I Got Friends in High Places: A Tow-tally Awesome Day at MSP

I feel so fortunate that my love of big metal birds has brought such a unique sense of purpose, fulfillment and happiness to my life. It’s also introduced me to a new group of lifelong friends who share my passion for aviation—one of my very favorites is Joe, an air traffic controller at MSP tower.

Our paths first crossed via Instagram and before I knew it, I was up in the tower with Joe, witnessing firsthand the controlled chaos that is air traffic control. Fast forward a few months and my husband Scott and I got together with Joe and his wife Tina (also an incredibly awesome person) at Holman’s Table at the Downtown St. Paul Airport, which was brand new at the time. We were even fortunate to visit with them in Chicago a couple months after I had moved down there for my job with Boeing.

Every chance I get, I like to connect in person with fellow aviation enthusiasts. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a handful of my Instagram followers—several up in Minneapolis and even a couple in Chicago and one in Baltimore (gotta give a quick shout out to Robert and Tam Tam… HEY!). So, naturally when I scheduled a weekend trip up to Minnesota, I reached out to Joe and he graciously invited my husband Scott and I up to the tower—Scott had never been.

Joe talked through some of the ins and outs of what exactly the controllers do on a day-to-day basis, and I—of course—enjoyed some quality time on the catwalk snapping photos of the airfield. I even caught the snow plow conga line!

Earlier that day, Joe had enlightened us to the fact that he had a “surprise” planned that afternoon. Any plane-related surprise is a great surprise… but I had NO idea what a tow-tally awesome experience we were in for.

“Alright, you ready? Let’s go,” Joe said. Scott and I followed him down the stairs, exited the tower and walked over to a pickup truck where we met an incredibly kind Delta employee named Kyle. The four of us hopped in the truck and drove around the airfield. We crossed runways and cruised through tunnels before pulling up to a beautiful, beastly Delta Boeing 767. We were about to tow that sucker using the Super Tug.

Scott and I hopped inside the cockpit, and he took the jump seat while I played first officer. And yes, a legit Delta employee manned the ship from the captain’s seat. Joe got into the Super Tug and before I knew it, its powerful arms had grabbed hold of our nose gear and raised it a whopping foot-and-a-half off the ground! Then, that powerful little whipper snapper pulled us to a new gate like it was nothin’.

After that, we got to do the same thing, but this time in a BRAND new A321. We switched things up a bit, Scott rode along in the Super Tug, and Joe and I went along for the gate-to-hangar ride in the cockpit. Of course I’m partial to Boeing planes, but let me tell you… the new-plane smell of this A321 and it’s shiny, barely-touched cockpit were incredible.

I live for these types of experiences… it’s really something to spend even a few minutes in someone else’s shoes, much less an entire afternoon. There are so many people, companies and organizations that keep or skies safe and our airports running—I’m grateful for every chance I get to learn a little more about each.

A Bird’s Eye View of a Few Big Birds

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On Tuesday night, I arrived all giddy at MSP Airport. I had a typical “kid in a candy store” expression plastered on my face, but this time it was amplified – my face legitimately hurt from smiling.

I wasn’t going to the dog park or the viewing area or the cemetery or the gold ramp, no… I was going to the Air Traffic Control tower. ATC has ALWAYS fascinated me… one of the first pieces I wrote for Aviation Queen was about the inner workings of air traffic control. And more recently I got to write a piece on the privatization debate for Airways.

Lucky me, one of the many connections I’ve made through Instagram was with an incredibly nice guy named Joe. He works as a controller in the MSP tower, and invited me to shadow him this past Tuesday evening. It was UNREAL. Seriously guys… unreal. Side note: Joe also loves cats – further proof that he’s a good guy.

He told me in advance that he would “put me to work” and I didn’t quite know what that meant. But one of the first things I did upon arrival was plop down in a chair in front of a computer and a machine that was cranking out flight strips. I placed the strips into their holders, went through the flights on the computer to send clearances and then went through them all again to record their gate numbers. Best part? I got to KEEP the strips from the Air France A340 and the Condor 767 – pretty sweet, huh?

We then went over to a different station and worked “ground” – I had a headset on and just listened to Joe interact with the pilots… clearing them for pushback or directing them to their runway for departure or to their gate for arrival. It was boatloads of fun. I wish I was back there right now.

