Deep Inside Air Traffic Control Pt. 1

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Why are our skies so safe? Watch these sky symphony conductors who get us safely into the air and back down again, 7 days a week, 10,000 times a day. Hidden inside the tall towers and dark radar rooms of the NAS (National Airspace System), these heroes of the FAA are the ones we can thank for making our skies the safest in the world.

dawn at Dulles Airport just outside of Washington DC in our 1494 tower 1 to 6 here with 6 or my 111 third tool and over to your volume gesturing 41 shorter say so we plan on minimum time on the runway traffic's it has been called the most stressful job in the world one mistake by an air traffic controller one moment of forgetfulness one slip of the tongue can disaster twenty dollars you subnormal a one-month when most controllers can't imagine doing anything else every day it works it's never the same day twice based on volume the the complexity 788 knows the weather people are always gonna run late and early and everything else so that the mix never changes that's what makes the job so a track with a lot you're on the edge of your seat and it's it's never the same day twice this is the job I mean when Ellen says well what's a lot it's the best job in the whole world zero five one two Niner zero a Niner there are about 15,000 air traffic controllers in the United States every day they handle over 55,000 commercial flights guiding them through criss-crossing highways in the skies it's not just one airplane on that route their ops direction they're crossing they're converging and diverging they're doing everything imagine a puzzle and then putting another puzzle on top of that and a third one on top of that and having to memorize all three of these puzzles and each different piece of the puzzle is another controller sector of airspace so not on you only are you separating airplanes from airplanes but you're separating them from other puzzle pieces once upon a time there was plenty of sky in America the first aviators had the air to themselves they didn't need much room to take off and once in the air they'd follow roads and railroad tracks to get from one place to another there really was no system out there at all to begin with you have the guys on the grounds literally in the beginning running around with wheelbarrows and flags and setting bonfires originally they didn't even have flight paths Oh I mean it was just there was what they called the big sky theory you know so much sky so few planes whose going to hit anybody today over 200,000 private and commercial aircraft operate around the globe every day they carry four million people from one Airport to another Dulles controllers can handle about one takeoff or landing every minute but that's not enough to meet the soaring demand base is just constant pressures he touches down as a company Boeing 737 it's just uh right behind him once he clears next won't be touching down on that runway citation two for one off those grounds turn left on Zulu controllers know how much is at stake with every decision they make but they don't dwell on it I really don't have time to sit here and think about each individual airplane and how this is going to affect all the lives of those people you're thinking about aircraft characteristics you're thinking about call signs you think about inch rail you're thinking about separation I'm thinking about safety I think the bottom line is we know it's at stake I mean we know the ramifications of what we do what we say and we know we know there's people up there you just don't know analyze it while you're in the brunt of it you're not thinking oh well this is just a video game but you're not sitting and thinking okay this is 747 it holds 240 people it's a dc9 it might have 120 you don't over analyze it but for the most part the emotions aren't involved until the moment something goes wrong and then all of a sudden when your stomach's in your throat and you know and your shoulders are all tense that's when you really know it's real it was about 70 years ago that airplanes first started to carry passengers by the end of the 1920s you could take an airplane to most American cities but only during daylight hours when pilots could see where they were then radio entered the cockpit a bell once pilots could