Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Nobel Deed

The sermon last Sunday proved to me -- once again -- that no matter how much I read, there’s always something that I don’t know. Also, my naivety never ceases to amaze me. There’s not much I can do about it except to pick up and carry on, so let’s do that.

There was once a rich man. He’d become rich with the best of intentions. Due to the dangerous nature of the family business, several deaths had occurred. Including the death of his brother. He dedicated his life to making the business safer. He was successful and it paid off handsomely. He became a very wealthy man.

In one of those little twists of fate that drive men mad and make life so interesting, a newspaper erroneously published his obituary. Imagine, reading your own obituary. What would it say ? This was from a sermon after all and that was the point of it. I think it’s a good point. We should all take the time to examine our lives from time to time.

After examining this man’s life, the newspaper said, Alfred Nobel -- “a merchant of death.”

I suspect many of you had already heard this story. I certainly knew the rest of it. Alfred Nobel, the inventor dynamite, used his fortune to establish the Nobel Prizes. I even knew that his determination to make nitroglycerin safer was what led to his invention of dynamite. I vaguely recall the part about his brother dying in an explosion. I’d just never heard the part about what drove him to create the Nobel Prizes. Nor had I ever thought that there might have been an event to spur him to do so.

What’s the moral of this story ? I certainly don’t know. If you can figure out all the twists and turns -- making something safer contributes to more deaths, the profits from death further the cause of peace, The Fates reach out to change history (again), a modern invention winds up in a message about The Gospel -- well, if you can figure all that out, you’re a lot smarter than me. Besides, “my only goal is to provide thoughts, ideas and information.” Where my thoughts take me isn’t important. It’s where your thoughts take you.

Don Brown
March 29, 2007

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Did you catch the news ? The Bush Administration just proposed to raise the Federal gas tax 50 cents a gallon. Are you kiddin’ me ?!! Ross Perot might be snickering in the background but the American public is going to be outraged. Can you imagine what this will do to the economy ? What in the world are these fools in Washington thinking ?

Okay, so the Bush Administration isn’t talking about raising the tax on your gas. But they are talking about raising the tax on aviation gas by 50 cents. Federal tax on gas for your car is 18+ cents a gallon. On aviation gas it’s 19+ cents per gallon. The FAA’s “user fee” proposal would raise that tax on aviation gas to 70 cents a gallon. And it has about as much chance of being passed as a 50 cent hike on your gas. The FAA’s funding proposal is now being called DOA -- “Dead On Arrival.”

So why bother making the proposal ? Is it just a distraction ? A negotiating position ? Just more political shenanigans ? Who knows. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking these people are stupid. George Bush has made a career out of letting people think he’s stupid. And now he’s the President.

If you want to take the time to read the Administration’s NextGen Financing Reform Act of 2007 (Reauthorization) submission you’ll see some curious details. You can watch the slick video-sales job but you can also scroll down and look at the bits and pieces of the program.

I try to stick with what I know when I’m trying to figure something out so I chose to look at the NextGen Fact Sheet.

At the bottom of the page you’ll find this quote: “Without NextGen there will be gridlock in the skies.” I’ve got a real problem with the concept of “gridlock in the skies.” While “gridlock in the skies” is theoretically possible it’s almost irrelevant. In air traffic control, gridlock on the ground is the problem. The current ATC system can deliver airplanes to the runway far faster than any airport can handle them. Think of going from an interstate highway into a parking garage. Yes, sooner or later the interstate might back up but only long after you can’t get them into the parking garage fast enough.

And then there’s the weather. To carry this imperfect analogy a little further, a thunderstorm along a major air route is like closing a lane on the interstate. Again, it will back things up but the problem isn’t the “interstate”. It’s the weather.

So what do we we do ? Well, you make improvements where you can and as technology allows. You build better exits off the “interstate” -- high speed exits off the runway. You put grooves in the “road” to lessen the chance of an accident during bad weather -- better weather radar to improve an aircraft’s ability to navigate around dangerous weather. In other words, you do what you can and what is possible, recognizing that you can’t change the laws of physics or change the weather.

Technology is a good thing. Always keep this thought in mind, though. It’s key. Aviation doesn’t run on the “latest-greatest” technology. We should always be looking at it. We should always be thinking of what technology might be able to do for aviation. But the thing to remember is what we are looking for is reliable. We’re looking for proven, stable and safe technology. You don’t want the lives of a million-plus passengers a day depending on the latest version of your favorite software. You want the version that has had all the bugs fixed.

Gettin’ the flick ? ADS-B and GPS sound really cool until the Chinese decide to start shooting satellites out of orbit, sunspots start acting up or you realize your repairman now needs a space suit to fix your “satellite based system.”

One other thing while we’re here. There was a program in the FAA called NEXCOM. That’s "Com" -- with an “M.”

Next Generation Air/Ground Communications (NEXCOM)
“In May 1998, the FAA Joint Resources Council (JRC) approved the approach recommended by the Next Generation Air/Ground Communications (NEXCOM) investment analysis (IA) team. The team recommended adopting the International Civil Aviation Organization’s future communications system, VDL Mode 3, for the U.S. National Airspace System.”

May 1998 was almost nine years ago. Where is it (NEXCOM) ? Click on the “NEXCOM web site” link at the bottom of the page and you get... Page Not Found.

NextGen, NexCom or NexCon ? That’s "Con" -- with an “N.”

Don Brown
March 27, 2007

Friday, March 23, 2007

Surf’s Up !

