Archie Would Be Proud

For those reading my blog today that aren’t regular readers (thanks to James Fallows), one of the main events at Communicating for Safety is the presentation of the Archie League Medal of Safety Awards.

I like to write about the public policy and the minute details of air traffic control. The Archie League Awards are about getting down to brass tacks. When everything goes wrong, it is up to the air traffic controllers to make it work anyway. Controllers will be the first to tell you that we never do this alone. This aviation business is nothing if not a team effort. But sometimes, it comes down to that one guy in the hot seat. Everyone will do their best to help out but it’s that one guy in the hot seat that will make or break the situation.

There can be more luck involved than you want to think about. There can also be more skill displayed to you will ever recognize. You can pick and choose which incidents to listen to here, but I’ll pick on these two from the Southern Region.

First, a couple of words of caution. These tapes are edited. Incidents such as these usually have long pauses in them. So all of these tapes give a distorted sense of time. In addition, some people find these things upsetting. Everyone will feel the tension. It just bothers some more than others.

The first tape is Kenny Ellis from Memphis Center. One of the first things that Kenny does is turn the aircraft with the emergency, “40 degrees right”. Everyone (including Kenny) will tell you that you don’t normally turn an aircraft having an emergency. Not unless you’re afraid he’ll hit someone. You can also hear Kenny asking 2CS (Two Charlie Sierra) to report the traffic in sight. There is no such thing as visual separation in that kind of airspace. Again, the rules aren’t important here -- the outcome is. If visual separation means the pilot can get on the ground faster, then that is what we’ll do.

Let me point out one other detail. Right after you hear the discussion about Paducah and the aircraft’s heading you’ll hear Kenny key the microphone and say “Two Charlie Sierra ...” and you’ll hear a sight hesitation. In that little minute gap, you’ll hear another voice say “all the way down” and Kenny immediately says “...descend and maintain one zero thousand.” The second voice is another controller assisting Kenny. That controller is coordinating with yet another controller that owns the airspace below Kenny to make sure there is no traffic they might hit below Kenny’s airspace. Decisions between three controllers happen that fast -- in mid-sentence. Like I said, it’s teamwork. It just points out how fast events are moving and the level of trust between all the people involved.

Click here, pick Windows or Apple and listen. There’s even a transcript if you have trouble understanding the phraseology we use in air traffic control.

The next event is from Joe Mackie in Greer, South Carolina (Greenville-Spartanburg). Joe and I worked together for years -- in the odd working relationship that controllers have with each other. We’re just another voice on the telephone without even a name -- I at Atlanta Center and Joe at Greer Approach Control. (Controllers identify themselves on the telephone by the sector/position they are working, not by name.)

Joe is trying to get this pilot with an engine failure onto the ILS (Instrument Landing System ) approach because the weather is bad. When he realizes the airplane is losing altitude too fast, it becomes a desperate vector straight to the airport. Again, the rule book goes out the window and the experience and intuition of the controller makes it all work out.

It’s the same deal, click here, pick Windows or Apple and listen.

I wish everyone could see the level of pride that exists in this profession -- still. If you have the time, listen to them all. Or better yet, come join us next year. These events only represent the tip of the iceberg. There will be more events next year and the year after, and the year after that. And another group of ordinary controllers will prove how extraordinary they can be when they need to be.

Don Brown
Mach 6, 2009


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