ATCC Controllers' Read Binder...

NOTAMS, FAQs and other info for users of ATCC

January, 1998

#1: Version 1.1 Upgrade

If you ordered the priority upgrade, you should have already received the new CD, though if you live outside the U.S. it may not arrive until the first or second week of January. Otherwise expect it in early January (U.S. and Canada), or as late as April elsewhere.

We can't post version 1.1 at this time because a rash of new downloads will "cause problems," according to our web host, but the beta version 1.09C remains downloadable and is essentially the same as 1.1, except for a few behind-the-scenes changes.

For the best audio (and realistic annoying-thing-in-the-ear-effect), listen through a cheap earpiece like the kind used with portable televisions or hand-held radios, or cheap portable headphones. Also find the tone settings (in your computer's "audio mixing" console, probably) and turn the Bass down and Treble up.

#2: Bug...or Feature?

"An aircraft on frequency (he already checked on) did not respond to a command, even after I repeated it several times": Feature. Keep trying! They aren't always paying attention, especially when they're happily level at their cruising altitude. Not entirely uncommon: "Ok, FIFTH time now, Trans Global 425, descend and maintain..." Also try the interphone to have him come back to your frequency ("AAL123,*"), in case he took somebody else's frequency change.

"The aircraft appears to do the instruction, and the receiver light flickers, but there is no verbal readback." Bug. When two or more pilots talk at once, you should hear a garbled (merged) transmission. Sometimes, though, when a garbled transmission is garbled again (three or more talking at once), it is cancelling itself into silence, as in this case. You should be hearing a loud squeal instead of silence, but in any case be sure to issue the instruction again, until you get a proper readback.

"I issued a legitimate command to an aircraft not yet in my sector, using the interphone, and the other controller just said 'Whatever.'": Feature. Some controllers may respond sarcastically, depending on how bitter the job has made them over the years. Or, a "friend" may be bored at a slow sector and is trying to make you stumble. They will issue the command eventually, though, so just ignore them.

"I went through a complete certification test without any errors... in fact, I performed extremely well... and I was told 'recommend continued training.' I am a controller and am certified at that sector in real life. I train other controllers at that sector. I was on the committee that HELPED DESIGN the procedures for the real-life sector. HOW CAN ATCC FAIL ME ON THE SIM SECTOR WHEN I AM CERTIFIED ...[snip, snip]" Feature. If there is not enough traffic for the supervisor to accurately assess your abilities after about 40 minutes, you will be told to continue training. Make sure the "Master traffic level" in the options screen is set at 100. It may have also been a random fluke, that not enough aircraft appeared even though the traffic levels were at full 100. Just try again. If you have a low rating (or very few hours working traffic at other sectors), you may be more likely to "fail" an apparently flawless certification test.

In reality, the rules state you cannot be failed on a certification test unless the supervisor can document specific errors. Some certification checks have lasted hours, and continued into following days, as supervisors waited for an error to occur ("you said 'nine' instead of 'niner.'") More recently, certification rules have been revised that you must be passed or failed within one session (no more than 2 hours), "traffic permitting."

Before the FAA's "Train to Succeed" policy in the early '90s, if you couldn't pass a cert check after the maximum training hours for that sector (ranging from about 50 to 150), you were fired. With "Train to Succeed," you keep training at the sector (over 500 hours, even) until you either pass the cert check, or give up in frustration and beg to be transferred somewhere else.

The main programmer doesn't "think" you can be fired in ATCC for failing too many cert checks, so just take another until you finally pass.

"Sometimes when an aircraft checks on, while climbing or descending, it will say 'out of 7,300' as the datablock altitude says 7,100, for example." Feature. There are delays in the radar processing, or occasional rounding-off by the pilots or radar equipment, which can cause the discrepency. If the difference is within a few hundred feet, you can ignore it, but if it is significant, ask the pilot to verify his altitude again ("SA"). The transponder could be malfunctioning (sending out the wrong altitude to the radar), or the pilot may have just read the altimeter incorrectly.