You know how you can go days without being inspired to write about anything and then you get so much you can’t choose what to write about ? Guess what kind of day this is ?

Chicago Airspace Project (CAP)

If you fly around the Chicago area, you might have noticed some changes. I’m just an ex-Center controller (and I think this is in Approach Control airspace) but I can’t help but wonder how that section of airspace near the EVOTE intersection is working out. Two departures streams split into six streams and then cross. Interesting.

More Airspace

While we’re in the ATC arena, my friend Brian sent me this story about ATC in India. It’s sort of an inside joke for controllers. At least American controllers. I’m sure the Indian controllers don’t think it’s so funny. The numbers are what American controllers find so amusing. 2,500 flights per day in India. America has 4-5000 flights airborne at any given time. Of course, I feel sure India doesn’t have a system nearly as robust as ours (even if it’s popular to believe ours is antiquated.) I’ve said it before, when it comes to aviation, there really isn’t anything close to the U.S.A.

Northern Lights

My friend Chuck sent me a site with some really interesting pictures of the aurora borealis . I wonder if primitive people found it terrifying or beautiful ? It seems to be a theme at this site: Terrifyingly beautiful. Go to the home page and you’ll see what I mean.

Stop Digging

Whatever your feelings on the Iraq War, it’s hard to deny we’re in a hole. Another friend sent me this article (in a round about way) and you might be surprised to find out just how deep some people believe that hole really is. To sum up this opinion from Forward: The Jewish Daily -- it’s time to take a deep breath, hold our nose and put a dictator in charge of Iraq. Yeah, it stinks. Sometimes life does.

If you find that advice a little incredulous, wait until you figure out who is giving it. You’re bright people. Do a little surfing on the web and sniff out the names you read.

The Big Sniffer

Speaking of sniffing, few do it like Seymour Hersh . He’s been around for a long time. He’s best known for breaking the story on the My Lai Massacre back in 1968 in Vietnam. Like most people that have been successful in their field for a long time, he’s been right more often than he’s been wrong. Get comfy before you click on this one in The New Yorker. It’s long. The Redirection

Don Brown
March 23, 2007

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Raise My Taxes Please

No, I haven’t gone ‘round the bend. I guess I’m just a contrarian. Stick with me while I tell you a story.

A few years back, when my wife and I moved to the country, we had quite a shock when we checked into changing our home insurance. It was more than double what it was in the suburbs. I don’t want to go pull the records so I can be precise -- it’s the concept I want to highlight. So let’s just say it went from $500 a year to $1,000 at year, for basically the same size house. If you haven’t guessed what the big difference was, it was for fire insurance. In the ‘burbs, we had a full-fledged fire department. Out here in the sticks, we have a volunteer fire department. And no fire hydrants.

The population in the county, when we moved here, was about 10,000 people. Assuming we’re the average house (we’re not), that would be about $5,000,000 a year the insurance companies are charging the citizens of the county. I don’t begrudge them the money. I’m just throwing out some figures.

I have absolutely no idea what a fire department costs. But I can’t help but wonder what one could do with five million a year. If you could take that $500 dollars a year extra paid to the insurance company and transfer it to the county for a fire department -- would you ? I would. Especially if it meant having county water and a fire department with Emergency Medical Technicians. (We don’t have EMTs out here either.)

Somewhere back along the line, your parents, or their parents, or even their parents sat down and had these same thoughts about roads, bridges, electricity and all the other modern conveniences of life. You know, the ones we take for granted.

One of my favorite stories along these lines is the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). First, because it avoids the present day stigma of taxes and second, because it was brought about by my favorite President; Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

If you don’t know the story of the REA I encourage you to click on the link and read a little about it. The site is a little simplistic, even a little corny. But it evokes the mood that I think is so important to understand. For some serious reading on the subject, I’d steer you towards a couple of books I’ve already recommended: The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson, both by Robert Caro.

Mr. Caro has a knack for pointing out important details. For instance, before electricity, water was pumped by hand or drawn from a well. Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon. Imagine filling a bathtub. Even a small one will hold 20 gallons. If you’ve never hauled a five gallon bucket of water anywhere you need to give it a whirl. You can only haul about 4 gallons at a time (without spilling the rest and taking a bath) so you’ll have to make five trips instead of four. When you’re done, you’ll need a bath.

My point ? The next time you get in a nice, hot, luxurious shower -- remember -- paying taxes isn’t nearly as painful as we want to make it out to be. I don’t want to pay more taxes than I have to and I surely don’t want my tax dollars wasted. But paying taxes sure beats driving on muddy roads, hauling water out of a well and sending the insurance company a fat check.

Don Brown
March 20, 2007

Monday, March 19, 2007

No Experience Required

Over the years I’ve had dozens and dozens (probably hundreds) of people ask me about becoming an air traffic controller. Here’s your chance.

Career Opportunity

I’m not sure I’ve got the time to play with this all I could. When it comes to irony, this is a target rich environment. You could probably experience it best by comparing the FAA’s job announcement with something like this site . I don’t mean to pick on Mt. SAC -- I don’t even know who they are. Never even heard of them. They just popped up on Google when I searched for a CTI school.

CTI stands for College Training Initiative. It was the FAA’s idea to start ATC colleges. So for years now, if you wanted to be a controller, you needed to go to one of these schools, load yourself down with debt to pay for it and then maybe -- just maybe -- the FAA would hire you.

Many of these graduates can tell you just how cruel all this really is. They’ve been waiting for years to get hired and now -- Presto ! Changeo ! -- you don’t need to go to a CTI school to be a controller. That’s about $100,000 dollars worth of cruel.

