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.

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.

A mixed week, a fun day

Well, this was certainly a long week, albeit only four days of simulation.

Right from the start, the runs were rather…mediocre, at best, with only a few better ones in between.
Only on Wednesday, I start to break the spell, with most runs not done great, but at least well enough. A minor exception could be seen in the fact that I have a confliction, i.e. two airplanes coming too close, in the last run.

A pack of airplanes separated by a hair horizontally and 1000ft vertically? Descend the upper one and 1 mile horizontally / 200ft vertically should be the expected result. Tested and proven correctly (how to save such a run: quick information to both airplanes and evasion instructions – i.e. tell the lower one to descend, the upper one to stop descend, preferably immediately).

Finally, today, the breakthrough, using two older runs to warm up with some lower traffic levels, then three current runs with more airplanes. Suddenly, everything works again, with enough capacity to leave the standards and try some new things every now and then.

The highlights:
A Gulfstream 5 offers an “able” when asked if she can climb at 5000 feet per minute until Flight Level 220 (indicating how great an airplane it is when compared to the more common ~2000 feet per minute to that level normal jets can do)

The pilot of a small airplane has an equipment (transponder) failure and has to divert, initially offering its intention to land at Langen (a very busy international airport where it is difficult to fit small airplanes into the flow).
Informed that “Egelsbach is cheaper”, the pilot gladly re-thinks her intentions and decides to land at this small (but well equipped) airfield, saving the pilot 200 Euros in landing fees and the controller (yours truly) quite a bit of effort. :)

And now for something completely different…

A few months ago, I switched to Ubuntu Linux, leaving Windows XP to collect dust (with the exception of the occasional gaming session).

Even if there were no other advantages for Linux over Windows (there are!), being able to freely adjust the looks of it are certainly enough to make me gleeful. :)

(Click for original size)

And now I wonder if this style will survive longer than three days…

Annotated High Flight

This is what happens when a civil aviation regulator gets its hands on “High Flight”, the original version and background information of which can be found on my site. Source: the internet. :)

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth1,
And danced2 the skies on laughter silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed3 and joined the tumbling mirth4
Of sun-split clouds5 and done a hundred things6
You have not dreamed of — Wheeled and soared and swung7
High in the sunlit silence8. Hov’ring there9
I’ve chased the shouting wind10 along and flung11
My eager craft through footless halls of air. Up, up the long delirious12, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights13 with easy grace,
Where never lark, or even eagle14 flew;
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space15,
Put out my hand16, and touched the face of God.

  1. Pilots must insure that all surly bonds have been slipped entirely before aircraft taxi or flight is attempted.
  2. During periods of severe sky dancing, crew and passengers must keep seatbelts fastened. Crew should wear shoulderbelts as provided.
  3. Sunward climbs must not exceed the maximum permitted aircraft ceiling.
  4. Passenger aircraft are prohibited from joining the tumbling mirth.
  5. Pilots flying through sun-split clouds under VFR conditions must comply with all applicable minimum clearances.
  6. Do not perform these hundred things in front of Federal Aviation Administration inspectors.
  7. Wheeling, soaring, and swinging will not be attempted except in aircraft rated for such activities and within utility class weight limits.
  8. Be advised that sunlit silence will occur only when a major engine malfunction has occurred.
  9. “Hov’ring there” will constitute a highly reliable signal that a flight emergency is imminent.
  10. Forecasts of shouting winds are available from the local FSS. Encounters with unexpected shouting winds should be reported by pilots.
  11. Pilots flinging eager craft through footless halls of air are reminded that they alone are responsible for maintaining separation from other eager craft.
  12. Should any crewmember or passenger experience delirium while in the burning blue, submit an irregularity report upon flight termination.
  13. Windswept heights will be topped by a minimum of 1,000 feet to maintain VFR minimum separations.
  14. Aircraft engine ingestion of, or impact with, larks or eagles should be reported to the FAA and the appropriate aircraft maintenance facility.
  15. Aircraft operating in the high untresspassed sanctity of space must remain in IFR flight regardless of meteorological conditions and visibility.
  16. Pilots and passengers are reminded that opening doors or windows in order to touch the face of God may result in loss of cabin pressure.

Feedback time, and a long run

The day starts reasonably well, with some light coordination duty to start with. Light enough, in fact, that after three quarters of the run I’m asked to head to the course leader’s office and receive my so-called “Training Report”.

“Training Reports” are basically scheduled opportunities for the trainee to receive some summary feedback from the instructors, relayed by the course leader. This one is done in preparation of the “Phase Report” in two weeks, which is a phase of closer-than-usual observation of our performance, followed by a decision if it is worth continuing training.

The feedback basically says that I probably don’t have to worry about the phase report. Main issues: do not vector too close, do not become cocky. A good reminder of a lesson I learned some weeks ago during a completely ruined run on Donau Low – do not overestimate yourself, do not rest on what you got. Harsh (simulated) reality is sure to catch up if you do. :)

The afternoon gets interesting, as we do another Langen Arrival run with one of the two runways closed half of the time. This run takes two hours, is designed with quite a bit of traffic which is increased in complexity by the “ten miles between successive arrivals” rule (and an emergency to spice things up). Exhausting, but plenty of fun (where do we know that from…)

At some point, we only accept inbounds from the adjacent sector at a very low rate of at least thirty nautical miles between each other (normal is ten). When we are already back at twenty, a short look into the crowded holding stack is incentive enough to further lower that requirement to fifteen miles so they can get rid of some airplanes, too.

Shortly afterwards, the coach (doubling as planner) tests just how much I overestimate myself and suggests we could accept ten miles between the inbounds now. She is quickly halted by my “hell no!” Test passed…

And just in case we get a test about the ability to let airplanes fly full circles – I’m becoming an expert in that regard by now. Three in this run, and counting. At least we offer some nice view for the passengers (well…those one side of the airplane). :)

Normal Ops?!

A short, exciting tale from last week:

The usual routine, a Langen Arrival run with one of the two runways closed. As a result, the airport can accept fewer airplanes than usual, demanding for an increase in spacing between two successive arrivals of ten nautical miles (normal is 3 to 6 miles).

When my downwind starts to reach Luxembourg, I decide to send the next three airplanes into a left-hand full circle, trying to delay them close to the airport. And then comes Murphy…

Just as soon as all three airplanes are far enough in their turn so they can’t reasonably be stopped, the tower calls in and informs us that both runways are open again, we are resuming normal ops and please send us all those airplanes closely spaced together. Right…

Life continues of course, so we do as the tower bids. After taking the time for some loud swearing, of course (plenty of it available, since an airplane usually takes about two wasted minutes for a full circle).