Sunday, August 28, 2011

Just breath...

I've been quiet of late. Not only in the Blog posting, but in just general Facebook status updating. I know, it's a required part of modern life that I update everyone in the world on my current location and the thoughts associated with being in such places. Of late, it seems nothing exceptional has been happening. Only the reality is that the exceptional has become fairly common place. This being the first weekend in a while I've stayed home. It needed to be done, if only to remind me to get out more.

Last weekend, I had the chance to take some time and get away from it all. Well, not from it all. I still had an internet connection and the company of fine friends. So I got away from most of it. After a 36 hour day filled with aviation to an excess between work and extended airport appreciation time (Thank you FAA!), I finally made it to New England. My 4 pm arrival delayed about 5 hours.

But that stress and endurance race was well rewarded after Adri fetched me and we made our way to Ludlow, Vermont. Christine and Scott, or the Berardii, had arrived at the destination before us, and the home fired burning in our weekend retreat the Jackson-Gore Inn. Thanx to Adri for inviting us up to this piece of tranquility.

I think the four us desperately needed the retreat, short as it was, from the noise and hectic life we run. Well, the hectic life they run. Sometimes, you forget how nice quiet can be. I live in a fairly urban area, which I personally enjoy for the convenience and accessibilty to the things I like. The Berardii are in the same boat... well, not the same boat a much noisier boat that's docked on the Hudson River. But the noises of life being lived around me, the sirens of firetrucks (the firehouse being a mere 2 blocks away), the garbage trucks emptying the dumpsters for the restaurant row behing m house at 5ish in the morning, and the general noise of delivery trucks dropping off their goods int he early morning make for a fitful sleep.

That's assuming I'm sleeping at night. The day sleeping is much harder, since theirs an almost constant cacophony construction, lawn maintenance, traffic, and even more sirens blaring during the lighted part of the day. It's like the world doesn't even care I'm trying to sleep. Enter the peace and quiet of the Okemo State forest in the hills of Vermont. Adri has secured for us a sweet suite; thee bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a push to start fireplace, full kitchen, and living room. And it was quiet.

Once arrived, I graciously accepted the offering from Scott to share in his recently purchased local brew after the stress of nonrev travel and the exhaustion of pushin my self well beyond the healthy time of being wake. On a side note, while I love my travel benefits, there's always an added level of stress when you're not sure exactly when you're going to arrive. It makes it worse when there are people waiting for you on the other end. I have some friends who that lvel of uncertainty would drive them over the edge and totally ruin the vacation. To me, it jst takes a few years off my life. This particular trip, I was 2 minutes and one person away from turning around and heading back to Louisville. Thanx to passengers who gave up and went to the train, the gate agents that just said "get on we'll figure out how to list you on the flight later,' and the pilot who held the plane to the point of nearly missing a take off slot to put me i the last available seat. The stress of waiting in uncertainty sucks.

That part over, it was a welcome midnight conversation and beer. And finally sleep. Normally, I tend to wake up mid sleep. Either from the external noise factors or my internal eternally jacked up body clock. Not the at night. I work 8 solid hours later, a little drool on my cheek, but well rested. At which point I found Scot brewing coffee and partook of Christine's delicious peach muffins, which I found to be crack addict-like in my need to consume them. We eventually ventured out to find lunch in the small mountain town, and decided on a dinner in to exploit Christine and her culinary talents.

The afternoon in the sun at the pool, complete with hot tub, added to the whole lazy day theme of the weekend. After the delicious (albeit partially form a can.. so disappointed :-)) dinner, we spent the night looking at stars and roasting marshmallows with other guests around a bonfire. The occasional shooting star would streak across the Vermont sky, easily noticed in the dark of night. Along with the lack of ubiquitous noise, the lack of the ubiquitous city lights that drown out the stars at home was easily noticed. An again, I slept like a baby.