A few other things have changed too.

The FAA’s site says, “Salary Range : $18,732 - $86,078. You’d hope it was a joke but the joke's on you. I think I made 18K when I was at the FAA Academy 25 years ago. And 86K doesn’t sound bad until you figure out these guys went to school with vastly different expectations. Expectations like this:

“Salaries at FAA ATC facility sites include incremental advancement with experience to salaries of $75,000 - 135,000.”

As you can see, their lower end is about where the FAA’s upper end is -- now. And make no mistake about it, Indianapolis Center is a busy facility. And it’s tough.

Could it be ? Could it be that the reason no experience is required -- now -- is that the FAA has managed to drive away their prime candidates with their salary reductions ?

Drive your senior people out by freezing their salaries and making their work place intolerable, on one end. Then alienate the new guys that might take the job with a pay cut. Then pour salt into the wounds of the ones you did hire by hiring people that didn’t have to go through the same course load and financial obstacle course you had deal with. Now there’s a way to motivate your workforce.

If you don’t think that all this is actually part of the plan then you don’t have The Flick yet. Seriously. No one is this incompetent.

Are they ?

Don Brown
March 19, 2007

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Bang is Back

Sure ! Just as soon as I go to all the trouble of putting the URET post together -- writing the intro, gathering the information, doing the coding -- John Carr decides to bring back The Main Bang.

I couldn’t be happier. Check it out.

Don Brown
March 17, 2007

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Visit to St. Somewhere

I find it interesting how the little bits and pieces of life stick to us as we journey through it. We make much of the big events -- the births, the weddings, the jobs, disasters and deaths. Maybe I suffer from a sort of memory vertigo. I never seem to be able to take in the memories of the big events, or at least hold on to them. They’re too much, too fast. I don’t remember my grandfathers’ funerals. I don’t even remember much about my wedding. (I’m sure writing that is going to cost me.)

It’s the little memories that stick with me. I remember Jimmy Buffet’s song “Cheeseburger in Paradise” being played on the radio. I didn’t much care for it. Fortunately, I heard some of his music that didn’t make the radio and I became a fan. Otherwise, I would never have heard “Boat Drinks”, would never have heard his line “I’ve gotta fly to St. Somewhere”, and would never have a catchy title for this blog entry. (Never make the mistake of thinking I’m original. I’m not.)

All this just to get you on the boat. Yeah, sorry, it’s a ship. I figured my wife deserved something special for running our lives while the FAA ran mine. Something to make up for all the missed weekends, holidays and memories. She likes “the islands” so we sailed away to St. Somewhere and I played the ”Cowboy in the Jungle” for the week. And I really did look “so out of place.” Getting on the boat (yeah, ship) some guy remarked, “You don’t look like you belong on a ship, you look like a mountain man.” I smiled. My wife tried not to.

I don’t really like boats. Or ships. And the ocean scares me. But I love my wife, and she loves both. So away we went. Just a short trip to Nassau the first night. The second day was spent lazing away “at sea.” I don’t like that phrase, “at sea.” Oh well, as long as it isn’t preceded by the word “lost.”

We pulled into St. Thomas the next day. The first thing I saw was a float plane (a DHC-6 ?) making a go around at the harbor. A nice, tight turn between the hills. What can I say ? I like airplanes. That doesn’t stop when I’m on vacation. Anyway, just over a day on the boat and I had been transformed into a tourista, I guess. At least the hawkers had no trouble spotting me. But the rain soon took care of that. The locals were happy about the rain too. They’d been having a dry spell.

St. Thomas is evidently known as some type of shopping haven. Shopping isn’t an area of expertise for me. I did buy a watch. When I was done, the nice sales lady gave me a cold beer and shooed me outside so my wife could shop in peace. I think she’s on to something.

The little memories in life add up. An act of kindness, a genuine smile or a cold beer might wind up lasting longer than you would think.

Don Brown
March 16, 2007

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

And Now for the Good News

The NTSB issued a press release today that epitomizes what is at stake.

"Washington, DC --The state of civil aviation safety
continued to improve in 2006, according to statistics
released today by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The number of accidents in all segments of civil aviation in
2006 were less than in 2005, with general aviation recording
the lowest number of accidents and fatal accidents in the 40
years of NTSB record keeping."

"Major air carriers who operate larger aircraft and carry
passengers and cargo between major airports continued to
have the lowest accident rates in civil aviation."

If you’ll read the release, you’ll see those number aren’t quite as encouraging as we might like but they are an improvement. When you really understand just how safe aviation is, you begin to understand how hard it is to improve that record. In other words, the majority of effort is spent just trying to maintain that level of safety. In case I’m not explaining that well, perhaps this will help.

"Over the years, the number of major air carrier accidents
has increased, primarily due to a substantial increase in
flight activity. The number of flight hours logged by air
carriers has almost doubled since 1987 and the number of departures has increased by 50 percent."
(Emphasis added)

The number of flight hours for air carriers has doubled, the number of departures has increased by 50 percent and the number of controllers has ___what ???

Don Brown
March 13, 2007

When It Rains It Pours

Not much explanation needed here . AOPA is getting the flick. User fees will kill General Aviation as we know it.

