Air Traffic Control

Ejo #150 – Boeing 747: Queen Of The Skies

I have been an air traffic controller for nearly 22 years, and I’m lucky enough to be able to say that I still absolutely love my job.  A fun fact about me is that I’m actually trained to work in both tower and approach environments, but I’ve always been grateful that my entire career has been spent working exclusively in air traffic control towers.  There’s a funny, self-aggrandising hierarchy amongst approach controllers in which they believe that they’re the top guns of ATC, and that the tower is where air traffic controllers go to die (we don’t call them figjam for nothing).  I’m not going to get into that debate here, but I will say that every single day I go to work I’m thankful that I get to look out the window and see the aeroplanes I’m controlling, rather than being stuck in a cheerless radar room with row upon row of radar screens and no windows or natural light.

Queen of my domain.
A generic factory floor, oops, I mean radar room. 😉

Truly, one of the joys of my job is just being able to watch the aircraft fly.  In 22 years I reckon I’ve seen over a million takeoffs and landings, so you’d be forgiven for assuming I might be a bit jaded by it all.  But no, I still totally get off on it.  I definitely wouldn’t call myself an aerosexual, but there is one particular aircraft’s takeoff which absolutely fills me with awe and wonder every time I see it, and that aircraft is the Boeing 747.  For something that has a maximum takeoff weight of 442,252 kilograms, the Jumbo jet veritably glides off the runway with such elegance and grace, it still takes my breath away.  

Taxiing for departure at Al Maktoum International Airport. ♥

The first B747 flight took place from Everett, Washington in the United States in 1969, with the model entering service a year later.  Years in the making, the “Dream Team” of over 50,000 employees that worked on the aircraft, produced a remarkable feat of aviation engineering which revolutionised air travel by making it cheaper and easier for people to fly. The Boeing 747, which is capable of carrying 660 passengers (in a single, cattle-class, configuration), is commonly referred to as the Queen Of The Skies and is beloved and revered by aviation enthusiasts all over the world, including me.  It’s no surprise that the 747, with its unique and classic shape is one of the most iconic, popular, and most recognisable aircraft in aviation history. 

The very first B747. Isn’t she lovely, isn’t she wonderful.
The difference between the B747 and it’s predecessor, the B707, is vast. Which is how the Jumbo jet transformed air travel.

How much do I love the B747?  Let me tell you the ways.  I own a clock, a truly magnificent work of art, made from an actual Boeing 747 passenger window.  I love the fact that I have a little piece of flying history up on my wall.  I love that instead of rusting away in some desolate scrapyard heap, part of this remarkable aircraft was salvaged and lovingly handcrafted into a beautiful timepiece.  For over two decades, the window that my clock is made from travelled thousands of miles, at altitudes exceeding 40,000 feet.  Its history no doubt contains tales of severe turbulence, strong winds, rain, freezing temperatures and possibly even lightning strikes.  My B747 has traversed the globe countless times, crossing oceans and deserts, and possibly even poles.  Her ports of call have included New York City, Miami, Cape Town, Singapore, San Francisco, Johannesburg and São Paulo (special shout out to all the aerosexuals out there who keep track of this sort of stuff).

That’s my girl.

Who knows how many passengers gazed out of my window, on their way to a holiday, a business conference or to start a brand new life.  How many people looked through my window with wonder, how many with terror or sadness or with joy.  How many of them had a little too much to drink out of too many miniature bottles of booze?  Who was the youngest person to ever sit in my window seat?  Who was the oldest?  Oh, what stories my window could tell.  How many hard landings did she have to endure, and how many landings did the pilot absolutely glue to the runway?  Did my British Airways 747 ever experience a near miss?  How many times did she have to divert due to a sick passenger, or an unruly one?  How much drama and intrigue unfolded in the galley, long after the cabin lights had been dimmed?  And exactly how many people were initiated into the mile high club?  These are things I’ll never know, but it sure is fun to wonder.  The things I do know about my window is that the registration of the aircraft it belonged to was GCIVM (that’s Golf Charlie India Victor Mike to the uninitiated).  Her maiden flight was on Tuesday, 27th May 1997 and her final scheduled flight was 23 years later, with wheels touching down on Sunday, 15th March 2020. 

