were on our turf and, as an associate once told me; “Never argue with the crocodile while you’re swimming in his pond!” Actually, U.S. pilots were more apt to argue with us. The biggest problem with foreign carriers, from my perspective, was an occasional difficulty in understanding each other. Control instructions might have to be repeated more than once (or twice); which can be problematic for a busy controller. Once we understood each other, their compliance generally met our expectations. As an aside, flight crew assertiveness was a regular issue during my Air Force ATC years. That’s because pilots were officers and controllers were enlisted grade. For some officers; having to take instructions from us seemed to turn the traditional military pecking order upside down. There were times when we’d be called on the carpet by some irate flight officer who had just landed and didn’t particularly agree with the ATC services received. There wasn’t much to say but “Yes sir!” Sorry for the lengthy response. Cheers.

Was it easy to flip the mental switch and shut out the rest of your life the moment you walked into the control room, and what would you do if you felt your mind wandering while on duty?

Asked by 212EV over 4 years ago

An air traffic controller's shift, like so many other jobs, can be a series of peaks and lulls. When traffic was intense and relentless, it was easy to forget about everything but the tasks at hand. I had no time for thoughts of anything but what was happening in that control room and what needed to happen next. But once traffic subsided, there was a real risk of becoming inattentive or complacent. In my experience, most of our dumbest mistakes occurred during periods of light traffic. There was a chance to sit back, breath deep and chat with other controllers. A wandering mind is an insidious thing though. Sometimes we didn't realize how far it wandered until something was about to go or had already gone very wrong. I usually tried to fill those relatively idle times with activities relating to my area of responsibility. Doing things like coordinating shortcuts for my traffic, mentally reviewing new procedures or tweaking my radar display kept my attention where it needed to be. Still . . . there were those occasional, adrenaline charged moments that gave me something to think about on my way home.

Why do planes get put in holding patterns before being cleared to land? If there's bad congestion, wouldn't it be smarter to hold planes BEFORE they take off (or mid-route) instead of having a dozen planes flying circles near the congested airport?

Asked by Gordie30 over 4 years ago

That’s a great question and I suspect you may be asking on behalf of air travelers everywhere! For the answer and a little bit more, you might need a comfy chair and a bowl of popcorn.

Holding patterns are a necessary ‘court of last resort’ in the air traffic system. Like spare tires, we have to keep them handy but hope we never have to use ‘em! Normally, excess demand is managed in a more fuel efficient manner. But let me back up a bit.

Airports have ‘capacity’ numbers that tell those who work within the air traffic system just how many arrivals and departures can safely be handled there per hour, with little to no delay. Airport capacity is based on several factors such as the number and length of runways, weather conditions, available instrument approaches, etc. Capacity may be reduced by events such as a runway closure. Other capacity limiting factors include adverse weather conditions, aircraft accidents, inoperative landing aids, equipment failures within the controlling air traffic facility and such. When, for whatever reason, an airport’s capacity falls below the projected hourly demand – steps can be taken to limit airborne delays.

There are people in the air traffic system who’s job it is to continually monitor airport capacity and make necessary adjustments to the demand. One relatively simple way to control arrival demand on an airport is by implementing ‘mile-in-trail’ (MIT) restrictions. When MIT is used for a certain airport, air traffic facilities are advised to space their departures headed for that airport more widely than usual. Twenty miles in trail is a common restriction. MIT aims to provide controllers at the arrival end with a manageable flow that won’t exceed the airport’s limited capacity.

There are other tools in use to limit demand. If, for example, arrival capacity is reduced at Chicago O’Hare due to heavy snow and closed runways, a Ground delay Program (GDP) may be implemented. Basically, a GDP makes adjustments to the expected departure times of flights headed for O’Hare. These flights take their delay at the departure point. Without the GDP, they’d take off at their originally scheduled times and fly to the Chicago area, where many would end up in holding patterns because the airborne demand exceeded Chicago’s current arrival capacity.

If things get especially bad at the arrival airport, ATC has an even bigger hammer in their toolbox called a Ground Stop. When a Ground Stop is implemented for a particular airport – all flights destined for that airport must stay at their departure point until the Ground Stop is lifted.

These measures were devised to keep the air traffic system from becoming overwhelmed by airplanes with no place to go but the holding patterns. However; old school and inefficient as they are, holding patterns remain a necessity. Unforeseen, short term constraints at the destination airport may require some limited airborne holding. A good example would be when the airport needs to change landing direction. Some arrivals, already nearby, may have to be delayed somewhere until the change is complete. Holding patterns work well in such cases.

Keep all this in mind the next time, as Christopher Cross once wrote, “you get caught between the moon and New York city!”

Cheers,
Factor

Also, if I can ask a 2nd question: how long would a pilot have to be non-responsive to an ATC check-in before alarm bells start going off? And at what point would fighter jets be scrambled?

Asked by hersch.adam over 4 years ago

I never charge extra for additional questions:)

To answer the first part; not long at all! Unresponsive pilots are an immediate concern for controllers. I might issue a control instruction and get no reply; prompting me to call again. This is a worrisome situation as we expect an immediate reply and compliance. The clock is always ticking and loss of separation from another aircraft may soon be a factor. I’ll get just as anxious when I ask the pilot to contact another controller on a different frequency. If I get no acknowledgment and the next controller doesn’t get that “check-in” call; now you have two anxious controllers!

Loss of communication between pilots and ATC isn’t always cause to hit the panic button. These things rarely happen but, when they do, there are standard procedures to follow. As long as controllers observe the flight complying with it’s part in those procedures, ATC will follow it’s own procedures for handling “NORDO” or “no radio” flights. Conversely, if ATC observes the flight deviating from those procedures (such as turning away from its planned route of flight or descending rapidly), this can indicate a much bigger problem than broken radio equipment. Controllers will immediately notify shift management, who will disseminate the information appropriately. The decision to scramble fighters will be based on several factors and will be made well above the controller’s pay grade.

Good pilot/controller communication is one of the linchpins of aviation safety. The types of communication failures will vary and can occur at either end. Sometimes pilots can hear us but we can’t hear them. Is it our receiver or their transmitter? Sometimes it’s the other way around; where we hear the pilot but he or she can’t hear us. Then there are times when, due to distractions or inattention, somebody simply misses a call. No matter what the reason, failure to communicate is bad for the blood pressure!