Friday, October 11, 2002

Life in Flight Service

Lookin' back at my background
Tryin' to figure out how I ever got here
Some things are still a mystery to me
While others are much too clear ..."

--Jimmy Buffett

Most people have no clue what I do for a living.

When asked in casual conversation, I invariably say, "I work at the airport." When pushed, I admit: "I work for the Federal Aviation Administration. I'm an air traffic control specialist at the Flight Service station."

The phrase "air traffic control" gets their attention and usually draws an awed response. I feel like telling them, "Don't be too don't know the half of it."

They keep wanting to envision me in a tower, pushing tin. When I explain what it is I actually do for a living, most people are either confused or disappointed. We have often joked that Flight Service is the Cinderella of the air traffic branch--no glory, just the drudgery of behind-the-scenes work. So most of us who end up here aren't looking for glory. We just want to do a good job.

This is what we do:

We take the official weather observation for Homer. You ever wonder why the weather is always reported from the airport? That's because the weather observer system--a joint project between the National Weather Service and the F.A.A.--was initially set up to provide weather information for mail planes. Part of our training and certification is in how to evaluate weather data: figuring dew points, estimating cloud heights and visiibilities, etc. We compile this data and send it out at least once an hour--more often if conditions are rapidly changing--transmitting it around the world so anyone anywhere can look on their computer and see what's happening at the Homer airport.

In addition to this, we give pilots weather briefings. This is a separate area of expertise--requiring yet more training and certification. We learn how to interpret text forecasts, weather maps and satellite photos in order to give pilots a fair idea of what conditions they can expect to encounter during their flights. Additionally, we give information on outages of navigational aids that may affect their flight, what runway conditions are like at the airport they are going to ("three inches of wet snow on the runway"), areas of restricted airspace due to fire-fighting activities, military training or security reasons and any reports that other pilots have passed along about the weather they encountered.

We provide this service both in person and over the phone to pilots planning flights, or via radio to pilots already en route. Frequently, pilots and others will just come in and want to hang out--waiting for the weather to improve or the latest reports to come in--and we let them do that as well.

Aside from having to know more about weather and what causes it than any normal person would want, we have an air traffic hat we wear (speaking figuritively, of course) that comprises the larger part of our workload.

Pilots are urged to file flight plans, detailing where they plan to go and how long it will take them. We are the people who take that information from them and pass it along to other Flight Service Stations. If the flight is just in our local area, we hold his or her flight plan ourselves. If the plane does not arrive where they said they would when they said they would, we are the folks who initiate the search and rescue process. It's like being a mother hen--we are constantly worrying that all the chicks won't be home on time.

While I'm wearing the data-passing hat, I'll tell you some of the other information we pass along via our inter-government message system. (We used to do this via teletypes--yes, really!--but now it is done on computers.)

Not only do we pass flight plans--and the associated search-and-rescue information if needed--on our computer messaging system, but also the runway condition information we get from the people charged with keeping the runways in good shape. These fall under the heading of NOTAMs (NOtices To AirMen in our acronym-rich jargon.) During snow season, we can be kept pretty busying updating this information for Homer and our satellite airports. "Homer Runway 3-21 has three inches of loose snow over ice, plowed fifty feet wide with four-foot snowbanks..." Outages of the navigational aids also fall into this category. "Homer's Kachemak Nondirectional Radio Beacon will be out-of-service this afternoon from three until five pm..."

We get advisories on earthquakes and possible tsunami warnings over this system as well. We have a list of local agencies to advise (before we close the station and head up the hill...)

There are also administrative messages that are usually of interest to no one but ourselves. "The next time someone is coming to Homer, can you bring some more paper and flight plan forms?"

The radio work is the largest portion of our work load. Like all FAA air traffic facilities, we monitor the two international distress frequencies, though we rarely get actual calls on them. The Emergency Locator Transmitters--ELTs--that all aircraft carry also broadcast on these frequencies--a swooping alarm set of either by hand or by impact when a plane goes down. We really hate to hear those.

Homer FSS has two other radio frequencies we use. VHF 122.2 mhz has been the standard Flight Service frequency since Christ was a cadet. This is the radio frequency we use for routine air-to-ground contacts: flight plan filing, weather briefing, taking pilot reports of weather, and the basic passing of significant information.

But by far our busiest frequency is the one we use for local airport traffic information, 123.6 mhz. This is very similar to what is done in towers--with a twist. Homer is what is called an "uncontrolled airport". Pilots flying into and out of Homer are not required to talk to us--heck, they aren't even required to have a radio. But the FAA provides an advisory service. So the pilots operating in and out of Homer generally will call us and tell us their position and intentions. We respond with what is called an airport advisory, giving them the wind speed and direction, the runway that is in use, the current alitimeter setting, any aircraft traffic that might be a factor for them, and other information as it applies to them. It can sound like this:

N505SD: "Homer Radio, November-Five-Zero-Five-Sierra-Delta, six south for landing, planning Runway Three."

Me: "November-Five-Zero-Five-Sierra-Delta, Homer Radio. Homer Airport Advisory: winds two-five-zero at one-one, gusting one-eight--Runway Two-One is favored. Snow removal equipment is working on Taxiways Alpha and Bravo-South. Traffic is a DeHavilland Twin Otter, reported ten north three minutes ago, planning a straight-in to Runway Two-One, and a Cessna One-Fifty on the downwind for Runway Two-One at this time. Altimeter three-zero-zero-seven."

N505SD: "Homer Radio, roger. I"ll plan Runway Two-One, then. Five-Sierra-Delta"

Usually it is pretty routine--just helping the pilots sort themselves out into some kind of order, answering questions about where to park and where to get fuel, etc. The variety of the work keeps it interesting. And we never know if the next radio call is going to be some pilot asking us to call his wife to come and meet him, or someone thirty miles out over Cook Inlet with a rough-running engine.

I have been fortunate. The number of times that I have been the one to answer that call for help have been mercifully few. I was baptized by fire, however. I was still in training on the radio position at Fairbanks with a journeyman controller riding shotgun when I got a radio call from a floatplane that had just had a mid-air collision with another aircraft about twenty miles west of Fairbanks. That plane made it safely back to the field but unknown to me at the time, the plane he had hit--containing three friends of mine--spun into the marshy lakes, killing all on board.

Several year later, I had another call from a pilot who was encountering heavy icing flying toward Fairbanks from Fort Yukon. Other controllers got on the line to Center and we were able to find her an altitude with warmer temperatures. She wrote to thank me for my assistance.

All I could do in both circumstances are be an electronic hand-holder--someone who was listening, helping the pilot think through their situation. Someone for them to talk to and, I hope, a bit of comfort.

We are the calm voices in the ether that the pilots hang on to when the shit hits the fan. That's the only acting I can do--to sound calm over the radio. The FAA spends a lot of time and effort drilling that calmness into us. Before I got out of the FAA Academy, I was literally able to recite the script for a lost aircraft orientation in my sleep. That training is drilled deep into us and kicks in when we need it--so we can at least sound calm and composed even if our hearts are beating in our throats.