Richard Eyer Smith's Excellent Adventures in Paradise

Friday, February 25, 2011




I’ve decided to answer my own question posed in “Shifty Paradigms”. What will the next level of ATC automation bring? I suggest that it will be a system which relies on humans not a wit. The computers can handle all the traffic decisions presently being made by people, and here’s how:

OK, supposing we look at the two elements of ATC separately: separation and traffic management.

The next generation ATC system will use technology in the aircraft to guarantee separation (at least to the degree to which humans now do so) with some sort of advanced TCAS. It will allow aircraft to act much as magnets held like-pole-to-like-pole. This airborne separation software is backed up by a ground-based, automated separation service, much like the one proposed by NewModelATC in the U.K. This way, we needn't be too alarmed if an airborne system or two is on the fritz...the ground-based system will back it up and issue the correct instructions to the aircraft computers. Likewise, if the ground based system is not functioning, the airborne automation is still keeping the planes apart.

Next, we will develop the ability to select optimum routes provided by an automated collaboration between advanced FMS equipment in the aircraft, flight planning software presently used by airline dispatchers and an advanced URET system of ATC automation on the ground. The plane, with help from the dispatch software, picks its own optimum route, taking into account all factors including weather, economics and time to destination, then "runs it by" the URET. If not approved by URET due to whatever reason - traffic, airport congestion at ETA, whatever - the plane's equipment looks for the next best route, and so on and so on.

If either airborne or ground-based equipment fails, be it route selection or separation, the system is not that adversely affected.

See how simple this ATC stuff is?



Air Traffic Control began with fellows waving flags and tending bonfires. We had the human brain paired with limited technology to assist with navigation and separation of airplanes. The first major advance occurred due to the application of an existing technology, radio, to the aviation environment. Bonfires gave way to navaids and controllers replaced their flags with microphones. Radio allowed pilots to navigate on instruments and us in ATC to sit in comfortable chairs and apply our mental powers to the separation of airplanes hundreds of miles away.

The next paradigm shift relied on another technological advance: radar. Building on the earlier systems, radar now allowed controllers to “see” the aircraft they were talking to – again, up to hundreds of miles away. The controller no longer had to keep the entire traffic picture in his head; he could use his eyes to update his mental picture. ADS and GPS navigation and CPDLC are extensions of this particular paradigm. We’re improving our ability to “see” and communicate with planes beyond the limitations of radar and radio.

The introduction of computer technology in the ‘60s brought about the next major paradigm shift in how we work traffic. Up to this point, we used our brains, hands and voices to keep planes safe. Now, a machine – although pretty dumb at first – sat down with us and helped keep track of things. As the machines got smarter over the years, it moved from being just a clerical assistant to becoming an advisor, providing tactical and strategic advice. This particular paradigm will probably continue to the point where the computer is the controller and the human is the advisor.

The next big paradigm shift: well, we know that there will be one (there just about always is, wouldn’t you agree?) and that it will involve heretofore undiscovered technologies or technologies that have not yet been applied to aviation or transportation. Perhaps advances in genetic engineering or molecular physics or something entirely new, who knows. What is certain, though, is that man will continue to war against his own limitations and the results, while not always satisfying, will certainly be interesting!



In the U.S., Flight Service has just been privatized. The existing 58 stations will be reduced to 20, and staffing will be cut accordingly.

This change has left many employees with a difficult choice: find a different job within government to save federal pension benefits (for which they have paid over the years) or change over to the new company, Lockheed Martin.

A similar situation occur ed with the towers that were "contracted out" in the '90s. In that case, however, the FAA (perhaps because of a strong NATCA) made rather generous offers to transfer controllers to other FAA facilities. Although Ms. Blakely, the Administrator, has ruled out further privatization this fiscal year, it is inevitable that more facilities will be privatized in the future.

There are those who support these changes, citing rather large government savings. There are those opposed who say that safety is compromised. My opinion is that it is a symptom of the overall decline in the U.S. economic picture: the country can no longer afford to lavish resources on "the safest ATC system in the world." The new saying will become, "A pretty darned good ATC system, don't ya think?"



In the U.S. we have a Flight Plan. This was reviewed by the Administrator earlier this week and, guess what, we're well on our way to achieving all our goals! It's always heartening to see what good government can accomplish.

Number One, of course, is accident prevention. As luck would have it, there haven't been many deaths due to plane wrecks this past year. Mission accomplished!

In my view, however, the FAA policies had little to do with the low accident rate, and I predict that there will be aircraft accidents in the future - lots of them, unfortunately - and then who is going to accept the blame? Will the Administrator stand before us next year and say that whatever accidents occurred were the result of poor FAA policies? I kinda doubt it.

Two of the prime functions of government, no matter which country, are:

1) patting themselves on the back for past accomplishments that only they can see, and,

2) presenting a "vision" of the future that even they know is - the theme of this thread - merely the latest drivel.