Air France’s moving, farewell tribute to their last B747. I’m not crying, you’re crying!!

Sadly, in July 2020 British Airways retired their entire fleet of 31 passenger Boeing 747s due to the sharp downturn in air travel hastened by covid.  I received my clock seven months after my B747 was put out to pasture, thanks to two brothers in England who have combined their love of furniture-making and their passion for aviation to form a business called Plane Industries, repurposing old aircraft parts. 

KLM B747 arriving at St. Maarten’s. Pure aviation pornography (oh shit, maybe I am an aerosexual after all)!!

British Airways isn’t the only airline to stop flying the fuel guzzling, four-engine wide-body aircraft.  Demand for the Queen Of The Skies has dwindled in recent years and two years ago Boeing regretfully announced that they planned to stop making the aircraft in October 2022.  It will be a very sad day in aviation when the last Jumbo jet rolls off the production line, but I do feel some consolation that the B747s currently being used as freighters will remain in service, roaming the skies long after I ride the tower elevator down to the ground floor for the very last time. 

Fill her up, buttercup. I bet you didn’t know that this is how they load cargo onto B747 freighters.

How much do I love the B747?  At the beginning of May, I got my very first tattoo in Amsterdam, at the ripe old age of fifty.  The image is an outline of a Boeing 747 taking off, on the inside of my left wrist.  Though it is beautiful, the aircraft doesn’t just appeal to me aesthetically.  It also represents my work, which I love.  It represents the job that totally changed my life and allowed me to pursue and indulge in my other passion, travel.  It represents my wanderlust, and my desire to soar, and to keep seeking new experiences in far-flung places.  It represents hope, and anticipation and joy. 

My B747 isn’t quite anatomically correct (a lesson in being super precise in telling the tattooist what you want). But I still love her.

You want to know how much I love the B747? My very first business class flight was in a Jumbo jet.  I was travelling home from a trip to San Francisco in 2006 and the plane stopped over for about an hour in Sydney.  When we re-boarded to fly the final leg to Melbourne I decided to shoot my shot and boldly asked if I could sit in business class, playing the old “I’m an air traffic controller” card. Don’t ask me how, but it actually worked!!  The lovely cabin crew escorted me up that glorious stairway to heaven, also known as the upper-deck, business-class section, where for the next hour they plied me with champagne and treated me like a queen.  Queen of the goddamn skies. 

Business, bitchzzzz!!

Ejo #95 – ATC 101: Air Shows

Contrary to popular belief, I actually have an extraordinarily dull job. I am 100% governed by rules, regulations, procedures, instructions and agreements which prescribe every little thing air traffic controllers do, every single day. These nuts and bolts are set in stone and we absolutely cannot deviate from them. And that’s cool, coz it keeps the skies safe.

The over-riding big-cheese of all our commandments is the International Civil Aviation Organisation, also known as ICAO (pronounced eye-KAY-oh). Following the airborne mayhem of World War II, a bunch of governments realised they needed to get their shit together and regulate air safety.  ICAO was born in 1947, after 52 countries put aside their differences and signed the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation.  I’m pretty sure they cracked a bottle of champagne afterwards.

ICAO regulates the entire global air navigation system, and oversees its massive growth. It’s a big job and they’ve published a veritable encyclopaedia of compliance documents and annexes. For instance, one of their fascinating tomes which dictates how I do my job is ICAO Doc 4444 PANS-ATM (Procedures for Navigation Services – Air Traffic Management). This 466 page beauty talks about all sorts of interesting things pertaining to ATC and, as an ATC Examiner, I refer to this document at least once a week. I look up things like the reporting of operational and meteorological information to pilots, wake turbulence categories, separation standards, runway selection, flight priorities, surveillance system capabilities, flight information and alerting services, coordination between agencies and units, standard phraseologies and how to deal with certain emergency situations. They cover a lot of topics, but ICAO actually paint in very broad brushstrokes. They don’t want to have to deal with the minutiae of every single situation, so they leave more specific instructions up to each state’s regulator.

