ATCC Controllers' Read Binder...

NOTAMS, FAQs and other info for users of ATCC

July, 1997

#1: Voice Upgrade

The voice upgrade is nearly ready, and should be completed this month. The CD's have to be pressed, sorted and mailed out, so you may not receive it until early- to mid- August. But, it is a nice upgrade and is worth the wait.

The upgrade adds a "digitized voice option," not full human communications. You can tell some of the sentences are assembled together by computer instead of continously spoken by a live pilot, but mostly that is just the nature of computerized speech. It does sound pretty good overall, though, and does make it easier to keep your scan going when you're really busy.

One major improvement with the new upgrade (speech version 1.0 and program version 1.1) is the ability to install add-ons that can easily be downloaded from our web-site or elsewhere. Improved speech, more voices, voice recognition drivers (to utilize the inexpensive Windows voice recognition systems on the market) and other add-ons will be able to interface with or replace the new program upgrade. We should have those available in the near future as well.

The voice option for the upgrade will require Windows 95, a sound card, CD-ROM, and 16MB of RAM (more won't really improve things, but less will hurt). If you still have just DOS or Windows 3.1, the program upgrade (V1.1) will still work as now, but the voice option will be disabled.

We do need some more beta testers for the upgrade-- if you use ATCC fairly regularly (GS-13 or FPL), and would like to participate in its continuing development, email your name, address, and program serial number (from the back of the disk) to We'll send you a test version of the upgrade around mid-July. It will be a special version that displays both the text and plays the speech simultaneously. You will have to take careful notes on discrepencies you hear and read, and note any other problems or strange pilot transmissions and email them to us as soon as possible. It will NOT be a "preview" version of the upgrade-- it is a special test version and is not a release version, so it won't be really "playable" while working sectors, just a test vehicle to evaluate the speech. But, if you are interested in assisting, please email us!

Now, to ATC topics:

#2: Handling Aircraft Emergencies

Full emergencies are very, very rare-- you may only personally handle two or three in an entire 20-year career. In ATCC, it will basically never happen. But, you should be prepared for the possibility, and aware of your capabilities to provide assistance to troubled aircraft. There are no official guidelines or procedures to follow when an aircraft declares trouble (other than telling your supervisor)-- you are supposed to use your best experience and common sense in doing whatever is needed.

Your degree of involvement in the situation mostly depends on the abilities of the pilot. A new student pilot should be handled differently than an experienced private pilot, who in turn should probably be handled differently than an airline pilot.

If an airliner declares a problem (or business jets and turboprops for the most part), the general rule is to leave the pilots alone! They are highly skilled and trained to handle all kinds of problems, and don't need somebody on the radio trying to have a conversation with them while they run through checklists, analyze instruments, consult aircraft handbooks and contact company dispatchers. They will let you know if they need anything, but usually they just ask to level off for awhile to investigate the problem.

Most airliner problems (but still very, very rare!) are usually mundane, and are typically related to pressurization, stuck landing gear or flaps, or various warning lights. In most cases, the flight crew is able to resolve the problem within 5 or 10 minutes, and they continue on their way. If they ask to turn back, they probably won't request any special handling, though you should really give them top priority. Heavily-loaded aircraft may need to dump fuel, to get their weight below their maximum landing weight. Afterward, clear them direct to the airport (or to the proper approach point), and hand them off as usual, relaying the nature of the problem to the next controller (as well as your supervisor).

More serious airliner problems statistically just don't happen, but if they do, the pilots will let you know what they need from you, if anything. Mostly just stay out of their way and coordinate what is going on with your supervisor and adjacent controllers, as needed.

If a private, "general aviation" pilot declares a problem, though, it could be a different matter. If the pilot sounds experienced, and only concerned, but not panicky, and sounds in control of the situation, you should probably be hands-off and let him handle the problem as he was properly trained.

