ATCC Controllers' Read Binder...

NOTAMS, FAQs and other info for users of ATCC

August, 1997

#1: Voice Upgrade

As is "usual and customary" in the software industry, the voice add-on has been delayed a bit, and its official release date is a vague "Fall of '97." Unofficially, though, "September" keeps getting mentioned... there are no particular problems, but it is just very labor-intensive, with thousands of words and phrases that need to be recorded and re-recorded. It does sound good, though, so far.

#2: Program Lockups

Some users may have encountered occasional program lockups, usually after running a sector for awhile. As a DOS program, ATCC requires at least 550K of free DOS memory, and if you are a PC game enthusiast you are probably familiar with the craziness involved in modifying CONFIG.SYS, boot disks, and removing drivers to get the proper amount of free memory. The same applies to ATCC-- get as much free DOS memory as you can, the more the better. If you can get over 600K free, you shouldn't get any lockups, and from 550-580K you may get one after a few hours. Also, instead of exiting one sector and starting another, try exiting ATCC entirely, then restarting it before choosing another sector, which helps to reset memory. Most of these memory problems should be alleviated with the upgrade, though, so it should be just temporary.

#3: Abandoning the Sector

Unfortunately, if you are working (as opposed to training) one of your sectors, and the program freezes, or the power fails, or the dog trips on the power cord and unplugs the computer, you will probably be accused of abandoning the sector, and could even be fired. Yes, it is unfair, and if this occurs, you can modify the EMPLOYEE.DAT file to remove the "incident" from your record. Open \ATCC\EMPLOYEE.DAT with any text editor, and after your name, initials, and a comma, is a number that represents your GS level plus any "discipline" problems. If there are no discipline problems, it will simply be your GS level, like 13 or 14. Problems will inflate this number to over 100-- just restore it to your GS level to remove any "unfair" discipline warnings. The number following this GS level is your rating, and if you noted that your rating was lowered after an unfair reprimand, restore it to what it was prior to the incident.

Altering official government records is a federal crime, but the "ATCC Administrator" grants you a waiver, in this case. Be honest, though!

#4: Frustration...

If you have been working busy traffic, especially with storms around, you have probably encountered a similar scenario: DAL492 suddenly requests 40 right for weather, and you take a moment to find him and notice that NO! He can't go right! And just as you are about to key your microphone to tell him deviations left approved, somebody else checks on... "Center, ASH468 with you <pause> 15,000." Agggh! You go to type in the instruction to DAL492 when ANOTHER aircraft starts transmitting... "Uhhhhhh <pause>... any chance for higher for USA850?" AGGGHHHH!! Again, as you go to key up your microphone, DAL492 now announces he's "turning right, we can't go through this." And turns right toward another aircraft at the same! Wait, you didn't even have a chance to say anything, let alone approve the deviation, and DAL492 just turned on his own! How could it be your fault? Dumb computer, right? How were you supposed to know Delta needed to deviate, when all of the aircraft before him went straight through?

The answer is: too bad! Controllers must be able to cope with anything and everything that may happen, unexpected or not, and will ultimately receive at least part of the blame. Certainly, in the above scenario (which does and has happened in real life), formal discipline probably would not occur, but the controller would be asked harsh questions:

"Why didn't you anticipate deviations when you knew you had weather in the area?"

"I didn't..."

"Why did you have two aircraft at the same altitude so close together?"

"But 10 miles... I mean..."

"If radio congestion was a problem, why were you taking handoffs when you knew they would check on moments later, clogging up your frequency?"

"If I knew..."

"Why didn't you expedite the Delta?"

"But that wouldn't have..."

"Why didn't you climb the other one or turn him out?"

"But there was no..."

No if's...but's... the controller is ultimately responsible, if not technically than morally. Everybody knows there will be situations beyond the controller's control, and nobody will be fired or even disciplined necessarily. But ultimately the controller will feel the blame--it was his sector, after all.