Air traffic control is unnecessary.

Example: Southern California last month -

The ATC radio system shutdown, which lasted more than three hours, left 800 planes in the air without contact to air traffic control, and led to at least five cases where planes came too close to one another, according to comments by the Federal Aviation Administration reported in the LA Times and The New York Times. Air traffic controllers were reduced to using personal mobile phones to pass on warnings to controllers at other facilities, and watched close calls without being able to alert pilots, according to the LA Times report.

An FAA spokesman said the safety was never in jeopardy.

Example: This week in Dallas -

The jets flew 2.78 miles from each other, less than the 3-mile minimum distance required by federal regulations, but officials said there was no risk of collision.


In every situation where the ATC system fails, there will be an official spokesman denying that safety was compromised.

That's dumb!

Of course, the short-term objective of making the responsible government agency look good is served. But what about the real issue: improving safety. If the public perceives that nothing is ever wrong, is it surprising that nothing is ever fixed? Shouldn't the agency response to such incidents be, "Wow, that was close! We need to put all our available resources into solving this problem."

What are your thoughts?



My first 15 years in ATC were spent in En Route Centers. I loved it! As a VFR only private pilot, I'd learned that there was such a thing as ATC and it's to be avoided, but little else. Quite frankly, when I was hired, I knew absolutely nothing about ARTCCs. Nothing. We used broad-band radar and shrimp boats and talked to big jetliners. It was cool! Heck, I was cool! En Route is the best!

For the next 10 years, I went into Approach Radar and that was better yet! Things happen at a whole different pace from En Route. The object is to get 'em close - not too close - and slam-dunk 'em til the tower cries "uncle." What a blast! Approach is the best!

Lastly, I did 4 years in the Tower. Not just slashes and data tags; now it's - my God - airplanes! Little ones, big ones, pretty ones and an AN-2. Talk about fun! Tower is the best!

Now, I'm retired and an instructor for Tower, Approach and En Route. I get to work with everyone from kids right off the street to veteran transferees. Now it's nothing so simple as lining up or separating planes; now it's trying to bring out the absolute best in every controller I work with. And, ya know what? This is the most fun of all!

Whatever option you end up in, I wish you luck and I'll let you in on a little secret: in Air Traffic Control every option is the best!



Deals - system errors and system deviations - happen because people make mistakes.

If you sit in front of a scope long enough or stand in the tower long enough, you will make a mistake. Maybe, lots of mistakes. This is not because you are a bad person or a bad controller - it's because you're human.

Whether your mistakes turn into deals depends on two things: luck (or the lack thereof) and how your mistake relates to what's going on around you and in the air.

Like the girl who gets pregnant her "first time", you may just be unlucky. Your very first mistake may be a whopper - it might even be your last as a controller.

Some mistakes made one day without consequence might be disastrous on another. Ever get a callsign wrong? What were the results? Although I made numerous callsign errors over the years, it never led to a deal. Many deals, however, have happened because of confused callsigns. My mistakes just happened at "the right time."

So, what are we to do? As with any human endeavour, we do the best we can, then hope for a bit of luck. Work your traffic always as if lives depended on it - they do, of course - and when mistakes do crop up, acknowledge them, learn from them and then put them behind you. Don't waste time on self-doubt and stay focused on your task: to provide the best ATC service humanly possible.



"Norwegian Airports Close as Air-Traffic Controllers Halt Work."

Is a strike a legitimate tool for air traffic controllers? I know it's used in many parts of the world by controllers with grievances against their employers - and not allowed (but still used) in others.

Since this blog is my little soap-box, you shall now have my opinion: If the employer is a government, the controllers should not be allowed to strike - if the employer is a private or quasi-private concern which has as one of its aims the generation of a profit, the controllers can and ought to use strikes to maintain decent working conditions.

Any thoughts?



The purpose of this blog has always been: rant constructively about the present state of ATC.

That's a worthy enough objective, but it's pretty boring, so - new goal: simply rant about ATC.

We'll look at what we consider the most interesting topic each week and just throw out bits of (mostly unfounded?) opinion in hopes of stirring up your comments. If you agree with my opinions, please write, "Rich, you're a genius!" If you disagree, you're wrong, but let me know where you think I've gone astray!

See ya - have fun!



Perhaps the greatest threat to aviation - after gravity - is language. There's not much we can do about gravity, but there is something we can do about language to improve aviation safety. The short-term solution is rather simple: we must all agree on a common aviation language, then, we must enforce its use.

