Thursday, July 14, 2011

Head, Meet Brick Wall

I needed an image of a flight progress strip today and I didn’t have one. And that’s just silly. Anybody that has ever been to a Communicating for Safety conference knows I used to walk around with a pocketful of them.

In addition, I rediscovered this site and thought; “One day, my stuff will seem that old and somebody will want a picture of it.” So, I went and waded through some of the hundreds of flight progress strips I have stored away.

As I sorted through them, it quickly became apparent I kept mostly the problems. After all, I was the safety rep. I wasn’t saving strips on Air Force One, strange airplanes or a list of firsts (first B757, first B777, first A340. etc.) I was saving things that needed to be fixed. Here’s what I mean.

(click to enlarge)

Notice that one strip is bigger than the other. That was how big flight progress strips were before DSR came along -- around 1999-2001. You’ll notice that the departure point for the first two strips is the same -- PSK. That’s Pulaski, VA, New River Airport. Near Roanoke. For the first strip, the destination is POF -- Poplar Bluff, Missouri.

If you’re wondering what a straight line from PSK to POF looks like -- welcome to the club. That’s the reason you’re not supposed to file a flight plan that looks like that. There are a lot of reasons it’s important for a controller to know what a route of flight looks like -- before a pilot flies it. (It’s kind of a basic in ATC. Airplanes fly fast. By the time you actually see what it looks like it’s usually too late to do anything about it.) In this particular case, it’s really important to know. PSK sits right in the northeast corner of Atlanta Center. 10 miles east of it and you’re in Washington Center. 10 miles to the northwest and you’re in Indianapolis Center. Oh yeah. And it’s non-radar airspace too. Roanoke Approach owns it. They can’t see it (below 6,000), Atlanta Center can’t see it (Atlanta owns 7,000 and above over it) and neither can Washington or Indianapolis Centers.

It’s kind of important to know what PSK direct to 3646/09019 looks like before you give it to a jet airplane that you won’t see until it reaches 6,000. You might think that 3646/09019 is POF but you don’t know that. There’s no way to know it without looking it up. And back when this was done, we didn’t have a computer to look it up.

Which brings us to the last strip. N333TQ filed AVL direct ATL. Or did he? See the “FRC” in the remarks section? That means “Full Route Clearance”. Normally that means something went wrong when the flight plan was entered into the machine so you’re supposed to read the pilot the full route to double check everything when the pilot calls for clearance. Efficient huh? But look at that Lat/Long -- 4051/08628. You think it’s ATL (Atlanta, GA) don’t you? Then explain the fix under the time -- VXV042/048. Asheville, NC direct Atlanta, GA does not take you 48 miles northeast of Knoxville, TN. Near as I can tell, that Lat/Long is NW of Kokomo, IN. But enjoy the frustration of trying to figure out where it really is. Try to do it like we did -- without a computer.

Which brings me to the final point. That’s what everybody thinks we need -- a computer. Or a new computer. Or a better computer. In the remarks section of that last strip you can see “DUATS” is written in. That is how the flight plan was filed -- with DUATS. Did the pilot file it wrong? Or did DUATS get it wrong? Or the DUATS operator? Which DUATS operator? Did the pilot know that AVL is non-radar airspace also (when the Tower is closed)? How about the STAR into ATL (while we’re thinking)? A Baron (BE58) into ATL -- the BIG airport? Well, yeah, you can but should you?

Pilots think that they ought to be able to file direct anywhere and that the system just ought to adapt. That’s because they aren’t controllers. Regardless, the system wasn’t set up that way and for at least 5 years (the span of time represented between these two types of strips) they did it anyway. And if the truth be told, they did so with encouragement. Encouragement from controllers and flight service people. So, for at least 5 years (it was much, much longer) pilots ignored what the book said -- with the encouragement of some of the people running the system -- filed whatever they wanted (or whatever somebody told them to file) and we all just “made it work”. No matter had badly it bogged down the system. No matter how it compromised the safety of the system.

Do you really think automation is going to cure that problem?

I almost forgot. The second strip -- the middle one? Notice that it didn’t need a Lat/Long for the computer to recognize the destination (all the way across the country.) That was an automation “fix”. As a matter of fact, it was called NATFIX. It was a NATional program to enlarge the FIX database by 50,000 fixes. Instead of the computer only recognizing the fixes within a Center and its adjacent Center’s fixes (and a few other major fixes like JFK, ORD, etc.), everyone’s computer would recognize 50,000 additional fixes. So now, it was possible to reroute a Baron from North Carolina direct to some place in the California desert.

Except the airplane was going to GSP (Greenville-Spartanburg, SC) not TSP. I hope it crosses the minds of most of my readers that a Baron can’t make it from North Carolina to California nonstop. So much for “smart” computers. Back before the program was “fixed”, if the controller had tried to enter that routing the program would have rejected the route and issued an error message; FIX NOT STORED. The controller -- knowing that GSP was indeed stored in his computer -- would have figured out he had made an error. As opposed to not figuring out that he had made a error.

I say again -- Do you really think automation is going to cure that problem?

Don Brown
July 14, 2011

1 comment:

LRod said...

I have an A1 strip at my site below. Feel free to use it (credit please, as I actually worked the flight—which isn't a big deal to ZDC controllers, but is to us out in flyover country).

I'll be looking at some of those strips at the site you posted. I've kind of wanted more strips for my site, but only saved the one.

By they way, I know you hate hearing from pre-dinosaur dinosaurs, but you might want to think about manual flight data having to plot long range directs (which we didn't do much of back in the day), military FRD (fix, radial, distance) missions, and the odd air carrier filing lat/longs (mostly overseas, which we didn't do, either in ZJX or ZAU). Otherwise, I wholly agree with your assessments.

Also by the way, I can't read METAR sequences, either (call back to your earlier post). I was instantly able to convert your observation to shorthand and back.

ZJX, ORD, ZAU retired