To that end, in Australia you guys have the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), the USA has the FAA, and in the UAE we have the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA). Each of these bodies follows the general rules that ICAO have set up and then, in addition to that, impose their own, more particular, local legislations known as Civil Aviation Regulations (CARs). The GCAA CARs mandate how all the ATC units in the UAE operate, including personnel requirements, training, contingency plans, coordination requirements, accident reporting, incident reporting and occurrence reporting, radio and telephone procedures, Safety Management System (SMS) requirements, management of fatigue related safety risks, licensing and currency requirements, low visibility operations and English language proficiency. It also delves deeper into the nitty gritty of separation standards and emergency handling.

Next, in the hierarchy of documents, we have the Manual of Air Traffic Services (MATS). This is a unit specific document detailing the finer points of how I do my job, day-to-day. My tower’s MATS is 270 pages long and I know it by heart. I kinda have to. That’s my job.

OK, so far I’ve talked a lot about documents and not a lot about air shows. What gives? I will explain, but first have a squiz at these amazing photos taken at recent air shows.

110608-F-MM807-220.jpg

The F-16 Thunderbirds doing some remarkable shit at Kogalniceanu airport, near Bucharest, Romania in 2011. The Thunderbirds are the air demonstration squadron of the US Air Force.

 

Airshow 2

Not to be outdone, the USA Navy have their own pretty snazzy air demonstration team called the Blue Angels, flying pretty darn impressive F/A-18s in very close proximity.

 

So, way back at the turn of the century I spent twelve months studying how to be an air traffic controller. This was followed by intense on-the-job, local training at each facility I’ve worked at since. The end-goal of all this training? To keep ‘em separated, people!!! The aircraft in the photos above are NOT separated. Not by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not by any internationally recognised separation standard, of which there are many. They are not longitudinally separated, laterally separated, vertically separated, deemed separated, or geographically separated. At all!!!!! Some people might argue that they are visually separated, but I’d argue back that they are not. And I would win that argument.

What I’m saying is that over the years I’ve honed a very precise set of skills designed to prevent aircraft from doing shit like this, whether it’s deliberate or not. And I simply cannot switch that off.

In reality, the aerobatic portion of air shows is just a small part of why they exist. They’re mostly about displaying cool new aircraft to businesses, airlines, governments and obscenely rich individuals who want to buy them. And I’ve got absolutely nothing against that. The flying display, however, is really just the grandstanding part of that – hey, check out the size of my….. fighter jet. Look how quickly I can make it go up. And yes, even I get sucked into how cool it is when an A350 banks into a split-ass 90º turn straight off the runway.

It’s absolutely impressive. But if an aircraft did that on a normal day at work, I’d be pushing the crash alarm button and getting the airport fire service out there lickety-split. Because that bitch’d be about to crash. Because that’s not what passenger aircraft are designed to do. They are designed to take-off, climb, cruise, turn, descend and land within very tight parameters. And I am designed to keep it that way.

But hey, you might ask, what about the F/A-18s and F-16s? These planes are kinda designed to fly upside down. And sideways. And in crazy vertical spirals. Shut up, I don’t care. Yes, it’s extremely fucking cool, I cannot deny that. But I still don’t like it. My brain has been conditioned to freak out at these antics and I kinda feel like everyone in aviation should feel the same way. But as it turns out, I’m actually an anomaly in my industry. Most ATCs love this stuff. Go figure. Look, I honestly do admire the hell out of the rockstar pilots that do these crazy manoeuvres, and I’m not ashamed to admit to fawning over the Australian Air Force Roulettes team when they landed at Albury airport while I was training there, back in the day. And OK, I do get a thrill when Al Fursan, the UAE’s air demonstration team, buzz the tower when I clear them to transit my control zone. But air show displays? I don’t like the risk involved. And it is risky.

My first exposure to an air show was in 1988 when Air France Flight 296 crashed at the Habsheim air show in France. I was 17 and it would be another nine years before I even got the twitch to be an air traffic controller. But I will never forget watching this A320, full of passengers, fly what seemed like a totally controlled trajectory right into a forest, before crashing into flames. It shocked me, and it actually still traumatises me to watch that video.

There was a whole debate afterwards about what caused the crash but what struck me most was how unnecessary it was. Miraculously just three of the 136 people on board died, but sadly two of them were children who had won their tickets in a raffle. Jackpot??  I don’t think so.

