Circle Your Wagons

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In ZAU, we used to do inflight holding a lot. No other place held as much as we did. We did it every day and we got really good at it. Prior to the late ‘80s flow control (later called Traffic Management) was a joke. There were several attempts to implement some kind of flow or other including locally in ZAU, for a short period in the ‘70s, a process called fix load balancing. The idea was to try to take a few airplanes out of saturated holding patterns at one fix and move them to less populated hold patterns at another fix. This always involved the four inner fixes at ORDPLANO, FARMM, KUBBS, and CGT/PLANT—each approximately 40 miles from ORD.

The necessity for fix load balancing was almost always a consequence of weather—sometimes low visibility at ORD itself, although with approach procedures viable down to an RVR (Runway Visual Range) of 800 feet (about an eighth of a mile), pilot qualification became more of a factor than the actual weather. More often thunderstorms were the issue, which made the concept of fix load balancing more laughable than otherwise.

Picture an octagon overlying ORD. The four segments east, west, north, and south were departure tracks, and the remaining four were arrival tracks. In order to move airplanes from, say, PLANO (southwest fix) to FARMM (northwest fix), involved moving aircraft at altitudes of 14, 15, or 16,000 feet (roughly) across departure tracks which had traffic climbing to FL240. It wasn’t so bad in the days of West Terminal/East Terminal, as FARMM, PLANO, and West Departures were all in one area, and KUBBS, CGT/PLANT, and South and East Deparutures were likewise all in another area.

But when, in 1986, the Terminals were split up and there became six different areas that covered the inbound and departure fixes, it would have became a coORDination nightmare to try and do fix load balancing had the concept been implemented. Fortunately, the program was short lived and died a deserved and unlamented death shortly after its debut in the late ‘70s. But not before Tom Huebner had a chance to tweak it.

One day Tom brought in a project he had been working on. It was a single sheet of paper with a diagram of ORD and the four arrival fixes and it had a written description of a procedure he had defined as the Circle Your Wagons Arrival. It was not intended as a serious suggestion but was an effective parody of the whole, idiotic fix load balancing concept. In it he described a procedure in which an aircraft arriving from over, say DBQ would get the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service, which provided weather, active runway, and instrument approach information), and then enter a circle clock wise around ORD at about 40 miles. The flight would continue in the circle until directed by controllers to descend and hold at the nearest fix.

It was ingenious and hilarious. I’d like to say it contributed to the demise of fix load balancing, but I doubt the perpetrators were clever enough to have understood the parody in the first place.

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Last updated: 20 January 2011