atc

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 #26 – The Most Frequently (And Some Less Frequently, But Still Interesting) Questions About Expat Life In Dubai*

Well, all I can say is thank goodness that it’s a leap year, giving me one extra day to scrape in this month’s ejo (just by the hair on my chinny chin chin!).  Phew!  So, people type some interesting things into Google.  Really interesting things!  Every time this site gets a referral from Google, I get a notification of what the search was that led them to me.  Some queries seem to come up again and again (you’d be surprised at how many people are in the market for an elephant skin jacket – I kid you not!).  My friend Chris (the one that helped me set up the site in the first place – yes, I should probably be paying him) suggested I write a special FAQ ejo to answer the more common questions.  And so, here it is.

 

CAN YOU HELP ME GET A JOB AS AN AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER IN DUBAI?

Far and away, this is the question that I get asked the most often.  Unfortunately for you the answer is no, I cannot.  What I can do though is provide you with an email address (Serco-Admin@dubaiairnav.gov.ae) where you can make enquiries and send your resume.  The rest is up to you.  Good luck.

 

WHAT DO MEN WEAR UNDER THEIR DISH DASH?

OK, so this is a very close second for most commonly asked question.  Being the intrepid investigator that I am, I summoned up the courage to ask one of my Emirati colleagues what he wears under his (keeping my fingers crossed that he wouldn’t get me deported for breaking some indecency law).  As it turns out I needn’t have worried.  He simply lifted his dish dash and showed me.  Yep!  All the way up.  Anyway, the garment worn under the dish dash is called a ‘wuzar’ (my spelling might not be 100% correct there, but that was the pronunciation).  It looks just like a long, cotton petticoat.  My colleague was wearing one with a loose elasticised waist but apparently you can also buy wrap-around wuzars, depending on your preference.  I asked another colleague (a woman this time, I’m not THAT bold) about the possibility of embarrassment caused by unwanted “physical reactions” and she told me (after laughing at me for a bit) that some men wear underpants, as well as a wuzar, to prevent any embarrassing situations cropping up (so to speak).  Others, more confident, simply go commando.  So there you have it, now you know.

 

IS ALCOHOL BANNED IN DUBAI?

As you’re about to find out, I have quite a lot to say on this topic.  Far from being banned, alcohol has a very large presence in Dubai.  The duty free allowance per person here is a very generous 4 litres of booze.  To put that in perspective, Australia’s limit is 2.25 litres.  I’ve mentioned in a previous ejo why I think alcohol is allowed in Dubai.  And it has everything to do with money!  Admittedly, not all the emirates are as laid back about it.  For instance Sharjah completely bans the consumption, or even possession, of alcohol.  If you live there, you can’t enjoy a beer with your food, even in the privacy of your own home.  Not legally anyway.  Another point to note is that alcohol is one of the only items in Dubai which is subject to tax.  A whopping 30% tax, making it very expensive.  Officially, in this emirate you need a license in order to purchase alcohol for your private consumption.  Unofficially, whenever you want to stock up, you can just drive to one of the (more relaxed) neighbouring emirates which sells untaxed booze.  Either way, it’s readily available.

 

I must confess that when we first moved here my drinking became problematic.  Free flowing booze at weekly brunches makes it difficult to know how much you’re actually drinking.  And socially, it’s something that can easily become a habit.  I put on a lot of weight, behaved very badly and suffered some monster hangovers (the worst of my life).  Eventually, I sobered up for long enough to realise that it had to stop.  Not everyone has the same discipline.  The two Brits who were arrested and deported for the ‘sex on the beach’ scandal had apparently been drinking all afternoon at one of the famous Friday brunches.  And there lies the dichotomy.  The Friday brunch is a Dubai institution.  It is government sanctioned and almost impossible to avoid if you want to go out for a midday meal on Friday (which happens to be the first day of the weekend here).  Just about every hotel in town offers a Friday Brunch.  But to actually be under the influence of alcohol in public (whether you are rip roaring drunk or have had just one glass) is illegal.  So, theoretically, the cops could arrest every single person leaving a brunch as soon as they step out of the hotel, though they tend not to as it wouldn’t be very good publicity for the city.  But what amazes me is the number of people who are completely unaware of the law that they are breaking, who are then outraged when they get into trouble for breaking it.  Yes, booze is a big part of life in Dubai, but it exists in a very delicate balance within society.  It’s not something that you can take for granted, like back home (or pretty well anywhere else in the world).  You must be careful at all times, as the consequences can be severe.  A woman found this out a few years ago when, after attending a big brunch, she drunkenly passed out in a hotel bathroom where a hotel staff member raped her.  When she reported the rape, they didn’t just arrest him for the rape, but also her, on charges of being drunk in public.  That’s very scary.