Don Brown
March 13, 2007

URET - A Dissenting View

WARNING -- Safety Geek Stuff.
Seriously, the average reader (probably) won’t be interested in anything below (especially the second part.) The only thing that might interest the non-aviation geek is the (excruciatingly) detailed description of what it means to have The Flick. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Back in the day when I was a Safety Rep. for NATCA, John Carr was the president of NATCA. John had a blog -- The Main Bang -- that was immensely popular in the air traffic control world. Unfortunately, he took the blog down after he lost the election. It was a typical, classy act on his part....there I go, getting off the subject again.

Back on track. As a Safety Rep., I had (and still have) some real concerns about a new computer program used in the Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs) called URET -- User Request Evaluation Tool (pronounced You’re It.) After taking my concerns to various and assorted outlets within the FAA and NATCA, I decided to write John about it. You can infer several things from that but I’ll just point out a couple. Information gets filtered as it goes up the food chain. I wanted to make sure the unfiltered truth was getting to the top. It also points out the level of my concern. There are very few (if any) safety problems to which I gave this level of attention.

A significant problem I was having (as you’ll see) is that NATCA supported this project. And I was a representative of NATCA. Like so much in the safety business, much of what I did consisted of pointing out problems that somebody would consider embarrassing. Or at least uncomfortable. Nobody wants a safety problem. If they have one, they certainly don’t want anybody shouting from the rooftops about it.

Yet, that is exactly what John did. He put my private letter on his blog -- The Main Bang-- for all the world to see (with my permission of course.) I want you to really think about that. The president of the controller’s union was willing to accept any potential embarrassment to ensure that a potential safety problem was fully addressed.

I emphasize the word “potential” to make another point. I wasn’t the only safety guy in the business. I wasn’t even the only safety rep in NATCA. Not by a long shot. And my opinion on URET is definitely a minority opinion. In that it is no longer available on The Main Bang, I decided to post it here.

Believe it or not, I hope this opinion -- like a dissenting opinion in a court ruling -- remains a forgotten footnote in history. But it is the truth as I know it and I believe it’s important enough to justify the space. And as John Carr’s action made so crystal clear, if it really is about “Safety Above All”, then any embarrassment suffered is a small price to pay. Even if I’m that one that has to suffer it.

Don Brown
March 12, 2007


URET - A Dissenting View


I have been opposed to URET for many years. URET’s original design intention -- evaluating user requests -- was a nonstarter from my perspective. As URET morphed into a flight progress strip replacement, my concerns -- and my opposition -- deepened. The majority of pilot requests involve a shorter, more direct route of flight. This is nothing new. If this issue were to be addressed, we’d make straight-line airways from coast to coast. The reason that we don’t is that the users do not want to fly in a straight line. The users base their routes not only on the shortest distance but also on the winds aloft. Much effort is expended in avoiding unfavorable winds and flying to favorable ones.

In addition, if the users did indeed want to fly in straight lines ATC would be faced with running traffic head to head on a regular basis. As we all know, as soon as traffic in and out of an airport reaches a significant level, we refuse to do this for justifiable safety reasons. We design arrival and departure gates and enforce their usage. Otherwise, we’d abolish all the STARs and SIDs.

Structure begets structure. As an example, I offer the BROOK STAR into GSO (Greensboro, NC). The STAR has very little to do with the level of traffic at GSO and a lot to do with running the GSO traffic around the CLT (Charlotte, NC) traffic. We are faced with the same problem on the other side of CLT at the GSP (Greenville - Spartanburg, SC) airport. The needed structure at CLT forces us to use yet even more structure to handle the traffic into GSP and GSO.

This principle holds true even in the higher altitudes. It would be the height of folly to attempt to run any traffic head on to the the ATL (Atlanta, GA) airport traffic inbound on J48, in the flight levels. Because of the significant volume of traffic on this airway, it is -- in effect -- a one way airway inbound to ATL. In that form follows function, the aircraft northeast bound out of ATL are contained on different airways, indeed, in an entirely different sector. Users may not accept this premise but as long as runways are long, thin, strips of concrete that aircraft must line up to use, it is a fact of air traffic control. They have to get in line. And that line starts hundreds of miles away from the airport.

As to replacing flight progress strips, I have to ask, “Why ?” For a gain in efficiency ? We aren’t in the efficiency business. We are in the safety business. While that doesn’t prevent us from attempting to be more efficient it it not the first order of business. At the very outset, URET replaces a tool that has withstood the test of time with an untried and inherently less reliable piece of technology. Strips have been around since the dawn of air traffic control. They have survived every single technological advancement. And for good reasons. The mechanical reliability of a piece of paper and a pencil is several orders of magnitude higher than a computer. That fact alone should have given us pause prior to replacing them. But it didn’t.


The very first problem I heard of concerning URET was that controllers would forget to switch airplanes to the next controller after a handoff was completed. Imagine my surprise that this is still a problem. Actually, it is a much bigger problem than is commonly stated. With URET, controllers don’t even know if they are talking to an airplane to start with. There are two strategies mentioned (in training) to address this problem in URET.

The first is the “slant zero” strategy. The controller will “slant zero” the leader length on the data block to signify that the aircraft has been switched. While it is a solution (albeit a poor solution) to remembering that you have switched the aircraft, it doesn’t tell you whether you ever talked to the aircraft in the first place, or not. Controllers will attempt to turn an aircraft that is well inside their airspace only to discover that they are not talking to the aircraft. Remember, this happens more often than in the past because there isn’t any strip --- without a mark -- to remind you that you aren’t talking to the aircraft.

The second recommended strategy is using the “dwell lock” feature. When an aircraft checks in you place your slew ball cursor on the data block until it brightens (the “dwell”) and then you “lock” in the brightness. When you switch the aircraft you “unlock” the brightness, dimming the data block. This is a much better strategy (in my opinion) but it is not without it’s own unique problems.

