On 30/12/2009, in Same time, same place..., by steve
We have come to the end of this irregular overview of the life of air traffic control. If it told you anything new, very well, if not, you must be a controller yourself… I hope I have not frightened you away from flying, on the contrary, I trust next time you step on board an aircraft you will give a thought to the controllers who, in spite of the human failings they might have, will be watching every move your flight makes, to make your journey as safe and quick as is humanly possible.
My time with the microphone is over, but there is a new generation of air traffic controllers working the airways, and I haven’t the slightest doubt, they will carry the flame as high as we did, and probably higher still. And in time, they will have their own crazy stories to tell….
On 29/12/2009, in Same time, same place..., by steve
This chapter had been written well before the fall of the Berlin wall and the famous opening of the border by Hungary, allowing thousands of East Germans to flee to the West. It is a nice quirk of history that the place where this story took place is just a few miles East of the place where the mass escape happened several years later.
That with a bit of ingenuity a small airplane can be used to beat an oppressive regime was amply demonstrated by the crew of the West-German Cessna that came visiting one Sunday afternoon.
Hungary had long been the gate to freedom for some of those poor souls whose fortune (or rather misfortune…) had left them east of the Iron Curtain after WW2. The trick had been fairly simple. Meet your West-German friends or relatives in Budapest, do a bit of surgery on their passports and off you go. The real nationals of the Federal Republic, who a few days later reported having “lost” their passports were promptly issued temporary papers and after one more goulash at beautiful Lake Balaton, they too would make their retreat. Of course, these earthbound souls did not have friends with an aircraft handy.
On 22/12/2009, in Same time, same place..., by steve
Controllers and pilots are really a big, worldwide family. True, we have our differences, but then, which family does not? We all serve the flying public and we help each other wherever we can, on and off duty alike.
We also like to think of the world as a big, free place where airspace is there for all to use and enjoy and for us political borders are mostly just lines on a map… Flying, this wonderful invention of humanity, is basically a peaceful business and that it is sometimes abused to bring sorrow and destruction to those below is really the shame of some of our political masters.
That we, flying people, remain friends who respect each other to the bitter end even when pitched against each other is amply demonstrated by numerous events that live on in our common memory. Take for example those flying heroes of the First World War, where, after an ace of the Austrian-Hungarian air force had been shot down, the British fighters dropped a wreath of flowers from the clouds when he was being buried.
In our present world, torn as it is by strife and enmity, aviation is once again called upon to do its bit. But as you will see, the old spirit lives on, even today.
On 18/12/2009, in Same time, same place..., by steve
Winter flying in real, cold continental climate is hard on pilots, aeroplanes and controllers alike. The somewhat lower traffic volume is frequently offset by the delays resulting from snow and ice on the runway, or the occasional broken-down snow-sweeper…
As you will see, cold winter air has a number of its own tricks up its sleeve. Darkness had been with us for some hours when the last departure of the day, a cargo 707 roared into the air, leaving a flurry of snow swirling above the frozen runway long after the plane was gone. Alone in the air, they climbed swiftly in the thick, cold air and it looked like another routine end to the day. In no time at all, however, departure control was shaken out of its peaceful reverie when the pilot of the Boeing announced in a shaken voice that he was taking avoiding action due to another large aircraft sighted immediately below their own. A quick look at the flight progress board confirmed what we knew already, namely that there was no other aircraft within a hundred miles. Radar seemed to bear out the same, with only the cargo machine’s blip inching along on the screen, albeit on a heading almost 90 degrees away from its original course. They were making an avoiding action, all right.
On 16/12/2009, in Same time, same place..., by steve
There is no doubt about it, flying to-day is the safest means of transportation. The numbers are well known and to most of us people whose bread comes from one or the other area of civil aviation, driving to and from the airport appears far more dangerous than being up in the air.
This is not to say that statistics do not occasionally catch up with us. If you work the airways long enough, there are bound to be aircraft which will never again come home, having met their fateful end at some remote (or not so remote) corner of the world. Some of us have even experienced the horror of seeing a blip disappear from our own radar screen. It is no fun having to write a report on an accident in which friends, even if only known over the radio, had perished. At times like that we mourn our dead, but we also learn to live with it, our training telling us to work even harder to beat the numbers.
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On 04/12/2009, in Same time, same place..., by steve
A taxiway will do…
A few years later, however, we got our share of uninvited visitors, too. This time it was a Sunday and the observation terrace was crowded by people, some of them waiting for flights due in later, others just there to watch for the fun of it. Well, they were in for more fun than they had bargained for.
Quite unknown to us, high above in the skies a fully armed fighter on routine patrol duty was in trouble. Not in big trouble mind you, just enough to loose all his navigation capability and his communication with the ground. As his fuel state deteriorated rapidly, the poor guy started descending, no doubt searching for one of the “secret” military fields the location of which only he was supposed to know. As he popped out from the solid cloud cover, he saw a field, which happened to be us. He took us to be the military field, no doubt because he wanted to see a military field so much…
On 30/11/2009, in Same time, same place..., by steve
Faultless navigation plays an all important role in the safe operation of aircraft. There are scores of instruments both in the cockpit and on the ground, the purpose of which is to make sure that pilots and controllers are constantly aware of where their airplanes are flying. Of course, not all the available systems are of equal sophistication, while some provide direct readout of position, others require quite a bit of interpretation. Different aircraft may have different equipment installed and under certain conditions controllers on the ground are the only ones who can really tell at a glance the position of a particular plane.