Right now, English is favored but not mandated. There's no law preventing a controller from speaking French in Montreal or Finnish in Helsinki. It's perfectly legal, although not necessarily wise, for a pilot to speak Spanish in Miami or English in Havana. It's a polyglot world we live in and aviation is no exception. Globalization is, after all, both the parent and child of aviation. If we fly, we shrink the world and make borders less relevant. Politically, we may oppose globalization; practically, we in aviation have no choice but to embrace it

So, which language shall we use? The obvious first answer is English. It is currently "hot" as the world's second language; although Chinese and Arabic - neither attractive aviation choices for a number of reasons - are starting to make inroads. English has problems, though, which make it a less-than-perfect choice. Esperanto, Latin or a relatively simple Romance language like Spanish might make nice choices, or perhaps we could come up with an entirely new "aviation-exclusive" tongue. The fact is, however, that to change to another language now would require training almost the entire aviation community in the new language, thus insuring an even lower level of proficiency than is presently the case with English. So for now, I suggest we agree with ICAO and accept English as the lingua franca of the skies.

This leaves us with the issue of enforcement. There are no legal penalties for poor phraseology. There is no world body capable of issuing corrective orders to pilots or controllers who use poor English aviation phraseology . . . or use no English at all.

There should be, and it ought to be ICAO.

In the meantime, each nation ought to pass legislation and their aviation authorities (like the FAA and JAA) ought to pass rules and joint aviation requirements mandating that proper English phraseology be used by all pilots and controllers who participate in their airspace. They should identify and correct communication problems in the same way they do pilot deviations and controller errors. Pilots and controllers who fail to meet standards should be banned from use of the airspace. This is a serious problem and it demands rigorous solutions.

The long-term solution is automation. Pilot/controller Data Link programs will be designed that rely on symbols and simple, easily translatable phraseologies. Pilots and controllers will be able to display clearances in the language of their choice and errors will eventually be eliminated. Once again, as with so many endeavors, the best way to serve humanity is to take humans out of the loop.



As this is written, many of the facts surrounding the murder of a Skyguide air traffic controller in Switzerland are not known. What is certain is that a life has been taken and a colleague has been tragically lost.


"TCAS is an accident waiting to happen."

How many of us heard this during the introduction of TCAS? How many of us said it? 80%? 90%? All of us? We spoke out individually and we spoke out collectively through our professional organizations. Again and again, controllers decried the haphazard way TCAS was being introduced. We knew it was a question of "when" and not "if." Few, if any, of us were silent - and our voices were not heeded. A flawed technology was rushed into place. Lives were lost. Lessons went unlearned.

A writer in the PPRuNe board asks what we, air traffic controllers, can do as a community in this tragic time. I offer the following suggestions:

1) Rededicate ourselves to excellence in our profession. The ATC career demands that we perform as near to perfection as is humanly possible. We do so, not out of fear, but out of the knowledge that what we do is vitally important. Being a controller matters. Being an excellent controller matters greatly.

2) Do not accept unsafe working practices or equipment. Although the announced agenda of the agencies and companies each of us work for is air safety; practical, business and political considerations regularly come into play. Do not be naive. If you see unsafe situations developing, it is your duty to speak out and your obligation to intervene. You are the experts: not the ATM managers, scientists and bureaucrats. You know what is safe and what is not safe. It is upon your shoulders that rests the burden to insure that unsafe equipment and dangerous procedures are thrown into the trash bin where they belong!

3) Be kind to one another. It's a tough job we do, and we are all in it together.



I read where the average training time for controllers in the U.S. is increasing. It used to take a year to train on a particular specialty; now it takes two. It used to take passing a graded exam on the first try; now some trainees are given two or three tries to pass. Today there are some trainees sitting in front of simulators who in times past would have been out the door months ago.

What's going on here?

I believe a couple of factors may be at play. One: we're not desperate to get people certified right now. The big exodus of CPCs is still around the corner and staffing is not critically short in most facilities. We've got the time to string trainees along, so, it could be argued, "Why not?"

Another factor may be who we're training these days. Many newbies are from the CTI program (read: off-the-street) and many don't have ATC experience. Logic dictates that they'll need to spend a bit more time in training than an ex-military type. No problem.

The one factor I fear most, however, is that these changes might be because we're making our training programs less intense, less demanding and less time specific. I worry that we're letting some people slide because they whine and complain about the difficulty of the program. (They may not use those words; instead they talk about "fairness" or "consistency," but what they mean is that it's just too darn hard.) Some suggest that we need to lighten up on the new kids. Give 'em a break.

No way!

Your air traffic controller - and if you're flying, you have one - needs to be like your doctor: the best money can buy. I don't want a heart surgeon who only made it through med school because his professors decided to "give the kid a break." I want the best, no matter how incredibly difficult the training was. Same with the controller working my flight into an over-crowded airport in a thunderstorm. Don't give me a whining, no-talent kid with a slick-talking union rep. Give me the guy or gal who poured sweat throughout a demanding training program and learned how to turn chaos into a string of pearls on final - - - not how to mouth a bunch of lame excuses!

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