The real problem is that neither of these methods is standardized nor required. Strip marking (including the marking signifying communication with the aircraft) was required. In Atlanta Center, that mark consisted of a slash (signifying you were talking to an aircraft) followed by another slash (when you switched the aircraft) forming an “X”. It was universal. Anyone could walk up to any sector and instantly determine if the controller was talking to an aircraft. Or not.

This is basic, fundamental air traffic control. It is unfathomable to me that this system has been installed in a dozen facilities and no one has addressed this issue. No one has found a workable solution (that works in all situations) much less standardized any solution. I remind you of the two NORDO freighters that almost hit over Kansas. The incident that the FAA made the training video about. The chain of events that led up to this event began with a controller simply forgetting to switch an airplane. Knowing whether or not you are in communication with an aircraft is critical.


The next big issue with URET is the lack of a fix/time on the Aircraft List Display. For a controller (such as myself) that “thinks non-radar”, it is unimaginable that anyone would even consider this as an option much less that it would be implemented. You can read the route of flight (say MOL.J22.VUZ./.IAH) and you can “see” the route in your mind. You can tell that the aircraft on the JAX./.SPA..HMV..FLM./.ORD route will cross his route. But without a time over a fix (a fix/time) you cannot tell if the aircraft will be anywhere close to each other. You can’t even tell if they will be in the sector at the same time. Although you can use URET to “probe” for this conflict it isn’t the same thing.

I was working the BRISTOL/SPRING sector the other day for over an hour. It was busy and I was using URET. URET didn’t show a single conflict for the entire time. I was just looking at the PSK sector. They had 23 airplanes in their sector at one time. Not a single URET alert was showing. Time isn’t used solely for determining conflicts. It’s used to plan.

You put the time into the equation so you’ll know when you are going to get busy. You pre plan -- think non-radar -- so that you’ll know how many airplanes will need to transition altitudes in any given period of time and their relationship to other aircraft that might be a factor. You build a mental picture of what the traffic will look like -- ahead of time -- so that you can formulate a plan. Without a fix/time you cannot do this. URET robs you of this ability to plan. This is a totally different mental process than looking at a radar scope. Using this mental process -- thinking non-radar -- is a vital element to memory and compliments the thought process of working radar.

Using strips, I can “see” much further ahead and with more mental clarity than with URET. Yes, URET is more accurate, but it does not provide you with this mental clarity. It actually prevents you from having it. Yet when we are forced to use non-radar procedures (about twice a month in my Area) we must revert to the same process that URET prevents you from using. At the same time, we are supposed to magically pick up the habit of marking strips again. But marking them is no longer habitual. This does not work. We are asking controllers to do the impossible. We have implemented a system that will make controllers fail.

Human Factors

Sitting in URET training, it was hard to believe a Human Factors specialist ever had any input into the program. The memory requirements are unbelievable (in more ways than one.) Left click, right click, center click, HOT FSH, red fish, blue fish. I have been using URET for several months now and to this day I can’t tell you what happens if you left-click the call sign as compared to center-clicking or right-clicking it. And if you try to click on the call sign, it’s likely to “jump” just as your are doing so and you wind up clicking on an entirely different call sign.

I was working the SHINE/MOPED sector last night and was surprised to see three “bright red alerts” on URET. I stopped what I was doing, leaned over to investigate and before I could even read the first call sign all three alerts disappeared. Huh ? Another time during this same session I stopped to count them. I had three red (muted) alerts and eight yellow (muted) alerts. Without the mental picture of traffic (described above) I had no idea what URET was trying to tell me. And in that I was working by myself I certainly didn’t have time to investigate each one. So I did the same thing that every single controller in ZTL does with them. I ignored them.

URET cannot accomplish even the simplest functions in air traffic control. The SHINE sector runs the inbounds to CLT from the northwest. We are required to give each arrival the crossing restriction at the SHINE intersection. “USAir four fifty two, cross SHINE at and maintain one one thousand and two five zero knots.” There isn’t a way to denote this restriction -- which is given hundreds of times a day -- in URET. As you know, a crossing restriction is a discretionary descent. If you can’t give a pilots discretion descent you issue the clearance to descend to one one thousand. Both clearances look exactly alike in URET. Five minutes later you are supposed to remember which one doesn’t have the crossing restriction when you’re working a dozen airplanes doing exactly the same thing ?

When I ask about this lack of capability in URET, I receive the same answer I get for every other thing that URET can’t do, “You just have to remember.” That phrase -- “have to remember” -- should sound the alarms bells for any human factors specialist that knows anything about human memory.

How do you designate that 12,000 and direct to the airport is approved for N12345 ? You have to remember.

How do you designate that direct SJI.STROHS2.IAH has been entered into the computer but hasn’t been issued to COA1256 ? You have to remember.

How do you designate that climbing to FL340 has been coordinated with the Bluefield sector for DAL1391 ? You have to remember.

Let me quote from a human factors experiment conducted with controllers.

"This result suggests that it was more difficult for participants to maintain critical information in memory the more commands they issued, particularly when they were unable to record this information on flight strips."

(from Influence of Individual Experience and Flight Strips on Air Traffic Controller Memory/Situational Awareness by Earl S. Stein, PhD, Supervisory Engineering Research Psychologist with the NAS Human Factors Group at the FAA  William J. Hughes Technical Center)

And this from another study conducted with controllers:

"Controlling aircraft in today's crowded skies is a complex and dynamic process. Air traffic controllers are surrounded by sources of information from which they must select critical data. They code and store in their memories a portion of this data. However, they do not always do this effectively. One of the most common expressions uttered by controllers who have made an operational error is: "I forgot!""

