Be kind, be determined, be gracious and oh, meet your hero…

Whoever said, “Never meet your hero,” clearly never met Benét Wilson.

Honestly, I feel like it was in the stars for her to be my mentor. It was December 2016 when a little light bulb turned on in my head… “Maybe I can combine my love of planes with my passion for writing,” I thought. I needed to find a professional, someone who was actually doing what I hoped to do… and a few simple Google searches led me to the Aviation Queen website.

I reached out to Benét via email, and before I knew it we were talking on the phone and she gave me some crazy awesome news: she wanted me to contribute to her blog. A few posts in, she saw enough potential in me to recommend me to Airways Magazine’s Chris Sloan, who promptly brought me on as a contributing author. I wrote on a variety of topics and even got to take some pretty awesome trips—I was having the time of my life and was so incredibly gracious (and still am) for the complete and utter selflessness that both Benét and Chris showed in taking me under their wings and helping me as I learned to fly (no pun intended).

You all know how this story ends… I left the nest. Just a few months after this journey began, I was offered a job with the greatest aerospace company in the world: Boeing. My husband Scott is finishing up his last two semesters at the University of Minnesota, so for now it’s just me and our two cats down in Chitown. It is certainly hard to move to a new, big city by yourself… but I wouldn’t trade what I have now for anything.

Each morning I bid farewell to my sweet, fuzzy friends, and I begin my one-mile walk to work. And each and every time I approach my office building, I stop briefly to look up at the big Boeing logo amidst all the other skyscrapers, and each and every time I just can’t help but crack a smile. I do the same each evening as I head home, except the sun is usually setting and the big logo is glowing against the dusky sky. Now I truly feel like I have more than just aviation in my blood—I have Boeing in my blood. I am proud, honored and humbled to say that I bleed Boeing blue.

Meeting Benét couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time either, as just yesterday FIRST—an international nonprofit that inspires K-12 students to develop STEM skills—announced that Boeing had donated $1.5 million to support young innovators. Another thing that makes FIRST awesome? Their focus on mentorship… showcasing firsthand the important role mentors play in learning, dreaming and doing. It wasn’t until my own journey began almost a year-and-a-half ago that I realized what a crucial role a mentor could play in my own life… Benét helped me to learn, she supported my dream and she cheered me on as I chased that dream.

Lucky for me, Benét is still on my team today—she is someone I can talk to, someone I can depend on and someone who supports me. I am so proud to call her my friend.

So here’s to you, Benét. You are an amazing person. Your smile is infectious. You make me want to be a better person. And as I hard as I try, I could never truly repay you for the ways in which you’ve helped me. In my opinion, no one deserves a lifetime full of blue skies and tailwinds more than you do.

This big beautiful machine… my only high

07CF82BE-A145-4B2C-964D-3DE8F34C5AEE.jpeg“It’s like I’ve never seen the sky before,
It’s like I never knew that we could fly.
Now all I want to do is spread my wings and soar,
This big, beautiful machine… my only high.”

Those are words I wrote some time ago as a sort of love letter to my so-called “flying friends” and the magic that they’re made of.

Right now I’m writing this from 37,000 feet, just south of Spokane, Wash. Merely two months into my new job with Boeing, I was fortunate enough to travel to Seattle to support the all-manager and executive webcast that our CEO hosted.

To say that a lot of work went into that event is an understatement, but the experience in its entirety was a great one. Watching my team’s hard work come to fruition this morning was so satisfying, and the trip as a whole was so much fun.

Yesterday afternoon I was extremely lucky to have the chance to visit our Everett factory with one of my teammates, Brittany. To be completely frank, I can’t find the words to describe how awe-inspiring that building is and how remarkable the facility’s operations truly are. We’re talking the world’s largest building by volume—it’s absolutely monstrous.

Upon our arrival, I nearly lost it as the huge building came into view and I saw the artwork that adorned the exterior, depicting different aircraft in vibrant colors. I had seen that wall hundreds of times in photos… I just couldn’t believe I was actually there.

When we first entered the building, the door shut behind us, I looked up and my eyes immediately glued themselves to a nearly-complete 747-800F being built for UPS. I was overcome with a feeling unlike any other… I felt like I was home. My eyes and my mouth were in a viscious battle with one another… would I burst out crying? Or would I smile big enough to cause stretch marks on my cheeks? Lucky for me, it was the latter.