Constant positional awareness of the flight crew is helped by specialized charts quite unreadable to the layman. What you see is a maze of lines, circles, symbols, figures and arrows, but to a pilot they tell all he needs to know. Controllers mainly rely on their radar to keep track of what is happening but they can read a navigation chart as well as any pilot can. Still, navigational errors do occur, almost always leading to hot situations in the cockpit and on the ground. Here are a few of the more notable ones from our experience.
Shitbombers and the mountains
If you loose your way in the sky while flying over flat ground on a bright summer day, though awkward, things are not likely to take a nasty turn in a hurry. You can always try to read the name of a nearby railway station or if this fails, call in to ATC for some friendly advice. However, if there are mountains around, you are flying in clouds and radar has difficulties tracking your flight, it is better to watch your every step.
Remember the old Chinese saying “Luck never comes in pairs or disaster alone”? Well, this seems to be especially true for flying. The five shitbombers (we called the agricultural sprayers shitbombers) were plodding along in a tight formation, heavily loaded with fuel, on a ferry flight bound for the Middle East.
On 09/11/2009, in Same time, same place..., by steve
Some people must have realized years ago just how easily the fear of god can be put into an airport by the simple impediment of a telephone call. If you were a safety official, what would you do if someone were to call at three in the morning, saying that Flight so and so will have a bomb on it? As likely as not, you would order a search of the aircraft, an extra careful check of passengers and luggage and, having turned up nothing suspicious, you would just sit back with your fingers crossed until the threatened plane arrived home safely. But you would never, not once, treat the telephone calls as not being for real. A lot of money and time is being wasted as a result of these telephone nuts, for less than a fraction of one percent of such telephone calls actually have a real threat behind them.
The telephone exchange at our airport had the disconcerting habit of regularly putting through callers to the control center’s extension whenever they could not make heads or tails of what the caller wanted. It was only natural that a call starting with the words “bomb” or “explosives” should end up ringing the supervisor’s line. Over the years most of us had the good fortune of talking to these nameless people cheerfully promising to blow up everything from aircraft to radar installations and from the catering kitchen to cars in the parking lot. While we chatted away, technicians desperately tried to trace the call, mostly ending up at a coin-box, long deserted by the time the police arrived.
On 05/11/2009, in Same time, same place..., by steve
Some of my gentle readers will remember well the times when airports were still places to visit, with no barbed wire and armed guards patrolling around. Try telling children who are only allowed to watch from behind thick glass windows how you had spent countless hours sitting on the grass in the shade of those huge wings, now and then even having a chance to chat with the pilots… Nowadays all kinds of crazy people seem to have all kinds of crazy reasons for wanting to attack airports and airplanes, with predictable consequences. Aviation fights back the best it can and so your freedom of movement is restricted (way beyond what would be normal from an operational point of view), they search you while they X-ray your bags, armored cars lurk behind fuel-browsers and there are soldiers in full battle dress, armed to the teeth, leaning on ticket counters. What is this world coming to?
The life of people responsible for airport security is far from easy. The very fact of countless terrorist incidents committed over countless numbers of years with never any long lasting victory for anybody is obviously not enough to stop those loonies and this in itself shows just how crazy an enemy aviation security experts have to face. One of them was once overheard decrying the good old times, when the most dangerous adversary had been the odd guy trying to blow up his beloved mother-in-law…
On 31/10/2009, in Same time, same place..., by steve
Ever wondered what that little red luggage-tag, with “VIP” printed prominently on it, was supposed to signify? Very Idiotic, oh sorry, Important Passenger. There are various ways to earn such distinction and these include flying the same line very, very often or making it to Head of State. The former may expect to have his luggage treated with extra care or extra carelessness, depending on the disposition and political convictions of the luggage-handlers, will certainly draw extra smiles and booze from the airline staff and just as certainly he or she will have no influence whatsoever on the workings of air traffic control. They are the little VIP’s, you see. Now the big VIP’s, that is an altogether different kettle of fish. Air Force One (the US president’s flight), or Rainbow (the flight of British Royalty) will certainly not go unnoticed by ATC. Though exactly how much notice they receive is likely to change from place to place. That you cannot be a prophet in your own backyard seems especially true here. Air Force One flying over the continental USA is a very different flight from the Air Force One going to Moscow, for instance.
“Big VIP’s” are treated as something really special in some parts of the world, Eastern Europe in the distant past having been a prime example. They closed whole routes and aerodromes to speed the VIP on its way and for lesser VIP’s, as a minimum, double separation from other traffic was provided. Leaders of the truly democratic nations would have probably been acutely embarrassed had they been aware of how much inconvenience the general traveling public was put to on their account in the communist countries. Leaders of these latter didn’t seem to mind, though… When THEY flew, everything else had to stop. That this could lead to utterly crazy situations, well, read on for proof.