Ahead of the Problem*

*“Problem” is ATC speak for a particular air traffic situation—generally meaning a rush of several aircraft.

Just recently I happened to read a blog post to my wife that I thought was particularly well written. The blog belongs to a captain of a major airline who flies Airbus A-319/320 two engine jets. They are noted as incorporating all the latest fly-by-wire capabilities and are heavily computer laden. He calls them electric jets in general, and that particular type as “Fifi.” His blog is worth visiting—just do a search on “Flight Level 390.”

The particular post that caught my attention had to do with a talented copilot who had demonstrated a high energy descent and the author used a phrase “staying ahead of the airplane.” As a pilot myself, I’m intimately familiar with the phrase as it is drummed into each new pilot early in their training. As I explained to my wife, flying is different (in a way) from driving in that speeds are so much higher, and of course, one is operating in three dimensions, where there are more than three times the things that can go wrong than in two dimensional activities. It’s not sufficient to sit behind the wheel and let things happen—it is crucial to think in advance of where the aircraft is going to be in a moment, in a minute, in a mile. That way, the necessary control inputs can be planned and executed in a timely manner, and not in the way of “ohmigod, I’m late with the throttle.”

I don’t remember exactly how I explained it, but sharp woman that she is, she instantly recognized that that’s how I drive, too. Good for her. My driving terrifies her, as she thinks I’m operating on the edge of catastrophe, not in a well planned and alert manner which mirrors my flight training. As I quoted the old aviation maxim to her, “a good landing is almost always preceded by a good approach,” I felt that’s as good an illustration of keeping ahead of the problem as I can think of.

As I thought more about it, I realized that we do the very same thing in ATC…times a couple of dozen. We cannot successfully work a rush of inbounds (or any other kind of rush, but inbounds are the ne plus ultra demand of controller expertise) without being “ahead of the problem.” That means anticipating (mostly from experience with a soupcon of training thrown in) when things need to be done. Having the appropriate spacing between two arrivals is the result of an operation that begins 60 or 70 miles before the aircraft get to the tie point or handoff point, not at the last second.

We used to talk about “100 mile per hour pilots in 200 mile per hour airplanes.” It was a pejorative statement applied to someone who was behind their airplane and it showed up in their ATC communications. It applied to some controllers, too. Remember, the bell curve is a brutal observer.

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Last updated: 20 January 2011