Throughout our time there we saw a number of 747s—my favorite—and a slew of 767s, 777s and, of course, the ever-beautiful 787 Dreamliners all lined up and ready to go.

I touched landing gear that was ready to begin its life inside the belly of a 747-8—the gear standing nearly as tall as me. I saw the very first 777X wing and it’s folding wingtip… innovation at its finest. I saw an incredibly intricate “saddle” laying atop a 777-300ER, a mind-boggling structure that allows those who work atop the plane to do so much more easily.

We drove down the indoor streets aboard our little cart—the longest uninterrupted stretch of “road” spanning nearly a mile. We’d cruise past the lined up aircraft as I proudly named the airline each plane was being built for by looking at the paint on its tail—sometimes with only a slight sliver of paint down the middle. I was having the time of my life. I was in MY heaven.

The best way to describe the atmosphere inside Everett is that it’s essentially a city… an indoor city. Folks ride bicycles to get from one place to another, there are multiple cafeterias and it’s always bustling… much like New York City, it’s a “city” that truly never sleeps.

As I imagined it would be, leaving was hard. Just in the way I had always dreamed of working for Boeing, I had always dreamed of visiting Everett. It was a shame that it had to end.

When we pulled out of the parking lot, I heard a rumbling… I knew something was taking off from Paine Field next door, but I didn’t see anything. I quickly whipped out my phone and opened my flight radar app. I clicked on the nearest yellow airplane icon, its four engines let me know it was her royalty—the Queen of the Skies. However, once the aircraft information displayed, I realized that it wasn’t just the Queen… I shouted, “OH MY GOSH IT’S A DREAMLIFTER!”

I literally screamed, my heart rate skyrocketed and at the same time, Brittany shouted, “Oh my gosh there it is!” I looked up ahead just in time to see it soar off into the low clouds. The Dreamlifters are so magical… they’re specially modified 747-400s used to transport parts of the Dreamliner—only four of the massive, somewhat odd looking planes even exist.

And now I sit here at 37,000 feet, cruising above only-God-knows-where, Montana, reminiscing on these amazing memories so fresh in my mind. The air is smooth and the ground beneath looks grey, mountainous and snowy. On the northern horizon I see a sliver of soft yellow sky fading into blue. I see night ahead of us, and daytime behind us. I am tired, but so, so happy. My heart is full.

I really can’t explain it, but these airborne metal tubes mean the world to me, and that’s an understatement. I feel something huge going on inside my heart when I look up at an airplane, and that feeling is amplified when I’m actually in the sky.

Flight is magic in its purest form, and I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to work for a company that makes this magic happen, one that embraces new ideas and helps dreamers become doers. I am so incredibly humbled and honored to work for Boeing, and I just can’t wait to see where this adventure takes me… both physically and emotionally.

I truly appreciate the love and support of my family and friends who embrace and respect my childlike wonder. Now I’m positive that anything—and I mean ANYTHING—is possible.

Lights will guide you home…

night-flight-2307018_1920

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you

I have always loved the song “Fix You” by Coldplay. It’s one of those songs that speaks to me, but I never really knew why – am I trying to fix someone? Is someone trying to fix me? I didn’t know, but it’s becoming a lot clearer these days.

I started singing the song in my head while my dad and I were sitting in a plane out on the tarmac at Chicago O’Hare Airport, getting ready to fly back to Minneapolis after a 10-day trip through Europe.

It was dark out, and the bright runway lights enticed me as they always do. And in that moment, just as the song popped into my head, I realized I was home. And I wasn’t just “home” as in back in the states, I was home in Chicago.

When you try your best but you don’t succeed
When you get what you want, but not what you need
When you feel so tired, but you can’t sleep
Stuck in reverse

My life, just like everyone else’s, has been filled with ups and downs. There have been tough times and feelings of hopelessness; there have been good times and lights at the ends of many tunnels.

During college, living with a toxic combination of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and disordered eating took its toll on me. My body and my mind were always tired, but I pressed on and did my best to power through class, homework and exams. I was working hard, but I didn’t know what exactly it was I was working toward.

