ATCC Controllers' Read Binder...

NOTAMS, FAQs and other info for users of ATCC

February, 1998

#1: Upgrade Discs

There appear to be a few U.S. users who have not yet received the free upgrade. The discs have all been mailed, but some may not arrive until as late as the first week in February. If you are a registered user in the U.S. (or your disk has no serial number on the back), and you don't get your upgrade disc by February 7, email or call 1-800-848-9100, and we will send another.

Most users outside the U.S. should receive the discs in February or March, with a few more remote locations as late as April. If you are outside the U.S. and haven't received the disc by May 1, email or call/fax 1-805-723-7600.

#2: Upcoming Projects

In the first half of 1998, we hope to have available more official L.A., Chicago and New York Center sectors (probably 2 more of each), as well as a voice-recognition add-on. Following those are likely sectors from Fort Worth, Miami, and Washington (DC) or possibly Cleveland Centers.

It is technically possible to "make" an ATCC sector for any given area in the world. However, we want all of our "official" sectors to be completely realistic, patterned after the real-life sectors they model. To do that requires a great deal of data collection, observation, and testing to make sure they conform to reality. Also, because we aim for very close to 100 percent reality, we cannot truthfully simulate anything except a U.S. Center sector. Approach control radars, and other countries' radar systems look different and have different keyboard commands, so the simulator would not be fully "realistic." But, we may post some more "unofficial" sectors in the future, like the currently available ORD approach.

#3: "Blackout Effect" TV Movie Realistic?

There was discussion in some newsgroups last month about how realistic the ATC system was portrayed in "Blackout Effect" last month, the NBC movie about the controller who has a mid-air collision in sector 82. The storyline (and ending) are true Hollywood, but the control room environment, and for the most part the characterizations by the actors were very accurate. Controllers don't shout at each other all the time (maybe only one brief shouting match per day throughout the entire Center), but there are both pleasant and unpleasant people in the everyday controller environment, just as in life.

Controllers in busy facilities are a little more tense, usually, because of the combination of personalities (see last month's #7, Angry Controllers), and the tension of knowing a deal can happen at anytime, and just three in the same year could result in an involuntary transfer or dismissal. As the datablocks start to pile up in the sector, you can't help but get a little grumpy at others for "giving" you more aircraft, as you wonder if today is the day. And when you manage to barely squeak out of a deal and "scrape the bubble" (5.0 miles), you figure you have used up what little luck you have left, meaning the next time will probably be the One.

But after traffic has died down, especially later in the evenings, most controllers relax quite a bit. Casual conversations about sports, politics and other friendly small-talk are the norm, like everywhere else.

#4: The Secret to the "Flick."

A good controller can only keep a picture of maybe five separate things at once... if even that. Try to animate a scene in your head of a ball rolling slowly across the floor. Now add another ball moving in another direction, while still "moving" the first. Add another, and another. It probably gets difficult after just two or three! Yet controllers are expected to somehow mentally keep track of 15 to 20 aircraft at once, supposedly without resorting to noticing things on radar at the last second.

The secret is to clump aircraft together into common streams of traffic, then just look at and keep track of a few different streams instead of 15 to 20 individual aircraft. Sector 82, for example, only has two real streams, the northern flow along the top half, and the southern flow along the bottom. You could have 10, or even 20 aircraft in each stream, but really you only have the two "streams" to keep track of, and they don't even intersect. Sector 38 has three main streams: the LAX departures, the BUR departures, and the BUR arrivals. 66 mostly has four: JFK arrivals from the south, JFK arrivals from the east, PHL/ACY arrivals from the northeast, and JFK departures to the south.

When you consider aircraft along the same route (especially when close together and single-file) to be "one" aircraft or one stream of aircraft, you reduce the number of separate "things" you need to keep track of, so keeping the mental picture becomes easier.

If you ever look up and see a screen full of 20 random aircraft, group them together and you'll see it's probably not that bad: 8 of them might be ORD arrivals from the west, for example, making up one group; 3 from the northwest are the second group; 3 overflights from the west are the third; 2 from the northwest the fourth; and a few other departures or MKE arrivals make up the rest. But mostly keep an overall mental picture of just the 4 or 5 different groupings of aircraft, instead of trying to visualize and remember 20 separate aircraft going in 20 different directions. You will have to scan for occasional conflicts within the same group, such as overtakes or merging together at the same altitude, but mostly the sector's conflicts will be between aircraft in one group with aircraft in another.