If the pilot sounds panicky, though, quite likely he is inexperienced, and what you say (and how you say it) could be critical. Even if the pilot has to ditch an aircraft in a field, or on water, in many cases the landing is just a little rough and the pilot and passengers emerge unscathed. The problems arise when the pilot is distracted and forgets to fly the plane, stalls, and cannot recover.

Thus it is important that you not distract the pilot to where he forgets to fly the aircraft! The first thing you might say to a panicked pilot is to reassure him-- "Are your wings level? How's your airspeed?" Once he realizes he's still in control of his aircraft, and can continue to glide even without his engine, he should calm down somewhat enough to remember his training.

Be careful not to give the appearance of telling the pilot what he should do-- he may be very suggestible to a voice of authority (you) coming through his headphones. Even if you are an experienced pilot, you may not know the full situation, and could be leading him to the wrong action. Do what you can to reassure the pilot and keep him calm enough to resolve his problem, and only when he appears out of options or unable to think of any, might you suggest your own (if you are a pilot, for example), or ask another experienced-sounding pilot on your frequency or in the control room if they have any.

Usually, though, there's not much a controller can do with a small-aircraft emergency except to try to keep the pilot calm enough to handle his situation, provide airport/area information as requested, and relay any helpful information while being careful not to distract him from flying the airplane.

If a small aircraft does crash while you are working it, your supervisor will notify proper rescue authorities, take the flight strip, and that's usually the last you'll hear of it. Proper investigations will begin, but you are usually left out of the loop. Your information usually comes from reading a short article in the newspaper, vague enough to make you wonder: that wasn't the aircraft I was working that day, was it?

#3: BE the sector!

While it is true you can work an entire Controller career just knowing the sector map and procedures, and steering the blips around the scope, your common sense knowledge, both in emergencies (see above) and plain everyday situations increases tremendously when you know your sector! You should know what it looks like from the air, and most importantly, what it feels like to fly through it. In the U.S., Controllers are allowed to ride along in the cockpit of airliners to see firsthand the workload involved in flying an IFR aircraft. Even with just a good flight sim program, though, you can get an amazingly accurate feel for what it is like to fly through your sectors. Fly a sim 737 along the actual routes in your sectors, and note where the heavy workload seems to be (usually on descent and climbout, as you try to stay on course, intercept the correct radials and meet the crossing restrictions). "Issue" yourself the same commands you issue when you're controlling-- "Expedite to 11,000 and slow to 250 knots...and proceed direct CRI? But I don't even have CRI tuned in, and now I have to contact Approach on 135.9?"... Hmmm... not so easy, sometimes! You will have a much better understanding for what the pilots are doing, and will be able to anticipate some problems much sooner. Know the the sector!

#4: The cause of most Deals -- Under-restrictions

In the real-world, most deals occur not because the controller "just didn't see it," but because ineffective or not enough action is taken to correct a conflict once it is first recognized. Also, they tend to occur when traffic is only moderate or less, and not when things are extremely busy!

The two "trends" may be related... when traffic has been slow for awhile, or the controller has just worked a busy rush and things have quieted down, controllers (and pilot alertness) can become complacent, and when there appears to be a conflict, for example, the controller might figure "just a little turn to the left" would solve it (after all, there's hardly any traffic out there, right?)... and might lazily ask the pilot to turn "oh, 10 degrees left, short vector around traffic."

Later he might notice it's not looking too good, but things are still quiet, there's only those two aircraft in the sky, and there can't be a real problem when it's this quiet! So he casually tells the pilot: "Trans Air 225, I need you to turn an additional, better make it twenty degrees left."

The casual tone and quiet frequencies have lulled the pilot into complacency (and into a conversation about sports with his co-pilot), and he replies with the worst response a controller wants to hear at that point: "Uhhhhhh, was that for Trans Air 225?"

"Yes, turn 40 degrees left now, and expedite the turn" the now-alarmed controller spits out, a little too rapidly.

"Uhhhh, Ok, I believe you said 40 degrees left, for Trans Air, uhhhh, <pause> 225."