(from Air Traffic Controller Memory by Earl S. Stein, PhD)

Controllers already rely on their memory too much. It’s as simple (and as old) as what each of our mothers told us, “If you want to remember something, WRITE IT DOWN.” Yet URET prevents you from doing so. Which leads us to another URET weakness.

Non Verbal Communication

Flight Progress Strips were a shared tool. The URET display isn’t. With strips, both controllers could read all the information present, even if each controller was reading something entirely different. The D-side could be looking at the spatial relationship between two flight at the same altitude while the R-side was reading the “red route” that needed to be issued to an entirely different airplane.

In URET that “red route” (now a HERT route) may scroll off the screen. The R-side will have to ask the D-side to scroll the screen so he can see the complete route. It is more likely that he won’t see it at all because the D-side is using the probe function of URET and the Graphic Plan Display is covering up the Aircraft List Display.

Perhaps most telling about this situation is when a D-side sits down to help a controller that is becoming busy. The vast majority of time the D-side will have to remind the R-side to relinquish the URET trackball so the D-side can manipulate the URET data. Adding a tracker to the mix just exacerbates the situation. The D-side takes the URET slew ball and robs the R-side of the ability to access the flight data exactly when he needs it. The tracker takes the R-side keyboard and/or the radar scope trackball denying the R-side use of the Flight Plan Readout function. (It also steals his ability to use the “dwell lock” or “slant zero” function to denote communications with an aircraft.)

And just when the workload reaches the R-side’s breaking point, the D-side has to lean over and say, “Give Delta1491 25 degrees left, slow him to 250 kts and switch him to 124.37.” Instead of the D-side writing (in red) on the strip of DAL1491, “25L”, “250 kts” and “124.37” and cocking it out towards the R-side and pointing to it when the R-side looks...the D-side has to issue complicated verbal instructions in a noisy and distracting environment.

Closing Thoughts

Despite the length of this document, I have barely scratched the surface of all the problems I perceive with URET. It is a poorly thought out solution to a nonexistent problem. The concept of “Free Flight” is the folly of the uninformed. I don’t know of a single controller that believes it will work. My perception of URET is that it is a program adapted by controllers that neither liked, used, nor understood that Flight Progress Strips were (and still are) an incredibly effective, flexible and reliable tool. The fact that strips work in both a radar and non-radar environment, while URET does not, should make this fact abundantly clear. My perception is that URET was designed by people that think “five miles and a thousand feet” is the end all of end alls in air traffic control.

I have witnessed this mentality for years at Atlanta Center. Controllers that allow the high altitude sectors to define their work habits and mental processes find that these habits don’t work well in the lower altitudes. Conversely, controllers whose work habits and mental processes are formed by the low altitudes sectors -- while somewhat slower on the high altitude sectors -- are just as safe and orderly on the high altitude sectors. The definition of Air Traffic Control is still safe, orderly and (then) expeditious. And when these controllers that allow radar to dominate their minds are faced with working non-radar, their habits and mental processes fail them. Their methods simply do not work in non radar.

I can think of no better analogy for URET. While more efficient in the high altitude sectors, it becomes less and less effective in the lower altitudes until it ultimately fails in a non radar environment.

All this leaves us in a untenable position. NATCA has supported both the concept of Free Flight and the URET program. I cannot imagine the circumstances under which URET is pulled from all the Centers and we revert to Flight Progress Strips at all sectors. I know just as you do that it would be politically impossible and that URET is very popular with a majority of our controllers. But popular doesn’t equate to safe. URET is full of holes and we must close them. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know how -- or even if -- it can be done.

At a minimum though, I would require that strips be used on any sector that has any non radar airspace and/or performs any Approach Control type services. Not just for the individual aircraft that meet this criteria but for the entire sector. In addition, I would give serious consideration to requiring flight progress strip usage on any sector that routinely holds for a hub airport. This will address the most serious weaknesses in URET and hopefully allow us time to find and implement workable solutions.

Don Brown
NATCA Safety Rep.
(Originally published on The Main Bang in July 29/30, 2006)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sorry 'bout that

Somehow, my email address dissapeared from my profile. It's fixed. Sorry 'bout that.

The Truth

“Delta two twenty three, turn twenty degrees left, vectors for traffic.” I said something like that a million times when I was a controller. Maybe 10 million. I wasn’t counting. And 99.99% of the time the reply came back without hesitation, “Atlanta Center, Delta two twenty three turning twenty degrees left.” It’s so routine -- so ordinary -- that we often don’t think about the deeper implications behind it.

Pilots and their passengers trust air traffic controllers with their lives. It isn’t a completely blind trust on the pilot’s part. Pilots always pay attention to their situation and try to remain alert to any possible mistake a controller might make. But to a degree which most people couldn’t imagine in their daily lives, our relationship is based on trust.

Implicit in that trust is one truly simple concept; Controllers will speak the truth. Not half the truth. Not what we think is the truth. No shading of the truth. Controllers are expected to tell the clean, pure, you-can-bet-your-life-on-it truth.

This isn’t something that is taught in ATC school. You can look in the controller’s “bible” and you won’t find a dissertation on the subject. We don’t take an oath before we plug in our headsets, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth...”, everyday when we sit down to work. This is just something that “is”. It’s just understood. Our word is our bond.