The point is, things run smoothly most of the time, and most of the time it is even fun. But sometimes, the frustration level will rise, situations may seem unsolvable (they may, in fact, be unsolvable), and events will occur beyond the control of the well-intentioned controller. The only thing one can do is to make the best of a bad situation, then move on. The job is only stressful to those who dwell on their mistakes or situations beyond their control... those who forget about everything when they leave the radar room learn to come back refreshed and eager to tackle the sector again!

#5: Pilot Mistakes

If there is a deal, official blame must be assigned, either to faulty equipment, procedures, the controller, or the pilot. If a pilot mistake or sloppy navigation contributes to or causes the deal, management will try to file what is called a "pilot deviation." Missing the VORTAC by just a few miles, or missing a crossing restriction or altitude assignment by only 300 feet could result in a nightmare of government paperwork for a pilot who is accused of a pilot deviation. Depending on the airline or charter company, professional pilots could even be fired for what is really a minor mistake.

As a controller, there are times when you need the help of pilots to keep things going, or to avoid having a deal. You may need them to climb at their maximum rate, or make a hard turn to keep your five miles. Maybe you goofed--- should have turned them sooner--- but now it is almost too late, and you really need a good turn! There is an amount of mutual respect in ATC, and most pilots will gladly help you out when you need it, slowing down for you without complaining, or giving you above-and-beyond their maximum climb rate.

To keep this mutual respect and teamwork, it is (unwritten?) policy that controllers and supervisors do not report pilot mistakes, like climbing through assigned altitudes, unless completely unavoidable (i.e. it causes a deal). If pilots miss their turn, controllers shouldn't yell at them on frequency, and should just clear them direct to their next fix. The controller's job is to separate traffic and not to police the skies.

Pilot mistakes are very, very rare, but if a missed turn or a "busted altitude" occurs, do everything you can to avoid a deal and the resulting bureaucratic nightmare for the pilot, and they'll be glad to help you out the next time you need it!

#6: Time on Position, Fatigue and Stress

Controllers in the U.S. are not supposed to be kept on the sector longer than two hours, unless absolutely necessary. The primary reason, of course, is that the intense concentration needed to work busy traffic leads to fatigue after about one hour, and with periods of slow traffic mixed in, either fatigue or boredom sets in after two hours. In practice, most Centers give controllers 20 or 30 minute breaks after one to 1.5 hours at a sector.

Boredom and fatigue are certainly a leading cause of operational errors, oversights and mistakes, but the need for 24-hour staffing with fewer and fewer controllers every year often means the remaining controllers work strange, rotating shifts (9 hours on, 13 hours off, plus overtime, with "weekends" on Thursday and Sunday, for example). To get a full, realistic "controller fatigue" effect, alter your bed-times randomly between 9pm and 2am, with 4-7 hours of sleep per night, then after about two weeks get a 3-hour night's sleep, and work (or train 100%) at sector 66 from 6am to 8am. Repeat for 20 years. After all this, real controllers usually think "thank God for coffee," and "how many days now until I retire?" And remember, ulcers are caused not by stress, but by poor eating habits brought on by stress... eat healthy, so they can keep using you until you drop!

#7: Airport Closures

Though it's not a normal feature of ATCC, you can simulate the occasional airport shutdown (usually due to an ugly weather cell sitting over the runways, or just traffic overload). At sector 38, for example, the supervisor may just come up to you and say "hold everybody going to Las Vegas." There's no "holding" command in ATCC, but as in real life you can just vector them around, back and forth, for about 15 minutes until the airport "reopens." Just a short time ago, at the real-life sector 38 the controller put his LAS-bound aircraft on 340 headings (straight "up"), and with permission from the R-2508 military controllers let them go into the restricted airspace, then turned them back to 160 headings (straight down) after they reached the top. By the time they got back into the sector, LAS was open again and he cleared them direct DAG and back on course.

It is more work for the controller to have to give frequent headings to everybody, instead of putting them in an official "holding pattern," but it is much easier for the pilots, and gives their passengers the false sense of progress, rather than spinning in circles and spilling their drinks.

