ZMP Sector 30, 1715Z

It's just past noon when I get Rex and Suzanne out of Sector 30. Suzanne has been training there most of the day and they need to take some time to debrief before going home. I was hoping the rides had improved from earlier in the day but they haven't and choppy rides add considerably to the workload of a sector. The only decent air I have is at Flight Level two-eight-zero (FL280, or 28,000 feet) and below. Pilots will go there if they have to but they'd prefer to fly higher where the air is thinner and requires less fuel.

Aircraft in level flight are much easier to manage than those climbing and descending to try and find smooth air. There's simply much less to consider in terms of traffic. The vocabulary necessary to do the job of air traffic control is probably less than forty words and half of those are used to describe rides to pilots checking in on your frequency. To know of bad rides in your sector and not convey that to the pilot so they can get their passengers seated is a cardinal sin of ATC.

There's a short lull in traffic before the next wave comes through and I use it to make some adjustments to the traffic analysis screen and its many windows of information, also known as URET, or User Request Evaluation Tool. It replaces the strips of paper data we used to shuffle at the sector (and still do but to a much lesser degree) to analyze traffic ahead of time. The Aircraft List (ACL) begins to populate with call-signs and information on flights that will be transitioning over the next 20 minutes through the airspace I control. Lenny sits down next to me and plugs in to take care of the numerous coordination calls that will be made between our sector and those adjacent to us.

Kristy, my trainee, is working the airspace above us controlling traffic from FL370 and up. Barry is training her for the day which gives me some time in the sector to work on my own proficiency. It's one thing to sit behind somebody and instruct them in the ways of the job but it's no substitute for actually doing the work. I doubt there's a more rewarding job in the building than watching somebody you're training progress in ability and confidence in that ability while working traffic. But having said that, as an instructor, I can't imagine a more stressful job out of the 500+ people who work at our facility in Farmington, Minnesota. To do it right you have to allow your trainee to work themselves into situations you'd rather they didn't. Stepping in too soon to resolve a conflict for them does nothing to show you how they'll fix a problem once they're on their own and that's key. Allowing them to go to a point beyond where you're comfortable but where you can still recover takes nerve.

I tell my trainees that I expect they'll make mistakes; that's why they're not certified yet. It frees them up to try different solutions to problems rather than trying to be so perfect. Even once they're certified and on their own, they'll still make errors in judgment. Some controllers are fond of saying that ours is a job where you can't afford to make mistakes but I disagree. We make them all the time. It's how well you identify them and fix them that matters most. It's all about the recovery.

WYLIE32 is the call-sign of a pair of military aircraft on a refueling track running through the heart of the sector in a block of altitude from FL240-260. They're at an altitude that on a typical day keeps them clear of most traffic transitioning the sector but today is not a typical day. A few minutes before the end of the refueling track the pilot calls to inform me that they'll be executing a right course reversal. I've been contemplating his turn and counter with instructions to execute a left reversal so I can keep him clear of two potential conflicts: a departure climbing out of Sioux City, Iowa headed for Dulles and AAL547 (American-547) at FL260 approaching our sector from the east.

Being able to multi-task is vital to any air traffic controller. It's not that you can think of any more than one thing at a time but rather, it's an ability to move from one situation to another, quickly, while taking in queues from others around you at the same time while resolving situations and anticipating others which your intuition tells you are developing. You're a juggler of aircraft. Anticipation is so much a part of the game; anticipation born out of experience.

DAL78 (Delta-78) checks in on frequency level at FL330. Before he even asks (and I know he will) I inform him that FL350 has shown some improvement of late but higher than that is still rough. He requests to climb and Lenny is quickly on the line coordinating with the controller whose airspace the aircraft is still in for permission/control to climb prior to entering our airspace. Lenny responds with "Your control" and after a quick traffic search I key the frequency, "Delta-78, climb and maintain flight level three-five-zero". It's a clearance I'll repeat several times over the next half hour as pilots seek to find the highest altitude of smooth air for fuel efficiency.