#5: Control on Contact

In ATCC, controllers have "control on contact," meaning as soon as the aircraft checks on to the controller's frequency, the controller has permission to climb, descend or turn the aircraft as needed, even if it is still within the other sector. In practice, most Centers would allow it only on an individual (sector by sector) basis, such as aircraft going from sector 27 to sector 26 are 26's control for left turns only, "on contact." With ATCC, you have full control, and may turn, climb and descend as you need, within the other controller's sector. Other ATCC computer controllers, though, will never turn aircraft in your sector, and will only occasionally change the altitude.

If you forget about this, and switch an aircraft to the next frequency, you may end up in a difficult situation when that aircraft suddenly starts climbing to a new altitude, right into one of your other aircraft. This situation happens in sector 75, for example, with overflights headed southeast to sector 83. The sector 83 computer controller might have other traffic (which you can sometimes see along the bottom of the screen), and if it has two converging at JOT, it may tell your aircraft to climb or descend to a new altitude. If you have another aircraft above or below the one you just switched, look out!

The solution, of course, is not to switch an aircraft to the next frequency until it is clear of all possible traffic. It is good practice, and a requirement as well.

#6: Featured Sector: ZNY 97

97 has a challenging mix of arrivals, departures, commuters and general aviation overflights, all compressed into the same little square. The real-life 97 also has a "shelf" taken out of the northeast corner at around 15-17,000 feet, because ELIOT and PARKE are major departure fixes for jet aircraft leaving the New York metro area. The PHL arrivals are routed around this shelf, via ETX instead of just direct to MAZIE, to give the metro area departures (not depicted in ATCC) a chance to jump over the sector in the northeast corner. So don't let PHL arrivals go direct MAZIE, because the real-life adjacent controller probably wouldn't allow it.

You can probably group 97 into four main streams: PHL arrivals, LGA arrivals, PHL departures, and prop arrivals. The prop arrivals can come from the southwest, west or northwest, but try to think of them as one converging stream that needs to get down to 9,000.

The normal intersection points, then, are between the PHL and LGA arrivals, which you handle by descending whomever is lower already, and the PHL departures with the prop arrivals, which you handle by descending the arrivals down to 9,000 as soon as you get them. This is especially true with the prop arrivals coming from the southwest, which you usually get at 13,000. Get on the interphone and start them descending to 9,000 as soon as they pop up.

If you need to, descend the prop arrivals to 7,000, or even 5,000 if going to ABE. If you suddenly see an ABE departure, though, get on the interphone and tell them to stop the departure below your arrival, maybe at 4,000.

Complexity occurs with the overflights trying to cross these four major streams. There are usually only a few overflights at a time, and you should mentally think of them as bright red flags. You can even change their datablock length (like /2) to make them stand out from the rest. They're usually pretty slow, so somebody you take a handoff on at the northeast corner of the sector may fly along for 20 minutes before entering the main part of the sector... don't forget about it!

The greatest complexity occurs in the southwest portion of the sector, when you get combinations of prop arrivals, PHL departures, one or two overflights, and an ABE departure all coming together. If you can see such a mess building, try to turn the overflights to the west, away from the confliction point, and the ABE departure a little to the north (maybe a 280 or 290 heading) to give the PHL jets a little more room to get up. And it is usually best to keep the ABE departures underneath the PHL departures.

"Control on contact" is especially true between ABE arrivals and departures. Don't switch over an ABE arrival until he's clear of the head-on departure, or Allentown approach may try to descend him through the other. Technically, it wouldn't be your fault, but it is safer that way, and will save you a headache.

Overflights at 17,000 are especially bad news; mostly they are twin turboprop aircraft ideally requesting FL180-230, but are forced to stay in "low altitude" because the sectors above are saturated with jets. You will therefore get a larger than normal number at 17,000. If one of these eventually crosses your PHL departure stream, you may want to climb the PHL departures to FL230, to give you extra time to make sure they clear the overflight. In reality, FL230 would be in sector 73's sky, so you would have to ask 73's permission first. In ATCC you always have it, so do it if you need to, then revert to the normal procedure of 17,000 after the overflight is clear.

