Saturday, June 30, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- June 30

June 30th is an interesting day in the FAA’s history. Evidently, it used to be the last day of the fiscal year. Whereas some dates have very little activity (like yesterday, June 29th), June 30th is just loaded with significant milestones.

For instance, in 1928 “...the Commerce Department succeeded in developing a practical radio navigation beacon system.” It was the old four course radio range for all you old-timers out there. We could go the amusing route. In 1929”...the Airways Division of the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Lighthouses established an office at Fort Worth, Tex.,...” I bet you didn’t even know there was a Bureau of Lighthouses, much less that the four course radio range was replacing light beacons as a primary source of navigation. By the way, anybody noticed that airports still have rotating light beacons for navigation ? And they’re still useful. You might want to keep that in mind, just in case somebody tries to tell you that some new technology is going to replace some other “antiquated” technology.

Getting a little closer to the punch’s a good one.

”Jun 30, 1938: During the fiscal year that ended this date, the Department of Commerce established teletype network Schedule B connecting airway traffic control centers with airway communication stations and with military airbases. “

I’d really love to delve into that one deeper. It’s really important. But so is this one.

”Jun 30, 1945: During the fiscal year that ended on this date, CAA began development work on adapting radar to civil aviation at the Indianapolis Experimental Station, using equipment supplied by the Armed Forces. (See Jul 23, 1935 and May 24, 1946.) “

1945. World War II is ending. All those planes and all those pilots are coming home. I wonder if anyone talked of a “peace dividend” back then ? Oh well, I can’t tarry. We have important business to attend to. Because all the politics and all the neat technical marvels got trumped. Even that bureaucratic wonder -- the end of the fiscal year -- got trumped. By safety. Or a lack thereof.

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jun 30, 1956: A Trans World Airlines Super Constellation and a United Air Lines DC-7 collided over the Grand Canyon, Ariz., killing all 128 occupants of the two airplanes. The collision occurred while the transports were flying under visual flight rules (VFR) in uncongested airspace. The accident dramatizing the fact that, even though U.S. air traffic had more than doubled since the end of World War II, little had been done to expand the capacity of the air traffic control system or to increase safeguards against midair collisions. Sixty-five such collisions had occurred in the United States between 1950 and 1955. This was partly because the ATC system did not have the ability to segregate VFR traffic from instrument flight rules (IFR) traffic, or slow-moving flights from faster ones. Many experts recognized a need to institute positive control -- requiring instrument flight over certain portions of the airspace irrespective of weather conditions. In the wake of the tragedy, Congress opened hearings to probe its relationship to the general problems of airspace and air traffic control management. (See Apr 11, 1957.) “

And nothing in Air Traffic Control was ever the same again.

There’s been a lot written about this accident. The best account I’ve read was buried inside a book about Airline Deregulation: “Blind Trust” by John J. Nance. Yes, that John Nance. The one that has written all the novels and shows up on the TV whenever the news needs someone to explain an aviation accident. Even stranger, while “Blind Trust” is a nonfiction book, what makes the account of the Grand Canyon mid air so compelling is that Mr. Nance fictionalized it. It is told from the perspective of actually being in the airplane during the collision. It’s probably not a book you want to read on your next flight.

As I’ve told many, many controllers in the need to pay special attention to what happened to the controller that was working these two flights. It’s a sad story but it’s also true. You ought to read it. You can pick it up in any library.

Don Brown
June 30, 2007

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- June 27

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jun 27, 1939: President Roosevelt signed the Civilian Pilot Training Act of 1939 into law. The act authorized the Civil Aeronautics Authority to conduct a program for the training of civilian pilots through educational institutions and to prescribe pertinent regulations with the objective of providing sufficient training to prepare a student for a private pilot certificate. The act authorized $5,675,000 to be appropriated for the program during fiscal years 1939 and 1940, and specified that thereafter the appropriation should not exceed $7 million for any one fiscal year. The act was to expire on Jul 1, 1944. On the basis of this legislation, CAA's program for the 1939-1940 school year called for training 11,000 civilian pilots, although considerably fewer were actually trained the first year. (See May 16, 1940, and Dec 12, 1941) In what proved to be an important development for African Americans in aviation, the act contained a provision introduced by Representative Everett M. Dirksen (R-Ill.) stipulating that "none of the benefits of training or programs shall be denied on account of race, creed, or color." “

I wonder, just how far into the future FDR could see ? Surely he saw the clouds of war gathering over Europe once again. Was that all he saw ? Did he see how vital airpower would become in the coming war ? Did he have any idea that much of our dominance of the world for the next 60 years would be based on airpower ? Did he see a great industry -- one that would be the envy of the world ?

Everyone didn’t see it. At least they weren’t able to prepare for it.

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".

Winston Churchill sure had a way with words. America never had to depend on “so few.”

Don Brown
June 27, 2007

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Red Tape

You probably don’t remember this line. It was a pretty good line (if I do say so myself) but I just kind of tossed it out there -- either in too much of a hurry or trying to avoid over-explaining things (as I have a tendency to do.)

"One man’s red tape is another man’s oversight."

It’s nice to see someone else has had the same thought.

“In Praise of Red Tape” by Christopher Hayes.

While you’re reading that piece, I want you to plug in another thought. NATCA just had another representative given 30 days off without pay. That’s a minimum of 4 facility representatives (that I know of) given time off or fired. You might not get the message in that but I do. And so do controllers (and other government workers.) You’ve got to ask yourself a question or two (as a citizen): Do you want your employees looking after your interests ? Do you want that safeguard strengthened by union representation ? Or do you want the Bush Administration (or any other Administration) to have free reign with no checks and balances ?

Think about that for just a few moments before we move on.

Got an answer yet ? Good. Now go read this “60 Minutes” story.

These questions don’t have easy answers. Did Darby do the right thing ? I think that’s a pretty easy “Yes” but that is about where the easy part stops. Was Secretary Rumsfeld being genuine in his praise ? Was Rumsfeld just being naive or did he realize the potential consequences when he “outed” Darby ?

How much courage do you have ? Are you willing to stand up to your government for what you believe is right ? Even if it costs you 30 days off ? How about if it means you can never go home again ? If that is a hard question to answer in the abstract -- imagine how hard it is to do for real.

Imagine your government without employees that posses the courage to do what is right.

Don Brown
June 26, 2007

Monday, June 25, 2007

Even the Smart Money

Did you hear the sound of the splash too ? That was Marion Blakey being tossed overboard by "the smart money". Literally. Smart Money, a magazine about -- what else ? -- money, ran this article today: The FAA Has a Long Way to Travel to Improve

I’m afraid I don’t keep up with Smart Money (I’m not particularly smart and I don’t have a lot of money) so I can’t claim to know how much sway they hold over their audience. Nor do I know of Igor Greenwald or the reputation of his column -- The Invisible Hand . I just know that in this one case -- he appears to have the flick.

” And when the FAA antagonizes air-traffic controllers to keep up with the Wal-Marts of the world and to look good in the Bush administration's intramural suck-up competition, I don't think it's properly thought through the future consequences of an inexperienced controller force that's had no input into the new system it will be trying to master while coping with a traffic crush.”

“ Government isn't just like a business. It ought to aim for good instead of adequate, and make sure that expedience doesn't trump either the long-term vision or a decent safety margin. The FAA did need to modernize. But it may now have become too businesslike.