After graduation, the future of my career always felt uncertain. I had met the love of my life, which brought so much needed happiness into my world, but I still didn’t know what I was doing – I didn’t know what my purpose was here on planet Earth.

I worked in newsrooms, I did communications for a nonprofit, I did website work at an energy company and most recently I found myself writing for the Minnesota Department of Health – where I currently still work. All these jobs had profound impacts on me and helped shape me into a better person, but I had no idea what my end goal was, and I didn’t know what these experiences were preparing me for.

High up above or down below
When you’re too in love to let it go
If you never try, you’ll never know
Just what you’re worth

A few years back, I fell madly in love… and in case you’re wondering, my husband and I met more than seven years ago, so no, it wasn’t with him. Don’t worry guys, it’s not scandalous… I was out for a run near Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, and was blown away when and airplane lifted off right over my head. I was hooked. I quickly realized how “right” this all felt though… I mean, my parents met as flight attendants, my dad was in the Air Force… aviation was in my blood from the start.

I began reading about the physics of flight and watching documentaries on airplanes. I found myself out at MSP multiple times a week taking photos of the planes, and before I knew it, I was identifying many of them from decently far away. I was learning a lot and, more importantly, this was bringing me joy.

Almost a year ago, I had an “aha” moment… “Why can’t I combine my passion for aviation with my journalism degree and my love of writing?” Simple answer: I can. I reached out to Aviation Queen Benét Wilson, an aviation journalist who has inspired me in so many ways. And that decision to ask someone for help, proved to be so worth it.

Benét critiqued my writing and helped me to develop my skills and get my name out there. She also introduced me to Chris Sloan, the managing editor at Airways Magazine. Chris, too, helped me in more ways than one, he suggested topics for me to research and write about that I never would have thought of on my own. As a contributor to Airways, I was improving my industry knowledge, becoming a better writer and making connections out the wazoo.

I was so, so glad I found something that brought me so much joy. It was that one piece in my “happy life” pie that was missing, and now it was there. I kept working and learning, traveling and exploring… just trying to figure out what I was going to make of all of this. I knew that someday I wanted to find a full-time job in the aviation industry, whether at an airline or a manufacturer… I just didn’t know.

Another thing I didn’t know, was that the opportunity to work full time doing writing and communications in the aviation industry was about to present itself… a lot sooner than I had ever expected.

Tears stream down your face
I promise you I will learn from mistakes

After years of uncertainty… years of ups and downs and years filled with (yes) plenty of mistakes, I learned, I grew and I found my passion. On day one of the trip I just took with my dad, I accepted an offer to work in communications at BOEING.

Wait… did I just say that? Someone pinch me, please.

YES. It’s true… in December I’ll be setting up shop in Chicago to begin this new journey. It’s amazing. Of course, there will be hurdles… as my husband will be up here in Minnesota finishing his last year of school, before joining me in the Windy City. Our love is rock solid though… so I know we’ll be fine. He is over the moon knowing that I have this opportunity, and his love is truly what helped me to realize that I was (and still am) capable of anything. So… I finally know why that song speaks to me. No one was trying to fix me, and I wasn’t trying to fix someone else – I was trying to fix myself, and I think I’m slowly but surely doing just that.

It was more than 10 years ago that I first began dealing with mental health issues and constantly feeling hopeless for what the future may hold. Who would have thought that in my upper twenties I’d fall so in love with these huge, flying machines, and that in the end, those guiding lights would be runway approach lights, and home would be this city that’s always held a special place in my heart.

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you

See you soon, Chicago.

A trip long in the making, is finally here…

klm
KLM 747 courtesy of the KLM Blog

I am an only child. My parents divorced when I was five years old. Throughout my childhood and into young adulthood, aside from spending every other weekend together and going out to dinner once a week, my dad and I traveled – that was our thing.

We took the Empire Builder from St. Paul all the way out to Seattle, we went to Hawaii, we went to the 1996 Olympics in my hometown of Atlanta, we cruised, we drove… we did it all.

