ATCC Controllers' Read Binder...

NOTAMS, FAQs and other info for users of ATCC

February, 1997


    Xavius is hard at work creating a voice upgrade (speaking pilots) that should hopefully be ready by this summer. Registered owners of version 1.0 will receive this upgrade free of charge when it becomes available. If you ordered directly from Xavius, you were automatically registered! Check back here for status updates.

    More sectors: remember, real controllers may work the same six or seven sectors day after day, year after year! Many grow to hate certain sectors, and love others. We do hope to create additional sectors though, starting with other ZNY, ZAU and/or ZLA sectors, then other Center facilities as well. They may be ready late this year.

    Some have asked if they can create their own sectors. It's technically possible, but is a LOT of work, and a lot of interrelated data is needed for each one. If you have programming/hacking experience, and would like to know the format to the sector files, email a request to We can't really help with debugging your creations, though, so it's probably best just to wait for our new upgrades. The six original sectors cover most of the range of Center controlling, so most new sectors would just be variations of these originals anyway.


    The sim does not look at the system clock to determine traffic levels. Traffic levels are determined solely by the traffic intensity window, either manually controlled if you're training, or kept "busy" if you're working. This allows you to work busy traffic even if you run the sim at 3am. On the other hand, the sim does use the clock to determine the numbers of VFR aircraft wandering around. But, that has no real bearing on how difficult the sector is, other than cluttering up the scope.

    Some have asked about being able to change the time of day within the sim. It's not possible currently (other than changing your system's clock before you start the program), and should not be needed for the reasons above. But, if enough people want it, we'll put it in a future upgrade.

    Likewise, your system's calendar is used to determine weather patterns when the storms option is set to normal. Thus, you'll get more frequent storms in the summer months (June-August) than in other times. But, if you want to force storms into your sectors, choose always under the storms option. Storm placement is mostly random, so you should, but won't necessarily get storms within the sector boundary. Exit and re-enter to move them around if you desire.


    Your career rating is really your supervisor's assessment of your status as a controller employee. The supervisor's main concern is that you not have deals, so if you keep working busy traffic without deals, you should see it slowly go up. The supervisor usually doesn't watch what you're actually doing at the sector (you're mostly on your own when you're working), so you won't get bonus points for brilliant vectoring or creating order from chaos. As long as you don't have deals, and don't try to cheat the system by unplugging from the sector just before you have one, your supe will like you and it'll show in the rating. The numbering system is more-or-less calibrated so that a real-life, professional radar controller should score in the low- to mid- 80's. Most ATCC users will probably be in the 40-80 range.


    Trained controllers are a scarce resource, and with the frequent budget cuts, most Centers are understaffed. The supervisor will always give you a D-side if either you or he feels it is getting a little too busy (safety is always the top priority), but there is also informal pressure to keep sectors one-holed (i.e. just one controller) so any extras can rotate through and let others go on break. There is a requirement that controllers be on position no longer than two hours, but most of the time they'll work the sector for 1:15 to 1:30 before going on a 20 minute break.

    Thus, you may have found that soon after requesting a D-Side, your supe takes him away. This really means your past history as a controller is good enough that the supe feels you can work it by yourself, he trusts you, and he'd rather use the D-side to let somebody else go to lunch or take a break. If you only have a couple sectors under your belt, or have had deals recently, the supe may keep the D-side in with you for a longer time, if not always.

    It's probably best to plan on doing everything yourself, and let the supe decide if you need or don't need the D-side. Having one means less work for you, but it does keep one of your exhausted co-workers from going on break sooner.


    Center radar controllers do not sit glued to the radar scope! The typical Center controller has to do all the following:

    • Every few minutes, new strips are brought to the sector, in little plastic holders, and dropped in the top of the strip rack adjacent to the radar. The sector controller has to go through each new strip (around 5 new ones at a time), weed out the unneeded "deadwood"(duplicates, old versions, etc, as much as 50 percent of the total), then those that remain must be sequenced in the rack by the time estimate on the strip. Every few minutes the controller has to look away from the radar and do it all again as more strips are brought to the sector.
    • About every 30 to 60 seconds, the ATC computer sends strip update messages to the sector, which causes an orange button to light up on the D-side's keyboard. The controller has to lean over, press the button, then read the message on the D-side's computer terminal. The message contains revised info for a strip at the sector, such as a new time estimate, or new altitude. The controller has to look through the rack (maybe 20-50 strips), find the one in question, then cross out the old info and write in the new.
    • After every instruction, controllers have to look over, find the appropriate strip, and mark down what instruction was issued. Descend and maintain 15,000 would be written as down-arrow and 150 (or 15). Turn 20 left would be written 20L, or RV and the new heading (for "radar vector"). Even if an aircraft is just checking on to the frequency, a little checkmark must be made next to the altitude on the strip.

    In the sim, all of the above are done for you automatically, to provide a balance with your need to look down at incoming messages or to type commands you'd otherwise speak. The overall looking-away-from-the-scope versus looking-at-the-scope thus remains similar to the real-life workload. But yes, speaking pilots and voice recognition would make it better, and we're working on that! But as-is, it's still very realistic.


