Simple Math

Does one plus one really equal two...or just too much? Sometimes you don't know till its too late. Therein lies the uncertainty of combining radar sectors. One plus one can end up equalling one big problem. Do the math. Add two sectors together. Subtract the extra set of eyes normally watching over things, multiply your responsibilities, then try dividing your attention between dissimilar situations happening in diffuse locations at very high speeds. Kids, do not try this at home.

To be fair though, it can also be fun. You have a lot of flexibility in a combined configuration and can do all kinds of pilot pleasing things without coordination. Climb higher, turn sooner, go direct...whatever. The airspace is all yours, so be creative! There are things to keep in mind though. You will lose some of the unspoken advantages that two sectors provide...like frequency separation. So don't get too tricky. Moreover, combining must be done with the insight and timing of a Wall Street trader. Know your market trends and when to make the move. Still, when done properly, combining sectors can be like combining milk and honey. Sweet.

I should mention it can also be like combining a house full of gas fumes with a lighted match.

If I had a pin for every time I asked a supervisor to let me combine sectors, I'd probably look like this guy by now. Then there were times when, as the TRACON supervisor, a controller would tell me it was time to combine. I'd take a look at things and usually agree with the assessment. There must be a number I could attach to the times I got "stuck" sorting out the ensuing debacle but I can't really pin it down. I can attest to the pain though.

Take, for example, an early Sunday morning in September when I sat at Big Time's Southwest arrival sector with little else to do but doodle on my strips. Sunday mornings were like that. I told the TRACON supe I'd be happy to take the underlying satellite sector for a while. She wisely called the satellite tower and asked if it looked like anything would be happening soon. "Nahh!" was the reply. "Not much going on here either." She then closed the sector, sent the controller to the break room and gave me the airspace. Great! I was beginning to get bored.

A couple of Big Time arrivals rolled in over my South fix; back from their cross-country jaunt. In a wink I had them both on vectors toward the airport for a visual approach. Some guy in a Bonanza called to request VFR advisories. No problem. I lit him up and issued the altimeter setting. Then the satellite tower phoned to say there was a twin Cessna taxiing out and was hoping to shoot some VFR practice approaches. Make my day.

A few more air carriers headed toward my other arrival fix. Easy money. I took the handoffs, gave em' the official greeting then turned them to follow the other two. The supervisor had vanished but I could hear her voice coming from the break room. She was slightly louder than the television. Apparently, somebody needed to get back up to the tower "Right Now!" I wondered why. Fragments of the discussion made their way back to the TRACON but I could barely hear it over the noise of the flight data printers. They'd started spitting out arrival and departure strips; non-stop. Glancing at my tab list I noted it was multiplying. From these clues, Sherlock Holmes would already have deduced I was about to be roughed up.

I won't drag you through the minutia of how a subtle but steady drop in visibility lead to a sudden spike in my blood pressure. The twin Cessna was on downwind for a second ILS approach when the pilot said it was just getting too hazy. He needed an IFR clearance back to the airport. Another clue? Elementery my dear pinhead. Five seconds later, the satellite tower called for release on two IFR departures. I released the first one. Oh, and that VFR Bonanza getting traffic advisories? He now needed an IFR clearance into another, uncontrolled satellite airport. I looked around for the supervisor. No joy.

The satellite departure was off and climbing toward a VOR on the other side of my sector. There were several more aircraft inbound to Big Time and it was clear to me that none of them would find the airport on their own. I was calling traffic on numerous unknown VFR targets. Nobody ever saw them. I wondered if anybody had seen the TRACON supe?

The East arrival controller called to ask which of my airplanes he should follow on the ILS. There was no final controller either so he and I were tweaking aircraft speeds and turning them onto the localizer. Heart racing, I mumbled something about giving him ten miles between my traffic and he should hit the gaps. The Center started calling about the next two inbounds that had been flashing at me. Okay, okay! Just as I got back into my vectoring, the satellite tower called again about the other IFR departure still waiting to go, plus two more now taxiing out. I was preparing my brusk response when the TRACON supe, who was now standing behind me, took the call. In a move that would stun the breakroom population for hours, she had just conscripted someone to reopen the satellite sector.

Explaining my flustered state came down to simple math. In-flight visibility was subtracted, workload multiplied and my attention precariously divided. It all added up to ten white knuckles. Did I learn anything from this exercise? Not in an enduring way. Would it happen again? Many times. Am I a dumbass? Well, I never was much good at math.

© NLA Factor, 2010

No comments: