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Waypoints: Thanks for the service

Still the best in the world

The controller’s request seems odd: Asking an airliner to hold over the Orange County, Virginia, airport.

Thomas B. Haines The controller’s request seems odd: Asking an airliner to hold over the Orange County, Virginia, airport. Holding at an airport? Given thunderstorms all around, perhaps the controller is a little frazzled and misspoke? The airline pilot—I’m imaging it was the first officer by the sound of his voice—comes back and asks for the identifier. The controller provides it and quickly the airliner voice comes back, “We don’t have those little airports in our database.”

The busy controller then offers up another nearby airport, receiving the same answer from the airliner. By this time, as I’m motoring northbound up the west side of the Washington, D.C., metroplex in my Bonanza, I’ve figured out the problem. A big thunderstorm has parked itself just west of Washington-Dulles International, forcing the Potomac Approach controller to break the news to everyone on the frequency that Dulles arrivals are shut down while they sort things out; everyone headed there will have to hold. In looking at the displays before me, I discover that a thunderstorm has taken up residence over every nearby VOR—Gordonsville, Linden, Casanova, and Martinsburg. The controller is out of places to park airliners, so he is attempting to send them to hold over airports that happen to be clear of the many scattered storms in the area.

Still hopeful, the controller attempts to direct the airline flight to hold over Charlottesville, Virginia. “It’s a bigger airport,” he assures—and one with airline service, he doesn’t add. “It should be in your database—Charlie Hotel Oscar.” Given that most airline pilots don’t have as much graphical weather information available to them as many GA pilots, I am not surprised that the airline pilots don’t see the big picture—as I do in my 42-year-old airplane.

After a brief wait, a much deeper voice comes on the frequency—clearly the captain is getting involved: “As we have already told you, we don’t have those little airports in our database,” the new voice says sternly. “We need to hold at a TACAN,” Ahh, apparently he’s ex-military, too.

“Well, you could send him to the Elkins VOR—125 miles west,” I say to my co-pilot, resisting the urge to offer the suggestion on the frequency.

The controller, ever the professional and not rattled at all, responds promptly. “OK then, I’ll just vector you around a while. Turn heading 260; maintain seven thousand.”

Our clearance is to Casanova and then Martinsburg, direct Frederick, Maryland, as we plow up from South Carolina. The Garmin GTN 750 display looks like it has the measles, with green, yellow, and red splashed here and there from the XM weather. Casanova is clearly not going to work, so I ask for Linden and then Martinsburg, as those slow-moving storms have migrated a little east and look passable. The controller agrees and helpfully sends us on our way.

Like everyone else on the frequency, we ask for occasional deviations left and right, all the while staying out of the clouds—always a good goal with thunderstorms in the region. We sneak by Linden and zigzag toward Martinsburg. As I’m debating whether to make a turn to the left or the right, the controller swimming in airliners gives me a vector to the right and a descent. Based on what I’m seeing, I’m a little skeptical at first, but quickly realize the visibility down low is good and it’s going to be just fine; he’s been watching out for us. Soon we’re direct Frederick, having never seen the inside of a cloud or been hit by a raindrop. We give him a warm farewell and a compliment for the good service as he hands us off to the next controller.

A week later I’m able to thank him publicly as I am moderating a panel in Washington for the RTCA Global Aviation Symposium. The subject is “The Biggest Challenges Facing the FAA.” I use the story to remind attendees that while the air traffic system has challenges, it still is the best in the world. Among the panelists is Paul Rinaldi, head of the controllers union. I note a smile on his face and a nod as I describe the good work by his controller.

Editor in Chief Tom Haines flies his Beechcraft Bonanza A36 for business and pleasure.

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