The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC in Four Decades

Flight Data

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We didn’t learn to do flight plans in a day, or even a week. Flight Data School was a full six eight weeks, and we spent the last day processing strips, just like the last day of the first week. Nothing could prepare one, however, for actually working the FD1 position. That was the position at Flight Data whose primary responsibility was to answer calls and copy flight plans.

Dave and Gene had given us the easy part; copying flight plans and producing strips. The phone calls we actually got were a lot more varied than that. One of the keys to effective communications is actually listening to what is being said. One of the biggest traps in ATC in particular, but communications everywhere, is processing information based on what you expected to hear, regardless of what information was actually transmitted.

All of Dave and Gene’s practice was based on a flight data person calling from another facility and giving a flight plan. But in actuality, we also got calls from controllers at a sector, as well. We also received flight plans from Flight Service Stations, who had received them directly from the pilots. FSS frequently gave us more information than we needed to know, such as SOB (souls on board) and ETE (estimated time enroute), but eventually we learned to filter that out.

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The interphone system that we learned on in 1968 had probably been new when the Hilliard facility was built in 1960 and it was only phased out in 1996. It was called the Bell 300 system, and it did a pretty good job considering the state of the art when it was installed. At the flight data position, as at the D position, there were five bays of five buttons each sequentially aranged below the strip bays. The buttons on all but the two right bays were for specific lines or positions, and weren’t even installed on the flight data positions.

I must have been a good student, because I still remember the names of some of the buttons (even if their different functions weren’t fully clear) and oddly, most controllers forgot them within weeks of going downstairs. There were red buttons which were labeled “PCA” which stood for Primary Common Answering. Then there was a green button labeled “SCA” which stood for Secondary Common Answering. In between, there was a yellow button labeled “LLCA” which meant Long Line Common Answering. 98% of our calls were PCA. In nearly 30 years, I don’t ever remember reciving a call on SCA. Usually the BASOP and FSS calls came in on LLCA. After a while, you got an idea of who would be calling on what lines.

The one that confused me the most when I first heard it was when BASOPS (military operations) at MMT called in. First of all, the light that was ringing was an LLCA—one of those 2% instances. Then when I answered, the person said something like, ”20th NORAD with a two ship for Tarheel.” To this day I can remember turning to my trainer with a deer-in-the-headlights look that said, “whaaa?” Bless his heart, he deciphered it for me and I learned. 20th NORAD was the North American Air Defense Command which was in charge of aerial security of the Eastern seaboard. They managed several sections of airspace which we released to them to conduct fighter operations training. MMT was a South Carolina Air National Guard Base near Columbia and Tarheel was the ATCAA (ATC assigned airspace—a type of operating area which was released for their use and which covered a good chunk of northern South Carolina) they were filing for. A “two ship” is a flight of two (they flew F102s in those days at MMT). Some trainers weren’t so patient.

There was plenty of time for grab-ass, too. Someone somewhere had learned how to dial out on the 300 system and then dial back in to any position. It would ring just like a legitimate call (PCA), so there was no hint that anything was afoot. The usual joke for a new FD1 person was to ring them up. When they answered, you’d say, “I have a cannon report.”

The newbie, having already been exposed to NORAD mystery calls and other non-standard calls that Dave and Gene didn’t teach us, said, “go ahead.”

“Boom!” Click. (get it? cannon report?)

FD1 wasn’t the only position, of course. In fact it wasn’t even the first position. To check out on Flight Data, you had to master the writing of flight plans, learn how to “run” flight plans (deliver the strips to the appropriate sectors by carrying a couple dozen strips around on a paddle), run the Cardatype, and get along with the Flight Data supervisor who may not have been as high a grade as you.

The only jobs more dead end at that time in the Agency than Flight Data Supervisor were Flight Data Aide and, the lowest of the low, Cardatype operator. All of these folks had hired in to be controllers but had washed out, either on Flight Data or as Assistant Controllers on the floor (A-Sides). If you washed out on Flight Data you might be able to get a Cardatype job, but I’m sure they were carrying the max at the time (I think we only had two). Similarly, if you washed out on the A-Side, Flight Data Aide might be the fall back job, and eventually one might get promoted to Flight Data Supervisor (probably only three, but there might have been as many as five—I have no recollection whatsoever). That was before 1968.

By 1968 there was a new influx of hiring, of which I was near the vanguard. Moreover, there had been an automation initiative implemented and even as I walked in the door the equipment was in place and they were testing it at night at the end of the swing shifts. Flight Data, as we knew it, would disappear in less than three years. That’s why the jobs I mentioned were dead end. Once the computer came online, there was no place for those folks. I don’t know where they went. I just remember not seeing them after a while.

So the training went on—FD1, of course, and runner, and Cardatype, and in Jacksonville, due to the fact that we were an “overflight” center (one that dealt primarily with traffic originating and terminating at airports outside our area), we had a separate High Flight Data. We had to train on it, but truth told it was far easier because there was hardly a flight that needed more than three strips. And, the Flight Data Supervisors virtually never showed their faces at HFD. The next thing you knew, you were a fully certified Flight Data person.

Then it was time to train on the A-Side.

At this distant remove (40+ years) I don’t have much of a notion of the A-Side training regimen. Obviously, there must have been an element of difficulty to it at some level as there were people who washed out training on the positions. Just like every aspect of air traffic operations there was a complexity to it that the untrained or casual observer might find hard to grasp, but if one had the training we had and had the aptitude for the kind of work we did, then training on the A-Side was relatively unremarkable. In the event, I got through it pretty quickly, probably by the end of summer, 1968. Then it was just a matter of time for the next step—D School.

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Last updated: 03 June 2016