It Takes a Team

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Most flight assists involving high performance aircraft also involve more than one controller (even the Rework event described elsewhere). First is the radar controller working the airplane. Second, there's frequently a D-side. In the below case, the sector was quite busy and had a tracker (me) assigned (“tracker” at ZJX—at ZAU we called them “handoff man” although by now it’s probably “handoff person”), and involved some low altitude peeps, as well.

I had no recollection of this incident until I discovered the Flight Assist Report in my files when I went through them recently (Fall, ’09). After 30 years of hundreds of thousands of operations (and another twelve years of the sloth of retirement), I suppose it’s not so hard to understand an occasional lapse of memory involving a relatively insignificant (to me) event. The pilot may still be telling the story to his grandchildren, however (“there I was, flat on my back at 40,000’…” as the archetypal aviation war story begins).

Piecing the story together based on the report, the CHS High sector was apparently experiencing a rush of sufficient density that I had been assigned as the tracker. The tracker plugs into the jack normally used by the radar controller, giving access to all of the inter and intraphone lines at the sector (and the radios, although the tracker would never key the radios unless the radar controller keeled over in his chair). The radar controller plugs into the jack above which controls solely the radios. Basically, the radar man then talks to the airplanes and marks the strips—period. He may move some shrimp boats (in the broadband days), but generally his job is to “work” the airplanes. The tracker (primarily) handles all coordination (handoffs, apreqs—approval requests—and updates with management) and the D-side keeps the strips sequenced and updated, as well as providing some non-radar separation, when appropriate (not often in High Altitude).

Just about shift change on the afternoon of 29 February 1972 (yes, 1972 was a Leap Year), Swirl 85, a flight of two A7s (single engine attack jets—Corsair II) was on a round robin flight plan out of MYR. Round robin means they take off and land at the same airport, but go cross country for various reasons (transition into and out of a practice area, formation flight practice, or probably in this case, to log flight time to retain flight pay bonus). In the vicinity of CHS, the flight lead advised that his wing man had experienced a cracked canopy and requested immediate RTB (return to base) to MYR.

A cracked canopy can range from inconvenient to serious, as there’s always a chance that it can progress to a catastrophic failure. That would probably lead to fatal consequences in an airliner, but in a fighter/attack type aircraft, where the crew is already on oxygen and have ejection seats, worst case would probably be loss of an aircraft. Nevertheless, it would always be a goal in this circumstance to get the airplane on the ground, if possible. Toward that end, the radar man turned the flight back toward MYR and cleared him down to FL 240 (24,000'). That, of course, is our base altitude in High, but many thousands of feet too high to land. Bring in the next team.

That was my job—call CHS Low, give them the info (this is now an impromptu flight for which no strips have, or probably will be prepared), make the handoff (tell them where the airplane is), get a lower altitude from them, and then pass along that info to my radar man who will then give the clearance to Swirl 85 before switching him to the Low sector’s frequency. All that was done, my participation concluded, and we can close Act I.

The rest of the story, as they say, was that CHS Low continued the vector and the descent and then effected a handoff to the CRE sector, who would then work the flight until handing off to MYR. All of that was conducted relatively routinely except that somewhere along the way, Swirl 85 declared an emergency. It’s indiscernible from the report on whose frequency he did that, but from an ATC standpoint we were already treating him as an emergency, so it was meaningless for us, but probably had procedural implications at the airport (crash crews being activated, for example).

Swirl 85 flight landed safely at 2016, meaning the entire event involving six people at ZJX and at least two at MYR encompassed just twenty minutes. I can assure you it went much quicker for us and the pilots.

Some side notes perhaps of interest, I had been a GS-13 for just a year, although I had nearly two years of experience as a journeyman. My radar man, Al Smith, was what we called an “old timer” but I’m not sure I could put an age on him—maybe ten years’ experience. Our D-side was a GS-11, so fairly new, but I don’t recall whether the ink was still wet on his qual card or if he was near ready (or already started) to train on the radar.

In Low, Herschel Spears at CHS was probably a new old guy—by that I mean he had a few years radar experience, but probably hadn’t been in long enough to have worked at Imeson (the old center—closed in 1962). At CRE, was John Luck, who as a GS-12 didn’t have as much as a year of radar experience, and his D-side, too, was a GS-11, like ours. In fact, the D-side was my neighbor with whom I was able to carpool briefly before I left for ORD.

Quite a cross section of experience and expertise, and indicative of the sort of teamwork we employed on a daily basis in ATC. And do you think those young guys learned anything from how the old guys handled it? Maybe they can start a website and tell their version of it… I was proud to have been part of this exercise, even if I wasn’t remotely a key player.

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Last updated: 20 January 2011