THEN… I had the opportunity to go out on the “catwalk” – a full 360 deck that circles the tower. I got some amazing photos from up there and the view was just stunning. It was fairly close to sunset, so the lighting was beautiful. It was the cat’s meow. See what I did there?

Following my photo session, I got to hang around inside the cab for a bit more before we made our way down to TRACON.

I first learned about TRACON (terminal radar approach control) when I interviewed Jennah Perry earlier this year for my ATC story on Aviation Queen. Jenna is the Program Chair and Assistant Professor of Air Traffic Management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

TRACON is located in the lower level of the MSP tower and looked to me like something out of a movie. It was dark and a little eerie – with a number of computer screens displaying the radar. The screens were divided into 5-mile “rings” of the area surrounding MSP – really bringing to life the whole “invisible highways in the sky” concept.

Joe told me that back in the “old days” the controllers at the top would actually send the flight strips down to TRACON in a contraption similar to those bank tubes that go between the drive-thru lanes and the tellers inside the building. That’d sure be a sight to see, huh?

After the visit down to TRACON, my time was up. Two hours really *flies* by when you’re having fun. Before I knew it, my husband was pulling back into the parking lot to pick me up. I talked his ears off about how much fun I had for no less than two hours straight. It was perfect.

All in all, my visit Tuesday was an exciting, eye-opening experience. As always, I feel incredibly thankful to have been able to meet such a diverse group of aviation enthusiasts through social media… from pilots to mechanics, spotters to photographers, and now even a controller.

So, here’s to you Joe! Thanks for an AWESOME time.

Invisible Highways: An Inside Look at Air Traffic Control in the U.S.

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Note: This was originally published on the Aviation Queen blog, where I have been fortunate enough to post as a guest contributor thanks to the immense kindness of Benét Wilson.

While I love music, these days I find myself listening to air traffic control feeds more often than tunes. On average, more than 400,000 landings and takeoffs occur at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport each year, and the fact that the controllers get them all on and off the ground safely never ceases to amaze me.

So when passengers at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport were faced with serious flight delays in early February due to a computer issue in air traffic control, it really got me thinking about our own ATC system.

How exactly does it work? Is there a “backup” plan in the event something similar happened here?

According to a video released by the FAA, controllers have two primary jobs: to make sure planes are properly separated from one another, and to keep air traffic flowing in the most efficient manner.

When planes depart, an initial heading is used and then they fan out into their specific routes. When planes are nearing their destinations, they’re sequenced and merged into “arrival streams.” And in the air, planes have both a minimum lateral and vertical distance they must remain from one another.

Near airports, planes flying at the same altitude must be at least three miles apart, but at higher altitudes that jumps to five miles. And if planes don’t meet those lateral requirements, they must remain a minimum vertical distance from other one another. For commercial aircraft below 41,000 feet, the minimum vertical separation is only 1,000 feet. So when you’re at cruising altitude, the distance between your plane and one that’s above or beneath you could be as small as the length of three football fields.

Departures and arrivals also have numerous crossing routes where they must be separated from one another, so controllers are continually managing and separating them throughout the day.

So how exactly do air traffic controllers do their job?

Derek Sorenson has worked at the Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) for roughly three years, first as a contractor and more recently as a controller. The Minneapolis Center is one of 21 ARTCC facilities in the U.S. and encompasses nearly 400,000 square miles of Midwest airspace.

Sorenson is responsible for an area that covers roughly the northern half of Wisconsin, the upper peninsula of Michigan, and the northern half of the lower peninsula of Michigan. And a lot of planes fly through that airspace on any given day.

“If it were averaged throughout the year, I would estimate something like 2,000 aircraft per day,” he said.

Before departing, pilots file a flight plan with the ARTCC, which includes their requested route and altitude. The controllers do their best to accommodate these requests, but that’s not always feasible. “Sometimes, for traffic situations or a required route to be flown to a busier airport, we need to change things up,” Sorenson said.

There’s no such thing as a “typical day” for Sorenson, and he likes that. “It all depends on many factors such as traffic volume, weather, turbulence, and how many people are working that particular shift,” he said.