 

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES AND LESSONS FOR A WESTERN WOMAN WORKING IN THE UAE?

David and I moved to Dubai in 2008 after he was offered an ATC job at Dubai International Airport.  When I couldn’t immediately get work as an air traffic controller, people often assumed it was because I was a woman and that women aren’t allowed to work here.  This isn’t true, and my lack of employment was actually the result of the global financial crisis.  A year or so into our move I was offered an ATC job at Al Maktoum International Airport where I’ve been happily working for over two years.  I’m lucky enough to work for a very large multi-national company which implements equal employment rights for women here, and as a result I’ve never experienced any discrimination in the workplace.  In fact I’ve been given opportunities here that wouldn’t so readily be available to me back home.  Not because (or in spite of the fact that) I’m a woman, but based on my ability to do the job.  To be completely honest I’m sure that there are many women here who do face discrimination and challenges in the workplace but I have neither observed or, personally, been subjected to it.

 

Having said all that, something very disturbing happened to me a couple of days ago which demonstrates that the city has a VERY long way to go towards gender equality.  As I mentioned earlier, a liquor license is required to (legally) buy alcohol here, so I figured I’d apply for one since David’s expired a while ago.  So, off I went to the bottle shop with all the necessary paperwork in hand.  This includes an application form, a copy of my passport and residency visa, a copy of my payslip and a “Letter of No Objection” from my employer (stating that they had no objection to me applying for the license).  I confidently handed it all over and was promptly asked where the “Letter of No Objection” from my husband was.  I’m just going to let that sink in for a minute while I go on to describe how I had to bend down to pick up my jaw off the floor.  Yep, they insisted that, since I’d checked the box on the application form saying I was married, I had to ask my husband’s permission to obtain a license to drink booze.  It’s actually enough to DRIVE you to drink!  I asked, incredulously, if that would still be the case if my husband was my dependant, and I was his sponsor.  The answer came back yes.  The man, it seems, is still the boss.  Being the modern woman that I am, I insisted that they process my application without David’s authority so we’ll wait and see how that works out for me.  I’ll let you know.  While this experience completely flabbergasted me, it is an isolated one (for me at least).  I look forward to never encountering such discrimination here again.

 

ON A ONE-TO-ONE BASIS WHAT IS THE COMFORT LEVEL BETWEEN ARABS AND NON-ARABS BOTH IN DUBAI AND IN THE RURAL AREAS?  IS THERE COMFORT?  CONFIDING, FRIENDSHIP, ALLIES?  OR ARE WESTERNERS FOREVER A COMMODITY IN A TRANSIENT INTERNATIONAL TRADE?

My experience in Dubai is that, as a general rule, locals are a little wary of expats.  As a whole they probably do see us as a bit of a commodity.  But that isn’t to say that they necessarily resent our presence here.  The city simply wouldn’t be what it is today without us.  Regardless of the overall feeling, my own personal experience is that once an Emirati develops a relationship with a foreigner (whether it be a friendship or a working relationship) then the guard comes down.  Every Emirati that I have the pleasure of knowing through work is warm, generous, hospitable and friendly.  I think that this is their true nature and that the wariness comes as a natural (and understandable) result of being a minority in their own country.  I haven’t met any locals out of the city but from what I hear, Bedouin hospitality is even greater.  So, one-to-one I’d say that yes, relations are good.  There is warmth and acceptance and friendship.  However, I don’t think it would be realistic to expect this to extend to all relations between expats and locals.  I have heard stories of locals being rude, nasty and sometimes just plain malicious towards expats.  I suppose that, just like everywhere else, it depends on the people involved.

 

HOW DO THEY EXPECT “THE WORLD” TO NOT ERODE AWAY ON A BIG TIDE/STORM SURGE?