The time to leave, and that sucked. Though the sadness was eased by the discovery of maple syrup ice cream near by, I still didn't want to leave. I love my trips home to Atlanta, and I do love seeing all the friends and family, but it gets to the point of being run ragged from pint to pint. And while I generally feel the need to always be going and doing something, it was nice to just have company and lounge. Either by the pool or the fire or just staring out the window at the forests. It was nice to just sit back, and breath.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Come fly with me, let's fly away.

For those of you who either work with me or are employed in the same position at another airline, please go ahead and save yourself some time and skip this. It'll be dull. I'm trying to answer some of the questions posed about what it is I do for money... well I'd do a lot of things for money to be honest, but this is my actual "career". OK, lets get going....

I'm going to focus on a specific flight for this, but keep in mind there could be 30 or so others being worked/watched at various stages during a shift.

So what does a flight dispatcher do? That's a tough one. We do all the things that most people assume airline pilots do, like figure the fuel needed to get a planeload of people from point A to point B and determine if the weather is nice on the way and what not. They don't, at least not at the big plane level. By big plane, I mean any airplane carrying more than 19 people including the Barbie Dream Jets that my commuter friends fly :-).

So, let's get down to the boring details shall we. Hours before the pilots get to the airport and start looking are self important in their uniforms, or passengers are being harassed about the size of their carry on, I and others like me are planning to get them safely to their destinations. Could be 6 hours before departure, all depends on things like weather and my personal busy level.

If I've noticed anything in the last 10 years of doing this, it's that the amount of information related to weather conditions has become incredibly voluminous, though it's not always anymore accurate. Could be I've gone from airlines with minimal budgets and resources to airlines with seemingly unlimited variety of maps and charts. For a brief introduction to what we're looking at, check out the Aviation Weather Center. It's the weather products provided by the US Government (via NOAA and the NWS). A lot of the info here is published for private pilots in their single engine prop planes, but the basic content is the same used by the large air carriers Granted, we have prettier maps that are more detailed and go further out into the future (I think we have a 128 hour map that's pretty much pointless to me). But that being said, you can pretty much get away planning an airline flight with the weather info the government gives away for free on that website if it's a good weather day and there's no extraneous issues to deal with. But it's not generally specific enough to do it really well.

So, here we go. Tonight, we're going to focus on a flight to Omaha. We all know the airport designator system, where we refer to a city by a three letter code. In this case, it's OMA. That's for the traveling public. The airlines operations use the four letter coding system, so OMA is known as KOMA. Fairly simple in the contiguous US, basically it's the regular three letter designator with a K on the front. Outside the US, it's slightly more complicated. For instance Paris-Charles De Gaul airport, or CDG, becomes LFPG in ICAO parlance. It's an easier system once you learn it. For more information, check here if you're really curious.

So, we're operating a B757 from KSDF to KOMA. In a summary of what happens now is we check the weather and NOTAMs (or NOTices to AirMen,which is the system for letting us know something at the airport isn't working or certain airspace isn't usable). Checking the weather forecast for an arrival at a 1000Z (Z denotes it's in Universal Coordinated Time,or Zulu time. This is a time set at the Prime Meridian that runs through Greenwich England. The use of "Z" time is a way to standardize flights and ATC operations worldwide. All flight plans are filed with a planned departure time in Z. In the Eastern US, currently Z time is 4 hours ahead of local time, so 1000Z is 0600Lcl in ATL... trying to compute Z versus local in ones head on a global scale gives me a headache).

SO, the weather forecast that's issued for KOMA currently reads:

KOMA 052320Z 0600/0624 VRB03KT P6SM SCT015 BKN100
TEMPO 0600/0601 -SHRA SCT015CB
FM060300 VRB02KT P6SM SCT100
FM060700 VRB02KT 3SM BR OVC006
TEMPO 0610/0613 1SM BR OVC006

FM061500 10005KT 6SM BR BKN015
FM061700 17006KT P6SM SCT250

IN plain English all that means that around the time of the expected arrival that winds will be almost calm, visibility of 3 Miles, mist, and the clouds will overcast at 600 feet above the airport, with occasional periods of visibility of a 1 mile. Weather that "bad" requires an alternate airport be used. Simplistically, any weather forecast less than clear and beautiful requires an alternate airport be designated for the flight, and fuel be planned to get there in case you can't land at the destination. Tonight we're using KMCI (or MCI, Kansas City Int'l... trivia... why is it MCI and not something like KCI? The original name for the airport was Mid Continent Int'l Airport... MCI).