You can do the same in ATCC, for some realistic variety... declare that DTW/MKE/ONT/LAS/ABE or ACY (closing ORD/LAX/PHL/JFK will probably lead to quick chaos) is closed to arrivals, say from 20:30 to 20:45, and any aircraft that are bound for there you will have to vector around, back and forth until they re-open. Once they re-open, put the aircraft back on course at least 10 miles-in-trail. It may be chaotic, or it may go smoothly... you have to be prepared for anything and everything!

#8: Bad Aircraft

You may have already discovered that the ATCC aircraft to "watch closely," from the controller's perspective, are usually the HS25, C550, B727, DC10, BA46 and CL65.

The HS25 Hawker and C550 Citation (not the C650 and C750 though) technically use jet engines, but they are relatively tiny and perform poorly when climbing, maybe only at 220 knots (compared to most jets at 300 knots). When you have one of these climbing through your sector, look out! To further complicate things, once the HS25 levels off, it speeds up quite a bit, faster than the 737 to around mach .78 (compared to the 737's .76), so watch out again!

The B727 and DC10 can be unpredictable, depending on their load, and can climb out at anything from 280 knots to 340 knots. Or they may climb at 280 knots part of the time, then nose over and suddenly speed up to 330 knots...beware!

The BA46 "BAC Jet" is like a C550 (slow), and if heavily loaded may hardly climb at all (300-500 feet per minute). Likewise with the CL65 (Challenger/Regional Jet), though like the HS25 it will speed up once it levels.

The 737-300+ series (B73S in ATCC), along with the 757, 767 and 777, have nice, powerful engines with performance that is usually consistent, and can usually be counted on for an expeditious climb when you need it, but of course don't always rely on it. Also be sure to note aircrafts' destinations-- a 767 from LAX to EGLL (London) will be heavier and more sluggish than a 767 from LAX to DEN (Denver).

Knowing aircraft types and performance will help you anticipate problems down the line, especially with departure sectors like ZLA 38. Proper anticipation will help avoid those last-second panic instructions you can never seem to type fast enough...

#9: D-Sides

For more realism, try not to request a D-side when you don't really need one. It is always easier to have somebody else make the handoffs and datablock entries, but in the real world it means another controller has to spend his lunch break watching you from the D-side, which is often either frustrating or boring. So for your co-workers' sake, don't request a D-side unless you truly need it.

Of course, if one is put in automatically by the supervisor, you should accept it. If you don't feel you need one, though, and are well-respected by the supervisor, you can subtly suggest this in ATCC by clicking on the D-Side button when it starts to blink, or after the D-side is in place. If the D-side button remains lit, though, it means the supervisor thinks otherwise.

#10: As always, Scan, Scan, Scan!

Even the most experienced controllers sometimes forget to keep scanning-- it's just human nature to fixate on something when you have a problem developing. But remember, you have 12 seconds between radar updates, so nothing is going to change in that time. Even if you have a pending situation about to occur, take a quick 10 second scan around the scope to keep your mental picture refreshed, and you should get back to the situation in time for the next radar update.

If you are frequently missing radio transmissions, you are probably fixating too much in your scan or are having too many conflicts. If you are busy, you should be able to quickly look at a situation and within 4-5 seconds come up with a safe altitude or heading, issue it, glimpse at the response, and move on. Remember that the overall ATC policy is to keep everything positively separated, meaning if the radar or radios fail, everybody is still separated. You shouldn't have to constantly monitor a situation, wondering if it is going to work or not-- use guaranteed safe altitude separation if you are in doubt.

The section of the ATCC manual on calculating climbs and descents mostly applies when your sector is quiet, and you have time to do the mental calculations. If you are busy, forget it... use guaranteed safe altitudes until the aircraft pass, then continue their climbs/descents. They may level off unnecessarily, but you don't have the time to watch them and hope it's going to work... keep the scan moving, and the sector will move much more smoothly!


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!