(emphasis added)

Don Brown
June 25, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- June 25

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jun 25, 1956: Its interest kindled by the Harding Report (see May 4, 1955), the Legal and Monetary Affairs Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Rep. Robert H. Mollohan (D.-W.Va.), began extensive hearings on the Federal role in aviation. The hearings centered on: the adequacy of the Federal-aid airport program; problems in air traffic control and air navigational aids, with particular reference to the TACAN/VOR-DME controversy (see Aug 30, 1956); the effect of introducing commercial jets; the organization for aviation matters within the executive branch; the operational efficiency of CAA, including the effectiveness of its five-year program; and the problem of joint military and civil use of airports. “

You never know when fate will reach out and touch you. Or where.

Did you realize how the world was going to change 5 days before September 11, 2001 ? Probably not. But people inside your government had a good idea what could happen. George Tenet’s quote, “The system was blinking red” has become quite famous. Do you think the leaders of the CAA realized that their system was “blinking red” on this date in history ? Do you think that the leaders of the FAA know that their system is “blinking red” ?

There are people in your government that do have a good idea. And I mean what I say -- it’s just a good idea. There is absolutely no way to know for certain. You just know you’re standing too close to the edge of disaster and you know we all need to take a step back. Congress knew in 1956, just as they know today. The volume on the “background noise” is getting louder. Too many people that know what they’re talking about are just a little too nervous.

Most of the controllers reading this have already figured out the disaster, even if the didn’t know the specific date. It’s a date -- a disaster -- that changed air traffic control forever. 5 days.

Don Brown
June 25, 2007

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Meadowlark Gardens

My mamma laughed at me the other day. She asked what I had planned for the weekend and I told her I was going to help my friend Jay park cars at Meadowlark Gardens. She thought that was pretty funny, going from directing airplanes across the sky to directing cars in a parking lot.

In a way, I guess it is but it’s actually one of the joys of being retired. The luxury of time. Time to think. Time to enjoy. Time to help your friends.

Jay manages Meadowlark Gardens for his family. It’s been a private estate for over 60 years. As anyone into gardening will tell you, there’s simply no substitute for time. Take a look and you’ll see what I mean. At the risk of sounding like Yogi Berra -- you don’t grow a fifty year old hedge overnight you know.

Meadowlark recently started hosting private events. Weddings, receptions and such. I just know it will wind up as a movie location one day. It’s that beautiful (and private.) If you want to see how pretty a wedding can be take a look at this slide show. It’s from the very first wedding hosted at Meadowlark and it’s actually what reminded me to make this blog entry. Shawna Herring was the photographer and her work just blew me away.

If you know anybody that is getting married, do them a favor and tell them to take a look. Before the word gets out and you can’t book the place. Even if they don’t live in the area (about 35 miles south of the Atlanta airport) they can still book Shawna, I bet. And even if they can’t, they can still get some great ideas for their own wedding. Trust me. They’ll thank you.

Don Brown
June 24, 2007

Saturday, June 23, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- June 23

Pay Attention. This isn’t sexy. It isn’t glamourous. This won’t stir your emotions like a political wedge issue is designed to do. It won’t even make polite dinner conversation. No matter how boring, this is merely...incredibly important.

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jun 23, 1938: President Roosevelt signed the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 into law. Most of its provisions, however, were to become effective 60 days later (see Aug 22, 1938). The law created a new kind of Federal agency--one designed, in the light of the Brownlow Report (see Jan 12, 1937) and court decisions (see June 27, 1935), to keep its functions as the agent of Congress distinct from its functions as the agent of the President. This new Civil Aeronautics Authority was composed of three elements. To perform the quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial functions of safety and economic regulation, the law created a five-member entity designated the Civil Aeronautics Authority, the same term used to describe the agency as a whole. The law also established an Administrator of the Authority, who was independent of the five-member Authority and had responsibility for the executive and operational functions of the agency. Finally, an Air Safety Board of three members operated independently within the agency and had quasi-judicial powers for investigating accidents, determining their probable cause, and making recommendations for accident prevention. The President appointed all nine of these officials with the concurrence of the Senate. The Administrator, as the agent of the presidential power, could be removed by the President at will, the others only for cause. As assigned to the five-member Authority, safety regulation functions were essentially those previously performed by the Bureau of Air Commerce, but revised and enlarged. Economic regulation was made much more comprehensive and thorough than that authorized by the Air Mail Act of 1934 (see Jun 12, 1934). The Authority was given regulatory powers applying to: air mail rates; airline rates, fares, and routes; and the business practices of airlines--the last involving inspection or regulation of such matters as accounts, records, consolidations, mergers, or other forms of control, and methods of competition. Interstate air carriers were required to obtain from the Authority a certificate of public convenience and necessity permitting them to operate over specified routes. The Administrator's functions under the law were the encouragement of civil aeronautics and commerce, establishment of civil airways, provision and technical improvement of air navigation facilities, and the protection and regulation of air traffic along the airways. Airports were not excluded from the facilities that the Administrator could establish and maintain, as they had been under the Air Commerce Act; however, the Administrator was prohibited from acquiring any airport by purchase or condemnation. The law directed the Administrator to make a field survey of the existing system of airports and to present definite recommendations by Feb 1, 1939, on whether and how the Federal government should participate in the development, operation, or maintenance of a national system of airports. (See Sep 14, 1938.) “

Don Brown
June 23, 2007

Taking Hits

I’ve discovered the secret formula for generating “hits” on a web site. Get yourself mentioned on The Main Bang. I guess having a link to your blog helps too.

For the first time ever, Get the Flick has passed 1,000 hits in a day.

Thank you, John Carr.

Don Brown
June 23, 2007

Thanks Paul

A special “Thank You” to my friend Paul for being my unofficial editor. Spell checkers are neat but they still can’t replace people. Paul consistently (and gently) points out these errors and even points me to a pretty neat web site on occasion.

time and

Everyone makes errors. Even controllers. Even ex-controllers. Nothing is as comforting as knowing somebody is looking out after you -- catching the errors so you can make them right. Thanks Paul.

Don Brown
June 23, 2007

Friday, June 22, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- June 22

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jun 22, 1981: Department of Transportation and PATCO representatives reached agreement on a tentative new contract after a marathon bargaining session, thus averting a threatened nationwide strike by PATCO-affiliated controllers that had been scheduled to begin at 7 a.m., Monday, Jun 22. Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis and PATCO President Robert Poli had gone back to the bargaining table Friday evening, Jun 19, at the behest of Representative James J. Howard (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Public Works Committee. The resumption of talks may also have been prompted by a letter to Poli from 36 U.S. Senators, stating that a strike by PATCO "will do nothing to further your goals of increased pay and changes in working conditions." The bargaining sessions, which took place at the offices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and were joined in by Federal mediator Kenneth Moffett, lasted more than 25 hours, with the last session running past 3 a.m., Monday.

The agreement contained four key provisions, which the Reagan Administration agreed to recommend to Congress:

* A "responsibility" differential that would give controllers 42 hours pay for each normal 40 hour week worked.

* An increase in the night differential from 10 to 15 percent of base pay.

* The exclusion of overtime, night differential, and Sunday and holiday pay from the limitations of the Federal pay cap.

* A retraining allowance equivalent to 14 weeks of base pay for controllers who became medically disqualified after five consecutive years of service at the journeyman level or above and who were ineligible for retirement or disability compensation. “

Obviously, the “tentative” agreement didn’t hold. Only one month and 11 days later PATCO went on strike and the world changed. Not just the air traffic world but your world too. Most historians now cite the PATCO strike in 1981 as a pivotal event in the decline of unions in America (along with your working conditions.)