Since becoming an air traffic controller I’ve learned that the A320 air show accident was not an isolated incident. Even though air shows are touted as “mostly” safe, accidents and crashes do happen. Ever since the Wright brothers’ revolutionary first flight in 1903, there have been 684 aircraft accidents at air shows, sometimes involving multiple aircraft and sometimes actually killing spectators. And the statistics are not going down. There have been 79 accidents in the last ten years alone. So why are we still having aerobatic displays at air shows? Why do we pressure our very best pilots to push the limits of aircraft? For a quick sale? I’m sorry, but that’s simply not good enough for me.

Clearance denied.

 

Ejo #81 – ATC 101: Stress

Air traffic control is one of the few things I know well enough to write about with any authority.  Turns out, it’s also one of the more popular topics I write about.  So, being the people pleaser that I am, I’ve decided to start a new series called ATC 101.  It will delve into the basics of the job, as well as my thoughts about various aspects of it.  Obviously I won’t be going into too much detail (coz shit can get technical and -believe it or not- quite boring), and most of what I’ll write about is most definitely going to consist solely of my opinion – meaning that it is in no way a definitive account of the job.  Just my two cents worth.

This month, spurred by a recent incident that occurred at Dubai International Airport, I’m going to write about stress and the air traffic controller.  Whenever I tell someone what I do they always respond with some variation of, “Wow, that’s such a stressful job”.  But is it actually stressful? What exactly is stress?  How is stress defined in this context?  If the question being asked is, “Am I constantly on edge with my heart racing and sweat beading on my forehead, from the time I clock on to the time I go home?” the answer is no.  But for some reason, the flying public’s perception of the job is that it’s super high pressure all the time.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Though if you were to read the ridiculous New York Times article that inspired the ridiculous movie “Pushing Tin” you could be forgiven for thinking that it was.

Taking away the fact that my current job is obviously less taxing than when I was an air traffic controller at an airport with more traffic (i.e. Melbourne), I’m still going to lead with the premise that the job itself, despite its reputation, is actually not stressful.  Yes, over the course of a day we handle billions of dollars worth of aircraft holding the lives of thousands of people.  But we are just one line of defence against an accident occurring.  There are safety systems in place – procedures, equipment, pilots, aircraft maintenance, emergency responders – the list goes on.  Sure, we can’t afford to make mistakes but a whole bunch of mistakes have to be made along the line before an accident happens.

There’s a theory about the cause of accidents put forward by researcher Professor James Reason famously known as the Swiss Cheese model of accident causation.  The theory posits that each line of defence against an accident is basically a piece of Swiss cheese.  Sure, it might have holes in it (and that’s OK, because there is no perfect resistance against errors) but when the holes of successive pieces of cheese line up, an accident occurs.  So I am a piece of cheese, and yes, my actions prevent an unknown number of accidents but that’s my job and that’s what I’m trained to do.  Just as the pilots are trained to do their job, and airport electricians are trained to do theirs etc. and collectively we make it a safe and efficient way to travel.

 

Reason Model

When the holes line up = bad.

 

Air traffic control, by its very nature, is a job defined by rules and procedures that MUST be adhered to.  And we all know that when you do the same thing, over and over and over and over again, it becomes monotonous.  So air traffic control can sometimes actually be a really dull job.  Even when you’re dealing with lots of traffic. But no-one ever says, “Ugh, that must be a really boring job!”

In my personal experience, there are three situations which have caused me stress at work.  The first is training. Training is stressful.  Yes, we learn the basics of ATC at the beginning but each new place we work has local instructions in addition to the regular rules.  New routes to learn, new procedures, new phraseology, new traffic patterns.  Training sucks.  Seriously, just ask any air traffic controller.