As a matter of fact, I fully expect some controller somewhere will write me after reading this and say something to the effect of, “I never thought of it that way.” Which is part of the point. Young people don’t tend to think in these terms. It just “is”. The only controllers that talk about these things are old guys like me that think too much. (You might be pleasantly surprised how many of us there are, though.)

Imagine working in a place where speaking the plain, simple truth was a given. Can you ?

If you’re the kind of reader that tries to think ahead you might be wondering where I’m going with all this. Well, here’s a curve ball for you. I’m not going anywhere at all. I decided a long time ago that honesty really is the best policy. I also found out it wasn’t simple. And it was hard. Aren’t most things in life that are worth doing ?

I think about truth a lot. Here are some random thoughts about the subject. Let them take you where they will.

Chiseled into the marble at the CIA’s headquarters is the inscription, “You Shall Know The Truth, And The Truth Shall Set You Free.” Spies. Deception. Lies. Yet they seek the truth.

Do you expect politicians to lie ? Could you handle the truth if they told it ? More to the point, would you reelect them if they told you the truth ? Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan. George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton. George W. Bush. Tell the truth. Do you ? Could you ? Would you ?

In a truth-telling contest, who would you believe ? A politician or a controller ? A scientist or a business executive ? A reporter or a lawyer ?

It’s hard. But it’s worth it.

Don Brown
March 11, 2007

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Liars Figure

Hey boys and girls. Remember this blog entry?

Hiding in Plain Sight

The answer (as usual) is right in front of you if you know what you’re looking for. In that I did work for the FAA, I have the advantage of having seen this tactic time and time again.

" The agency is working on a new staffing standard for each site but doesn't expect to complete it until spring. "

The trick is to change -- I’m sorry, improve your “standards” -- the way things are measured -- every few years so that the previous data is no longer “relevant.”

"While the FAA argues those numbers are no longer relevant,...."

That way, you can’t track trends over long periods of time. Or if you change the way you grade yourself, you can change your grade.

I predict the controller staffing shortage will look much better when the FAA completes it’s new staffing standard this spring.

Don Brown
December 27, 2006

Well guess what ? The FAA’s new staffing numbers were released today. If you’d like, you can download the 4.8 mb .pdf file. Or you can avoid wasting your time because you (and I) already knew what it would say.

After wading through the 32 page report (lots of pretty pictures to make up the 4.8 mb file) I found the number I wanted to know; the figures for my former place of employment: Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center. Or “ZTL” for short.

ZTL now has a “staffing range” of 309 to 377. Anywhere within that (huge) range and the FAA now meets their new and improved “standard.” Presto ! ZTL has now gone from being understaffed to being overstaffed at 439 controllers.

That 439 staffing number was “as of” 9-30-06. Pay attention here boys and girls. I retired on 12-1-06. I was hired 11-23-81. 11/81 + 25 years = 11/06. Are you following that ? I was in one of the first groups hired after the strike in 1981. I worked 25 years and got out as fast as I could -- 8 days after I was eligible. Yet, I was counted in the current FAA’s numbers.

The report states on page 12:

”In the first six months of FY2006, FAA’s retirement projections tracked very closely to actual retirements. However, in the second half of FY2006, actual retirements versus projections began to diverge for a total of 116 more retirements than expected by the end of the fiscal year.

The Federal government’s 2006 fiscal year (FY2006) ended on 9-30-06 (just in case you’re wondering.)

Interpretation: The FAA’s projected retirement numbers were low even before most of the controllers (like me) became eligible. And the “current” numbers they just published were counted barely (as in 1 month) after the real retirement wave started. 8/81 + 25 years = 8/06 +1 month = 9/06. (Quibble about the 30 days in September if you must.)

The real problem is that the numbers aren’t as important as time. One trainee doesn’t equal one 25 year veteran. Not for about 5-10 years it doesn’t. And according to my sources, those veterans are retiring at the rate of 3 a day. Go figure.

Gettin’ the flick yet ?

Don Brown
March 7, 2006

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Charles Dudley Warner said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." “Nobody” would seem to include the airlines. If you remember my blog entry entitled Airline Deregulation -- Again you might remember I said, “A 100-airplane -an-hour airport can’t accept but 100 airplanes an hour. (We won’t talk about weather -- for now.)” Well, now is a good time to talk about the weather.

My recent vacation was a retirement present for my wife -- a cruise in the Caribbean. Not to confuse you -- I retired. She got the cruise. And she deserved it. But that is another story. The first night we went to dinner, looking forward to meeting whoever would be sharing our dining room table. No one was there. They weren’t there on the second night, nor the third. Finally, they showed up on the fourth night. It turns out, they’d been frozen in at JFK during the Jet Blue fiasco on Valentine’s Day.

The weather had taken a 100-airplane-an-hour airport and turned it into a zero-airplane-per-hour airport. Congratulations Jet Blue. You’ve made it to the long and distinguished list of airline deregulation, hub-induced disasters.

Let’s step back in time, 30 days before this fiasco. Do you think the smart guys at Jet Blue that sell tickets were thinking about the weather ? I kind of doubt it. Even if they were, everybody knows the weather is unpredictable. Weather-induced delays, however, are predictable. I predict that by June, you will be reading about thunderstorm-induced delays. See how easy that was ?

The point is, weather happens. Ice covered airplanes don’t fly. They crash. Airplanes can’t fly in severe thunderstorms for the same reason. And nothing that the airlines have designed handles weather as poorly as a Hub.

