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I had mentioned in my bio that I spent one, maybe two weeks as a journeyman controller in Low when I was recruited to go to High Altitude (all this at ZJX). Clearly, with little more than two years in the agency, I was going to see a lot of things for the first time for a while.
I came in one morning (22 October 1970) and relieved the mid guy on CHS. Not two minutes later I got a call from ZDC with a handoff just south of ILM on a flight of three A-4s enroute from NTU to NIP. I marked the callsign, VAE 302 (pronounced “Navy Alfa Echo Three Zero Two) and altitude (descending to FL240) on a shrimp boat and placed it alongside the target (which appears as two slashes with a small space between—called a double slash) on the scope. A few minutes later I heard the familiar “one,” (pause) “two,” (pause) “Jacksonville Center, Navy Alfa Echo Three Zero Two, descending to Flight Level 240, popeye.”
I answered, “Navy Alfa Echo Three Zero Two, Jacksonville Center, squawk ident” (see note below). “popeye” is ATC slang meaning one is in IMC (instrument meteorological conditions)—it’s not usually announced, but some military flights were often made towards the end of the month by rusty pilots holding desk billets trying to get in enough flight time to retain their flight pay bonus. It wound up being an important bit of knowledge in this story.
I observed the space betweeen the two slashes of the target fill in to look like one thick slash—the indication of the identifying code sent by the flight’s transponder. I transmitted, “Navy Alfa Echo Three Zero Two, radar contact,” and then sat back to relax and periodically move the shrimp boat along as the flight progressed. It was probably about 0830 and the sector was in that morning wake-up mode where the sun is blazing an hour above the ocean, the midshifters are struggling to stay awake as they drive into it on their way home, and all the air carriers are still shaking off the dew before getting their flying day started and cluttering up my sector. GIs (slang for military flights) and Citations were all I'd see for a while.
A few minutes later my radio crackled, “Jacksonville, Navy Alfa Echo Three One Six.” (our radios don’t really crackle—that’s just some literary effect first employed when there was no such thing as a squelch control and all communications were on HF, where there is some crackling or more correctly, static crashes).
“Navy Alfa Echo Three One Six, go ahead.”
“Yeah, Jax, we’re the second ship in the Navy Alfa Echo Three Zero Two flight, and we’ve lost visual contact with the lead. We’re level Flight Level Two Four Zero.” This was kind of serious stuff. Formation flights operate under IFR on the basis of a protocol named MARSA, which means military assumes responsibility for separation of aircraft. So, the flight of three were separating themselves, which is done by the other pilots flying in formation by visual reference to the lead. Once he lost sight of lead, he was potentially wandering around in the clouds at the same altitude and in some danger of a mid-air collision.
I asked Navy Alfa Echo Three Zero Two his altitude and he replied, “leaving Flight Level Two Seven Zero.” I recleared Navy Alfa Echo Three Zero Two to FL260 (in order to get some FAA separation), and then asked Navy Alfa Echo Three One Six to squawk 2100 (the high altitude transponder code—trailing aircraft in a flight always had their transponders on but in “standby” mode so as not to clutter up our scopes). All of the aircraft were on the same frequency, of course, and I suspect when 316 lost sight of the lead, he expedited down to FL240. Alas, 316’s transponder apparently wasn’t working.
There is no training for this sort of thing and it’s one of the attractions I found in the job over the years—there were plenty of opportunities to get creative in order to solve problems. Thinking (naively, as I look back) that I could identify 316 and vector him to rejoin 302, I turned up the “primary” (High Altitude scopes were always set to run in secondary or beacon mode exclusively, since there were no targets in High who were not on IFR clearances) to see if I could identify Navy Alfa Echo Three One Six. I should note here that A-4s were only slightly easier to see on primary radar than T-33s which were the original stealth airplanes—they were notoriously difficult to “paint” with primary radar.
Well, let’s just say that I managed to identify Navy Alfa Echo Three One Six, gave him a vector toward his lead, and they fortuitously broke out of the clouds a little north of CHS and were able to rejoin and continue as Navy Alfa Echo Three Zero Two to NIP.
Apparently I wrote it up, thinking that someone would give me an Attaboy, but I never heard anything from anyone. Moreover, after a lot of years of doing this stuff, I recognize how unlikely success should have been under the circumstances. Our ARSR (air route surveillance radar) was just not precise enough to do what I tried to do nearly 100 miles from the main bang (ATC slang for antenna). In fact, plenty of old controllers would be justified in calling “bullshit” on the story, as I might myself, if I hadn’t experienced it and have the “Flight Assist” report to prove it.
Pretty good way to break in a new guy, though, don’t you think?
Note below: in those days, the word “squawk” was part of the ident instruction (which directs the pilot to press the button on his transponder control panel labeled “Ident”. At some point in the late ’60s or early ’70s, the word “squawk” was deemed to be redundant in the “ident” instruction and removed from our Air Traffic Procedures handbook. I only mention this to point out how some practices are hard to kill. When I retired in 1997, there were controllers saying “squawk ident” who hadn’t even been born when that phraseology was discontinued.
Also, in that same time frame, it was determined that IFR flights were conducted in a sufficiently high percentage of radar coverage, that it was no longer necessary to alert the pilot that he was in radar contact on initial contact with a facility once initial identification had been made (usually just off the end of the runway) unless radar service was terminated and the aircraft subsequently radar identified. Since that time, it would be unusual for a pilot to hear “radar contact” more than one time in the whole flight.
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