Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Saving ERAM -- Chapter 2



Imagine if you could go back in time to the days of DC-3s and DC-6s -- as a controller. Imagine you had to hand write strips all day long. For the same airspace. For the same routes. For the same airplanes. Day after day. Month after month. Year after year.

Besides being good at it (and bored) you would start to notice some things. The distance between the GSO (Greensboro, NC) airport and the arrival fix for the Atlanta Airport never changes. You also notice that the time required to fly it doesn’t change -- except for the winds aloft. 188nm takes about an hour at 180 kts. If you work the same airplanes day after day it doesn’t take you long to figure out that a jet will do that distance in 40 minutes. And it really doesn’t matter if it’s a B707 or B777.

I went through 20 years of my 25 year career without realizing that. This information was not necessary for me to know in order to do my job as a controller. But not knowing it doesn’t make you a better controller. And it would make it more difficult for you to understand how to automate that process.

In order to understand the problems we are having with ERAM -- and the problems we had with the Advanced Automation System -- you need to grasp this concept. It is a matter of “institutional memory”. (Those were the magic words, Steve.) I’m not smart enough to make up a phrase like “institutional memory”. But I’ve read people that are that smart. I knew when I first read it a decade ago that it was important. It’s a phrase you should remember.

When you’ve seen a system go from hand-written strips, to raw radar (no alpha numerics) to printed strips, automated data processing and then radar data processing -- the progression makes sense. And you can tell when the system is spitting out garbage because you still remember that it takes a jet 40 minutes to get from GSO to ODF. You still remember when the controller over GSO would call with an apreq (approval request) to launch another aircraft off GSO for ATL. You still remember looking at the clock, adding 40 minutes, writing down the time on the strip and seeing that there were 3 other aircraft due over MACEY at that time. You remember looking for a time gap in the strip board and saying to launch him “at or after 1530 Zulu” -- 15 minutes from now -- when you had a gap in the arrivals.

When you have done that a thousand times and you know what works and what doesn’t work, it’s not real hard to understand how the whole process got automated. When you’ve never seen it done -- when there aren’t even any strips because all the flight data is automated, all the radar data is automated and “flow control” is a “kingdom” within the FAA instead of a control process -- it’s like magic. At first, you don’t even care how it all happens. Just let me talk to some airplanes so I can show you what I’ve got.

I still remember those days. The phrase “young and stupid” comes to mind. But I had the gift. I could move airplanes. Fortunately, I had an old guy training me that gave me a greater gift -- “institutional memory”. He told me about the first time he ever worked a Lear Jet and how shocking it was that the plane leveled at FL230 20 miles out of Greensboro. It was a good thing he wasn’t using the “he’ll never hit that guy” rule. He showed me how broad-band radar worked -- even though it was being decommissioned. He taught me so many things. So many things that for years I had moments when I would have to say, “So that’s why Monty told me not to do that.” (Did I mention that “young and stupid” thing ?)

Most of the controllers hired in 1981-82 got some institutional memory. About half hired in 1983 didn’t. And the number kept falling from there. We had R-side trainees training D-sides. Controllers not even fully checked out training other controllers. Looking back on it now, it seems almost criminal. At the time it looked almost heroic.

It made Ronald Reagan look tough. And it certainly changed the FAA. It was all for one and one for all. Managers managed. They couldn’t help controllers enough. Whatever you needed. Just keep moving those airplanes.

And then the crisis was over and the FAA went back to being the FAA.

You see, the new folks like me didn’t know it but the FAA had an ace up their sleeve. If you’re a new guy now, see if this scenario sounds vaguely familiar. Remember, the PATCO strike was in 1981. Look at the timeline.

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


Jul 26, 1985: FAA announced the award of a contract for replacement of the IBM 9020 computers at the nation's 20 air route traffic control centers (ARTCCs) as part of the agency's Advanced Automation Program. IBM won the replacement contract in a competition with Sperry Corp. under a pair of contracts that had been announced on Sept 22, 1983.“


”Once the full AAS system was operational, FAA planned to begin the integration of en route and terminal radar control services at the ARTCCs, which would be renamed Area Control Facilities (ACFs) and expanded to handle the new functions (see Apr 19, 1993). Among the planned future enhancements to AAS was Automated En Route Air Traffic Control (AERA), which would automatically examine aircraft flight plans to detect and resolve potential conflicts. “

A replaced work force. A big push to automate air traffic control. Consolidation of facilities. Visions of automating even separation. Does any of this sound familiar ?

I told you at the beginning that I’ve told this story before. You might want to read that entire history entry from above. We’ll talk more later.

Don Brown
March 30, 2010

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