Also if the overflight is directly south-to-north at 17,000, you can almost be certain of a head-on conflict with a PHL arrival. If you turn him left, he'll be in conflict with your PHL departures climbing through 16,000, so it's best to either descend him to 15,000, or if you feel like working a little extra hard to let him stay at 17,000, click up the range to maybe 60 or 65 miles, try to catch the PHL arrivals when they first pop up, then get on the interphone to descend them to 15,000 before they become a head-on conflict.

Sectors 19 and 66 have a procedure where you don't have to put in a temporary altitude of FL230 when handing off to the high sector, but you do in sector 97, because the next sector is an "intermediate" sector. When you give 17,000 to your PHL jets, put in 170 as a temp altitude, and start the handoff when they're out of about 10-12,000. 19 and 66 are also required to not switch aircraft to the high altitude sector until they are out of FL180, because high altitude isn't looking at VFR targets, which could be at 17,900. 73 is watching VFR and primary targets, though, so you can switch over to 73 whenever the aircraft is clear of traffic. Then as soon as you see them climbing out of 17,000, remove the datablock to clear up your scope.

A "gotcha," if you haven't found it already: the inbound props from SEG to FJC descending to 9,000, and the ABE departures going from ETX to SEG look like they clear each other, and you may dismiss the two routings as not in conflict, when in fact you lose 5 miles separation within your boundary. Careful!

#7: Special Flights

Occasionally there are "special" flights that pre-arrange with a Center to fly a special routing, such as a photo mission that needs to fly back-and-forth over a small area for two hours to take pictures, or a newly modified aircraft that needs to calibrate and test its instruments along a certain route at certain altitudes. Any kind of unusual or non-routine IFR flight is supposed to coordinate with the appropriate Center beforehand, so controllers can plan ahead.

In practice, though, you usually don't learn about it until the last minute. You are supposed to accomodate the aircraft whenever you can, but you have the authority to deny their routings or altitudes if you are too busy. Quite possibly, though, they have spent quite a bit of time and money to set up the mission, and delaying or cancelling it just because you couldn't "handle" the traffic at that particular moment would be unfair. Some controllers, in fact, consider special missions to be an interesting challenge, and welcome variety to the normal routines, so will gladly do what they can to help.

There are no specific "special missions" in ATCC, but you can simulate them by picking an overflight turboprop aircraft, usually the ones between 140 and 220, and re-routing them back and forth inside your sector to simulate a photo or test mission. Quite possibly the sector's complexity will increase tremendously, as the new aircraft conflicts with several streams in unusual places you are not used to seeing such traffic.

In sector 97, for example, if you had a BE20 (King Air) from LVZ, south along V93 to LRP, issue him ..FJC..DUMMR..FJC..LRP to make him go back-and-forth a couple times. There is a limit on the length of input you can type at once, so you can probably only fit in two back-and-forths. And make sure the last fix (here, LRP) ties in with his current route, otherwise the pilot will question it. Then once he makes the final turn toward LRP, give him ..FJC..DUMMR..FJC..LRP again to keep it going, for the typical 1 to 3 hours a photo or survey mission may last.

If at all possible, leave special mission aircraft at their requested altitudes and routes, because changing anything may make them have to start over. But, if there is no other way, move them like any other aircraft, because not having deals always takes priority.

#8: A Thankless Job? The Rating System

In ATCC, your rating is adjusted after every session, implying your computer supervisor always knows how well (or poorly) you are doing. In reality, though, supervisors don't (and can't) watch every sector, so they usually miss seeing your many heroic actions. Real-life ratings used to be almost arbitrary, with the quiet, steady controllers getting "70," and ones who were the loudest and drew attention to themselves getting "90."

Because the ratings were linked to year-end cash bonuses, there were many complaints about the process being unfair. Thus, the present real-life rating system has just two possible values: "meets requirements" or "does not meet requirements." Budget cuts have eliminated the cash bonus, so now controllers just get a coffee mug, but only if they go three years without a deal.

It is not a thankless job, though. The real rewards come from gaining the respect of your peers (which is what the ATCC rating mostly represents), and the personal satisfaction when you get everybody where they need to go, without delay. Plus, of course, it can be a lot of fun!


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!