Monday, May 17, 2010

Saving ERAM -- Chapter 7

The great disappointment (for me) in The Limits of Software is that Mr. Britcher didn’t breathe a word about my favorite FAA story. There is nothing about how the Flight Data Processing program was saved. He touches on the facts. (I’ll use the FAA’s official history to save time.)

”Oct 1956: CAA leased a computer (IBM type 650) for installation in the Indianapolis ARTCC to assess the value of computers for the preparation of flight progress strips and to familiarize its personnel with this type of equipment. “

”Jun 30, 1967: During fiscal year 1967, which ended on this date, FAA installed an IBM 9020 simplex computer system at the Cleveland (Ohio) ARTCC (see Feb 18, 1970). “

If you would like to see an IBM 9020 there are some neat pictures here. The are even neater pictures of it being scrapped here.

Then there’s the IBM 9020 sent to Jacksonville Center.

”Dec 30, 1968: The data-processing capability of the NAS En Route Stage A system at the Jacksonville (Fla.) ARTCC went into operation on a part-time basis. The system's new computer complex processed and automatically updated flight plans filed by pilots with the Jacksonville ARTCC area. (See May 24, 1965, and Feb 18, 1970.) “

”Feb 18, 1970: FAA's first IBM 9020 computer and its associated software program became operational at the Los Angeles ARTCC (see Jun 30, 1967). The new computer system was at the heart of the new semiautomated airway air traffic control system--NAS En Route Stage A. This equipment reduced controller workload by automatically handling incoming flight information messages, performing necessary calculations, and distributing flight data strips, as needed, to controller positions. The agency planned to install similar equipment at all of the centers, and with the new automated nationwide system each center would have the capability to collect and distribute information about each aircraft's course and altitude to all the sector controllers along its flight path. The new computers also had the ability to record and distribute any changes registered in aircraft flight plans en route. (See Dec 30, 1968, and Feb 13, 1973.) “

”Feb 13, 1973: Ceremonies at the Memphis Air Traffic Control Center celebrated the center’s switch over to computer processing of flight-plan data, completing Phase One of the NAS En Route Stage A, FAA's decade-long program to automate and computerize the nation's en route air traffic control system (see Sep 26, 1964). With the new computer installation at Memphis, all twenty ARTCCs in the contiguous 48 states gained an automatic capability to collect and distribute information about each aircraft's course and altitude to all the sector controllers along its flight path. Pilots still had to file flight plans at flight service stations and military operations offices, but now computers would handle the centers' "bookkeeping functions" of assigning and printing out controller flight strips. “

(Frame of reference) ”Mar 17, 1973: Negotiators signed the first labor contract between FAA and the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). “

As I said, The Limits of Software touches on the facts. But it doesn’t mention the legend. The legend of how the program was saved.

IBM was trying to automate the process of writing and distributing Flight Progress Strips -- and failing. The programmers just couldn’t think like controllers. So, according to the legend, the FAA took a bunch of controllers to the Academy in Oklahoma City and let IBM teach them to think like programmers. They learned enough computer programming to be able to talk to the real programmers and the project was saved. These controllers evolved into the Data Systems Specialists for the FAA -- controllers that became the computer specialists.

It’s odd how all that is missing from Mr. Bricther’s book and the FAA’s official history. As a matter of fact, if it wasn’t for the internet, I’d have to wonder if there ever was such a thing as a Data Systems Specialist. Even though I worked with many of them. Even though many of them came back to the control room floor to work airplanes during the strike. Even though I talked to one that claimed he was in the original class in Oklahoma City.

It’s a good thing we have the internet.

”e. Data Systems Specialist. The DSS ensures that the facility computer and related equipment function properly. He also--

• Performs systems analyses.

• Develops and modifies the program.

• Ensures program accuracy.

• Coordinates with adjacent automated facilities.

• Identifies the operational or procedural impact of program patches and changes. “

In case you’re wondering, the FAA eliminated those jobs.

Don Brown
March 17, 2010


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