In the U.S., the first radar sector within a facility is supposed to double-check the reported altitude against the observed ("mode C") altitude, and subsequent sectors can then assume it has been properly verified. But if anything doesn't seem right, speak up!

"I had two aircraft in the sector with the same callsign!" Bug/Feature. November-type callsigns (general aviation) should never have duplicates, but it is possible that an airline sends out two with the same flight number. Some inbound flights are supposed to stop briefly at the airport, then continue on with the same flight number. If the inbound flight is severely delayed, though, the airline may bring in another aircraft to depart on the outbound leg, keeping the same number. The computer is supposed to reject duplicate flight numbers, but the required computer entries to fix the problem are a pain, so many tired tower and departure controllers manually override the rejection, hoping nobody will notice, or the next guy will fix it. Thus you get two with the same callsign, that may meet in the same sector. A real-life controller should catch it by looking at the incoming strips, notice the similarities, and rename one flight to AAL456A, for example. Or, if both are on frequency, say "Northbound AAL456, your new callsign is AAL456-Alpha," and maybe "Acknowledge with an ident" to make sure you got the right one.

It is a bug in ATCC, though, because there are no commands for renaming aircraft. Until a patch is created, just leave them alone, and when another sector takes the handoff on one of them, tell "AAL456" to switch over to that frequency. One AAL456 will respond, then tell the other to switch over too. Whoever was not supposed to switch over, will come back.

#3: Blackout Effect  TV Movie

Formerly called "Blackout," it will air in the U.S. on Sunday, January 4th on NBC. This was the TV movie discussed several issues ago, about a controller who has a mid-air collision in sector 82. The FAA blames his lack of concentration, and he blames the equipment. Eric Stoltz ("Mask", "Pulp Fiction") is the NTSB investigator who sorts through the aftermath. Click the link above for NBC's official Blackout Effect page.

Another ATC movie, Ground Control , is still in the middle of filming, with Kiefer Sutherland as an overstressed controller who is traumatized by an incident in sector 75, then must fight to regain his reputation and self-confidence. The Read Binder's vast network of Hollywood Spies reports:

The actors sometimes have difficulty with the technical ATC dialogue, so there are various phraseology mistakes. But for a "dramatic rendering" of what happens in an ATC radar room, it seems pretty good. Close-ups of sectors 38, 75, 82, 97 and 66 appear throughout.

#4: Sector Proficiency

Controllers are required to work a minimum of 16 hours per month to remain certified. They must control at each of the sectors at least once during the month, though there is no minimum time for each sector. Just a total of 16 hours must be logged controlling live traffic, per month. For full-time controllers, it is typical to work about 5 hours per day plugged in to a sector, so the minimum is not a problem, except maybe after a long vacation. Supervisors and some staff people, however, often have a difficult time fitting in the required proficiency. If the 16 hours are not reached, the controller is automatically decertified at all sectors and must take new certification checks to re-certify.

ATCC won't decertify you if fail to work the minimum hours, but if it has been awhile since you last ran the program, it is wise to train at a sector for a session or two to get yourself back up to speed!

#5: Featured Sector: ZAU 82

82 could be considered an "easy" sector technically, but the sector is at a key funnel point from the western and central U.S. to the congested Northeast U.S., so it does get quite busy at times, even if most aircraft are already level.

The primary challenge is how to be fair to everybody, while getting ORD departures to their requested cruising altitude. The two main airways can become completely filled, with no room for additional aircraft from O'Hare. You are supposed to keep everyone at "right altitude for direction of flight," and since almost everyone is eastbound, you only have FL370, FL330 and FL290 as realistic available altitudes. You can use FL350 and FL310 occasionally, but you would have to call the next sector and request their permission beforehand, which adds to your workload. The FAA also frowns on the practice of "wrong altitude for direction," because head-on conflicts are more likely. But if it is the only way out, use it.