FAA-ERAMOn the job, he is in constant communication with pilots via radio, and with other controllers via phone. And when it comes to tracking aircraft, he primarily works off of a radar display that runs on En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM). ERAM technology is a vital component of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, commonly referred to as NextGen, and is helping in the transition from an aging ground-based air traffic control system to a more modern satellite-based system. Previously, controllers could only track 1,100 aircraft at a time, but the use of ERAM has increased that capability to 1,900.

Lucky for him, Sorenson has never encountered a significant system failure akin to what happened in Amsterdam, and he isn’t aware of any past incidents at the Minneapolis ARTCC. The most notable event he could recall here in the U.S. was in September 2014 when a contract worker set fire to the Chicago Center early one morning. As a result, thousands of flights into and out of both Chicago O’Hare and Midway airports were delayed or canceled.

atc_ERAM“In the Chicago incident, they lost communication and radar… so they were ATC-Zero,” said Jennah Perry, Program Chair and Assistant Professor of Air Traffic Management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The Independent reports that in Amsterdam, the fault apparently occurred with radar correlation software, which compares and assesses information from primary and secondary radar. Perry explained that primary radar detects anything that has mass, whereas secondary radar only picks up aircraft that are carrying a transponder.

“I would imagine it is the system that puts them together that failed,” Perry added.

According to Perry, the FAA is supposed to have contingency plans in the event of radar failure. In the Chicago situation, even though there were plans in place, they didn’t work. The controllers didn’t have proper training on following the plans and there wasn’t proper infrastructure.

“Due to the high demand of air traffic and the lack of ability to train and be current on those non-radar procedures, those contingency plans are ineffective in the event they have to be used,” Perry said.

The contingency plans in place in Chicago were designed for short-term use, which created limitations and required controllers to discard the plans and instead work with adjacent centers such as Cleveland, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Indianapolis.

A similar incident happened in October 2015, when record rainfall caused flooding at the Austin-Bergstrom Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), also resulting in an ATC-Zero situation. The damage affected the operations for more than two weeks.

Over the last three years, a number of incidents have revealed a lack of resiliency in the current air traffic control structure, but ultimately, it was the fire at the Chicago Center that led to the FAA’s extensive review of its current contingency plans.

According to a January 2017 report released by the Office of the Inspector General, the FAA’s contingency plans are not yet sufficient to minimize the impact of system disruptions.

Following the Chicago incident, the FAA updated its contingency plan policy to include goals to achieve 90 percent capacity at the top 30 airports with the most passenger activity within 24 hours, and 90 percent capacity at facilities that manage air traffic at high altitude and in the vicinity of airports within 96 hours. But in a crisis situation, that’s just not realistic given the current plans, according to Perry. “The centers will not be operating at normal capacity… they’ll be operating at maybe 30 to 40 percent,” she said.

Additionally, the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) completed a 30-day assessment of the operational contingency plans, which identified five next steps that needed to be completed within one year. However, two of those steps have not yet been fully completed.

“Right now if any major facility went down in the U.S. to ATC-Zero, it would cause major havoc over the whole U.S. airspace system,” Perry said. “It’s a domino effect.”

According to her, our current radar-based system just won’t cut it… the only thing that can bring our centers up to the 90- to 100-percent efficient status they’d need to be at following a crisis is NextGen.

Key site testing for NextGen’s NAS Voice System (NVS) is expected to be complete in 2019. This voice switch capability would allow controllers to talk to any aircraft anywhere in our airspace. So if one facility lost communications, another facility could communicate with their aircraft. Once these systems are certified and available, they’ll be installed in terminal and ARTCC facilities, likely between 2019 and 2026.

Perry said the change in technology is great, theoretically, but it’s timely and expensive.

“It has a lot of advancements that we need in order to keep our system safe and streamlined, but with technology comes failure… redundancy needs to be there.”

So while flying is statistically the safest form of travel, more work needs to be done to keep it that way. The FAA has made progress by establishing goals and working to achieve them, but the January report concluded that until the administration strengthens controller training and implements policies and procedures for transferring traffic within all airspace, they’ll continue to face challenges.

Realistically, in a situation similar to what happened in Amsterdam, we probably wouldn’t fare much better than they did. But in the next 5-10 years, once NextGen is fully implemented, a center’s response to a crisis will almost certainly be much smoother and more effective, making our skies even safer than they are today.