Into high school and throughout college, there was a bit of a hiatus… my dad was remarried to my dear stepmom Carolyn, and I… I mean – I was an adult! What more is there to say? We saw each other as often as we could, but we certainly weren’t vacationing together anymore. I was busy with school and my dad was (expectedly) traveling with his wife.

Upon graduating from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2009, my dad told me that my graduation gift would be another trip. I was ecstatic! The following spring, we went to Germany, Austria and Italy. It was a different kind of trip – I was old enough to drink beer! Suddenly we weren’t just a dad and daughter duo, we were friends.

Just weeks after returning to the states, I met the second of the “two main men” in my life – my now husband Scott. My life changed forever… in the best possible way.

Just a year after meeting and upon finding my first job in journalism, Scott and I moved to Kansas City together. Ultimately, our journey brought us back to Minnesota just a couple years later. Once we got back to the Twin Cities, Scott decided to go back to school and after a few more years in television news, I decided to switch career paths and went into public relations and communications.

Scott and I got engaged in September 2013, and just months later in December, my stepmom Carolyn was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. It was devastating and it was scary. She and my dad lived in Nashville (she was from Tennessee and both of her children, along with her sister still live down there), though she and my dad had a second home in Florida. I didn’t see them as often as I’d have liked to, but we were fortunate enough to visit at least a couple times each year, whether it was in Tennessee, Florida or up here in Minnesota.

About a year and a half ago, I thought back to all the trips my dad and I had taken, and I went out on a limb – I asked him if we could take another trip together… we were both married, he was supporting Carolyn as she battled the beast that is cancer, and I was supporting Scott as he attended college full time and worked part time – a challenge in and of itself.

I was surprised, but now that I think about it, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised… just a week or so after my request, my dad told me he had booked a special trip for us. He told me that in October 2017 he and I would fly to Switzerland and take a cruise from Basel to Amsterdam on the Rhine River. I could not believe it. I was so, SO excited.

Throughout winter 2016-2017, the thought of that trip understandably took a backseat to my stepmom’s deteriorating health. It was a difficult time for our whole family. Scott and I flew down to celebrate her 70th birthday in March of this year – it was quite the occasion, but it was bittersweet as I feared it would be the last time I’d see her.

In June, she wasn’t doing too well. I told my dad I wanted to be down there with him and the rest of the family. He booked me a flight down to Nashville toward the end of June, but something inside me told me I needed to get down there sooner. My dad switched my ticket to the next day. I flew from Minneapolis to St. Louis, where I connected to Nashville.

I exited the airport in Tennessee and immediately saw my dad. He hugged me really tight and whispered in my ear, “Carolyn died.” My heart sank into my stomach. I hadn’t made it in time. I didn’t know what to think.

Needless to say, the months following her passing were difficult for everyone. There was sadness, there was frustration… but we all stuck together and supported one another. I was so happy to have been there for my dad in his greatest time of need. And, as October neared, I realized that this trip – a trip that I had at one time doubted would even happen – would not only happen, it needed to happen. This trip would be so meaningful for both my dad and for me… I felt more thankful than I ever had that this adventure was becoming a reality.

Tomorrow, my dad is flying into Minneapolis, and Thursday we’ll fly to Amsterdam together. From there we’ll head to Zurich, and ultimately Basel before embarking on a trip that will bring us through France, Germany and the Netherlands. I’ve been waiting for this trip for what feels like my whole life.

There is something else about this trip that is so incredibly special. When my dad booked our trip, I was just getting into aviation… photography, journalism, anything and everything flight. He knew how much I had dreamed of flying on a Boeing 747… the beautiful, iconic Queen of the Skies that undoubtedly would retire in the years to come.

Not only did my dad choose a flight back to the states simply because it was on a KLM 747 (a combi at that!), he even adjusted our schedule by jumping through a number of hoops when he found out our flight was switched and we would no longer be on the Queen – that just wasn’t acceptable to him! This trip means so much to me, but knowing that he wanted that experience so badly for me, makes it that much more special.

In just 48 hours my dad and I will be high in the sky, nearing the Atlantic where we will drift to sleep and wake up in Amsterdam. There, we’ll spend a half-day exploring Schipol Airport (a one-on-one behind-the-scenes tour a year in the making!). We will then fly to Zurich, spend the night, and take a train to Basel the next morning, where we’ll board our ship later that evening.

