Airway Facilities & Abilities

Sometimes I dream in VFR ~ only to awake amid rapidly deteriorating conditions. Why am I always surprised? Pilots and controllers know full well that clouds can conceal some pretty nasty twists, so we should also recognize that even the most ideal flight conditions might take an unexpected turn against us. In perfect VFR weather though, we're not always as mentally prepared for problems. Favorable conditions, complacency and high expectations are powerful drugs. They could make me so high that unforeseen troubles and the subsequent emotional plunges would result in harder landings and longer recovery times. When those nasty twists occurred at work, I was always thankful for those who could step up and somehow clear the air. If the twist involved one of the many tools of our trade, I was thankful for the technicians of our Airway Facilities staff.

Late 1970s, early November. It was one of those days when the idea of going to work really energized me. From the first morning cup of coffee to that last post-shift bottle of beer, life was going to be good. When I met up with my carpool buddies, I could see they were equally anxious to strap on their headsets. As we sputtered onto the main highway in Carl's slightly out-of-tune Beetle, everyone bubbled enthusiastically about the great weather. Winds were light, so the airport would most likely be running on our optimum runway and airspace configuration. Visual approaches would rule the day and there'd probably be very few departure restrictions. In other words; it looked like we were in for a high volume, happy to be here, whipped cream kind of shift. We knew it was going to be smooth, sweet and a hell of a lot of fun!

When Carl's VW finally skidded to a stop in the facility parking lot, everyone clambered out and peered over at the airfield. As expected, things were looking good. Aroused by the possibilities, we started our brisk walk into work. Carl was so excited that he didn't even notice the Beetle's right front tire was going flat. Neither did the rest of us. We wouldn't discover that till shift's end, when it would be referred to as the last straw.

Arriving at the facility's secure entrance, someone swiped their badge, punched a code into the keypad and the four of us hurried, in tandem, toward the sign-in log. Unlike most evening shifts, I was actually hoping for a tower assignment. Conditions were perfect for watching airplanes and Big Time's lofty tower cab was the place to do it. I really needed some tower proficiency time anyway, and a "CAFB" day like this was the best way to get it. I just needed to convince Pete to send me up. That wasn't going to happen.

Entering the TRACON we immediately noticed something different about it. But what? There was still the usual cacophony of control instructions, the hollering back and forth between sectors and, of course, the cigarette smoke. Actually, there was a bit more smoke than normal. It was so thick, in fact, that I couldn't tell whether it was coming from the ashtrays, the equipment or both. Still, there was something missing from the continual din of our musty, timeworn radar room. I noticed an abnormally large group of people standing at our Flight Data position. That's when I realized what was different. The incessant chatter, usually emanating from our Flight Strip printers (FSPs), was missing. 

There were three printers mounted at the Data position. One printed the arrival and overflight strips, one printed departure strips and the third machine was a spare.  Under normal circumstances, the arrival and departure printers ran nearly non-stop. Sounding like a chorus of teleprinters, they banged out new and amended information controllers would need on traffic entering or exiting their airspace. 
Sample departure strip from a little aerodrome in Texas.
Strips would be slid into plastic holders and disbursed to the appropriate radar sector. This particular afternoon though, in the smoky chaos of the pre-evening rush radar room, they sat like cinder blocks ~ stone still and silent. There was, however, another ominous noise coming from the Data position. It would be the sound of those deteriorating conditions I mentioned earlier.

What met our ears sounded less like an ATC facility and more like a call center in the basement of some desperate and acutely confused telemarketing company. I heard one controller muttering; "Yeah . . . yeah . . . uh huh. What was the airway after Falmouth?" As he spoke, he was writing on a flight strip. Two other controllers stood at the data console; each one scribbling frantically on blank strips. A couple of Airway Facilities technicians wearing worried faces brushed quickly past me. They were pushing a cart piled high with parts and tools. That was the moment when I realized this was not going to be a "whipped cream kind of shift." It was going to be some kind of nightmare. Imagine your Sunday paper not showing up on the doorstep. Maybe a wheel fell off the kid's bike? Who knows. So the phone rings. You pick up the receiver and a guy says; "This is The Gazette calling with your Sunday edition. Are you ready to copy?" You scramble for a pen and several large pads of paper. That kind of nightmare.

For some reason, the whole scene made me think of my old Air Force roommate William.

The old AFCS patch
I lived in the barracks during much of my Air Force time. It was a building that controllers, radio and radar technicians, plus many of the other enlisted troops who had jobs in the Communications Squadron called their home. The place was more like a college dormitory where everyone wore uniforms for half the day. The rest of the time was usually spent in civilian clothes, planning and executing forays to any of the many bars and clubs that thrived outside the base perimeter.

