Monday, May 03, 2010

Saving ERAM -- Chapter 5

Okay, I’ve thought about the book, The Limits of Software. It wasn’t a fun read. There were parts I agreed with, parts I agreed with grudgingly and parts I disagreed with. And all-in-all, I came away with a disjointed view of it. I can (and will) quote parts of it, but I feel like I’m cherry picking. This may be an important book about software but it wasn’t written for controllers and it wasn’t written for an ex-controller looking for some history on the Advanced Automation System.

Let’s just dive right in. Ada was a programming language that was supposed to be used for the Advanced Automation System.

”It’s a good bet that far more money has been made in discussing Ada than in using it.“

”The Advanced Automation System provided many opportunities to see the world on the taxpayer. A friend of mine, Mike, did Europe on Ada.“

From there, we follow Mr. Britcher’s friend through Europe as he jumps from conference to conference, spreading the good news of Ada throughout Europe. The book is quirky like that. It spends as much effort on the Piazzale del Pincio and Marcus Aurelius as it does on Ada. While it’s an interesting display of knowledge, I found it tedious reading. But Mr. Britcher does have a point. Just change one word and it becomes clear:

”It’s a good bet that far more money has been made in discussing NextGen than in using it.“

See what I mean? Controllers are probably looking at this all wrong. We’re looking for software that works. Software that helps us do our job better. Others don’t necessarily share that goal. They’re looking for profits. Or maybe a trip to Europe.

”IBM made a small fortune on the project (the Advanced Automation System), despite its sad ending. As Harry put it then, “The most important piece of hardware on the Advanced Automation System is the overhead projector.“

Again, just change a word or two...really just an update.

“The most important piece of hardware on ERAM is the PowerPoint projector.”

I assume we can all agree that Lockheed will make a “small fortune” on ERAM. Whether it works or not.

Here’s an interesting quote that will need no explanation for my regular readers:

” There were many extreme requirements, any one of which could undermine the successful implementation of a digital system. Here is a sample: ...replacing paper clearances with electronic notes, coupled with the complete removal of printers (the FAA was zealous about having a paperless system -- this system designed upon glaciers of paper). Deprived of old habits, the air traffic controllers would have no choice but to adopt new ones.“

Safety first. I really want you to consider the implications of that. Forget my obsession with flight progress strips. Think about “old habits”. Think about how the system’s safety depends upon the familiar -- the tried and true. It should have been obvious to FAA management. It was to the author.

”The air traffic controllers have often resisted automation. If you were to visit an air traffic control facility and witness, firsthand, the urgent and automatic nature of ground supervision of aircraft, you would understand why. In no other job are judgment and quick reflex so entwined, more so than in neurosurgery, I suspect. Any change in the controller’s environment can be traumatic. Change is inevitable. But the world of air traffic control is as vulnerable to change as it gets. Change, if and when it comes, must be imperceptible.“

An interesting grasp of the facts by an outsider. As opposed to the insiders who would leave controllers with “no choice but to adopt” radical changes in their habits.

(Personal note: I hope some controllers involved in URET during the early days read this and take note.)

I didn’t enjoy the book. I didn’t say I didn’t learn anything. I just didn’t learn what I was hoping to learn. If you have the time you might want to learn something you might not want to learn. Hold this quote in mind:

”Any change in the controller’s environment can be traumatic.“

Then go read the piece the following quote comes from and keep in mind that “DSR” was what was salvaged from the Advanced Automation System.

”The FAA's videotape makes mention of the fact that the controller was distracted while trying to adapt to a new piece of equipment called DSR. DSR is the Display System Replacement. In short, it's the new radar scopes that were installed during this time frame. I remember my first few days using the system. I was distracted too.“

Say Again? #35: Lessons Unlearned

Don Brown
May 3, 2010

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