This is an interesting question.  For those of you who don’t know, The World project is a man-made archipelago consisting of about 250 islands designed to look, from above, like a map of the world.  There seem to be regular reports that the islands are slipping back into (and being re-reclaimed by) the sea.  Nakheel, the developer of these (and the more successful Palm Island projects) of course denies these reports.  So, who’s right?  Well, for now it appears that the islands are sticking around, though due to the financial crisis, until recently only one had been developed – and that one belongs to the ruler of Dubai.  Earlier this month though, I heard that an Indian entrepreneur has developed a beach club (complete with swimming pool, beachside cabanas, bar and restaurant) on the island of Lebanon which is due to open any day.  This means that people will be able to visit the islands for the first time ever (which is quite exciting).  Hopefully this will encourage other developers to invest in similar kinds of ventures.  As for the threat of erosion, from what I can tell, the islands lie on a very solid foundation (similar to that of the Palm Islands and also the reclaimed land on which the Burj Al Arab sits).  The technology is sound.  The 321 million cubic metres of sand and 31 million tons of rock which form the foundation would also suggest that The World is here to stay.  (To put those figures into perspective, 1.8 million tons of debris was recovered from Ground Zero after 9/11.)

 

Lebanon Island

 

HAS LEEWIN FOUND A WIFE?

Not yet.  And, in a lucky twist of fate, the search has temporarily been called off after his cousin (a numerologist) did a reading and discovered that Leewin’s profile on a whole bunch of matrimonial sites had been registered on an unlucky date.  How about that!  His brother quickly took down all of Leewin’s information from the internet, and is waiting a couple of months (and for a new numerology reading) before re-registering him.  Marriage: 0, Leewin: 1.

 

OK, so I hope that your question has been answered.  This is actually part one in a two part special so standby for some more interesting facts about life in Dubai next month.  In the meantime if you have a burning desire to have a myth debunked or just want some information on something you’re unsure about, please just drop me a note and I’ll see if I can add it to the next FAQ ejo.

 

 

* (Unfortunately,) I feel obliged to state that the answers to these questions are 100% opinion only.  If I’m wrong about something, I apologise and am very open to being corrected.

Ejo #13 – My Life As An Air Traffic Controller at Al Maktoum International Airport and Introducing You To Dangerous Doug

OK, I’ve had writer’s block.  To be honest, I’ve never really been able to write very easily when I’m employed as an Air Traffic Controller.  Perhaps that’s just an excuse, or maybe it has something to do with how I need to use the different sides of my brain.  Let’s go with the latter (though we all know it’s almost definitely the former).  There’s nothing like a bit of self-denial to get the ball rolling anyway.  But at least it’s rolling.

So, most of you know that I’m employed as an ATC at Al Maktoum International, the new airport in Dubai.  Some of you are aware that the airport has had a most unillustrious beginning.  Meaning that so far there’s been virtually no air traffic.  Before the airport actually opened we were warned of (and dismayed at the prospect of dealing with) only 60 movements a day.  And no, a movement (in this case anyway) has nothing to do with going to the toilet.  It refers to the number of times an aircraft uses the runway.  So an aircraft that lands at midday and then takes off two hours later counts as two movements.  So 60 is not very many considering that when I left Melbourne Tower we were handling 500-600 a day.  And it’s absolute peanuts compared to what David handles at Dubai International Airport – over 900 a day and creeping towards a grand.

So sure, the thought of 60 movements a day was somewhat disheartening.  But the reality has eventuated as even more depressing.  Honestly, the most movements I’ve ‘controlled’ in a single shift has been about eight.  Which is why (you may have noticed) I’ve not once referred to myself as ‘working’ as an ATC but rather as being ’employed’ as one.  There’s a vast difference.

Still, I am employed.  And the fact is that one day Al Maktoum International is slated to be the largest airport in the world (of course!).  It will have five parallel runways and be capable of processing 160,000,000 passengers a year.  That’s a lot.  But really, that reality is a long way off, and so I have been confronted with the question of, “What should I do with my time?”.  I started off whiling the hours at work away by playing solitaire on the computer.  Not very productive and it got very boring, very quickly.  So I decided to do a little bit of self-education (and make a bit of money hopefully) by studying investing.  You know, so that I could be more informed about dabbling in the stockmarket.  Well, what I learned is that I shouldn’t dabble in the stockmarket.  I also managed to learn a few other valuable bits of info though; enough to actually feel comfortable investing in equities for the first time in my life.  I am now the proud owner of a (very) small percentage of a few banks and a mining company.  Thrilling.  Now I just have to hold onto the shares that I’ve bought and in about 30 years I’ll have made my fortune.  But that still doesn’t answer my question of what to do in the meantime???

