Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmas Break, Part II: Mission Control

In Part I, I made it safely to my dad's house, though with the Check Engine light glowing at me during the latter half of the drive.

My brother was taking a nap after getting off work at 2:00 that day, so we sat around and played Hearts (difficult at best, because Nathan kept getting spades and clubs confused), and my dad made some dinner, then we wandered over to my brother's house when he got up.

My brother is an air traffic controller, like our dad was when we were kids (my dad retired a few years ago, first to officially work for a separate entity, but still in the same building, training new trainees which included my brother, though he never directly trained HIM, of course, and now for Lockheed, but still tangentially working with the FAA), and he invited the kiddo, me, and my sister to tag along with him on the slowest shift of the calendar year--the graveyard shift on Christmas Eve.

First, I need to clear up a common misconception--the controllers who work in the tower at the airport are not the only air traffic controllers there are.  They only work the airplanes for the last and first few minutes of their flight, though of course that's PLENTY of work for them to deal with.  In between, the planes still cover a LOT of ground, and someone has to direct traffic out there as well.  Those controllers work in a few centers around the country, and around the world, in enclosed rooms with "nothing" but a computer screen (or five) to look at.

I couldn't take pictures, of course (well, I guess I didn't ask,
but I assumed I couldn't), but this is a fairly accurate
representation of the setup, I think.  One BIG screen with the
sector they're working, plus other screens with
supplemental information.  When it's busy, two controllers
work one station, with one actually speaking to pilots,
and the other assisting.  This shows two people working
their stations alone, as my brother was doing that night
when we were there.
We gathered at his house for a bit, then left (in two cars, with our group in my dad's car, which I borrowed so mine wouldn't have to go any more miles than necessary).  I'd gone to similar shifts with my dad a few times as a kid, as had my sister (though not together), but security had changed JUST a bit since then.  Back then, my dad drove through the gate with us in the passenger seat, waved at the guard as he flashed his badge, and we walked right into the building after parking.

This time, we brought our ID (including the kiddo's passport), which were closely scrutinized (shoot, we may have gotten miniature background checks during the time he held our passports), and we had to empty our pockets (but not remove our shoes) and place our belongings on a belt to be X-rayed while we went through a metal detector.  My brother had to use his badge to get through the guard shack, into the buildings, and through many of the doors in the building as well.

He showed us some of the other areas in the control room, then led us to his, in the back.  He began the evening controlling the higher-altitude airspace over eastern Washington/Oregon.  The maps are completely unlabeled (though he can toggle some labels, like airports, on and off), but a large part of his training was to know them from memory, so of course he knew what he was looking at, but he oriented us, too.  As planes appeared on his screen, he explained where they were heading, where they were coming from, and how the data next to their blip showed the airline and flight number, the altitude they were at, the altitude they were aiming for, and the airport they were destined for, among other things.  He could show their vectors for the next minute, or two, four, or eight minutes out.

We got to witness a real-life Air Collision moment.  Sort of.  ;-)  Two planes were near each other in altitude, and headed  right for each other.  My brother deftly averted disaster, of course, as he routinely does MANY times a day.  Next time you're on a flight and the plane turns slightly in the middle of your route, for seemingly no reason, thank an air traffic controller for averting you from a disastrous collision.  :-)

My brother also showed us (on a separate screen they also have access to), how they can see more information on the planes on their screen, see which planes are heading for their airspace, or view the weather with arrows representing the speed and direction of the air at each point of a grid.  He talked about how busy it can get, and how duties are divided at busy times and combined at slower times (later that same night, one person (him, alternating with another controller) would be controlling all altitudes of a much larger area than he was doing right then).

My sister and I asked some questions to learn more, and got to listen in to both sides of the conversations between our brother and the pilots (most of which was about how bumpy the ride was at certain altitudes).  Unfortunately, Nathan was bored out of his gourd.  We tried to engage him by comparing to the movie Air Collision (which he LOVED), video games, etc., but of course it's not nearly as exciting as either of those.  He was also recovering from having had a fever of 102 the day before, and had had a long day.  Maybe my brother will be generous enough to take him again sometime when the kiddo is feeling more up for it.

At his first break, he showed us around.  They have a cafeteria and a bunch of vending machines as well as a bank of refrigerators and microwaves, to keep the controllers fed; darkened rooms with couches to keep them rested; video games and movies to keep them entertained, and workout facilities to keep them...sweaty?  ;-)  He showed us some of the training facilities he'd been subjected to early in his time there, as well.

At that point, we left so he could get back to work, and we could get some sleep.  I dropped Jen off at my dad's house, where she was sleeping, and Nathan and I went back to my brother's, where his wife had recently arrived home from work, so I chatted with her for a while after Nathan went to bed, then crashed, too, ready for Christmas morning.

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