Posted on February 9, 2014
“SOCAL TRACON,” translated, means Southern California Terminal Radar Control—the FAA’s air traffic control facility handling the lower 13,000-17,000′ of airspace from offshore in the west to the beginnings of the California deserts in the east, and, up north, demarcated by a west-east line from around Pt. Dume to Palm Springs, and, in the south, by the border with Mexico. Air traffic control comes in many levels in this country—from an airman’s perspective it is never less than pilots, themselves, controlling the operation of their ships so as to see and avoid other aircraft, terrain, or obstacles, whether at non-towered airports, or en route. For FAA controllers, Job One is assuring that two aircraft do not occupy the same parcel of airspace at the same time. This is accomplished with a tapestry that involves controllers at airports who issue clearances and guidance for surface and traffic pattern operations, with the responsibility for control of aircraft separation being “handed off” by them to what are collectively known as departure/approach control facilities, more technically known as TRACONs. When their craft proceed far enough laterally or vertically, TRACONs hand off ATC responsibility to (en route) Air Route Traffic Control Centers covering wide multi state sized parcels of airspace. As aircraft eventually near their destinations and begin descent for landing, the process is reversed from Center to TRACON to control tower.
The SOCAL TRACON is housed in a capacious facility abutting the NE corner of Miramar MCAS. It is built with an intriguing steel exoskeleton rising vertically out of the ground along the sides of the building and then passing horizontally through the ceiling of the structure, designed to survive a Richter Scale 9.0 quake centered directly under the facility. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=610093519043834&set=a.595970633789456.1073741826.112145808838610&type=1&theater Radar antennae throughout Southern California provide the returns visually depicting the controlled aircraft on 48 subregion-specific t.v.-like screens that are individual controller’s workstations, with an additional 16 display workstations in a separate room used for training, and available as backup. Communication links are provided by over 550 fiberoptic cables. Redundancy is ever important in aircraft and the control thereof. That said, the TRACON was evacuated a few years back when one of our large autumn wildfires burned to near the facility property line—yet the evacuation wasn’t caused by the flames, but because they couldn’t properly filter the smoke being ingested into the air inlets for the air conditioning needed to keep the electronics cool. Apparently that weak link has yet to be addressed for future fires or terrorist attack. As to the latter, the facility has a double perimeter barrier and a guard shack, and access, such as with my tour, is controlled by invitation, verification, and identification.
The facility tour was conducted by Robert M., a veteran controller, who had begun his career at the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center located at Palmdale, and handling the traffic over all of the SW United States—the handoff facility from and to the SOCAL TRACON. He provided an overview of the ATC concept as well as short vignettes about experiences from memory, usually relative to whoops moments and intended to exemplify a point or to lighten the mood with a little black humor. Such as a pilot congesting a control sector’s one-at-a-time ATC communications frequency with a lame request that took 27 seconds to complete—an inflight eternity—while he and another airplane were headed directly at one another at the same altitude. You can guess the points Robert was making, no doubt. A salient tidbit conveyed is the level of traffic the SCT handles. The second bullet point in the slide below screams a hint at why it is so demanding for aviators and controllers in this area—the SCT is not only the busiest ATC facility in the world, but, in fact is busier than the ATC facilities of the seven busiest countries in Europe—combined. For the non-pilots amongst you, the alphabet soup of airspace (Class B, Class C, Class D—control towers—and TRSAs) classification includes requirements for pilot certification, aircraft equipment, communications and ATC clearance, and cloud separation and visibility specifics. It is a 3D puzzle of situational awareness, with a priori pilot/equipment givens and demarcations having to be visualized in one’s head while underway, hopefully with the aid of onboard equipment displays, charts, and looking out the window for geographic clues.
The traffic flows within the Southern California airspace are a complex web of aerodrome arrival and departure pathways. The colors on the slide Robert is describing above represent various individual airport’s pathways—LAX, SAN, ONT, BUR, and so on, most of which you may actually know even if only from your airline ticket.