 William, my first roommate, was a freckled redhead from central Pennsylvania. A radar technician ~ he was one of the guys who, armed with a selection of scewdrivers and diagnostic tools, kept our aging GCA unit operational. The two of us shared a bathroom, ate at the same table in the chow hall and trekked across the base together when it was time for work. I'd often find voluminous technical manuals strewn around our room; each opened to a schematic of one of the many systems he maintained. William studied a lot and I admired him for it. After all; two or three chapters in just one of his books were thicker than the entire Air Traffic Control manual I kept, mostly unread, under my bunk. He and the other guys in his shop were all that stood between us controllers and the huge pain in the ass of a radar failure.

Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) Unit
There were several technicians in my squadron. Their areas of expertise covered radios, radar, telephone equipment and nearly everything else a controller needed to get through the day. Some of the techs even maintained our VOR and TACAN sites. We had no idea what they did between equipment outages and didn't really care. As long as someone showed up when something broke, we were happy . . . very happy.

Although the pilots in our Base's fighter wing flew the most advanced aircraft in the Air Force's inventory, our ATC equipment was fragile, antiquated and capricious. Somehow though, our techs kept everything running fairly well. They saved our asses nearly every day and, for that, we regarded them as peers and partners in the mission.  Still, during those after-hours forays into inebriation, we'd rib them mercilessly and they'd do the same to us. The truth was that every Air Force controller I knew had the highest regard for those guys. We'd lie for them, trade countless rounds of drinks in the local gin mills and, when they transferred out, we'd lament their departure. Years later, I would discover a kind of caste system in the FAA that placed Airway Facilities (AF) personnel a few notches beneath the "Air Traffic elite." It seemed AF existed solely to support us and, in the opinions of many, that could only be done from below.

Standing in that late afternoon TRACON, with three inoperative strip printers, I could hear frenetic muttering coming from the Flight Data position as controllers hand-copied flight plans, subsequent amendments, GENOTs and other data from the Center. Information on departing flights would then be relayed to the tower, by phone, where another controller had to make a copy for Clearance Delivery, Ground and Local Control.

I could also hear an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and mild contempt coming from controllers seated at the approach sectors, like "What the hell is the point in having a spare printer if those idiots can't keep it working?!!" They were writing their own arrival strips by using information from the alpha-numeric data on their radar displays. This was a time-consuming and annoying distraction that only intensified as the evening rush of inbounds began creeping toward the outer fixes and the airplanes needed more and more attention. Although we had Handoff positions, where someone could sit next to the radar controller and write strips, they were rarely staffed. Today was no exception. There was a lot of angst and anger in the air, and it was all being directed at the Airway Facilities technicians who just couldn't seem to get those printers running.

Those damned printers, among the most plain and plebeian pieces of equipment in our inventory, were major labor-saving devices. As with most things, we took them for granted until something went wrong. Then we wondered why such a basic device couldn't either be fixed quickly or replaced. In this case though, replacing any of them wouldn't have helped. None of the three devices were working and we were far beyond the quick fix time frame.

More problems emerged. The extra manpower needed to make calls and write strips was wreaking havoc with the break schedule. Guys were working well beyond the desired two hour limit on their sectors and people were getting testy. Arrival restrictions had been imposed on all surrounding facilities and departure delays were beginning to mount. Phones kept ringing at the Watch desk but no one was there to answer. The TRACON Supervisor kept glaring at those technicians ~ expressing his frustration in any way he could without interrupting their work. Outside, the sun was setting on what should have been a perfect day for working airplanes.

By now, a Data Systems Specialist had joined the group huddled around the inert printers. He was talking to his counterpart at the Center. Apparently the issue was not a mechanical malfunction after all. It took an hour or two of disassembling and diagnosing but someone finally determined that Big Time's printers were actually in fine working order. They were simply not receiving data from the Center's host computer (from which all our flight data originated). It would later be discovered that someone using a backhoe, many miles from the airport, had inadvertently ripped up the cable that connected Big Time's FSPs with the Center. Repairs would take more hours than we had left on our shift.

The two AF techs vanished but the mayhem continued. We kept making calls, writing strips and working airplanes. A few controllers were asked to stick around for a couple hours of overtime. I felt bad for those AF guys. They had been the focus of much derision for several hours but took no exception to it. Understanding they could do nothing more to help, they packed up quietly and went back to their office. Nobody apologized to them and no one thanked them for their trouble ~ myself included. By the time they left, I was too busy arguing with a Center controller about the spacing between two arrivals.

