The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC for Decades

From D-School to Journeyman

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The principal things I remember about the next few months revolve around three events

There were a couple of other events, as you will see, but these are the ATC related ones.

Training at AGS with Bob Tabler provided me with a cold splash of water about working the D-side. I couldn’t now tell you the time frame, but it was probably in the first couple of days of training—might even have been the first day—it doesn’t matter (the story ishere). In any event, Bob’s entreaty/recrimination was apparently just the jump start I needed (as I remember it now, 40 years later), because my notion is that I checked out at AGS in about a week, took maybe another week to check out on CAE, then breezed through FLO/CRE, CHS, and SAV.

AGS and CAE were critical in the development of a Low East controller, because AGS was essentially non-radar below 100 (10,000 feet in ATC scrawl) and all the tools we learned in D-School (except airport traffic control) were in everyday use here. Airport traffic control was how airplanes were separated right off the ground and from arrivals. There was a non-radar approach control at AGS so our main concern was getting airplanes up and down to transition from and to approach, all essentially without radar. CAE also had a non-radar approach control underneath, but there was radar coverage for the whole sector except possibly just above approach. The extra complexity at CAE was a second approach control, SSC, which at least was a radar facility which provided good training for the next sectors.

FLO/CRE was next, and an interesting mix it was, as we did airport traffic control for FLO. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you looked at it, there wasn’t a lot of traffic in and out of FLO, so such tools as Timed Apporaches, which I later came to use in Chicago years later, never came into play. One was lucky to get two arrivals in a week at FLO, nevermind two at a time. CRE was the civilian airport at Myrtle Beach, but there was an Air Force base there (MYR) which had radar, so this sector also provided a good mix. In addition, although not related to the D-Side’s job, there was a Warning Area just offshore, which was controlled by MYR but which we often coordinated ingress and egress to by fighters from other bases. The sector was called FLO/CRE because we had the capability of splitting it off if necessary. The two principal low altitude airways from the Northeast to Florida went through the sector (V3 over FLO and V1 over CRE).

CHS was a yawner for a D-Side. CHS had a radar approach control and was the site of the ARSR (air route surveillance radar which ARTCCs use) for the whole northeast of the center, so there was little for a D-Side to do but pass inbounds to approach. I’ve always been curious why we did that. At CHS we were a fully radar coverage sector, so no aircraft were ever going to go into or through approach’s airspace without a handoff, and of course, they were a full radar equipped approach control which meant they lived and died with their radar. Yet our LOA (letter of agreement) and our procedures required that we pass inbound information to them (callsign, type, time, direction, altitude, release point) ten minutes prior to arrival. In every single case, we would be giving them a handoff which was more than enough opportunity to forward pertinent information.

We had similar LoAs with SSC, MYR, NBC, SAV, NEA (all on the East side) and other facilities. Later, when the computer came online, much of that manual coordination was eliminated. By the time AGS and CAE got radar the practice had disappeared entirely.

SAV had its own little complexity, as not only did we deal with SAV approach—fully radar equipped—but we had NBC, also fully radar equipped under our airspace as well. As with MYR, NBC had a Warning Area with which we sometimes dealt, and there was a bit of a complex area west of SAV in north-central Georgia where our radar coverage was limited and where there was an Oil Burner route. Fortunately, there was little traffic transiting that area—most of it was along the coast.

Oil Burner? Yes, the Air Force had developed a number of practice bombing ranges throughout the U.S. While there were a few live fire areas, mostly out west, there were others all over the country where “bombing” was electronic and the scoring was by radar—all run by the Air Force. About a third of the time the bombers would make high altitude runs—anywhere from FL200 (which is Low Altitude’s airspace) up to FL350. The rest of the time the bombers would make a low pass (sometimes as low as several hundred feet) on the range—again, radar scoring was employed.

The high altitude runs could be handled randomly—that is from any old regular flight plan, but the low altitude runs had to be on published Oil Burner routes, which were numbered (I think ours might have been OB-17). They began their insertion at a specific location and at a specific altitude, flew the published route (almost all below our radar coverage), and then recover at a specific place and altitude, and at a specific elapsed time from insertion. We knew what airways/altitudes were affected, and the insertion and recovery points were selected to affect the minimum amount of airspace. We only had the one in Jacksonville and we had one or two (but only one I ever worked with) in Chicago. Interestingly, sometime in the ’80s they changed the name Oil Burner to Olive Branch. Same initials, but a kinder, gentler name.

I checked out at SSI (and on the radar as well), but I don’t remember much about the sector other than NEA provided radar approach control underneath, and we abutted JAX to the south which owned FL230 and below. Plans had been afoot for some time to create a new area, Terminal (yes, we made jokes about the guys who were going to go there), which would be comprised of the two common sectors plus a couple West side sectors. Consequently, I don’t believe I worked a single shift at SSI after I checked out.

According to recently unearthed records, I was fully D certified by the end of February (based on my GS-13 promotion date the following year, which was on the anniversary of a combined year in grade as a GS-11 and GS-12). Of course I didn’t train every day and on the days when I worked my newly won sectors, I tried to get all the radar stick time I could to help learn the complexities of each low sector. Prior to D-School, the vast majority—probably 90%—of my stick time came in High Altitude, so there was much yet to learn in Low.

I started radar training almost right away, as I recall. Not only that, but it was pretty much two days per sector and I got certified on each. That wasn’t my ATC brilliance in play—that was pretty much the average for the facility in those days. And, the best part was, with all the trainees in the pipeline, no more pulling strips.

So on roughly the second anniversary of hiring in, I was a full-fledged, fully certified, radar-qualified, journeyman air traffic controller—at 24 years and about three months. If you think that was a whirlwind trip, hang on.

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Last updated: 10 December 2011