talk to people on the ground it was possible to track an airplanes position as it kneeling across the country are you on time like that Bianca radar made it even easier by the early 1930s a plane could get you from coast to coast in 36 relaxing hours there was more and more air traffic but not much in the way of control airplanes flew pretty much where pilots wanted to take them but in June of 1956 everything changed awesome Grand Canyon in Arizona is the scene of the worst commercial air crash in history other planes searched vainly for survivors after two big airliners collided and one to destruction with 128 men women and children the collision over the Grand Canyon shocked the federal government into action in 1958 Congress created the Federal Aviation Administration which promptly hired 1,500 new controllers to oversee the new tougher rules now instead of flying the most direct routes airplanes had to fly from one radar beacon to the next in a zig-zag pattern of jet ways that was less efficient but safer seven reverse high-speed tax me to prove on e85 contact ground local control is is the person who keeps the runway huh he was here 26:41 one two hundred your objective is to get as many aircraft on the runway either landing and departing and keeping the runway occupied when the airplane takes off and it gets a mile and a half or so off the departure into the runway you're not gonna be able to see them out the windows anymore that's when they transfer the responsibility to our radar controllers eight or 4566 covered this is terminal radar control or TRACON desktop TRACON controllers handle aircraft on their way to or from airports in the most congested airspace this can be the most dangerous part of any flight the few minutes just after takeoff or right before landing when an airplane is under TRACON control it is here in the heavily trafficked area around an airport that a mid-air collision is most likely to happen six years ago colleen spring experienced every controllers nightmare the loss of separation between aircraft they call a deal was work at the shriek on final position and the weather was instrument flight rules meaning you could not see outside of the cockpit so none of the aircraft could see each other and it was as busy as I have ever seen it in the 15 years I've been a controller with vic-20 40 left hitting zero Niner zero so before heading one niner zero descend and maintain 2,000 expedite traffic is three o'clock and three-mile turn the lower aircraft that I had was a was a dc9 and the higher aircraft was a jet stream which is a prop the dc9 was being vectored away from the final four resequencing because his approach wasn't working so I climbed the dc9 to 4,000 feet the jet stream was already at 4 when I realized that they were going to converge at 4,000 pass the dc9 to go back down to 3 and ask the jet stream to go to 5 and trying to turn them both 6:24 to take you to be localized it was amazing 6:24 TURN RIGHT heading 100 years and maintain 3000 mediate Syria for that traffic is at the same altitude climb immediately to 5,000 the traffic in a TP Niner under you and it within a line for you so then they merge together and at that moment I held my breath because it's the closest I've ever had to airplanes get together and you see the targets come together and you just hold your breath waiting to see if they're going to come out the other side Catholics no factor for hitting zero Niner zero maintain 5,000 and when they came out the other side big sigh okay guys here we go we got us we still have a lot to do there's still 16 airplanes on the frequency that I've got to get on the ground you know what's trying to recover emotionally there were tears coming down my face and it and it was a good 20 minutes before they could get me a break because they didn't have anyone to get me more position Darrin I took the next week off work had a few bad dreams about it and ran a very conservative operation probably for the next year second-guessing myself a lot when I had situations where planes were cleared to altitudes below other airplanes I would still look at it over and over again really rea tit to the pilots you're definitely going to four and you're definitely stopped at five I've questioned them I would question myself so it took a year before I kind of got over the experience