We’ll stop in various German, French and Dutch cities before ending back in Amsterdam, where we’ll spend an additional two days. A week from next Monday, we’ll board a KLM 747-400 mixed configuration aircraft (half passenger, half cargo) that will bring us to Chicago where we’ll catch our final flight back to Minnesota.

Honestly… this trip, and the memories that will be made, means the world to me. I am so grateful for the opportunity to spend this time with my dad, and I cannot wait to share the experience with you all through photos and through writing.

To blue skies and tailwinds… and smooth sailing!

Living in the Age of Airplanes

NAT GEOIs it any wonder that people from all walks of life are fascinated with airplanes? Think about it… these massive hunks of metal fire up their engines and FLY… I mean, how can you not look up at the sky each time you hear one soaring overhead?

But planes have done more than just defy gravity, they’ve changed the world by connecting us to people and places in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible in the days before their existence.

And that, my friends, is why I love the movie “Living in the Age of Airplanes.”

The 47-minute National Geographic documentary was filmed in 18 countries on all seven continents. Released in 2015, I actually planned a trip to Florida around seeing this flick on the big screen at the Orlando Science Center. Call me a sap, but I was tearing up within the first two minutes.

I watched the movie again recently, and was reminded of the real reason I love these humble beasts. I say humble because not all airplanes are built to “show off” and please us aesthetically, in fact, most of them aren’t built for that purpose at all… their beauty is just an added bonus. They’re really here to serve as workhorses that get us to and from the places we need to be. So, let’s all pause, take a step back and give a collective “thanks” to our flying friends.

If you love planes, you’ll love this movie. And if you hate planes? This movie will make you love them. Admit it – you take air travel for granted. You don’t need to feel ashamed though… most of us take flight for granted. But this movie is a work of art that will inspire you to look at aviation in a different light and will leave you with a newfound appreciation of how miraculous flight truly is.

I recently interviewed the CEO of Cape Air, Dan Wolf, and he said something that really struck me… “You can build a mile of runway and go anywhere, you can build a mile of road and go a mile.” This movie really drives home that point, so if you haven’t seen it… please check it out and let me know what you think!

To blue skies and tailwinds…

 

Top Fun: A Hidden Gem for Aviation Enthusiasts of ALL Ages

I love airplanes.

I bet you didn’t see that coming.

Of course, I prefer the real deal to a model or a toy of any sort. But alas… I’m not fortunate enough to find myself actually in an airplane or out at the airport as often as I’d like. So, I’ve expectedly gathered an aviation trinket or two… or twenty.

A few of my favorites?

  • A plush Boeing 747 (who wouldn’t want to snuggle an airplane at bedtime?)
  • A shabby chic seaplane that hangs in our living room
  • A model FedEx Boeing 777
  • A vintage Eastern Airlines magazine ad

The list goes on, and on, and on.

But I recently heard about someone whose “collection” puts mine to shame – I mean really puts mine to shame.

The city of Fitchburg, Mass. boasts a hidden gem for aviation enthusiasts of all ages: Top Fun Aviation Toy Museum. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never even been to Massachusetts – but now I really have a reason to visit the Bay State.

The Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise highlighted the museum and its curators earlier this week. In a nutshell, nearly 20 years ago Deborah Scheetz earned her private pilot’s license. And at the time, her friends jokingly gifted her a number of toy airplanes to “‘make up” for not being able to give her a real plane.

Today, Scheetz and friend Rosalie Dunbar act as cocurators, volunteering their time to keep this all ages “wonder of flight” museum running. And get this – Top Fun boasts nearly three thousand aviation toys. That’s unreal!

The two friends say that it wasn’t necessarily the toy collection, but rather aviation history and a fascination with flight that inspired them to open the museum. They knew kids would be interested and curious, so they first opened Top Fun in 2000 in Winchendon. About six years later, the nonprofit museum relocated to its current spot in Fitchburg.

In addition to the overabundance of toys and the brightly painted murals, the museum’s annual “paper airplane contest” is a huge draw.

Well… I know where I’m headed when I finally make it out to Massachusetts!

Learn more about Top Fun on their website.

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

ATC-composite

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.