And just in case you don’t see the relevance (or the similarities) to today’s events, you might want to read this article from The Washington Post yesterday.

Don Brown
June 22, 2007

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I Accept

Now, before anybody gets excited, I want folks to understand -- I want to move to D.C. about as bad as Marion Blakey wants to spend a shift plugged in at New York Tracon. That’s about as much as you’d want to have a tooth pulled. But just like a painful tooth, if it hurts bad enough, you’ll endure the pain of having it pulled.

My friend (and ex-boss) John Carr over at The Main Bang was “nominated” by my former publisher (AVweb) to be the next Administrator at the FAA. Yes, it is all (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek. You can tell by this part from John’s blog.

”16.  I will make Don Brown Minister of Safety”

We all know there has got to be somebody better qualified than me. But in the spirit of the moment, here is my X (I’ll fill it in after I write it) point plan.

1) Divert all funds currently spent on NextGen, JPDO, NGATS and whatever other pie-in-the-sky project the FAA has going that I can find (won’t Congress be happy ?) and build a “virtual” air traffic control system. It will be staffed by real controllers talking to real pilot dealing with real situations. I even want the real weather hooked into it. Dispatchers, FSS, Base Ops -- everybody gets plugged in. When pilots train in their simulators, they’ll be plugged into the “virtual” system. When controllers train on their simulators (and they will -- often), they’ll be plugged into the “virtual” system also.

There ought to be enough “pork” in that idea to keep all the “players” on The Hill happy. The next PhD with a “better idea” will get to show me it works in virtual reality before he gets to experiment with the American public’s safety. If nobody can figure out how to make a virtual system work I’ll get the guys over at VATSIM to show them how.

2) Safe, Orderly and Expeditious won’t be just a slogan -- it’ll be your job.

”AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL- A service operated by appropriate authority to promote the safe, orderly and expeditious flow of air traffic.”

Everybody’s job. Get the order (pardon the pun) mixed up (too often) and you won’t have one.

3) Make a standing appointment with a representative of the NTSB (say for every Friday afternoon at 4 P.M.) and the only agenda item will be “Why haven’t you implemented our safety recommendations yet ?” When we get them all resolved we’ll get an “early go.”

4) Speaking of safety recommendations (look for “fatigue” in the link above), controllers will get a 32 hour week. Don’t get too excited. Those 32 hours will probably still cover 5 whole days. We’re going to talk to the Human Factors people about rotating shifts and fatigue. Then we’re going to implement the best schedules we can. Ditto for pilots and everybody else. I don’t expect anybody will like it but everybody will live longer -- controllers, pilots and passengers.

5) Speaking of Human Factors people -- saddle up. You’re going to be busy. The National Airspace System will be “human-centered”. (I’m already using buzz words.) People are going to make the final decision when it comes to safety and you’re going to teach our people how to make the best decisions. We will make the technology fit the human instead of the other way around. What we aren’t going to do is let you sit in a lab and write papers that get filed away on a dusty shelf. I want you to write the papers, they just aren’t going to sit on a shelf. You’re going to hit the road and sell those ideas to controllers, pilots, managers and CEOs. Don’t be surprised if you learn something when you get to talk to these people face to face.

6) Controllers will get back in the cockpit to observe. And you will observe (and learn.) I don’t care if you learn on the flight to Hawaii but I do care that you learn. There will be a dozen rules governing your behavior in the program but it will really come down to one simple rule: mess up and it won’t happen again. (Brownie points will be given for actually learning to fly.)

In reverse, pilots will get back in the Towers and the radar rooms. No, seriously, I mean you will. Anything beyond a VFR private pilot license will require some time in an ATC facility. It’ll be progressive. The fancier the ticket, the more requirements it will have. Airline pilots can expect to have visited a Tower, Tracon and a Center. If you’re going to use the ATC system you’re going to have to learn something about it besides what is written in a book. We might even plug you into a radar position in that “virtual” system I want. Pilots will be welcome at any ATC facility at any time. Their presence will be required at others. (A box of doughnuts will be required to enter any FAA facility during non-administrative hours.)

As a matter of fact, we’re all going to have one great big group hug. Staff, TMU, R&D, FSS, AF, mangers, pilots, government, military, civilians and anybody else I can afford to put together. Everybody is going to learn a little about everybody else’s job and we are going to learn how to communicate. Secrets and Safety don’t mix.

7) Train, train and train some more. We’re going to gather up every CBI (Computer Based Instruction) computer, buy a baseball bat and raffle off tickets to take a swing at every one of them. We’ll use the proceeds to replace about a tenth of them and put all the courses on the internet where they belong. Where anybody can look at them. (Think of what that will do for their quality.) The rest of the time you will be taught by the experts in your field. And yes boys and girls, we’re going to make recognized experts out of some of you. Unless you want Seymour Traffic to be the one giving lectures you’d best think of who you want to be “recognized” as an expert.

Anybody that wants to sit behind a radar scope will have to learn to move traffic without one. That’s right. Non radar. It’s “pass or fail” in the real world, it’ll be pass or fail in training. Remember that virtual system I was talking about ? It will be designed to virtually “fail gracefully” just like the real system will be. The first time you ever see a radar scope go blank won’t be when sitting in front of a real scope, full of real airplanes, full of real people. And that goes for pilots too. When a controller with a scope that just quits says, “Say position” you’re going to learn a better answer than “857.6 miles west of Podunk” or “Uhhhhh....”

8) Cap the number of scheduled flights for all airports at a percentage of the IFR arrival rate. We’ll have to find “the number” but it will be significantly less than 100% of the VFR arrival rate. (That ought to torpedo my nomination.)

9) Phraseology -- You’ll learn to love it. Ditto the AIM. Ditto the 7110.65. Some of you will even learn how to write them.

10) Anticipated Separation -- If anybody wants to use it you’ll have to convince me it’s better than “positive separation.” “Better” will be defined as “Safer” (and then those other two words.) Ditto for “Land and Hold Short.” I look forward to hearing from the Tower contingent and being illumined (or illuminated -- like with a targeting radar.) Remember, any argument that begins with “expeditious” is a loser.

11) Hire Jon Stewart as my communications consultant. Maybe he can teach me to lighten up a little and still get the point across.

Don Brown
June 21, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- June 21

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jun 21, 1995: FAA and Australia’s Qantas Airlines completed the first in a series of operational trials of a satellite-based communication, navigation, and surveillance system. Known as the Future Air Navigation System (FANS), the system was designed to improve communication between controllers and pilots on oceanic and remote flights. Other events related to oceanic aviation in 1995 included FAA’s Jul 26 announcement that the first component of the prototype Oceanic Data Link (ODL) system was operational at the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center. Single sector air-to-ground communications using ODL became operational at Oakland in October. On Sep 22, meanwhile, FAA announced the award of a contract to Hughes Aircraft Company to develop the Advanced Oceanic Automation System (AOAS) to upgrade and automate the agency’s oceanic air traffic control systems. (See Dec 14, 1989.) “

Hughes Aircraft Company was bought by General Motors in 1985, split up and sold off in pieces.

Just for 1995 Microsoft released Windows 95. eBay was founded. Hotmail was started.

Don Brown
June 21, 2007

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Nuts About Knots

Don’t ask me, I’ve had this thing about rope since I was a kid. Maybe it was one too many cowboy movies. If you like rope, you learn knots. The rest of my family looks at me like I know some dark art when I tie a useful knot. I try to teach them but, without an immediate need, no one seems interested in learning.

