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Not going with the flow

Thomas B. Haines has been flying into and out of the Washington, D.C., area for more than 20 years.

Thomas B. Haines has been flying into and out of the Washington, D.C., area for more than 20 years.

My whining in the October 2006 issue (" Waypoints: Managing the Pilot/Controller Relationship") about circuitous routings into our home airport of Frederick, Maryland, not surprisingly brought a response from some air traffic controllers. Nearly all of the comments were instructional — most of the instructions actually dealt with air-traffic-control-related subjects.

Among those commenting were Joshua Haviland and Shea Bickerstaff, controllers in Rogers, Arkansas. Haviland and Bickerstaff noted that in areas with limited radar coverage, such as Frederick, controllers develop preferential departure/arrival routes (PDRs and PARs). These routes are not published for pilots to use, which causes some of the frustrations by pilots who wonder why they are getting routed to Zelienople when they want to go Altoona.

Haviland and Bickerstaff describe PDRs and PARs as being like small-scale standard arrival routes (STARs) and departure procedures (DPs). STARs and DPs are widely published in the instrument approach books for pilots. STARs, for example, funnel traffic arriving into large airports across particular fixes at certain altitudes, allowing pilots to file and plan for the routes. The purpose of a STAR is to keep arriving traffic from descending on an airport from every which way and causing coordination problems for the controllers. PARs perform a similar function at smaller airports, but, again, they aren't published. The PDRs and PARs are developed by one or more air traffic facilities on a trial-and-error basis and shared among themselves. They can also change rather frequently, which is part of the reason they aren't published for pilots.

Certainly the existence of a PAR explains the circuitous routings to Frederick, which is located north of Washington Dulles International Airport. From the south, for example, we're usually cleared to the Linden VOR, which is 35 nm west of Dulles, then to Martinsburg, which is 32 nm northwest of Dulles, and then V166 to the Westminster VOR. V166 passes within two miles of Frederick Municipal Airport. So you fly over the airport and go another 20 miles to Westminster before turning around and coming back.

Although it makes for a handy PAR for the controllers it's not very pilot (or fuel) friendly.

One wonders why light airplanes flying on an IFR flight plan need to be routed over mountains 35 nm west of the primary Class B airport, at 6,000 feet msl. Instead, flying up the west side of the airspace complex at 20 nm from Dulles at 4,000 feet or even lower would keep the airplanes away from hostile terrain, shorten the route, and not pose a safety problem for departing airliners. When's the last time you saw an airliner at 3,500 feet agl 20 miles from the airport?

IFR traffic is sent to the hinterlands, but VFR traffic is free to fly as close as 20 miles from Dulles or even inside or under the Class B once you have an air defense identification zone clearance, which is another air traffic/security debacle worthy of another — or many more — articles. And, yes, I understand the different separation criteria for IFR and VFR operations.

A consolidated effort

Among those also contacting me after the first article were two controllers at the Potomac consolidated terminal radar approach control facility. Potomac Tracon opened in late 2002 when the approach control facilities for Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshal Airport, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Andrews Air Force Base, Dulles, and Richmond International Airport were combined into one new facility located southwest of Dulles. A group of us from the AOPA Communications Division recently toured the tracon, courtesy of one of the managers, Randy Horner. It's a breathtaking operation. The operations center in the tracon is a circular room housing 43 radar displays. The dimly lit room hums with computers and the voices of controllers issuing vectors and clearances to traffic over a 23,000-square-mile area covering parts of six states. According to Horner, every year nearly 1.9 million operations pass through the facility's airspace. The controllers handle on average 5,400 instrument operations a day to some 124 public airports.

About 300 controllers and technicians work at the facility; some 15 to 20 percent of the controllers are pilots. If a pilot is in distress, a manager can hit a button to identify all of the controllers on duty who are pilots — perhaps providing an additional resource to the endangered flight.

Horner notes that the facility's radio network has five way redundancies. Electrical power is fed to the building from two independent grids; a back-up generator provides a third level of redundancy.

The facility is impressive, but I was most impressed by the strong customer-service attitude of the controllers. During conversations with several of them, they stressed a desire to provide good service to pilots. Few pilots would argue that overall, the level and quality of air traffic services in this country are unrivaled. The FAA, of course, would have you believe that the best way to "fix" that would be to fund the system through user fees.

Watching controllers coordinate the flow of traffic into multiple airports and through their sectors is impressive. It takes years for a controller to become fully certified to work multiple sectors. Given the hundreds of fixes, airways, instrument approaches, intersections, frequencies, and airports controllers must know it is understandable that managers are reluctant to re-sector the airspace to make flights move even more efficiently. But operations that were acceptable when controllers were sitting in five different locations across multiple states don't necessarily make sense now that the controllers are all sitting in the same room. According to one controller we spoke with, only two sectors at Potomac Tracon have been modified since the consolidation.

Frederick is a good example of an airport that should be handled by the same controller who handles traffic arriving into the northwest quadrant of the Dulles area. The radar site used by the Dulles controller can detect traffic in the pattern at Frederick, potentially allowing much better coordination among arrivals and departures. Instead, Frederick operations are handled by a controller who manages traffic near Baltimore. That radar site loses traffic below about 3,000 feet near Frederick. As a result, arrivals and departures must head for Westminster, located near Baltimore, for radar identification and separation — no matter which direction the flight is departing toward or arriving from. Scott Proudfoot, a representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, speaking to me in a follow-up interview, agreed the situation could be improved through resectoring, but acknowledged that moving Frederick to another sector would impact traffic throughout the region. Similarly, redrawing the sector lines ripples other flow issues throughout the system and causes new training requirements for the controllers.

A decade ago, well before the consolidation, we were told that resectoring the airspace around Frederick was the solution. We all hoped it would happen with the consolidation four years ago. Perhaps some manager at Potomac Tracon can make it a 2007 resolution.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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