Also a consideration is the en route weather. This time of year, there's a lot of instability in the atmosphere. This is mostly caused by heating during the day, but there's the instability caused by a weather fronts (in general, "cold" fronts bring thunderstorms, "warm" fronts bring moderate to light rain, Low pressure is bad weather and High pressure is good weather..the "L" and "H" you'd see on the TV weather maps of old. There are of course exceptions). So, though there's no frontal systems, the weather guessers are putting out there's a possibility of thunderstorms forming in the middle of the country. There's a system moving through the Dakota's and again in Kansas and Oklahoma... where every night in the summer there's seemingly thunderstorms. Thunderstorms are generally recognized to be bad for airplanes, and to be avoided. But the nature of severe thunderstorms not associated with a weather front makes it hard to plan for. Basically guessing where a thunderstorm will form in 6 hours... you can get a pretty good idea of the area but not the exact spot. So we plan for this uncertainty by adding fuel to "deviate" around them.

Let's talk about fuel for a moment. In the "domestic" US (which excludes Hawaii and Alaska according to the FAA), the law prescribes a minimum fuel requirement. In nutshell, you have to have enough fuel to fly from point A to point B, which considers any forecast headwinds or tailwinds and any whacky required routings. Back in the olden days you needed to stick to "airways" that ran between ground based radio stations that sent out a signal for receivers onboard to home in on. Today, we have al kind of fancy equipment that allows us to go from any point to any other point. But there are still some general rules that need to be followed, and during busy times of the day between busy airports, like ATL to LGA, there are required routings for traffic management. Oddly, between Louisville and Omaha at 4 AM there's not much demand so I can plan the flight any way I want. You also are required to carry fuel to get to an alternate airport if needed, plus a 45 minute "reserve" of fuel. ANd then anything else I see that looks liek ti would require more gas above and beyond that.

Generally we aspire for the most economic or fastest routing depending on the needs at the time. Since this is a fairly short 1 hour and 25 minute flight, the hurry up factor isn't important and we have favorable winds. Also, since the plane continues on west from KOMA, and gas is expensive there, we're carrying enough fuel to get to the west coast to save money and not buy gas in Omaha. Had this not been "tankering" flight, would have probably picked a closer Alternate airport to save on the costs.

I've heard people ask why we don't just fill 'er up and go. This usually comes up when a flight has to divert after holding for a while. Well, fuel has weight, and the more a plane weighs, the more it burns. So carrying extra fuel for no reason costs money in burning extra fuel. By regulation, I have to plan for "known or anticipated" delays. Like if there's thunderstorms anywhere east of the Mississippi and I'm planning a flight to Newark (KEWR), there's a good chance there's going to be holding or delays or required reroutes. In the New York area, if the wind is blowing strong (more then 12 MPH) from a certain direction, all the airports of there go on a delay. The other reason we don't gas em up is the weight. You don't need a plane that's too heavy to take off or land. That's bad, cause then you leave money making stuff behind (or you leave a bent airplane at the end of the runway is (in technical aviation terminolgy) "no bueno").

So, all his stuff has been looked at. The computer has spit out the most efficient (allegedly) route based on the winds and temps and all that. We've looked at the weather and the NOTAMs that say the airports will be open and we can land there. We've checked the runways to make sure they're long enough for us to take off and land at the weight we need, and we've added a (and this is another technical aviation term) "shitload" of fuel since we have to get to Reno next without getting gas in Omaha.

All the above taks me about 15-45 minutes depending on the weather and amount of crap I have to read. There's other considerations (like determining if the airplane has anything not working that would make flying this route "no bueno". (Little known fact for the public, airplanes can fly with not everything working in perfect order. Somethings require a penalty (like driving a car without working windshield wipers, you have to make sure you're not going to be in rain), somethings don't (one of the 40 reading lights in the cockpit doesn't work.. no biggie). Today, the plane is in good shape.