Just in case you might need to learn a decent knot one day, try this site.

Animated Knots by Grog

I will have to disagree with the folks on this site about one thing. They say the “sheepshank” (I call it a sheep’s head) is all but useless. Wrong. Tie it for any five-year-old, stick it over your head and go “baaaaahhhhh” like a sheep. I guarantee it’ll bring a smile. And maybe even a lifelong interest in knots.

Don Brown
June 20, 2007

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Blind Men

James Fallows is a writer at The Atlantic . The Atlantic (previously know as The Atlantic Monthly) is one of those magazines that I just never found time to pick up and read in my younger life. That was a mistake on my part. Perhaps this Wikipedia entry will explain it better. Not reading a magazine whose writers have included names like Emerson, Longfellow and Twain isn’t something to brag about. Mr. Fallows has the cover story this month -- but I’m getting off course.

I recently finished one of Mr. Fallows’ books: Blind Into Baghdad. I’m not really sure where to start. There’s an awful lot of thinking in such a little bit of space. I don’t normally make marks on my books. No hi-liters, no underlined passages, no pages bent over to mark a spot. I had to break down and make some marks on this one. Okay, so they were in pencil. I still don’t like marring a book.

”It’s like any other profession... You can have the best computers in the world, and you can have an ocean of information, but if you have a guy who’s only been there for three weeks or three months, you’re very weak.”

It sounds like Mr. Fallows could be quoting a controller doesn’t it ? Unfortunately (for us), he’s quoting a CIA officer.

Another point in the book that got my attention: If we invade Afghanistan, kick out al-Qaeda and the Taliban, then fail to follow through and stabilize the country -- what do we wind up with ? We wind up with a country just like the one we had before. One that is a breeding ground for terrorists.

Yet that is what we’ve done -- only it’s worse. We took all the resources we needed to fix Afghanistan and diverted them to Iraq -- only to make another Afghanistan out of Iraq.

“In Vietnam we just lost,” the officer said. “This would be losing with consequences.”

This book will make you put your thinking cap on. It’s a compilation of several articles Mr. Fallows wrote between 2002 and 2005. The first article; “The Fifty-First State” was written in mid-2002 and published in November. To refresh your memory, combat in Iraq didn’t begin until March 2003.

“A further assumption was that even alone, U. S. forces would win this war...”

“What then ?”

If a reporter can ask that question (and try to answer it) well before combat even begins, you’ve got to ask yourself, “Why didn’t my government ?” And if they did ask, why didn’t they get any better answers ? Answers like this one:

”The transforming vision [democratizing Iraq] is not, to put it mildly, the consensus among those with long experience in the Middle East.”

““ is laughable.”, Chris Sanders told me.”

“”...the ruminations of insane people.” one British official said.”

I’d highly recommend the book. It isn’t an “easy read” but if we can learn some lessons -- maybe next time -- it won’t be so easy for the blind men to lead us into the wrong war.

Don Brown
June 19, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- June 19th

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

” Jun 19, 1970: An Interagency Microwave Landing System Planning Group was formed at the direction of the Secretary of Transportation. With the FAA Administrator as chairman, the group included representatives from the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, the Department of Defense, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The group was charged with preparing a five-year plan for the development and implementation of a microwave landing system (MLS) for civil-military common use. The development of the new system had been a recommendation of DOT's Air Traffic Control Advisory Committee. (See Dec 1969 and Jul 1971.) “

I bet most civilians have never heard of a “Microwave Landing System” (in that it didn’t go anywhere) but the story sure sounds familiar doesn’t it ? Would you like to see how this story turns out ? Read on.

”Jun 1976: FAA received delivery of the first prototype microwave landing system (MLS). The program--a high-priority undertaking begun in 1971 and participated in by FAA, DOD, and NASA--was considered a key element of the upgraded third generation air traffic control system (see Jul 1971). FAA planned to test the prototypes at the National Aviation Facilities Experimental Center, in Atlantic City, and at a NASA base in California. (See Jul 22, 1975, and Mar 16, 1977.) “

”Jan 12, 1984: The Federal Aviation Administration awarded a contract to Hazeltine Corporation for 178 Microwave Landing Systems (MLSs). (See Jan 28, 1982, and May 20, 1987.) “

”Apr 6, 1989: In Lebanon, NH, FAA commissioned the first permanent, Federally funded Microwave Landing System (MLS) at a commercial airport. The Hazeltine Corporation had delivered the system to the agency under a contract for 178 MLS units. On Aug 7, 1989, however, FAA notified Hazeltine that it was terminating the contract because of the company's failure to meet the specified delivery schedule. (See May 20, 1987, and Dec 6, 1989.) “

”Jun 2, 1994: Administrator Hinson announced that FAA would halt further development of the Microwave Landing System (MLS) for use under the more difficult visibility conditions rated Category 2 and 3 (see Jun 15, 1992). He stated that the agency instead would concentrate on the development of the Global Positioning System, known as GPS (see Feb 17, 1994). On Jun 8, FAA issued a request for proposals for an initial Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) for GPS. The initial WAAS would be a network of 24 ground stations and related communications systems that would enhance the integrity and availability of GPS signals (see entry for Aug 1, 1995). On Jul 16, Administrator Hinson and President Phil Boyer of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association landed at the Frederick, Md., airport using the first FAA-approved public "stand alone" GPS instrument approach. On Oct 17, the Administrator formally offered free use of GPS for 10 years to International Civil Aviation Organization member states, reconfirming a previous verbal offer (see entry for Apr 1, 1991). Other related events during 1994 included FAA’s Dec 8 announcement of approval of GPS as a primary means of navigation for oceanic/remote operations, subject to certain conditions. “

(emphasis added)

Don Brown
June 19, 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007

“The Pilot’s Lounge”

Rick Durden is a writer for AVweb, the internet magazine I used to write for back when I was a controller. He’s always been my favorite writer there. This month’s column is just an example of why I like him.

Oh, and be sure to read his bio. I want you to note he’s been to law school. So later -- when you read his use of the word “criminal” -- I want you to understand that he knows the meaning of the word.

Go read: The Pilot's Lounge #114: The FSS Mess, Privatization and the Lack of Personal Responsibility

Don Brown
June 18, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- June 18th

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jun 18, 1971: FAA announced a joint program with the military services designed to minimize the number of military aircraft flying under visual flight rules (VFR). The purpose of the program was to enhance the efficiency of the common civil-military airspace system and reduce the midair-collision hazard by bringing military flights under the direct control of FAA's air traffic control facilities. To the maximum extent practicable, military flights in fixed-wing aircraft would be conducted in accordance under instrument flight rules (IFR). The danger of mixing of high-speed IFR and VFR traffic had been tragically illustrated by a midair collision on June 6, 1971, near Duarte, Calif., of a DC-9 airliner and a U.S. Marine Corps F-4B. All 49 occupants of the DC-9 and one of the two occupants of the F-4B were killed. The airliner was under IFR control; the military plane was flying VFR. “

Using that date (June 6, 1971), you can jump right over to the NTSB’s “query page” and look up that accident. Or you can just go to the page that lists accidents by month and find it there. If you are so inclined.

Don Brown
June 18, 2007

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Political Courage

Joe Klein has a piece in this week’s Time magazine entitled, “The Courage Primary.” You need to read it.

I don’t know what set other people off about it (it’s #2 on Time’s “Most Popular” list behind a Father’s Day story) but for me, it was the section on “National Service.” In one way it’s just another (good) idea on how to bring back the unifying effect of the draft (modified) but it’s also a history lesson.

”The Roman Empire began to falter when it started hiring out major functions of the government, like military service.”

I was reading a book just the other day about the problems with re-instituting the draft (we’ll get to that later) but arguing the problems isn’t the point of this article. The point is to argue about the possibilities. Go read it. You’ll be glad you did.

Don Brown
June 17, 2007

June 17th

Jun 17, 1929: Delta Air Service made its first passenger flight, with a six-passenger Travel Air, from Dallas, Tex., to Monroe, La. As it broadened its passenger operations, the company (which originated as an aerial crop dusting operation, the Huff Daland Dusters) changed its name to Delta Air Corporation and then, in 1945, to Delta Air Lines. On May 1, 1953, Chicago and Southern Airlines merged into Delta.

That excerpt if from the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996. Don’t worry, the link only takes you to the page from which you can download it. It’s an interesting book. I actually have a hard copy I wrangled out of the FAA many years ago. I think I’ll start sharing bits of it with you on a regular basis.

Oh, and congratulations Delta. Glad you’re still around.

Don Brown
June 17, 2007

Friday, June 15, 2007


You may have noticed all the stories in the press for the last few days about our “outdated” air traffic control system. It’s “outdated” for a reason. But we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s take a look at the stories themselves. I’ll pick on MSNBC but in reality, it could be virtually any of them because they’re all saying the same thing. They’re doing little more than reading off the FAA’s press release.

That fact alone ought to concern you. Before you spend 40 billion dollars you might want to do a little thinking. Let’s pick the news story apart a little, shall we ?

”Using ADS-B, separations between aircraft can be reduced, airplanes will be able to fly more direct and efficient routes and the increase in U.S. air traffic will be accommodated.

That is a mighty broad statement. What “separations” -- exactly -- can be reduced ? Well, over the oceans (where there is no radar) seems like a likely place. Okay. Is that a 40-billion-dollar problem ? Let’s say the current separation standard (at the same altitude) over the ocean is 100 miles and ADS-B can cut that down to 10. What happens when they get to JFK ? Do all those other aircraft using JFK suddenly disappear ? Nope. The overseas guys have to get in line just like all the other aircraft. (Please note the phrase “get in line.” We’ll come back to that, too.)

Still, being able to cut your separation standard by 90% would be a good thing, right ? Well, not necessarily but we’ll let that slide for the moment too. The key argument in the above excerpt is “...the increase in U.S. air traffic will be accommodated.” How’s that ? You can cram 10 times as many airplane in the sky but where are they going to land ? You didn’t increase the capacity of JFK airport ten times. ADS-B is some pretty cool magic but it can’t defy the laws of physics.

”It (ADS-B) has produced a 40 percent drop in Alaska's traditionally high accident rate.”

That statement morphs a little more each time I see it. I think it’s more than a little bit fishy but suffice it to say that the rest of America isn’t the Alaskan bush. And I don’t think we’re going to spend 40 billion dollars just to make it safer to fly into the back country of Idaho, Wyoming or Georgia.

”A big part of the problem is that the U.S. air traffic control system is based on ground-based radar technology that is increasingly incapable of handling the growing volume of traffic — particularly in bad weather.

I’ll grant them this. Satellites are sexier than “ground-based” radar. No doubt about it. But are they better ? Look on any U.S. warship. Does it have radar ? You betcha. What about all that “Star Wars” stuff ? How do they get one missile to hit another missile (which you have to admit, is a pretty amazing feat) ? Oh yeah, that would be with radar. And speaking of “bad weather”, how do we know that “bad weather” is coming ? Yep, that would be (weather) radar. “Ground-based” weather radar.

ADS-B (that’s Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast by the way) is a pretty neat system with a few neat advantages. One advantage is that it’s cheap. Well, cheap to the taxpayer anyway (after the first $40 billion or so -- maybe.) It’s cheaper because a lot of the cost is off-loaded to the airplane owner. The owner has to pay for a piece of equipment that sends out a signal with all the neat information that controllers and other pilots will use to keep everybody separated. Of course, if he doesn’t want to send that information out all he has to do is turn it off. Or have an electrical failure. So terrorists, drug-runners and an aircraft (say your aircraft) that suffers an electrical failure (otherwise known as an emergency) will disappear. That seems to be what no one wants to say. ADS-B won’t replace radar. It can supplement it but it can’t replace it. Where are we saving all the money if we have to run two systems ?

I know. We’ll save it by being able to run airplanes closer (reduced separation) and airplanes will be able to fly more direct routes and everybody will save fuel. Or not. Let me ask you a couple of questions. If we put some whiz-bang contraption on your car and you could reduce the “separations” between the cars you see flying down the interstate, would you want to ? Do you really want that 18-wheeler looming in your rearview mirror to get closer ? How about when you pull into the parking lot ? Can you get any closer to the car in front of you ? Would it get you into a parking spot any faster if you could ?

These things don’t change when you’re talking about airplanes. Increased spacing equates to reaction time. You know the rule -- an extra car length for every additional 10 mph of speed. There’s a heck of a difference between 55 MPH and 550 MPH. And keep in mind -- airplanes don’t have brakes (once they leave the ground. ) To get into the garage (the airport) they do the same thing that you do. They “get in line.” And instead of stretching down the block, their line stretches a couple of hundred miles.

Tell me again where those fuel saving are ? You were calculating your fuel savings for your car when you were reading the above weren’t you ? What’s that ? You were thinking about your safety ? Safety over money ? Surely you jest. Get with the program. You were supposed to be thinking “more like a business” just like the current Administrator of the FAA is telling you to think. What’s wrong with you ?

Oh, I was supposed to get back to the “outdated” part wasn’t I ? The air traffic control system doesn’t run on the latest version of Microsoft Vista. I was reading a thread on a BBS I visit and it had a perfect explanation of the FAA’s software. In answer to the complaints about the bugs and security flaws found in virtually all of the modern software it was noted that you actually can have nearly perfect software. It’s extremely expensive, enhancements come very slowly, it isn’t the least bit sexy and it is always “outdated.” We don’t use unproven technology (including software) in air traffic control. That’s a good thing. And the folks calling it “outdated” know it.

Don Brown
June 15, 2007

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Hoarse Race

Congratulations are in order for FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. She hit the trifecta this week, making the nightly news on all three networks.




Her critics are going to go hoarse trying to detail the FAA’s long list of ailments. The press is really starting to warm up to the subject and there are more rocks to peek under than on a New England beach.

Just remember, the U.S. Government works best in a crisis. One man’s red tape is another man’s oversight. The government normally operates in slow motion. But in a crisis, it can cut the red tape and move with terrifying speed and power. I can’t say Ms. Blakey is trying to create a crisis...but it’d be hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of it. Even if they tried.

Don Brown
June 12, 2007

Chute !

This is the problem with going to the Google Video web page. Once you’re there, you see all kinds of things.

Watch the video of the world record parachute formation.

Don Brown
June 12, 2007

AOPA Video

I just found this video on Google Video. I guess AOPA has decided to run a few commercials of their own.

Don Brown
June 12, 2007

Monday, June 11, 2007

Using Weather Radar at ARTCCs

This is another technical article aimed at controllers in ARTCCs. It is a continuation of the Weather Radar at ARTCCs article. Be sure to read that article first.