    Some have asked about the need to wait awhile for the sector to get "warmed-up." Until the aircraft show up, you may sit around for 5-10 minutes with nothing really going on. This is like reality, because there is a lot of sitting around even at the busiest sectors in the middle of the day. There might be a crazy departure rush and the sector is saturated, then everything goes away, and you sit with one or two aircraft for the next 20 minutes. It's all part of the job. Still, with the sim you can always start the sector, then go off and do something else. Come back in 10-15 minutes and plug in, and it should be getting busy. Hopefully in a future update, the sim will be able to construct a busy sector from nothing, so you can start out "busy".


    It's entirely possible that things will get to be too much for even a seasoned professional controller to handle. Having to type a lot only makes it worse. As a controller, you are expected to make the best of the situation, keep as calm as possible, concentrate on one thing at a time, do it, and systematically move on to the next. Still, things may get away from you, at which point you should request a break, hang on for a couple more minutes, then get out of there and recollect your thoughts. These are some reminders on how to reduce complexity hopefully before it starts, or as soon as you realize you've lost control:

    • A shining gold nugget on your screen is a handoff that has been taken by the next sector. As soon as you see this, and there's no other potential traffic for them, get them the heck off your frequency! If they're at or close to the boundary, take the datablock off too. Technically, you're supposed to leave it displayed until the aircraft is 2.5 miles outside your boundary, but don't worry about it. Take it off to clear up your scope. Do a complete scan cycle where you just get rid of handed-off aircraft. Ignore everyone as they call you--you can get back to them later, or they'll call again if it's important. After the complete cycle, you'll probably find your workload has reduced significantly.
    • As you're doing your scan from aircraft to aircraft, you've probably found that as soon as you see something that needs to be done, and you're just about to key up the microphone, somebody interrupts you with a check-on message, or asks you if there's "any chance for higher," or some other message that messes you up and causes you to stop your scan and find who it was, then stumble back to where you left off in the scan. Here's the Big Secret: YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE WITH ANYTHING IMPORTANT TO SAY!! When you are on the edge of chaos, or are in deep chaos already, ignore everybody!! Forget everyone. First go around and get rid of the handed-off aircraft. Next go around from aircraft to aircraft in your scan, and one by one issue appropriate altitudes. All along, you will be interrupted: "Ahhhhh we're getting moderate chop, any chance for lower?" IGNORE!! TRANSMIT YOUR MESSAGE: DAL357,*258. "Good evening, UAL456 out of 8,700 climbing to 12,000" IGNORE!! TRANSMIT YOUR MESSAGE: 803*2697. "USA234 leaving 17,000 for 11,000" IGNORE!! TRANSMIT YOUR MESSAGE: 150<20 etc etc. Yes, you're supposed to be polite, professional, and respond to all calls. Some pilots may get mad at you (though most do understand when you're busy), and may say "didn't you hear us calling you?!", and yes, you were rude and arrogant and ignored them all. But you HAVE TO, when the choice is between being meek and responsive and losing control of everything, or being aggressive and regaining control and awareness. Of course, when things are slower, ALWAYS be polite and ALWAYS respond promptly. But if things get crazy, be arrogant, ignore the fluff calls and get things back in order!
    • When you're in chaos and cleaning up your sector, don't take additional handoffs. They'll still fly into your sector, but you won't be charged with any deals with them. In real life the previous controller would turn them around before they entered your sector, and that does happen in the high-strung, congested areas, especially the northeast U.S. But system complexity then increases exponentially, and there are numerous mechanisms (ground stops, re-routes, holding, increased miles-in-trail) to help compensate for it. The sim doesn't have the number-crunching power to do all that, so aircraft just keep flying into the sector. It shouldn't be that big of a problem, however, in most cases. Once things are cleared up in your sector, you can start taking more handoffs (even though they may be halfway through your sector already).

    A good controller will be arrogant and ignore calls when restoring order in the sector, but will make a mental note of who is asking about rides or checking on, and will get back to them politely once the sector is under control again.


    Some have asked if aircraft in the sim can declare emergencies, or collide with other aircraft. Yes, collisions are possible (when working traffic) and what you'd see would be realistic. However, the sim was designed to be a realistic sim and not a "game" like some other programs. Thus, collisions are extremely unlikely. Firstly, as soon as you lose 5 miles separation, an alarm goes off and the supervisor rushes to the sector and will quickly find somebody else to take over. Secondly, the chances of two 200-foot aircraft flying at 450mph and happening to hit each other is somewhat similar to two bullets colliding in mid-air. Additionally, in real-life almost all airliners now have instrumentation ("T-CAS") to detect other nearby aircraft and alert the pilots how to avoid any that get too close (though they don't have this in the sim).

    Thus, collisions are so unlikely (and the consequences so severe) that the concept is almost taboo among controllers. War stories among controllers usually revolve around how close to five miles the aircraft came -- " then they passed same altitude, 5.1 miles! <GASP>."


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 may incorporate them in the next issue!