The shift finally ended. Walking out of the facility, I felt sluggish, like I was wading through quicksand. A mild breeze wafted the smell of jet exhaust across our path as we four carpoolers trudged toward the parking lot. Feeling pretty deflated by events of the last eight hours, nobody had much to say. All we wanted to do by now was have a few beers and head home to bed. As we neared the lot, it looked like the right front wheel of Carl's Volkswagen had rolled into a pothole. When we realized the tire was flat, we were relieved to learn that Carl had a spare. He popped the trunk lid, only to discover the spare was also deflated. Feeling fairly flattened ourselves, we were almost too tired to figure this thing out.

Although sympathetic to our plight, none of the other guys in the lot were headed in our direction. They were   also as anxious as we were to get home. In less than five minutes, we were all alone in that lot, glaring at the useless tire in the same way we had glared at those AF techs earlier in the day. Then we started glaring at Carl. There was a difference though. Unlike our AF guys, this was a situation that Carl could have prevented from happening.  He muttered something about "the last straw," then started walking back to the tower. There, he was able to borrow one of the mid-shift guy's car keys. We grabbed the VW's spare tire, threw it into the trunk of a blue Ford sedan and sped away from the airport.

It was oppressively quiet in that Ford until we got to Carl's place. Climbing out of the car, I reminded the others it was my turn to drive tomorrow ~ making a mental note to check my spare tire.

Here's the epilogue. As a Supervisor dealing with an equipment problem, I'd sometimes have to go looking for the AF guys if they didn't answer their desk phone. The search eventually took me to one of the facility's equipment rooms. Along with radio and telephone switching equipment, they kept tools, spare parts and a lot of broken things in there. It looked like a shop that repaired pocket watches, refrigerators and old television sets by interchanging the parts. 

A wiring diagram for the Great Pyramid?
Of course there were also the ubiquitous stacks of technical manuals; one or two of which were usually opened to a page of schematics. To my brain, they might as well have been hieroglyphics. Either was equally undecipherable. I could neither walk like an Egyptian or talk like a technician but was glad to know someone actually understood the stuff. While us controllers got through the day largely on our quick wits and aggressive decision making ~ these guys had to study constantly, work unerringly and go off for weeks of additional training whenever new equipment came on line. And they did it to support us. You just had to love 'em.

I should add a few lines about how we in Air Traffic could place the AF staff squarely in the middle of our own internal issues. Anyone in air traffic supervision knew that all equipment required periodic checks and preventive maintenance (PM). If such checks were not performed within prescribed time intervals, the particular piece of equipment would lose its certification. That meant we couldn't use it again until it was re-certified. For example, a tech might arrive at the Watch Desk one morning and ask us to release an ILS system for three hours of PMs. It would be up to shift management to approve it or not.  Sometimes existing conditions (weather, traffic volume, etc.) made approval unwise or impossible. Sometimes though, a technician's request was denied solely because that Supervisor and/or that team felt they needed every security blanket they could keep in their clutches ~ thus foisting approval and associated impacts onto another team. I believe the popular euphemism might be "Kicking the can down the road?"

Eventually though, AF would have to take that system down or be in violation of maintenance timetables. They weren't about to let that happen. If a situation ever got to that point, Air Traffic would lose their right to refuse. Think of it this way. You miss that 36,000 mile service mentioned in your car's owner's manual, simply because you didn't feel like turning the car over to some mechanic for a day. The "Check Engine" light eventually comes on and your car immediately shuts down ~ no matter where you are or where you're going. Even worse; it won't start again until you get that servicing done. The rules made PMs a kind of technical time bomb that would eventually go off if not disarmed in time.

© NLA Factor, 2012


getjets said...

FIRST OF ALL......I think without even trying.....you made this one friggin Hilarious Post!!!!!!!!!
and even before the dreaded.com...
I mean,I Really "Laughed Out Loud!!!!!!!!!"

The beetle bug flat tire....book 1 and 2.........should send ya over the edge.........
old equipment........seems I 've heard that phrase before.......:))
Tech's become God.........is a flash of a second.....and you worship the "quicksand" they walk...on......Real fast!!!!

Too bad no spare "Flux Capacitor".....back then....(back to the future fame)...go back.......neva mind......
Well ya got through it.....and can laugh now......Huh??
well I'm laughing......!!

Thanks for this post......remember I'm not laughing at you............I'm laughing WITH YOU!!!!!!!!!!.....LOL(I hate those intials)....
btw....ha ha.........
have you ever perfected walking like a Egyptian....??..:)))))

Take Care Mr NLAF...

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks for writing and for picking up on the underlying humor of this post. As you know; troubles are nothing if not hilarious. Don’t worry about having to laugh at me. I laugh at myself so that you don’t have to. Its just one of the many services we provide our readers here at this Blog.

As for walking like an Egyptian After years of practice, I think I’ve got it down. Check me out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjI4p8_NZVc&feature=related