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. The weather display on your radar scope is there to use. The big question is, how ? You’ll hear all sorts of horror stories from your fellow controllers. Most of the stories have been around long enough to be considered legends. The most common ones told are meant to impress you about how much trouble you can get into trying to vector aircraft around thunderstorms. That is true. You can get into a lot of trouble. Unfortunately, this truth has led many to the wrong conclusion and they won’t vector aircraft around weather. I submit to you that not using your weather display to get aircraft around severe weather is more dangerous than using it for the intended purpose. I also know for a fact that the consequences of not acting are just as severe (if not worse) than acting.

From the FAA 7110.65...


a. Issue pertinent information on observed/reported weather and chaff areas. When requested by the pilot, provide radar navigational guidance and/or approve deviations around weather or chaff areas.

(emphasis added)

Part of your job is to “provide radar navigational guidance... around weather.” You’ll never come across a pilot that wants to fly into a thunderstorm (hopefully.) Once you tell them about a thunderstorm you’re depicting on your scope, chances are, they will ask which way looks the best to avoid it. And that is the issue this article will deal with. What is best way to accomplish the job ?

On the most basic level, you’re being asked to use your judgment. Obviously, you want to use good judgment. That requires knowledge and experience. As I tried to point out in the first article in this series, the more information you have -- and the longer you’ve been using it -- the better your judgment will be. The flip side of that coin is -- a lot of good judgment comes from bad experience. You’ll make some mistakes learning this subject just like you made mistakes when you were learning to vector arrivals in trail. Give yourself a lot of room to make mistakes. How much room ? The rule of thumb is to keep at least 20 miles between an airplane and a thunderstorm. It’s an axiom of the aviation world that hail and/or severe turbulence can occur within 20 miles of a severe thunderstorm. I’m sure you’ve all seen airplanes get much closer. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Route vs. Vector

I know everyone out there is envisioning how hard it would be (i.e. impossible) to keep 20 miles between every airplane and every thunderstorm. Which brings me to the first technique I want to mention. Your first course of action should be to route airplanes around thunderstorms instead of vectoring them around thunderstorms.

I fought this battle for years at Atlanta Center without much success. But I remain convinced that it’s a technique that should be adopted widely. Don’t let enroute airplanes get close enough to an area of thunderstorms that they start deviating all over the place. Put them on a route that will keep them out of the area. And I mean a route -- not a deviation at the pilot’s discretion. Let me give you an example.

The main route into ATL that I worked was J48.ODF.MACEY STAR.ATL. Invariably, thunderstorms would start popping up on J48 between ODF and AVL. It was one of the normal “patterns” I mentioned in the previous article. Most of the aircraft wanted to deviate to the right and that is exactly what most controllers gave them. “Deviate right as necessary, cleared direct ODF when able.” That’s all well and good. Except most controllers would wait until the pilot interrupted them to make the request to deviate and then interrupt them again to tell the controller they were turning back direct ODF. Still, it really wasn’t much worse than my method, which was, as soon as the first ones started deviating (confirming what I was seeing on radar) I started clearing the other aircraft on the route direct HMV..SOT..ODF.MACEY STAR. -- a route that took them west of the thunderstorms. Admittedly, it used to work a lot better back when pilots looked at maps and didn’t have to ask, “Can you spell Holston Mountain for us ?” But that’s another problem and another story.

Where the method of waiting for each individual pilot to decide for himself was proven inferior was when the pilot decided to go left. That took him into two other sectors and head on to the departures coming out of ATL. Failure to use the tool at hand (the weather display), to be proactive and route the planes where the controller wanted them (well clear of the thunderstorms yet contained in his sector) would result in all sorts of mayhem.

You have to be knowledgeable and flexible. You need to know your airspace, how the traffic works in the sectors next to you and how the thunderstorms normally act so you can anticipate what you’ll need to do as they move. The overriding concern (as always) is to be safe (keeping the airplanes well clear), orderly (nailing the airplanes down on a defined route) and then expeditious (you can always shorten the route if time and conditions allow.) How this method would work in your airspace is something you’ll have to figure out for yourself, of course. The point is to control the situation as much as you can. Deviations are just a fact of life controllers have to live with. But if it’s obvious that a whole stream of airplanes will have to deviate, put them where you want them. You’re the controller. Control the situation.

Closer to the Edge

As I mentioned in the previous article, I don’t consider the safety implications of the example above as particularly great. You’re in a situation with professional crews flying with good weather radar in an environment where all the equipment works well. As we move lower and/or closer to the airport, the situation starts getting a little hairier.

One of the reasons I recommend keeping the enroute aircraft so far away from thunderstorms is that, invariably, other aircraft will have to get closer to them. We’ve all seen this. If there’s only one hole in a line of thunderstorms 100 miles long, every aircraft in the sky will head for that one hole and the situation soon becomes unmanageable. Jacksonville Center and Miami Center have to live with that condition on a consistent basis. Most of the time, the rest of us don’t. We do have to deal with the ones that can’t be routed around the weather -- those taking off or landing at airports near the thunderstorms.

You can help yourself and the pilots by careful observation. You -- with a mosaic radar image -- have a much clearer picture of the weather system. An example that comes to mind is a departure paralleling a line of thunderstorms. Their radar image to the side of the aircraft is limited. I don’t know how limited, but I’ve seen many of them pass a perfectly good route through the weather without (evidently) seeing it. If your radar is showing the route as clear, you can advise them of it so they can look for themselves. Many times you’ll have other aircraft approaching it from a better angle that makes it obvious to them. If it looks good to you and it looks good to another aircraft approaching from a different angle, it’s probably a good route to recommend.

Again, it will take some time before you trust your judgment in these situations. But look for them. “Following the leader” is one of best tools you have to deal with thunderstorms. It takes a lot of time to “compare notes” with the pilots in the lead but it will help build your confidence level in dealing with thunderstorms. Be forewarned, it isn’t foolproof. Just like controllers, pilots have varying comfort levels in dealing with thunderstorms. And thunderstorms, by their very nature, change. If the hole looks like it is collapsing, warn the pilots. If thunderstorms start building in another line behind the hole, warn the pilots. This is the scenario that always concerned me the most -- a “sucker hole.” And it’s the one that you, as a controller, are in the best position to see. A pilot will see what he thinks is a hole through the weather, not realizing that there is even more weather just on the other side of the hole. Look for it. If it looks like a poor choice to you, speak up.

At Atlanta Center, we tried to keep a large scale radar loop projected onto the overhead screens along with the TMU Aircraft Situation Display (ASD.) I referred to it constantly to get a bigger “picture” of what the thunderstorms were doing. It’s information that you just can’t get looking only at your radar scope. Use it.

All this just leads us to the situations that inspired me to write these articles. If you’ll look at the data, there isn’t a big problem in the Enroute environment with most of our traffic and thunderstorms. You have to look pretty hard to find any fatalities with airliners and corporate aircraft in this environment. You don’t have to look hard at all to find some fatalities with General Aviation aircraft and thunderstorms. According to the data that I’ve been able to obtain, we’ve had 40 accidents with 74 fatalities -- minimum -- in the last decade with GA vs. Thunderstorms. I expect that figure to get worse as the NTSB finalizes some ongoing investigations.