Having been an end-user of the ATC product for the past half century, I already knew most of what was conveyed during the SOCAL TRACON tour, provided to pilots as educational outreach. For me, this was a refresher chance to see what the controllers’ workplace is currently like, to see what upgrades their equipment have taken since the last such visit a couple of decades back, and perchance to trade favors and share the pilots’ perspective on the service they provide. Fewer than 15% of the SOCAL TRACON controllers are also certificated pilots, which has been motivation for me over the past few years to offer up FAM (Familiarization) flights in the Cirrus to both tower and TRACON controllers. These days the controllers’ work interface is a bit more electronic, reflecting the digital age in which we all meander. A controller’s workstation has a large, configurable screen showing traffic underway, and capable of displaying airways and waypoints in the sky, terrain, and minimum vectoring altitudes for terrain avoidance. The image below shows distance rings from the primary airport in this particular ATC sector, here I think it is Burbank (BUR). Traffic is depicted by tiny moving blips on the screen, each with a bright green information code that is electronically paired with the aircraft’s transponder or primary skin-paint radar return. Unseen, here, the aircraft blip leaves behind it a ghostly blue wake, the length of which is an analog depiction of its relative groundspeed, which speed is also conveyed digitally in the paired tag, along with call sign, altitude, and destination. As desired, the controller can also turn on or off a blue headlight-like beam that shows a given aircraft’s forward extended ground track the controller’s vector of the aircraft is producing, given the aircraft’s airspeed and the effect of winds aloft. If several of these were simultaneously selected “on” by the controller it would look like a group of Jedi Knights’ light sabers doing battle across the SOCAL sky! As I say, Job One, is keeping aircraft separated, and the vector track beams can help in times when that is needed beyond the controller’s experience-based intuition. There’s a keyboard for inputing information, and an orange-sized black roller ball that allows moving a screen cursor to an aircraft’s blip for tagging that info input. I suppose I should mention that each controller wears a headset for two-way radio communication with aircraft underway on a discrete frequency specific to his/her given air traffic sector. Controllers still use small paper strips conveying additional aircraft information, that runners in the room bring physically to workstations appropriate to the information—here you can see one such white strip folded in half. And, oh, the screen is also capable of overlaying precipitation returns, important because turbulence is directly correspondent to rates of precipitation. Worthy of note, TRACON weather displays are in real time from the actual antenna sweeps also producing the aircraft returns. The TRACON radar’s RF energy wavelength is designed principally for aircraft observation, but still does a tolerable job of conveying precipitation intensity in real time. Not so, the weather returns displayed on the ARTCC monitors, which aren’t directly from the Center’s radar antennae. Like the satellite-linked weather displays in my Cirrus, the ARTCC precipitation displays are algorithm-manufactured composite digital depictions of what the National Weather Bureau’s separate weather radar is showing—with a lag of up to six minutes. In rapidly moving and changing weather this is about twelve of those in-flight eternities. As verbalized by the Hill Street Blues shift sergeant—”let’s all be careful out there,” lest those figurative eternities become literal. Ahem.
In the image below Robert is pointing out one tidbit on the screen. The trapezoidal shapes depict various ATC sectors as seen from above. There are a few aircraft with their information tags shown near the top of the screen. As it turns out these three images were all taken in their training room, an exact replication of the real control area just the other side of the adjoining wall. Here pictures were allowed, while, for reasons unclear to me, they were not in the room next door. Both places are hushed areas, in near darkness apparently so that the screens can be seen more readily. To be honest, I wonder about that, given the current technological ability to make LED LCD screens bright enough for daylight viewing. I wonder if this is a holdover from the days that screens were dim monochromatic affairs, and the government, being slow to change, as we all know, still keeps it’s controllers literally in the dark.
I know that if I am in flight, it is fairly frequent for controllers to enquire as to what sort of day it is out there, as they are huddled in their dark tomb, with no direct sense of the weather in the area where they are controlling traffic. Perhaps the darkness is intended to keep controllers’ minds on the job? Of that I can only guess, but I know that controllers are busy, dedicated professionals, and fully capable of giving their task the undivided attention it calls for.
This is not to say that an air traffic controller is bereft of reliable information about the airspace. Adjacent to each work station there are other displays of ancillary information such as this, showing what airports in the individual controller’s sector have as weather, what approaches and departures are in use, traffic flow delays, outages and unavailable procedures. For instance ONTario Information “A” generated at 2053Z (8:53 PM Greenwich Universal Time—the time standard for everything aviation) is showing calm winds, 10 statute miles visibility, with multiple layers of broken clouds, a temperature of 15 Celsius (59 F) and a barometer of 30.13″ Hg, where runway 26 Right is closed, and with ILS approaches in progress to runway 26 Left, etc.. Seeing this and knowing the sepulchral workplace of controllers toiling in the dark generates a whimsical recollection from my air carrier days, where we frequently operated blind within clouds in areas of thunderstorm activity. We relied upon our onboard weather radar to keep us clear of the heaviest precipitation and coincident turbulence nastiness. Now and again we might pop out into the clear, and appreciated a quick visual scan of the bubbling cumulonimbus around us, routinely allowing as to how “one peek is worth a thousand sweeps” of our onboard radar’s ceaseless back and forth beam emanations. Gallows humor.
Which is modest segue into reflections ending this missive. Not unlike the practice of modern medicine, aviating or traffic-controlling of aircraft is several measures of art combined with science. In all three fields there is growing reliance and enhancement of what is known, by often digital electronic magic. But successful application of a practitioner’s skill set is a balancing of knowledge, experience, data, situational awareness, and a nuanced intuitional synthesis. The tools available are terrific, but it still comes down to the massaging, interpreting and acting upon the entire panoply of information being integrated in that three pounds of gray matter between a specific individual’s temples. It’s an imperfect world, but the ballet of aircraft control works with remarkable success, with the TRACON personnel doing their professional best to facilitate safety and the efficient minimally-impeded flow of traffic in a complex dynamic environment. My hat goes off to them.
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