32 thoughts on “Deep Inside Air Traffic Control Pt. 1”

  1. Several years ago I was a controller on VATSIM which is a virtual network for flight simulator pilots to fly, and follow strict real world procedures. When my ARTCC would have events pilots would swarm to our region and we would get hammered with planes. It was soooo stressful, but the most fun I ever had.

  2. @svtcobra281
    I'm an FAA controller too, also with a computer engineering degree and I'd love to say a computer could do this job (it's a fun engineering problem to try to solve), but I have agree with you. ATC is an unsolvable problem for computers simply because of weather deviations. A human will always be required to pilot because of the need to assess the potential dangers from weather and decide on the proper deviation. So even the best computer ATC will somehow have to "negotiate" with human pilots and figure out a way to keep things going with the uncertainty of weather. How could a computer possibly interpret "we're not sure how far we need to go, we'll keep going until we find a hole" and make a plan? Despite 40 years of promises that computers will be as smart as humans in 10 years, it has never happened.

    And so far, only a human can look at weather returns, see its size and where it's going, and figure out a solution like to vector NE arrivals to the SE gate which means we need to get 25 in trail on both, and then put SW arrivals 15 in trail so we'll have enough spacing on final after they deviate around the cell SW of the airport. Computers can't come up with something like that. 

  3. Computers actually already do fly airplanes (autopilot) even in landing (ILS). You are right, emergencies are hard to account for. Weather can be modeled pretty well, not good enough.

    Mainly we have pilots and air traffic controllers for A. someone to query if something bad happens (responsibility) and B. for these sorts of emergency cases.

  4. I'm not gonna say ATC simulations aren't going to help you when it comes to ATC but I know it will give you a HUGE upper hand when you start training. I'm sure atc school will be a breeze for you. But the job can be very easy depending on where you are I guess. I love my location and have fun even though its the busiest tower in the Air Force. The one thing people don't ever realize about ATC is the coordination. That's usually the hardest part, not the traffic.

  5. I'm within the top 10% of ATCers within the Flight Simulation community, arguably within the top 5%.
    I'm looking forward to going to college at some of the top aviation schools in the country, majoring in Air Traffic Control.

    For those of you who say it's easy, it's not. i've been training for almost 4 years, and will be training my entire life to safely and efficiently keep busy airports on time.

    For those of you who are already in the business, or are looking to get in, I salute you.

  6. FAA would not allow that ha, they don't believe in using new technology. They still use old fashioned gyro systems in the plane. ATC still uses old radios with simplex communication, most navigation is ground based. Don't think 20 years would cut it.

  7. Simply not true. I am an FAA air traffic controller, and I just finished a graduate level class where I did a 12 page research paper on just this topic. We will be lucky in 10 years to have the new center automation software (ERAM) running correctly. We have not even finished implementing ADS-B which is basically 9's technology. Google "archie league awards" and listen to some of those transmissions, tell me a computer could do that.

  8. Could computers create the sequence, separate and line the airplanes up? Sure. Could computers deal with all the wacky requests from pilots, understand all the emergency situations, deal with constantly changing situations like weather, and non-responsive aircraft? Not a chance. Maybe in 200 years when robots are flying the airplanes.

  9. yes, it is one of the most damn stressful job on the planet. imagine the controllers of the saudia 747 and some russian jet mid air collission in delhi about 15 years ago. a small mistake takes hundreds of lives. people are keen to appreciate the pilots but forgets the persons glued to the screens, listening to the radio and making mental calculations. controllers do an excellent job in keeping the planes safe on the ground and in the air.

  10. As part of my schools instrument class we actually go visit a Center and TRACON just so we can get a view on both sides of the equation. I've never seen such a cool place in my life.

  11. Been flying for 20 years. I used to visit the local tower @CYS back in the 70's as a kid. I'd climb up and they'd let me sit and watch for hours. Always had the highest regard for them. Fly into Oshkosh and you'll REALLY appreciate the job they do!

  12. Captain opinion ? Yeah right. 99% of pilots don't know shit about ATC. In 20 years, 3 pilots visited our center. They don't get the whole picture and they don't care. Don't know the limitations of procedures or equipments. One example : always nagging to descent while they're over military airspace. Better approach in London ? Don't know how small our approach zone is… Not physically possible to do like in Heathrow. Could go on for years. Yet, 90% respect us as we do and relations are good.

  13. Took a FAM trip and road jump seat with AAL a few months back. Captain ask me if a controller isn't that good are they washed to Dulles Tower? I said no.. Why? He replyed "worst controllers in the country".

  14. Now know that if you make 1(!) misstake thousands and yet thousands of dollars will be lost. 1 or more people WILL be late. Vacations will be ruined, jobs will be lost, personal arguments will blow up etc. That's just the best scenario possible. Worst case scenario you are responsible for killing hundreds of people. I guess i'ts not "splitting the atom", it's more like splitting the atom while your dick is being chewed of by a monkey.

  15. Try doing brain surgery under time preasure knowing that for every lost second thousands of dollars are spent. Now add to this that you are forced to talk to 10 different people at the same time as you are tying to focus on your task. Not just talking but knowing, catching and understand every single syllable spoke to you. Now try doing this with good equipment one day to bad equipment the other. Ok, now you are pretty stressed…

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