A Day At The Office

Hauke, a fellow trainee from a newer course, presented his readers with an overview of a day at the Academy during the early stages of training. It can be found here (in German).

I guess I could use this chance to give you some insight into how my day works, less than four months from the end of Academy training. While we also have late shifts, I will be describing an early shift, since these occur much more often.

The day starts like every self-respecting Linux-geek’s day should start.
Precisely at 06:04 (all times local), the computer wakes up from its deep sleep, preparing to serve its master.
Between 06:08 and 06:10, it gets the latest news and e-mails, and starts my favourite play-list. It then continues to make coffee, get the toast ready, close the window, increase the heating….okay, perhaps it doesn’t, but eventually…;)

After the usual abbreviated routine (indeed, no toast actually. cornflakes need to be sufficient. the difference of 5 minutes of sleep is important!), I head to the simulator, aiming to arrive at 7am – 20 minutes before the first run starts.
This should give us enough time to prepare the flight strips, set up the radar, make our radio-checks with the pilots and get a quick look at the first 20 minutes of the run.

That first run usually lasts one hour, followed by a mix of further one-hour runs and one two-hour run until we have filled five hours of simulation a day.
Two long breaks interrupt that flow, one shortly after 9am lasting about half an hour, one during lunch time lasting almost an hour – sufficient for enjoying (sometimes “enjoying”) the canteen food and relaxing for a few minutes. In my case, to loud music, but that’s obviously different for everyone.

The last run ends approximately at 14:30, followed by quite a lot of spare time.
Err…quite a lot of learning of course, having regular looks into the manual of operations, sector charts, acronym lists, procedures etc. pp.

Reality is something inbetween these extremes. It can be said though that with the end of the theoretical part of training, most of what you look up in the afternoon hours is completely up to you, there is no new learning matter from daily lessons as before – as long as you do not screw up in the simulator due to a lack of knowledge that is.

Most people will still spend some time over the books occasionally, partly to just stay current (you DO forget those frequencies of sectors you rarely send traffic to, and the one time you need it WILL be at the moment where you have no chance at all to look it up), partly because you really never can know enough.
Be it another 100 airline acronyms (like DLH, which stands for “Lufthansa”, or UAL for “United”), the locations and characteristics of various smaller airfields in your region, routings and important waypoints beyond your sector (it comes in handy to know “SPY” -or Spijkerborg – when a direct there can help you (or you just want to provide some service))…the list is endless.
So, if you fancy doing some learning, there is plenty of opportunity to do so – and it should be used at least every few days.

If you don’t fancy learning, there is usually enough room for some spare-time activity as well, like sports (mostly cycling and jogging for me), computers (one day it will make coffee for me!), games with course-mates (Werewolf, anyone?), watching movies (with about 300 people at the Academy, someone just has to have a good movie at hand) or whatever else floats your boat. It may get boring at times, but that’s usually one’s own fault. :)

So that’s a normal day for me. If you wonder about those aforementioned late shifts – start sim at 15:30, end at 10-11pm, arrange the rest of the day around that.

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Oh, And It’s Raining Again

(First post after some weeks of abstinence. Enjoy!)

“….requesting heading 330 to avoid weather”
“Who is requesting heading 330?!”

Welcome to my airspace. Available today: plenty of thunderstorms. If you order quickly, you get a free token for lightning, hail, turbulences and heavy rain. As a side-order, we recommend holdings over your favourite navigation aid, since your destination airport has just run out of usable runways (i.e. ones which are not flooded).

Special offer today: headings. Get them all, get them fast, following your normal routing is out of fashion and won’t land you any success with the girls.

And so it goes. Smack down in the middle of our airspace, the weather god (or the run-writer) has planted a CB. CB stands for cumulonimbus and is Latin for “Avoid me!” As a consequence, pretty much every airplane transiting through this area will request an altitude change or, more often, a “heading to avoid”, i.e. some way to get around the thundercloud.

For controllers, that basically means two things:

  • Try to maintain a picture when everyone is pretty much zig-zagging around the sky.
  • Work with much, much less airspace than you normally have, since half of it is full of hail (a redeeming feature? Hardly. The picture may be smaller, but it is much more complex).

One of the more interesting aspects of this is that we, as controllers, can only roughly see where the bad weather is (actually, in the Sim, due to technical limitations, it’s pretty accurate, but that’s got nothing to do with reality). The “clouds” we see on the screen are returns from our own ATC radar, which is limited to one fixed position on the ground. Put a few rain particles between it and the REALLY bad CBs, and you won’t see the latter. And of course forget about any direct information on where the clouds begin and end vertically.

The pilots on the other hand are at a clear advantage here. Most of them (pretty much all airliners at least) have weather radar installed in their airplanes, enabling them to see what’s in front of them, with pretty good accuracy both laterally and vertically.
Which basically means that the big picture about a pretty important user of our airspace (aforementioned CBs) is not with controllers, but with pilots – changing our relationship somewhat.

Since bad weather, especially thunderstorms, poses a serious threat to any airplane attempting to fly through, saying “no” to an avoidance request by a pilot isn’t really an option. The “control” in ATC thus reverts to an accepting of almost every request, while trying to still keep them all apart. When everyone has to be able to turn at any time he/she deems necessary, that can become quite a challenge.

The key to success here is vertical separation. If everyone has at least 1000ft between them, it doesn’t matter where and when they turn, there will always be separation (when someone requests vertical avoidance, that plan has to be altered somewhat, but as mentioned before this doesn’t happen as often as requests for headings).
Two airplanes at the same altitude just isn’t an option here (unless perhaps they are at opposite corners of your sector).

One other problem arises when everyone is flying on custom, hand-made headings – the next sector usually expects an airplane to arrive via its normal routing, not “25 miles south on heading 330 and once he is clear of the CB, he might actually turn back to his route”. Thus, that next sector needs to be made aware of the situation, so he can adapt to it.

And here comes the Planner. Busily handling multiple phone lines, preferably at once, he or she tries to make sure everyone stays up-to-date on the chaos we are throwing in their laps to work with. Actually, he trades that chaos with fresh chaos for our own sector, since thunderstorms have a habit of stretching around multiple sectors. It’s basically “trash comes in, trash comes out”.

How anyone stays alive on such a day is starting to become (hazily) clear after a week of this in the simulator, after being pretty much of a mystery at first.
A learning experience? You bet.