All this relevant info has been compiled, and a 20 page packet has been generated to give to the Captain. When he shows up about an hour before departure, he (allegedly) reads this 20 page brief and says "I like it". At that point he signs off on it. I've already digitally signed it by sending the flight release, and both us agree this flight can be operated safely as planned. Now this packet is 20 pages just to get from Louisville to Omaha. Some longer flights, lets say from Paris to Hong Kong, can be 40+ pages long. It's a true statement that when a plane moves, a forest must die (and thins in the age of "electronic record keeping"). I've also sent an electronic message to Air Traffic Control that contains the info they need, like the type of airplane, planned routing, altitudes, speed, endurance (how long the plane can fly with the fuel planned), types of equipment (or avionics) the airplane is equipped with, and a bunch of other things. It looks basically like this:


The FAA computer ingests this and spits out a "strip" of paper with the relevant information to the Air traffic controllers that will be handling the fight. (And yes, I changed a lot of the info on there to be non specific to an actual flight/airplane)

SO, now the planning part is done. There's 25 more to do. Meanwhile, I've taken over "watching" about 15 or so planes in the air from another dispatcher. Let's get into the watching part, or flight following.

Now we get pretty pictures. We have this nifty program that allows me to put up a map of the US (or World and zoom where ever I want) and overlay weather radars, and fronts and locations of airports and radio aids and all kind of crap. it can almost be information overload if you let it. it also gives an almost realtime location of airplanes flying. You can get the same thing from websites, and even some airline websites pull up a feed like this when you check your flight status. My first dispatch job, we used the websites for free for a while. But we always knew where the plane was if we needed to find them from their paper flight planes and position reports they'd send every hour or so. The old "manual" flight following was ok for 5 or 6 flights, but it can be labor intensive and quickly become overwhelming if you're having a bad day.

So now, our flight is about to take off. Since the crew got out to the plane some thunderstorms have formed up and moving into the planned route. (In the picture below, the airplane has just got off the ground, and the blue line is the flight plan routing

Well, I can't let him fly into a big 60,000ft tall airplane killing thunderstorm. And since, by law, I'm jointly responsible with the captain for making sure this flights ops safely, I need to tell him what's coming. So, i send him what is essentially a text message to a communications unit on board the airplane:


ISSUED AT 060755

The white box on the map pic above is the graphical representation of a convective sigmet, or an area of a significant meteorological event (can be rough turbulence or icing, etc..). In this case it's a"Convective" area, which means thunderstorm. I'm telling the crew to go north to the SPI VOR (a radio beacon on the ground) then direct to the LMN VOR. The yellow symbols are radio navigation aids, or navaids, of various types. SPI is goes by the name "spinner" and is near Springfield, IL.

So shortly after the message is sent, I see this:

The crew and ATC have worked out a route from his current position "direct" to destination. the blue line is the new planned route of fight. However, that isn't going to keep them away from the hail laden 60,000ft tall thunderstorm. Airplanes have found themselves in airborne hail storms and lost pieces, had windshields cracked, been dented, and some cases crashed. (On example, look up Southern Air Flight 242 that crashed in New Hope, GA in 1977. The good news is the weather radar technology is 1000 times better today.) So while the crew will see this on their airplane's weather radar and avoid, if I can get them to go around earlier, it'll save them from burning excessive fuel to get around at the last minute, which could put the flight in a low fuel situation later.

However that direct doesn't give them enough room to go around, and the crew has asked ATC for a deviation from the route (notice they go almost to the SPI VOR I suggested earlier, go me!). Also you can see other company flights (the blue planes) that aren't my flights. There's another flight (the blue line to the south) that I'm also following and working on a plane to get him through the airplane killing thunderstorms. ATC has also issued a new Convective Sigmet area, shown on the map below

ISSUED AT 060855

30 minutes after the first message I sent, we're around and on the way to KOMA (A city in middle America). The pink line behind the plane shows his route flown, the purple lines are the boundaries for Air Traffic Control centers' airspace. Our KOMA flight is currently talking to Kansas City Center.