Generally, if an ORD departure wants FL330, say, and it is in a dead tie with an enroute aircraft already at FL330, have the enroute climb to FL370, and let the ORD climb to 330 as requested. The other option is to have the ORD only climb to FL290, but pilots generally prefer higher altitudes (less fuel burn), so both benefit by climbing the enrouter up to 370 and the ORD to 330.

If the enrouter is at 330 and the ORD wants 370, there are a couple of options. You could turn the ORD to a 90 heading or so to parallel the enrouter, climb him to 370, and once he's out of 350 (separated from the enrouter), clear him back on course. If he's a slow climber, though, it may be easier to ask the enrouter to climb to 370, and leave the ORD at 330 as a "final." Likewise if the enrouter is at 370 and the ORD wants 370, and the enrouter can't climb to 410, just tell the ORD that 330 will have to be his final.

Look at their destination airports to determine "fairness" in assigning altitudes. If several enrouters are at FL330, with an ORD departure in the middle also requesting 330, it's probably OK to leave the ORD at 290 as a final, if he's just going to Detroit (DTW), Cleveland (CLE), Pittsburgh (PIT) and maybe Buffalo (BUF). If he's going to Boston, though, it is probably unfair. Maybe one of the enrouters at 330 is going to Pittsburgh, in which case you might vector him out and descend to 290, to allow the ORD departure going to Boston to have 330. It's a judgement call--do what you think is fair.

Or, just do what it is easiest for you, because it is better to be a little unfair than to lose the flick because you were busy trying to accomodate every aircraft's request!

In real life, you can sometimes give the pilot a choice: vector him out a little ways and get him up to FL330, or keep him on course at FL290 as a final. Most are behind schedule, and would prefer to stay on course and take the lower altitude. If they're on a long trip, though, they would probably prefer the short turn and a higher altitude. Or if the air is reported smooth at the higher altitude, and unknown at the lower altitude, they may prefer to take the turn to get into known smooth air. It depends!

In truth, though, most probably prefer that you make the choices for them, so they can get back to eating their meal. If you tell them FL290 will be their final, they'll accept it without question, and if you tell them to turn 20 degrees left to eventually get higher, they'll accept that without question. Choose what is best for them, and you... and it is not always a clear choice.

When turbulence is present, blocking off one or more of your available altitudes, or storm deviations start bringing the northern and southern traffic flows together, 82 can get hectic. Don't worry about getting everyone up to their cruising altitudes in that case, just worry about keeping separation, and getting them out of your sector as quickly as possible. Telling them FL250 will have to be their final altitude to Pittsburgh, or wherever, will be completely understood when you just have too much going on to get them any higher. They can always ask the next controller for higher, too.

#6: Hard versus Temp altitudes

Q: What is the difference between 330C and 330T330?

A: Both indicate the aircraft is assigned FL330. But 330C means the aircraft is at its "hard", or requested cruising altitude of FL330, while 330T330 means the aircraft is currently assigned FL330, but it is only a temporary (interim) altitude assignment; its hard altitude is "underneath" the temp altitude (and is shown on the strip, in the "requested altitude" box). 330T330 should tell the controller that the aircraft may be level at 330 now, but eventually needs to get to another altitude. 330C tells the controller the aircraft is happily cruising along, and nothing needs to be done until it is time to descend.

If the aircraft is requesting FL330, for example, but you only climb him to FL250 for now (due to traffic), you must put in a temp altitude of 250 into the datablock, with the <F8> key. Later, you might climb him to FL290 for crossing traffic at FL310, and you would again use the <F8> key to indicate the temp altitude of 290. Finally, when you climb him to FL330 you would take out the temp altitude with <F8>, leaving the hard altitude of FL330 (and the up-arrow next to it) to indicate he is now climbing to his requested cruising altitude.