"That's right, FORTY degrees left and start the turn NOW!!"

"Ok, forty left, Trans Air 225." The pilots calculates: Let's see, heading 017 minus 40 degrees... carry the 7.. negative 23, so 23 degrees left from 360... hmmmm...

Too late! Deal.

Don't be complacent... deals can happen any time, even when things feel slow and there's no apparent urgency. Don't fall into a common trap of denying there's a real conflict, and "just a little turn" will fix it. It's better to unnecessarily turn an airplane 90 degrees off course, and avoid a deal, than to be standing before the Inquisition trying to explain why you only gave him a 10 degree jog to the left that didn't fix anything at all...

#5: Don't over-restrict!

Remember you are burning fuel (and lots of money) when you over-restrict aircraft by making them descend before they need to, or turning them 40 right when they only need to go 20 right. When you have everybody expediting and turning hard left and hard right and everywhere else, you sound out of control, which the pilots can sense (and may be a little more hesitant when you need a response now).

But WAIT! Doesn't that contradict #4 above? That it's better to turn an aircraft 90 degrees off course and avoid a deal than to try to be nice and just turn him a little?

Yes, it does contradict #4! You have to find a way to do both, somehow. Turn and restrict aircraft as little as possible, but whatever you do, don't have a deal! Maybe 90 degrees left to guarantee avoiding a deal is too harsh... would 70 still do it? How about 50 degrees? 50 degrees is a pretty big turn. But so is 40! Or 30 for that matter, when you really think of it...

If you are really good, you can do both #4 and #5. Turning and restricting as little as possible, and always avoiding deals. But if there is ever a question, #4 always takes priority-- do whatever it takes to avoid having a deal, and worry about the burned fuel and late passengers later!

#6: When you first sit down at the sector

The first thing a controller does is to receive a "relief briefing" from the controller he's replacing. A relief checklist, actually a laminated card that can be marked with a grease pen, is posted at each sector, but varies a little depending on the sector and facility.

The L.A. Sector 38 relief board, for example, might look like this:

R-2508 STATUS        HOT





WEATHER            LT-MOD CHOP 250-290


Briefings tend to be very quick, because it's usually the same group of controllers working together at the same sectors year after year, and everybody's pretty much seen everything before. The sector 38 briefing might sound like this:

"2508 is hot, they're not letting anybody through... no special activities; you need 20 miles in trail landing Las Vegas; equipment's fine; airports fine; Weather: Light to moderate chop in the climbout, until about Dagget, but everybody says it's smooth at 33 and 37. Probably 24 or 25 is the best ride if they're landing at Las Vegas. Traffic is: (pointing with finger at each, from top-down usually) Gone; Direct Vegas, still talking (i.e. still tuned to the sector frequency); Has the restriction (DAG at FL240); Talking, cutting across at 31; Climbing to 29, stopped for this guy; expediting through 25 to get below this guy, looks like it'll work; and not talking to this one."

After working the same sectors year after year, controllers can usually pretty quickly figure out what's going on with relief briefings as quick as you can read the previous paragraph. 99 percent of the time traffic is kept conflict-free, but if something is still unsure (like above, "expediting through 25 to get below this guy, look's like it'll work"), the controller being relieved should either offer to stay until it's resolved, or make sure the new controller fully understands the conflict and will accept the responsibility. He might say "are you OK with that, or do you want me to stay a little while?" If the new controller hesitates, the other controller should stay until it's resolved and the sector is conflict-free again. But if it looks good, the new controller may say it's OK, he'll finish it.

Because relief briefings are usually very quick, there is an amount of trust that the relieving controller isn't going to inherit a traffic mess from the previous guy, who may be long gone on lunch break. Controllers tend to learn who leaves messes and who runs their sectors smoothly, and may pay more attention to the relief briefing depending on who they're relieving.