Keep in mind, this is only one of my flights. there's all the others that are flying through these other areas of weather (the white boxes around thunderstorms) that are getting the same attention. The red planes are mine (and have the associated information tags) the blue are other company jets:

Now they've started descent into KOMA, about 90 Nautical Miles out. The crew as the ATIS (Automated Terminal Information System) that gives them the latest actual
weather, the runways in use, and any important information about things at the airport not working. This is both available to be sent to the airplane as a text message, and is read by a recorded voice over the radio:


Translated to English, at 0944 Zulu time a special weather observation as taken (special in that it's not the normal hourly observation), the winds are blowing form the east at 4 knots (About 4.6 MPH), visibilty is 10 miles, there's a cloud "ceiling" at 3100 ft above the airport, the instrument approaches to runways 14R and 14L are currently being used, and a bunch of taxiways are closed.

Almost there, they will fly a downwind leg (or parallel to the runways the opposite direction of landing) then turn to final. From the info tag, you can see the plane is at 6800 ft (above Sea level in this case) and descending and flying at 276 Knots. The other info I have set up to show is org and dest, airplane type, and Estimated Arrival time. You can also see the runway layout for the airport (and KOPF, which is Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha).

So, that's that. Plane lands and another miracle of aviation is completed. This night I had a relatively light work load, so not a lot of stressing out. No major weather systems ruined my night and it was a light flying night being a weekend for us. So, I only had to do this about 20 times. That in a nutshell is a night for Jamie at work. I hope that this was informative and interesting and not too verbose for everyone. I think that's a pretty good coverage of the job, but I didn't get into too much detail (seriously, this is the light version). There'sa bout 30 other programs and applications running on my 3 monitor workstation, and a 4th montior that's just the phone keypad (that I dial up or radio any airplane, anywhere, we have flying and the saved numbers for seemingly every Air traffic services provider in the world.) I do not work for the FAA, but instead the airline. Every air carrier has a relatively small group of dispatchers that keep the planes moving safely. The dispatchers are legally the ones who delay and cancel your flights (don't hate us). And we have all been tested and certificated by the FAA to perform the job, then trained for what seems like an eternity by the airline. Not to mention the yearly recurrent training for things that change and ongoing new procedures instituted worldwide.

If I left anything unclear please ask. I'm thinking about saving this to show anyone who asks what i do for a living, but I don't think whipping out a lengthy presentation with visual aides will quite work in a bar. So, I'll jut keep telling people "yes, I work in the tower". Yeah, it's a neat job.

Last pic, a snapshot of every plane in the air, regardless of airline or owner, at 630AM Eastern on a Saturday:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fly by night away from here.

I've tried to get this going for the past week, and just haven't been able to make it work. If I'm getting bored writing it, I'm sure anyone reading will be gone before the halfway mark. Maybe it's the amount of distractions at the times, or a general lack of direction at the moment? I don't know, but well give this a shot.

I just finished a week of vacation. I'm not so much used to just having a week off after the last year of super flexible work schedule and a month off without pay. This year, due to a combination of factors (and a lack of staffing), vacations are harder to extend. But oh well, it's still a vacation right!

Again with the general lack of direction of late, I had no plans for this week off. I had several thoughts, but none of them seemed really appealing. I did have plans to be in Atlanta for the last part for a DCI show and (more importantly) the small reunion of old friends. But what to do for the first half of the week. I was looking around for options, and nothing jumped out at me as being reasonable and feasible. I mean, I can't get to Oz and back in 4 days without wanting to commit murder.

After spending days before perusing the interwebs for last minute deals and see what was doable on the cheap, I came up with nothing. So, I spent Saturday here in Louisville hitting the usual places in town. Still in an indecisive funk.