If you need to change the final cruising altitude in this example to FL290, because of overhead traffic going in the same direction, already at FL330 (as in sector 82), you would then use the <F5> key to indicate FL290 as the new "hard" altitude, and would remove the old temp with <F8>.

If you hand off this aircraft to the next sector with a hard altitude of 290 in the datablock, the next sector will leave him there, thinking that is his requested cruising altitude. If you hand him off with 290 as a temporary altitude, but FL330 still in the datablock as a "hard" altitude, the next controller will try to climb him to 330 to get him to the hard altitude. Because ATCC sectors have "control on contact" (as soon as you switch them over), this could cause a deal as he climbs the aircraft into your traffic. So it is important that the datablock show what you intend as the aircraft's final altitude, and if you hand off aircraft with a temporary altitude in the datablock, expect the next sector to climb or descend him further.

Generally, though, leave the originally requested cruise altitude as the "hard" altitude, unless you see no way for the aircraft to reasonably get that altitude, or the pilot requests a different cruise altitude due to turbulence or other reasons.

If all of this is still confusing, just use <F8> to put in the assigned altitude into the datablock. And remember that the datablock must reflect the assigned altitude at all times!

#7: Angry Controllers

For whatever reasons, controllers honestly believe they each have the best controlling techniques. Most will gladly defend absolutely any decision they make about any instructions they ever give. Even if it results in a deal, many will stand before the investigative committee and say the deal was unavoidable, or it was somebody else's fault, because the actions taken were "obviously" the best possible at the time.

This arrogance can cause a great deal of tension between controllers, especially if it is ever implied that a decision was wrong or could have been done better. Controllers restrain themselves from physically attacking others over comments like "Couldn't get them 10 in trail, huh?", which may be said to friends, but never to others. Shoving and punching may ensue.

Why are controllers aggressive? Because aggressive, arrogant controllers are successful! They don't wonder if a proposed solution is the right solution, they know it is (because they thought of it) and they just do it! They don't mess around trying to vector someone left and right to get to his requested cruising altitude, they just tell him FL290 will be his final, and BOOM, that's his final. They keep traffic moving, getting aircraft up and out of their sectors. They sound professional, and even friendly, but it becomes obvious that there is no compromise, because they have decided on an action, and that action is taking place. They have no time to wonder: maybe there is a better way? Because their plan is the absolute best, and damn it, they will make their plan work.

They move traffic quickly, and there are no deals because they have a firm grip on everything that is going on. They grind their teeth, twirl their pencils and bounce their knees, impatiently waiting to see their perfect plan fall into place. Move this guy here, this guy down to 25, this guy over here, and BOOM, everybody's separated. DO IT!!! DO IT NOW!!! Can't wait to see this!!!! <twirling pencil>. If somebody suggests: just climb him to 27, that'll work too... the controller snaps: TOO BAD!!! HE'S GOING TO 25!!!

This arrogant, "Type A" personality is successful because the job demands quick, unhesitating decisions with little time to ponder alternatives. Come up with a solution, and do it! is the credo of the successful controller. Don't listen to alternatives, don't confer with others about what to do, just key up the damned microphone and do it! They work best in busy, congested facilities, and busy, congested facilities love having them as controllers. They may not come up with the best solutions, but whatever solutions they do come up with will happen, and everybody else can kiss their a##.

The ideal controllers, though, don't need to be rude. They may be just as arrogant and aggressive, but they hide it well. There is no need to externalize their intensity; they simply know their solution is the best, so it is just a matter of efficiently relaying it to the pilots and smugly watching it fall into place. Another controller may suggest an alternative, which the ideal controller may acknowledge is a good plan. But I am going to do it my way, he ultimately says, with a smile!

[Ok, a sarcastic smile.]


The Read Binder is updated at the beginning of the month. All information is for use with Xavius Software's Air Traffic Control CenterTM only, is the opinion of the author(s), and does not necessarily reflect the policies or practices of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration or Federal Aviation Service. Send your questions or comments to and we'll be glad to help!