Monday, March 29, 2010

Saving ERAM -- Chapter 1

A long, long time ago, we had an Air Traffic Control system that was understood. Not that it wasn’t complicated for its day, but it was easier to understand because it wasn’t nearly as complex. Nor had it been revised so many times.

I’m going to tell this story in the best way I know how. I’m going to do it simply because I don’t know of anyone else willing to do so. That is the only qualification I have. I’m not smarter than you, more qualified than you or more educated. I am simply here and I have the ability to write it out. Again.

First, there is navigation. You can go back to dead reckoning, bonfires or four-course ranges. I’m going to start with VORs, NDBs and ILSes. That’s as far back as I go and it’s as far back as I need to go to make my point. For an aircraft to navigate when I became a controller we used VORs as the primary en route tool and radio beacons (NDBs) as the primary approach tools. A pilot could leave the airport, navigate to the airway structure, then back to the airport, all in IFR conditions. Radar was not required. Air traffic controllers were not required. They still aren’t -- for navigation.

Putting aside all separation-from-other-aircraft issues, if you’re a pilot and you can’t imagine taking off in IFR conditions, flying at the minimum IFR altitude to your destination, executing an IFR approach and landing -- safely -- without an air traffic controller, then I really wonder if you understand the system. As did Captain Wally Roberts -- the guy that came up with this thought exercise so many years ago. Try it.

Air traffic controllers exist to separate aircraft from other aircraft. Keeping pilots out of the dirt and helping them navigate with radar are secondary duties. Yet, how many times are you vectored off course and given a close-to-the-ground altitude as a pilot ? A course and altitude that you have almost no way of knowing whether or not they are legitimate ? This thought is a big seller for GPS with the minimum IFR altitude displayed. But focus on why controllers were assigning vectors and altitudes. Why vector ? Why not just let the pilots fly the charted procedure ?

On the other hand, we now have the RNAV/Advanced NAV crowd who are excited that we can now give pilots a precise, repeatable course to fly from takeoff to landing -- all without controller intervention. Back to the future. Seriously, these guy are just as excited as the guy who rediscovered the wheel. What they do with RNAV and GPS was done decades earlier with VORs and NDBs. Granted, not as precisely, but it was just as functional.

What does saving ERAM have to do with all this ? Everything. Airplanes still fly from Point A to Point B and controllers still have to track them. Just like pilots, controllers are blinded by their technology -- thinking that because all this appears “old school” that it is no longer necessary to understand the core basics of time and distance. We have machines to do this for us now. The machines provide the calculations but they don’t provide the understanding. As a matter of fact, they obscure understanding. It is the modern-day equivalent of magic. We believe in what we don’t understand because it is called “science”.

Until the Center controllers can plot the passage of an aircraft through their Center’s airspace on paper -- doing the calculations by hand -- they will never have the understanding needed to judge -- or help construct -- a program like ERAM. And if you think the programmers writing ERAM understand what controllers understand about air traffic control, you are sadly mistaken. An enormously complicated program written by people that don’t understand the subject. That’s an interesting experiment. Guess what ? This isn’t the first time it has been done. We’ll get to that part soon.

Don Brown
March 29, 2010


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