The sector beneath us calls to coordinate a large chunk of our airspace we're turning over to the military to use for the next 90 minutes from FL280 and below for combat maneuvering practice. Had the rides been any worse we would have shut them off at something a few thousand feet lower but we give up the airspace. We support our troops. I quickly outline the restricted area in green on the scope with some simple digital drawing tools to remind me to keep other traffic clear of it.

Mark (the supervisor) comes by and tells us that we're expected to go 'red' soon. Each sector has a predetermined number of aircraft it can reasonably handle before it reaches a point where it's deemed to be 'red'. At the same time, he tells us that we'll be getting an additional ORD (Chicago, O'Hare) arrival that we'll need to put 30 miles in trail of another ORD arrival on our frequency. I look at the sector the flight is coming from and see they're doing very little and wonder why they don't do the spacing on their end. It doesn't matter; I enjoy the challenge. "No problem," I tell Mark. As he walks away I wonder how it is we haven't been red all this time? The all-important predetermined number knows nothing of the complexity added to the sector due to weather.

WYLIE32 is still refueling and in its turn back to the west as CPZ1916 (Compass-1916) inbound for Minneapolis at FL270 passes a couple miles to the east of the refuelers. I'm not too busy to give a traffic call to the Compass flight in case they need something to look at to interrupt their boredom before they begin their preparations for arrival. "We're IMC but thanks, Center" they reply. IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) is another way of saying he's in the clouds and can't see the flight.

I'm reminded how much I enjoy smooth air days as the ride reports and pilot requests begin to take their toll on me.

I've been plugged in for maybe 75 minutes with very little dead-air time on the frequency for most of it when Jim asks me if I'd like a break. His offer is tempting but I wave him off. "Are you sure?" he asks. "Yeah, I'm good." Lenny tells me that if he can stick it out another twenty minutes in the sector he'll be good to finish out the day on break. I'd be lying if I said the same thought hadn't crossed my mind.

Multi-tasking also involves planning your breaks. It's fundamental to the job.


Anonymous said…
I wonder how many people realize just how significant your job is when they hop a plane. I would imagine that most of the time it is the pilot that takes all the kudos. You are certainly a professional in your field.
Tim said…
Awww, and I thought this was going to be and exciting post about how you had a deal or something...


But you touched upon one of my long-running issues with TMU and the FAA and the way they selectively ignore or interpret FAA Orders.

The FAA Facility Operation and Administration Order 7210.3V spells out how they're supposed to use the Monitor Alert function ("red sectors") in regards to during periods of "reduced (sector) efficiency". They choose to ignore that part of the order.

7210.3V, Paragraph 17-8-2.d says:

"The MAP value will be dynamically adjusted to reflect the ability of the functional position to provide air traffic service. During periods of reduced efficiency the MAP will be dynamically adjusted downward and conversely, when efficiency is improved, the MAP will be adjusted upward, but not to exceed the baseline or documented, adjusted value."They also ignore the bit in 7210.3V, Paragraph 17-8-1 that says:

"The efficiency of a functional position or airport in providing air traffic services is a shared responsibility of the TM team. That team consists of the ATCS(s), OS(s), and the TMU."Most of the time the "team" is the OS and TMU who make those decisions and the ATCS (controller) simply gets left holding the bag. The ATCS(s) are rarely if ever part of that process.
Kevin Gilmore said…
I hear the next step the FAA is leaning toward is to rate us all on our strength as controllers in the sector. Each controller upon taking over the sector will be required to enter a daily skill level based on whether they've got their 'A', 'B' or 'C' game with them that day. Once that's done, our operating initials will be entered into the g-whiz machine which will then generate a variable MAP value for the sector.

Yes, I'm joking.
Hey Bro, I'm reading this post for the first time and thinking what a great narrative. Something that needs to be part of a larger contribution from others like you in your role, then have it required reading by those in training.
Kevin Gilmore said…
Thanks, Bry. I suppose all I can do it put it out there and hope that maybe people stumble onto it. Every now and then I think about doing another but I haven't taken the time. Maybe I'll give some more thought to it though. Glad you liked it.

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