Monday, May 19, 2008

Are We There Yet ?

Once again, John Carr has one of those posts up that have made The Main Bang famous. I never can figure out where John finds the time -- but he does. It’s a long and detailed post. Everybody finds something different in it. Here’s what I found.

”Last 7 days we have had 35 CAT A errors, and that was the terminal option only.

Operational errors are 100% preventable. It’s one clearance at a time, and make sure to get that read back. Don’t go to the next task until a proper read back has been obtained. These sloppy techniques are getting us into trouble. “

I told you everybody finds something different. Most people “find” stuff like this:

”Only avenue left for NATCA is to sue the FAA in court. Not sure if they will go that far. “ (Author’s note: I’m sure they will. I’m not sure why the manager is not sure. NATCA has been trying to get to court for 624 days. The reason the Bush appointees have been dragging their feet -- refusing to issue rulings -- is to keep NATCA from getting to the courts.)

”Retention and re-hired annuitants: the FAA is thinking about re-hiring our retirees. “

”The Academy standards are being raised. There was some concern that New Hires have not been properly trained in the Academy, resulting in low ATC knowledge “

”Mulitple landing clearances will be coming to an end. “ (Author’s note: An end to “anticipated separation” for those that know what that is.)

Supposedly these are notes from a supervisor’s meeting (convention ?) in Denver. I have no reason to doubt that they are in that I heard exactly the same advice at least 10 years ago. I can see a guy named Russ saying those exact words in a training session and most of the room (full of controllers) laughing at him.

”Don’t go to the next task until a proper read back has been obtained.“

If taken literally -- even if taken in the spirit it was intended -- it would mean the biggest slowdown in air traffic control since PATCO. (Mind you, that wouldn’t bother me at all.) Controllers are lucky if they can get an adequate readback much less a “proper” one. As I told you on Saturday, no one that I know of has a program in place to ensure pilots use “proper” phraseology.

Let me show you how this goes. A restriction controllers issue hundreds of times a day goes like this.

”U S Air one twenty three cross SHINE intersection at and maintain one one thousand at two five zero knots Charlotte altimeter two niner niner two” (The lack of punctuation is intentional)

What controllers will typically get back is:

”Eleven and two fifty at SHINE one twenty three “

Actually, because of “clipping”, we’ll hear this:

”...ven and two fifty at SHINE one twenty three “

Actually, even my use of the word “typically” is misleading. Virtually every readback from every pilot is non-standard so that controllers must decode virtually every readback. As I said, controllers issue that clearance in exactly the same order hundreds of times a day. But we rarely receive exactly the same readback.

”Eleven and two fifty at SHINE one twenty three “

”Ninety two in the box, down to eleven and two fifty at SHINE one twenty three”

”Uhhhh U S Air one twenty three uhhhh eleven and two fifty at SHINE twenty nine ninety two”

”Two fifty eleven ninety two one twenty three”

You be the judge. Which of those is “adequate” ? (None of them are
“proper”.) If a controller took the advice offered literally -- “Don’t go to the next task until a proper read back has been obtained “ -- how long do you think it would take him to complete that one exchange ? All day ?

I know some people actually do want to use proper phraseology so here are a couple of cites to get you headed in the right direction.


4-2-4. Aircraft Call Signs

a. Precautions in the Use of Call Signs.

5. Air carriers and commuter air carriers having FAA authorized call signs should identify themselves by stating the complete call sign (using group form for the numbers) and the word "heavy" if appropriate.

1. United Twenty-Five Heavy.

2. Midwest Commuter Seven Eleven.

4-2-9. Altitudes and Flight Levels

a. Up to but not including 18,000 feet MSL, state the separate digits of the thousands plus the hundreds if appropriate.

1. 12,000 one two thousand

4-2-11. Speeds

The separate digits of the speed followed by the word "KNOTS." Except, controllers may omit the word "KNOTS" when using speed adjustment procedures; e.g., "REDUCE/INCREASE SPEED TO TWO FIVE ZERO."

(Speed) 250 two five zero knots


When the FAA gets serious about teaching phraseology to pilots they can then get serious about enforcing the use of proper phraseology. Until then, they’ll just keep having errors and blaming controllers for not getting a proper readback.

Most people tend to focus on the big ticket items. I look at the details. Going to Federal court sounds a lot more interesting than phraseology. Rehiring retired controllers sounds like big news. Phraseology sounds duller than dirt. In my eyes, these interesting, big-ticket items are distractions that take our attention away from the little details that keep the system safe. Until we can focus on these details, we’ll continue our journey towards disaster and I’ll keep asking, “Are we there yet ?”

Don Brown
May 19, 2008

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