An airline hub looks great on paper. It’s the model of efficiency. The idea behind a hub is to dominate an airport. I could talk about Delta in Atlanta (or United in ORD, or American in DFW, ad nausem) but let’s stick with Jet Blue in JFK. They concentrate their infrastructure to achieve economies of scale. Once that is done, they will fight for every passenger that uses that airport.

Sticking with our 100-airplanes-an-hour airport, the airline isn’t going to only take 70 of those landing slots and leave 30 for their competitors. They want all 100 slots. Of course, in today’s deregulated market, they can take all 100 (or 120) and their competitors can still add 30 airplanes an hour. That is the reason you have delays even on days with perfect weather. Bad weather (ice, snow, winds, clouds and thunderstorms) just turns a bad situation into a disaster.

I read an article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution today that set me off on this tirade. In an article talking about the 7,000+ flights that sat on the airport concrete for over two hours last year, I got to read this statement by a representative of the Air Transport Association (ATA.)

"Unfortunately, the number of delays is going to get worse before it gets better, until we transition to a satellite-based air traffic control system," Castelveter said.

Huh ? To steal a line from my own blog, “This isn’t right. It’s not even wrong.” Air Traffic Control doesn’t control the weather, satellites or no satellites . Mr. Castelveter is just pushing the ATA thought that a bunch of satellites will allow ATC to move more airplanes more quickly. Unfortunately, he’s not only failing to make sense, he’s “wronger than wrong.” ATA can come up with whatever pie-in-sky scheme for ATC that they’d like. It won’t make a dime’s worth of difference (much less several billion dollar’s worth) if we can’t get them to the gates. You know, the gates at your hubs that are so overcrowded that the airlines can’t seem to get anybody off of an airplane -- even after 10 hours.

Hey, you don’t have to take my word for it that hubs are a disaster. Everybody knows that Southwest doesn’t use the hub system. Right ? This just in.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines had the best record among the large U.S. carriers, with 82 percent of flights on time.

Those that know me will believe this...those that don’t will just have to take my word for it (or not.) I didn’t think about the Southwest angle until I had typed all the above. I went to Goggle News, typed in +”Southwest Airlines” +Delays and this popped up, leading me to post the link.

“Timely arrivals drop for major airlines
Fort Worth Star Telegram, TX - 8 hours ago”

Gotta love the internet.

Don Brown
March 6, 2007

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Rest of the Story

Okay, so it took me a little longer than one day. I told you Monday about an emergency inbound to DFW. The poor handling of this flight made quite a stir in the pilot community. It got a little ugly at a couple of cyber-places I visit.

I must comment on this aspect of human nature. Aviation -- especially air traffic control -- is a highly complicated endeavor and little understood by people outside the industry. While anyone can look up in the sky and see an airplane and most have been in one, almost no outsider has been inside a radar room. Including reporters.

We like to believe we’re getting the news. We want to believe that the reporter has his or her facts straight. But they often don’t. And no, this isn’t intended to beat up on reporters. It can’t be easy trying to explain to the public, complex details about whatever subject pops up today. Reporters can’t be an expert in all fields. And then there is the fact that every public relations person is trying to “spin” the story the way they want it to come out. I’m not trying to disparage them either. I’m just trying to point out some realities.

Anyway, I’m not a reporter but I was once an air traffic controller. I also know a few controllers. Okay, I know a lot of controllers. And I knew something wasn’t quite right about the story.

The official report the FAA initially filed on this incident says, “...OSIC advised FE to use RY31R.” An OSIC is the “Operational Supervisor in Charge” and it means just what is says, “in charge.” “FE” is a radar position called “Feeder East.” There are two things to note there. First, the supervisor made the decision to send the aircraft to runway 31 Right (RY31R). Secondly, the pilot had requested RY17C (runway 17 Center). Much has been made of the fact that the pilot had to “circle” to RY31R. “Feeder East” works the arrivals from the northeast. If you know something about aviation and want to download the BONHAM FIVE STAR (.pdf) you’ll see that using RY31R isn’t as bad as it might sound. That doesn’t make it right, mind you. The pilot should get the runway he wants and shouldn’t have to explain his reasoning. It’s just not as bad as some of the wording you read might lead you to believe.

[For those non-aviation types that might be interested. Runways are named after the magnetic bearing of their alignment. A runway aligned due east and west would be RY09 (heading due east, 090 degrees) and the opposite end would be RY27 (heading due west, 270 degrees.) Runway 17C points almost due south (170 degrees.) If the aircraft was on the arrival (and that’s an if) it would be about a 50 degree left turn to align with the RY17C. To land on RY31R it would be about a 90 degree right turn.]

This certainly turned out longer than I expected. And I still have two points to make.

Again, this emergency was handled poorly. I can’t help but believe part of the blame lies in the poisonous relationship between the FAA and its employees. When you read me complaining about the FAA’s treatment of its employees -- if I sound a little shrill -- incidents like this are the reason why. So much is at stake in ATC. When the chips are down -- when your life is at stake -- we need to operate like a well-oiled machine. Not like adversaries. The FAA’s belligerent personnel policies have (and will continue to have) a negative effect on air safety.

This incident also points out just how divided the FAA’s house really is. Controllers are furious that they are being blamed for a supervisor's decision. The divide in the FAA is so deep, so acrimonious, that controllers can’t see that the general public doesn’t differentiate between controllers and management. They’re both the FAA as far as the public is concerned. That certainly is the way things should be. But they aren’t.

Don Brown
March 2, 2007