I’ve already mentioned that I believe NEXRAD -- by itself -- is a poor “tactical” aid in avoiding thunderstorms. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll say it again. The more situations you can solve by thinking strategically -- keeping airplanes well away from an area of thunderstorms -- the better off you are. But in the end, you will be faced with “tactical” situations. Situations where the airplanes are in close to thunderstorms and they will have to skirt the edges or fly through a hole. And sooner or later, you’ll have to face the most dangerous situation out there -- a pilot without any weather radar flying around thunderstorms.

This article isn’t a chance to play the blame game. Controllers shouldn’t have to face this situation but they do. This article is about what to do about it. The first step is to recognize the situation.

Danger, Will Robinson ! Danger !

If you don’t know what types of aircraft don’t have weather radar you need to learn. As a starting point, I’ll say to include anything smaller than a King Air in this category. There are some smaller aircraft that do, even some single engine type aircraft. But at the risk of getting hate mail from pilots, it’s only slightly better than nothing. The same goes for NEXRAD in a tactical situation. This is one area in which you want to err on the side of caution. Assume they don’t have any weather radar until you know better.

The best way to “know better” is to ask. “N12345, do you have weather radar ?” I’d love to tell you that will earn you a simple “yes” or “no.” It usually won’t. You’ll hear all sorts of answers. NEXRAD, Stormscopes, etc. If you don’t know what they are, learn. If you haven’t learned by the time you find yourself is this situation -- assume the worst.

I’ve mentioned this before but I’m going to mention it again, too. The very best thunderstorm avoidance tool is a pilot’s eyes. Never assume a pilot can see a thunderstorm. If I find myself working a General Aviation pilot without radar the first thing I find out is if he is in VFR conditions. “Say flight conditions.” If you’d rather, put it in plain English. “N12345 are you in VFR conditions ?” If the answer is “no”, then that is your goal, to get them back in VFR conditions. Yes, I realize that isn’t always possible but most of the time it is. Vector them to a clear area of the scope. An area with no “slashes” from the ARSR and no dark blue from the NEXRAD. The goal is to turn a “tactical” situation back into a “strategic” situation. Get them away from the thunderstorms and back into VFR conditions. Then route them around the area of storms.

If you can’t get them to VFR conditions, then don’t let them get near any “H”s or into any “checkerboard” areas on the NEXRAD. And if all else fails, never, never-ever let anybody get into a area of “light blue” (extreme rain) on the NEXRAD display. I don’t care if you have to turn the guy around -- 180 degrees -- (and it may come down to that one day), keep them out of it. A thunderstorm that intense can rip an airliner apart. A General Aviation airplane would be lucky to survive it.

I don’t want you to “fly the airplane.” I want you to control the sector and keep the pilot and his passengers alive. There may be a fine line in there somewhere but controllers are use to walking fine lines. Think of it this way. Who has the most experience dealing with thunderstorms, you or the pilot ? Even if we were talking about airline pilots (and we’re not in this situation) you sit in front of a radar scope 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for years on end. In a few years you have experience to match any pilot. You’ve got the radar and the experience -- don’t be afraid to use it. Be cautious but don’t be afraid.

Paying Attention ?

There are a million situations I’d love to cover but I’m nearing the end of your attention span so I’ll just mention one. Let’s say you’ve done all that I suggest. You’ve studied, you’ve paid attention to the trends, you’ve made a habit of warning pilots about what you see and you’ve learned how to vector pilots away from thunderstorms. You’ve got a GA aircraft with no radar on a heading around a thunderstorm that is 30 miles out and it’s time to hand him off to the next controller. The next controller hasn’t done all of the above. Furthermore, he thinks guys like me -- using Center ARSRs and NEXRAD to vector airplanes around thunderstorms -- are idiots and just asking for trouble. He tells you to let the pilot navigate on his own and clear him direct to the next fix on his route of flight “when able.” What do you do now Ollie ?

Go back to the beginning. The beginning of this article. ”Your first course of action should be to route airplanes around thunderstorms instead of vectoring them around thunderstorms.” If you didn’t see that coming, let it be a sign. You have more to learn. I’m not kidding. This is as dangerous a situation as you’ll ever get in as a controller. You’ve got to think all of this out. You may get to be the best controller in the business when it comes to vectoring pilots around a thunderstorm. That won’t help the pilot much when he enters the next sector.

I want you to go to this link on the NTSB’s web site and read this report. Compare what happened with what I’ve said in this article and any of my previous ones . See if there are any flaws in what I’ve said. I’m serious. I’m not perfect. If you see any flaws, sing out. I’ve already received some new information (at least new to me) from my previous article on this subject. Comments, questions and corrections are always welcome. Remember -- secrets and safety don’t mix. Talk about it, share the knowledge, ask questions and never stop learning.

Don Brown
June 11, 2007

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Research Reading

I’m in the process of writing another lengthy article on the use of radar in air traffic control to avoid thunderstorms. We had a doozie here yesterday (thunderstorm that is.) It just popped up out of nowhere and we got about a half inch of rain in less than 30 minutes. It was much needed.

Anyway, this thought popped into my head -- some people might actually be interested in learning about various web sites to use for their own research. For example: You can see how badly Georgia needs rain here.

I don’t know if your state has information like this posted on the internet but I bet they do. It might not be obvious from that page that it’s run by the University of Georgia (look at the url and you’ll see “” buried in it.) Universities are always great places for information. And any state in which farming is a big industry will probably have something like it.

If you’re looking for thunderstorms (or any kind of weather information), the National Weather Service is a great place to start. The only problem you’re likely to have at this site is too much information. Let me help you narrow it down. To see the radar images, look on the left side column and click on “Radar” (big duh). It will give you a map of the United States. Just click on your state. For Georgia, you should now see this image.

That will do for a lot of folks but I want more information. First, I want to see the time-lapse loop. If you’ll look at the top of the left column you’ll see you have two choices. “Base” loop and “Composite” loop. I want the composite loop so click on that. If you don’t know the difference between “base” and “composite” and you can’t figure out why it matters to me, then you need to go to this site and do some reading.

”The main difference is composite reflectivity shows the highest dBZ (strongest reflected energy) at all elevation scans, not just the reflected energy at a single elevation scan...

The updraft, which feeds the thunderstorm with moist air, is strong enough to keep a large amount of water aloft. Once the updraft can no longer support the weight of suspended water then the rain intensity at the surface increases as the rain falls from the cloud.”

(emphasis added)

To over simplify it, the “base” image show’s you what is falling out of the sky. The “composite” image shows you what might fall out of the sky. Yesterday, that “large amount of water” included some pea-sized hail. Of course, if you’re in the sky, you might want to know what’s up there with you. That is the reason it’s important for aviators (and controllers) to make sure they’re using the composite image.

Things falling out of the sky is what inspired me to write the article I’m working on. Thunderstorms can make airplanes fall out of the sky. To find out about that subject, I go over to the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) aviation site. Specifically, I go to the “query” page.

As you can see on the site, they have all sorts of qualifiers to help you refine your search. It will take a lot of practice to learn to use the site well but I have to tell you, you’ll learn a lot just sorting through reports that you aren’t looking for.

But for me, in this instance, I knew a lot of the specifics. I knew I was looking for a Cessna 210 that crashed in Georgia and an Aerostar that crashed in Alabama within the last few years. Both of the accidents occurred at Atlanta Center when I was a safety representative for NATCA. I want to work on making sure that no one has to read anything like this again.

”The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:

The pilot's continued flight into known thunderstorms resulting in an in-flight break up. A factor in the accident was air traffic controller's failure to issue extreme weather radar echo intensity information displayed on the controller's radar to the pilot.