After first sitting down, controllers usually do a couple quick scans to get the "flick," then may spend a few minutes adjusting the chair, the volume knobs, and the brightness levels to how they like it. The same is true in ATCC, that the default brightness levels may not be to your liking, and every time you run a sector, you have to keep adjusting the levels until they're just right! Wouldn't it be nice if ATCC remembered my preferences? Yes, nice and easy to implement, but in the real world you have to keep fiddling with the brightness knobs, too, so that's the way we had it. Maybe we'll change it, though--there is new real-world equipment under development:

#7: New Radar Equipment (DSR)

Originally in the 1980's there was a great deal of money and time spent developing an entirely new radar system for all the Centers. New radar scopes were to be in color, with a bunch of great features (like brightness levels set for individual controllers), electronic strips in an "electronic rack," and more and more things people kept thinking of and adding to the system.

And the hugely complex system that kept having its features added to and altered, soon became a mess, so the bulk of the project was scrapped, but a few new elements were salvaged.

One was new radar displays. The ATC computer software itself will be unchanged, but the physical scopes are to be replaced by (essentially) off-the-shelf (26") monitors for the radar screen, and plain-old-14" VGA monitors for the D-side screen. What the controllers see on the scope will be mostly the same, with the same green plusses, dots, backslashes and datablocks. The little monitor which is now separate (in the lower left of ATCC), will be overlayed on the main display in a "window." But most everything else is unchanged, with just a new display, so the new system is called the Display System Replacement (DSR). The DSR will gradually be installed in all Centers over the next several years.

The other change is in the interphone system which previously used to be a row of 1960's-style pushbuttons that were hard-wired to specific sectors. The new system is a touch-screen of squares, with each square connecting you to a different sector. Everything is digital and digitized (no more reel-to-reel voice tapes, all data cartridges), and you can have call waiting, call forwarding, and conference calls if you really need to (nobody really does, but the features are there). These interphone systems (called "VSCS") are now in place in almost all the Enroute Centers.

#8: New L.A. Sector 19 proposal

A serious proposal is underway with the real-life sector 19 to move the boundary of L.A. (Socal) approach further east, maybe 10 miles to the east of CIVET. Then, sector 19 would feed two LAX-bound streams of traffic to Socal Approach, instead of just one merging at CIVET. The idea is that Socal approach only needs 3 miles separation, instead of the Center's 5 miles, so they can fit aircraft closer together. Also, they can put aircraft on close parallel approach paths to the parallel runways, which the Center isn't allowed to do.

In theory, then, Sector 19 should only need to merge the LAX streams from over HEC and ABREE together, at maybe 8-10 miles in trail, and leave the stream coming from TNP alone. This should mean fewer vectoring and speed delays, and more aircraft that can be worked.

That's the theory, at least, and it is being tested and evaluated. It probably won't be implemented until 1998, but when it is we'll be sure to post a new L.A. Sector 19 to continue to conform to the real world!

#9: New NY Sector 97 map

Sector 97 purists may note a discrepency with one the airways on the radar map and those on the laminated sector map/real-world maps. It was a little glitch in one of the files that has been corrected... if your radar map shows an extra airway on the south-southwest side of the sector, click here to download 97MAP.ZIP.

Save the file in your C:\ATCC directory, then unzip it with a zip utility (download PKZIP from if you don't have one), choosing "yes" to "Overwrite existing file?". It contains a new FIXES.ZNY file that fixes the map glitch.

If you don't feel like downloading right now, that's OK... it's just a minor change and you don't really need it, but you can if you want 99.9% realism instead of 99.8%.

#10: Remember:

  • VFR Targets are very real! They look like innocent little I's and V's, but they represent real aircraft! Keep your aircraft away from them if they could be a factor, whether turning yours out a little, or telling them to expedite just to ensure they get above or below, well clear of the traffic.
  • As always, SCAN SCAN SCAN SCAN SCAN! Never forget to keep your scan moving... don't fixate too long on one part of the scope, or you will look back later and could be very suprised. Pilots and controllers usually don't like surprises!


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!