Something else that sucks is the annual competency check we have to do, to ensure that we are operating to the expected standard.  It consists of a written exam, the questions for which are mined from the reams of paperwork we are expected to memorise in order to do our job.  In addition, there is an oral examination (which is basically the same as the written exam, but just seems SO much harder) and then a two hour assessment in each position that you’re qualified to control in.  You might be the best ATC in the world, it does not matter.  No-one likes having another person sitting over their shoulder watching them work and taking notes.  No-one.  Decisions that you would make every day without blinking an eye suddenly become difficult.  You second-guess yourself.  It’s just awful.  But hey, standards have to be maintained and that’s just the nature of the job.  If you fail a check, you need to get re-trained in the necessary areas.  It’s a way of keeping everyone sharp.  So yeah, every October, when my check is rostered, you could say I find that to be a stressful situation.  And even though I know what I’m doing and feel very confident about my abilities, the relief is enormous every time I pass and it’s over for another year.

The third situation that I found stressful was actually one that isn’t necessarily associated with the job itself.  A couple of years after I qualified as an ATC, in late 2002, my father got sick with cancer.  He was sick for ten months, and during that time my work was actually a really great distraction from the depressing situation at home.  It was an escape.  But then, in September 2003 my father died and suddenly my world fell apart.  I tried to continue at work but I knew, I just knew, that I couldn’t put on a headset and talk to pilots and still be safe.  I pulled myself from the roster.

One of the definitions of the word “stress” is being in a state of “mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”.  My work has never caused that. But my father’s death was stressful.  And it caused me stress in the workplace.  Perhaps if I had a different kind of job I could have continued working.  But being an ATC, I couldn’t. You have to know your limits  and you have to know yourself. Maybe that constant self-scrutiny also contributes to latent stress. Who knows?

There is something, in my line of work, called CISM.  It stands for critical incident stress management.  And it refers to the education and support provided to air traffic controllers in order to help them deal with stressful situations.  Now, a stressful situation can be something that occurs outside of the workplace, like a loved one’s death.  But more often than not, CISM is provided in response to an incident that happens at work.  Like an accident.  Like earlier this month, when EK521 crashed on landing at Dubai International.  We don’t yet know the reason for the crash.  We don’t know which Swiss cheese holes lined up to cause the accident. We do know that the Airport Fire Service were the piece of cheese with no holes. If it wasn’t for their incredible response, the outcome could have been catastrophic.

The first I heard of the accident was when I arrived at work for an afternoon shift and was told to expect a busy shift because an aircraft had just crashed at Dubai.  My immediate response was to ask, “Oh shit, did everyone get out OK?” which is what most people would ask.  But my second instinct was to ask about the air traffic controller who was in charge of the flight, and ask if they were OK too. And that’s something that most people would not necessarily think about.  They wouldn’t think about the guy or girl who has responsibility for that tin can full of human beings. Or how it must feel to have that tin can impact with the earth – something that’s never supposed to happen.  But I did. Because I’m that guy or girl. And that aeroplane full of people is our responsibility. Even when there’s absolutely nothing we could have done to prevent it.  We are the ones talking to the pilot.  That aircraft was in our jurisdiction.  We had “control” – it’s in the fucking job title.

So I guess, that’s where the most stress lies.  In the possibility that something that happens safely every day thousands and thousands of times (aeroplanes taking off, and aeroplanes landing) might, one day, go wrong.  But here’s the thing.  As air traffic controllers, we simply cannot think about that.  We can’t worry about the holes lining up.  Because if we did, we’d be paralysed.  We just have to get on with the job of trying to keep the holes in our cheese as small and as few in number as possible.

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day.  We studied ATC together, sixteen years ago.  She’s one of the most experienced, and one of the best, controllers I know.  But she’s no longer working traffic.  She is now a manager in the Safety department – an office job.  When I mentioned to her that I was feeling a little under the weather that day for my morning shift she said she was really pleased not to have to deal with the stress of turning up to work every day at 100% capacity. Even though she had no idea I was writing this ejo, she said that she was a lot less stressed now that she was no longer an air traffic controller. She also said that she never would have thought of herself as stressed when she was doing the job. She only realised it after she switched to office work

And therein, I suppose, lies the crux of what we do.  We deal with stress, with stressful situations, all the time.  But we don’t consider it stressful.  We can’t afford to. The stress is there – but we raise our threshold in order to cope with it.  We toughen our skins, and we harden the fuck up. And we pay the price for that. Increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, sterility (yup, sterility), divorce and obesity. And you know what? There’s nothing else we’d rather do. But more than that, we’re the only ones who can do it.