Don Brown
June 6, 2007

Monday, June 04, 2007

Pop Quiz

Everybody in my house has wanted to take this quiz. Maybe you do too.

On the Issues Quiz

Click on: “VoteMatch quiz of 2008 presidential candidates”

And don’t blame me for your results.

Don Brown
June 4, 2007

But Honey I Have To...

That’s what my wife says to me when I give her the evil eye after finding a Wal-Mart shopping bag in her car. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart. I have one simple reason. Wal-Mart doesn’t have a union. Not one. But as usual, my wife is right. There isn’t any other place to shop. And the truth behind that statement is bigger -- and more dangerous -- than I ever considered.

The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman is probably the most important book I’ve read in a decade. If the previous book I read (A World Transformed) was the longest 566 pages I’ve ever read, the 283 pages of this book were the fastest. I flew through it. It’s great -- and easy -- reading. You should definitely read it.

I really like Mr. Fishman’s style. There are more little factoids in this book than you could ever hope to remember.

”Wal-Mart’s scale can be hard to absorb. The company isn't just the largest retailer in the nation and in the world. For most of this decade, Wal-Mart has been both the largest company in the world, and the largest company in the history of the world.

”Wal-Mart is as big as Home Depot, Kroger, Target, Costco, Sears, and Kmart combined.”

”Wal-Mart is now the largest corporate employer in Mexico. From doing no business at all in Mexico fifteen years ago, Wal-Mart is now the nation’s largest retailer and the largest grocer in the country -- bigger than its next three competitors combined. Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in Canada. Wal-Mart is the second largest grocer in England.”

”Perhaps the most dramatic was the revelation that in Georgia, 10,261 children enrolled in the state’s insurance program for the poor children has a parent who worked at Wal-Mart. The employer with the next highest number of children was also a retailer, Publix Super Markets...”

I hope that last one brought you up short. Don’t think this book is a “Bash Wal-Mart” book. It isn’t. The genius of this book is that Mr. Fishman brings these little factoids into focus. Sharp focus. The point behind that last one was that Publix has to compete with Wal-Mart. Remember ? Wal-Mart is now in the grocery business. In the compete-or-die world of unregulated capitalism, you either compete (keep your employee costs down) or die (remember Winn-Dixie and Piggly-Wiggly ?) If Wal-Mart does it, chances are, you’ll have to do it too. Or go out of business.

If you’re in the grocery business, clothing business, plant nursery, music, sprinkler, gadget, any kind of business -- either selling or supplying -- you have to deal with Wal-Mart. And that is what this book is about. The Wal-Mart Effect touches virtually everything.

” That kind of dominance at both ends of the spectrum -- dominance across a huge range of merchandise and dominance of geographic consumer markets -- means that market capitalism is being strangled with the kind of slow inexorability of a boa constrictor. It’s not free-market capitalism -- Wal-Mart is running the market. Choice is an illusion.”

I told you my wife was right. She has no choice.

You need to buy and read this book. Try not to buy it at a Wal-Mart.

Don Brown
June 4, 2007

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Public Property

A good editorial by FCC commissioner Michael J. Copps, in The New York Times.

“Using the public airwaves is a privilege — a lucrative one — not a right...”

The Price of Free Airwaves

Don Brown
June 2, 2007

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Morning After

The National Airspace System (NAS) is dangerously close to collapsing. No pill is gonna cure this ill, either. Much like the rest of our national infrastructure, the NAS is suffering from years of neglect and misguided policies. And while the current Administration can’t be blamed for all the ills, they’ve done more than their fair share in creating them.

Unlike much of the infrastructure, the NAS can’t be readily rebuilt. Much of the NAS is human-centered. In other words, it relies on air traffic controllers, technicians and pilots. We can build bridges and highways. Building an engineer takes a little longer. But engineering is an old and well understood profession. Aviation isn’t. Air traffic control, perhaps the least of all.

Those that have read my previous writings know that I believe the loss of “institutional memory” in the 1981 PATCO strike was devastating to the profession. Just as we were on the road to recovery, we’re losing most of our best and senior controllers again. Once again, this isn’t unique to air traffic controllers. I remember when the FAA began “downsizing” Airways Facilities (AF.) AF is the FAA’s technicians. I call them magicians because of the job they do. Their skills aren’t nearly as unique as their knowledge. You can train a large pool of people to be a radar technician but there aren’t that many experienced radar technicians to do the training. The FAA, in typical fashion, put the cart before the horse. They started getting rid of their radar technicians before they got rid of their radar. Our radar sites haven’t been the same since. (Note: The FAA just signed a contract to extend the life of their enroute radars another 20 years. Whoops.) It isn’t the people that are so unique (although they are quite an elite), it’s the knowledge that they possess -- the “institutional memory.” It’s priceless. It’s also, largely, gone.

Many want to think building a computer-based NAS is the way to go. It is to some degree but who is going to build it ? Your garden-variety computer programmer doesn’t understand air traffic control. We’ve seen this movie. Trust me, you won’t like the ending any better the second (or third) time around.

The concept that NASA and the FAA is currently selling (NEXGEN) is a mathematical and computer programming tour de force. The people that designed it are geniuses. They’re also ignorant. Well, at least about ATC. Don’t take my word for it. Ask the experts. Ask the controllers. You know, the ones that have sat behind a radar scope (as opposed to a desk) for 25 years or more. Every time we see the NEXGEN presentation we sit politely and look back and forth at each other with the “are these guys for real or are they just crazy ?” look.

The guys giving the presentation are smarter than the vast majority of controllers I know. They’re way smarter than me. They just don’t know much about the practical side of air traffic control. We can’t call them stupid (they aren’t) and we don’t want to embarrass them in front of a crowd, so we just smile and nod.

The only people that have the knowledge to automate ATC are the folks that understand ATC: Air Traffic Controllers. Most air traffic controllers don’t have the expert knowledge to write the programs needed to automate ATC. And most don’t have the technical capabilities to design a transponder or the comparable technology needed to advance the system.

When you have the time, I want you to settle in and read Squawk 1200. It’s a short story about what happens when the technology wizards and the controllers get to talk to each other. It’s history. It’s important. Learn from it.

If you’ve made it this far into this post, I’m really counting on you to do it. There won’t be many of you that are interested and have the capacity to understand the subjects being discussed. Look for insights. See what the controllers didn’t understand. See what the computer programmers didn’t understand. Look at the political realities. Notice the bedrock -- the facts that can’t be changed no matter how much things change over time. No matter what the technology. (Hint: runway acceptance rates, space, time, etc.)

Which brings me to the main point of this blog entry. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey’s term of office is set to expire in September 2007. It’s time we start thinking about how to clean up this mess. We should be looking for a new Administrator now. One of the political realities I was talking about is that President Bush will get to nominate the next Administrator. Another is that the Senate will have to confirm the appointment.

It’s as good a place as any to turn this thing around. The war between the FAA and its employees must end. The gradual destruction of the NAS must end. Many wrongs have been committed upon the employees of the FAA by their own government. Pensions lost, careers ruined, promises not kept. We cannot afford another haphazard 25-year-recovery, as after the PATCO strike in 1981. The system simply cannot survive it. We must right the wrongs, address the grievances and correct the mistakes. We must build an organization -- a new FAA -- worthy of the greatest aviation system in the world. It will take the cooperation of all parties.

There will be a morning after. We need to prepare for it now. Right now.

Don Brown
June 1, 2007