I decided, dear friends, that rather than do a course by correspondence (which is an idea I seriously flirted with), what I would do is snuggle up to my other dear old friends, words.  And I would, once more, make a serious attempt at writing something fit for publication.  So now, what I have is an idea to work on, plenty of opportunity (with the added bonus of being paid to do it), the equipment (a desk has finally arrived in the tower break room), a New Year’s Resolution to have the first draft of a book finished by the end of 2011, and absolutely NO MORE EXCUSES.

Wish me luck (again) please.

Oh, before I bid you all adieu, I have been reminded that in my last ejo I promised you all a funny story.  OK then, here it is:

I work with a wonderfully weird (and simply lovely) guy called Doug.  I want you all to get acquainted with Doug because he is the protagonist at the centre of countless strange and bizarre experiences and stories, which I would like to share with you over time.

Anyway, Doug is a never-married (but twice-engaged) gentleman in his fifties, though he doesn’t look that old as he takes very good care of himself.  Saying that though, I must also point out that Doug has absolutely no ego whatsoever.  He’ll always be the first to laugh at himself in any situation (and trust me, there are many, many situations).  I want to be as frank as possible here: the man is a poo magnet.  If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong when Doug is around, and furthermore it will go wrong in spectacular fashion.

To wit:  One day, several years ago, Doug was in his apartment (in Sharjah, a UAE emirate) making a late night cheese and tomato sauce sandwich (gross, right?).  Anyway, while making his midnight snack he was watching a show on TV, something related to surgery (possibly Dr. 90210 – I don’t really know).  Now, I’m not sure if Doug already knew that he had a tendency to faint at the sight of blood, or if it was a trait that he discovered that very night.  Suffice to say, he saw some blood on the TV show and fainted at the sight of it, and in doing so he dropped the knife to the kitchen floor.  Also on his way down, he banged his head on the kitchen bench knocking himself out cold for the next fifteen minutes.

What happened in that fifteen minutes reads like some kind of screwball comedy but I promise you all of it is true.  His downstairs neighbour (who’d been taking a bath when she heard the thump as he hit the floor like a sack of spuds), jumped out of the bath, into a robe and ran upstairs to see what the matter was.  She knocked frantically on the door and after getting no response she flung the door open, only to find Doug on the floor in the kitchen, unconscious, with blood pouring out of the wound in his head where he’d struck it on the bench.  She immediately rang for an ambulance, which turned up a short time later with a couple of police officers in tow.

The cops took one look at the scene: an apparently dead man on the floor with blood gushing out of his head, a red spattered butcher’s knife flung across the kitchen floor and a badly shaken, half naked, female neighbour in hysterics.  They quickly concluded the obvious.  The neighbour had murdered Doug.  She was promptly arrested.

Then, to shake things up a bit, Doug started regaining consciousness and protesting his neighbour’s innocence.  This, contrary to what you might imagine, did not actually help things.  What it did was lead the cops to wonder why this lady had tried (albeit failing in the attempt) to kill Doug and they came up with the only logical solution.  He must have tried to rape her.  It makes sense.  She was scantily clad, he tried to rape her, she defended herself by stabbing him in the head with a knife.  The case was all wrapped up.  And so, they arrested him too.

The two of them were then taken to the police station to be booked with their respective charges amid increasingly hysterical declarations of innocence that were only heeded once a senior police officer took the time to examine the knife more closely and discovered that the red stuff was indeed just tomato sauce and not Doug’s blood after all.  Both were let off with a warning (oh yes!): they should not have been alone in the house together as they were neither married nor related by blood.

Sharjah Police: 1, Doug: 0.

Next time I’ll relate how Doug managed to even-steven the score.  Til then, I wish you all a fabulous Xmas and I hope 2011 brings you all abundant joy, health and happiness.

Kiss

Chryss

PS David says hi!