Sunday morning brought a sunny hot day (again) and a small headache. Per my normal non exciting Sunday morning ritual, I walked to the coffee place iPad in hand, grabbed a coffee and water, turned on the Dave FM Acoustic Sunrise stream, and started reading the paper. About halfway through the second article I totally lost focus... and decided I had to go. Somewhere. Anywhere.

A quick check of the Delta website showed a 2 PM to Atlanta that would get me there in time to catch the evening outbounds to anywhere. In truth I had narrowed down the destinations in my head to about five. The trick was, at 1135 to pack a bag, shower, and be ready to leave and be at the airport by 1300 (including the park and ride from the UPS lot). I did learn it's slightly more complicated packing for an unknown destination.

I made it, and was sitting in the cockpit of an CRJ900 bound for Atlanta by 1415. I only had to commit to the captain that, unlike the UPS pilot that had jumpseated in with him, I would not fall out of the airplane by trying to deplane before the jetbridge was up. What an idiot.

ON arrival, I checked the boards, and checked the service counter with an unusual request. Which of five flights had the best chance of me flying on them, and the winner was... Brussels.

Why Brussels? Though I'd technically been there twice, I'd only seen the inside of a train station and the airport. Oh, and an airport hotel for 9 hours. The other European option that worked well would have been Madrid. Brussels topped out Madrid because of the temperature (the mid 60's versus the mid 90's... I'm kind of over hot) and a better beer selection. As I can't think of a single Spanish beer but 100 Belgian beers easily come to mind... easy choice.

So off I go... after getting my seat assignment, saying hello to the crew, being briefed on opening the emergency exit, then being moved form an exit row to a better seat by the captain, I settled in for the 8 hours to Europe.

This being the first time I've tried an international trip like this, I was a bit worried that I'd be told to "pound sand" (that's a technical aviation term that equates to "get lost" or something more graphic) and get off the plane. But the whole trip went smooth. Except for the interrogation by the customs official on arrival ("No I don't have an onward ticket, I'm taking a company jet home"), no complaints.

I'll do the Brussels travelogue later, but suffice it to say I did a few cultural things, museums and what not. And had several beers, and just enjoyed the cafe culture of Europe.

The trip helped just lift me up for a minute. The whole indecisive planning part had been a real downer. For some reason, I just didn't feel it. Not wanting to deal with the hassle and spend the money. I've been unusually thrifty of late, mainly since July as an expensive month for me. But, as I sat here (literally in the same place I'm writing this) that Sunday morning, nursing a light hangover, I could see how the week would go if I remained in town. That was unacceptable. I've been feeling a lack of adventurism lately, maybe I'm getting old. Maybe the idea of traveling to foreign lands alone is less appealing than in my 20's. Maybe I'm more aware of the dangers and pitfalls of a solo traveler in the world today than I was a decade ago.

Whatever that was driving the reticence to go jump on a plane, destination unknown, needed to be smite down. I had a good time, if a little dull at times, but did meet a couple interesting people and a number of interesting beers. And like the first time I took of to Europe 12 years ago, I can't wait for some one to go with me.. I'll just go solo. I have the benefits to make it happen on a whim. And now that I know it can be done, maybe I'll try more destinations as money and open seats allow.

I'll be posting a more "went here, ate this" description of the week later. But I did have a great time, if only from having a change of scenery. Then a day at home and off again to be in the company of many good friends for the weekend. It was nice to see people I haven't seen in a long while. I say it every time, and I mean it every time, but we shouldn't only meet up once a year. But life makes that harder as we get older and we, as adults, pile on more "adult" responsibilities. Well, everyone else does, I still act like a child for the most part.

I'm going to work om the travel narrative a bit later, and some other things as well. I'm resisting the urge to buy a new Macbook Pro. My laptop has an issue with the battery charging or holding a charge and that bothers me. Add the general annoyance of grinding down when trying to multi task. And I noticed a lack of disk space these days. But since I don't have the cash on hand I am hesitant to take on another debt, even with 12 months no interest.

I'm also settling in for an August involving me working more. At least I'll have the aircon at work to keep me cool. There's some plans on the horizon, but we'll see what happens with that. Until then, I'm just trying to stay cool.