Sunday, April 17, 2011

Air Traffic Controllers. Give them a break.

Like most Americans, when I heard of the snoozing controller at Reagan International Airport (KDCA), I wasn't real happy about the circumstances.

But unlike most Americans, I'm a pilot--and I know there is a lot more to stories like this one than the non-flying public wishes to believe.

Initially, the media tried to make a big deal out of the safety issue. Typical media--rummage through the news room and find out who has the most frequent flier miles, and then put them on camera with a CG (computer graphic) under their picture that says, "Aviation expert."

For what it's worth, that's usually the same way the media finds their military experts (whoever had the most GI Joe's as a kid), medical expert (who's the biggest hypochondriac at the station), etc etc.

What the media didn't report was that air traffic controllers do not fly airplanes. Pilots fly airplanes.

In the aviation world, there is an axiom that is decades old that every pilot worth his wings not only knows by heart, but lives by. It goes like this: "Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. In that order."

Translated, that means fly the damn airplane first and foremost. Maintaining safe control over your aircraft is your first and most pressing priority. Navigate--finding your way from point A to point B--comes second. Communicate--with ATC and/or other pilots or ground facilities--is your third priority.

I've lost contact with air traffic controllers on I don't know how many occasions, and the wings on my airplane never fell off as a result, nor did I suddenly forget how to operate the airplane. Likewise, I've gotten off course a few times, but the airplane still flew as I worked to navigate my way back on course.

In other words, the airplane can and does fly just fine without radios.

Now, communications with a busy airport are important. It is the job of ATC to provide separation between aircraft so we don't bump into each other (especially) in the air or on the ground.

But the two flights that had to land without ATC instructions at Reagan were in zero danger whatsoever.

Likewise with the medical flight that had to land without ATC communications in Reno a few days ago. In listening to the video/audio, the pilot made the decision to land (due to a seriously ill patient) and used the Reno airport tower frequency as what we refer to as a CTAF--Common Traffic Advisory Frequency. In the video, at the end, you can hear the pilot call out, "Reno Traffic, Cheyenne xxxxxx on short final for Runway 16. Full stop."

Translated, that meant any other aircraft in the vicinity of the Reno airport, be advised that this medical flight was heading for the runway to land and would be making a full stop, meaning they would be turning off the runway onto the first available or most advantageous taxiway once on the runway and slowed down enough.

Every pilot trained in America knows how to utilize CTAF frequencies as well as landing at uncontrolled or non-towered airports.

No danger.

So let's look at why the controllers are falling asleep. To do that, we need to look no further than the non-flying morons who mismanage the FAA.

For whatever reason, it seems the FAA has been loathe to give consistent, regular schedules to many of their employees who deal with air traffic control operations. By regular consistent schedules, I mean having a set schedule of working from say 7 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. five days a week. Or working 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. five days a week.

That makes too damn much sense for the FAA manager. So instead, what controllers get are schedules and shifts where they get off at 2 p.m. (which meant they were up early in the morning to begin with) and have to be right back at the tower at 10 p.m. for the graveyard shift.

Here is an excerpt from a news report that explains it pretty good:

one of the most tiring schedules worked by controllers is a week of midnight shifts, followed by a week of early morning shifts and then a week of swing shifts that start in the afternoon and wind up at night. The schedule doesn't give controllers time to adjust to any one set of waking and sleeping hours.

You can read the entire story here: FAA announces new work schedules coming for air traffic controllers.

In the past few weeks of these stories, the overwhelming tone of the comments I've read has been "Fire them. No excuse for sleeping on the job."

On one hand, I can absolutely understand that sentiment. On the other, those making the comments, I dare to speculate, have never set foot in an air traffic control tower.

There's some serious pressure and stress up there. Very little margin for error. And those folks do a helluva good job given the antiquated junk our government gives them to work with.

Yet, even with that explained, I still hear people cussing air traffic controllers. I normally shut them up by asking them what kind of pilot's license they have.

Silence. Then the predictable, "That's not the point" BS.

It IS the point. The FAA's ground-pounder management style has relegated human controllers to working like robots in which you charge their batteries simply by plugging them in. Humans, fortunately, do not work that way.

There is a difference between sleeping on the job because you're lazy and incompetent, and sleeping on the job because your employer schedules you ridiculous and ever-changing shifts.

We can do without the former, but unfortunately that's where government management applicant pools come from. The latter, I'm all for working to make things better for them.

Because when things are better in the tower, they're often better in the cockpit.

Think about that next time you're flying.

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