Monday, January 10, 2011

A Visit to Potomac Approach

One Friday evening back in mid-December, N631S and I were in the home stretch of our weekly trip from Connecticut down to the DC area. I checked in with the second Potomac Approach sector and the controller gave me an altimeter setting and asked if I had time for a question.

I said, "Sure!" and he asked whether I'd ever visited the TRACON (that's short for Terminal RAdar CONtrol, a/k/a "Potomac Approach"). I told him I had not.

He said, "My name's Eric; one of the other controllers here, Sarah, has introduced some of us to your blog and we'd like to invite you out here for a tour."

Well, that is not the sort of thing about which I need to be asked more than once. I told Eric that I'd love to, and that I'd co-ordinate through Sarah. (Sarah, incidentally, maintains a neat blog called Adventures of an Adventurer, which is linked in the sidebar over on the right.)

Sarah and I exchanged e-mails to settle on time and date and yesterday morning a good friend and I drove from Alexandria out to the Potomac Consolidated TRACON (PCT) facility in Warrenton, VA. We cleared security and Sarah came out to collect us. On the way in she explained that PCT is comprised of four sectors similar in size and scope and she'd be showing us the Mount Vernon sector where she works. We passed through a lobby, then through a doorway and came out on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise!

Potomac Consolidated TRACON (PCT)
Well, it looked like it to us! (We were in a "no photos" area, so the image above is borrowed from Wikimedia.) Sarah introduced us to Eric and to a couple others of her colleagues who said they'd kept N631S and I on the straight-and-narrow a few times. It's really nice to meet and greet the great people who go with those voices on the frequencies. Then, she spent over an hour showing us the tools of her trade, pointing out some of the challenges of the complex and busy airspace (especially around KDCA) and responding to questions.

First, I asked to see where the voice of Mt. Vernon Flight Data - from whom I pick up my outbound clearance on Monday mornings - originates. She showed us that station and we discussed some aspects of clearances and departures in the DCA airspace. I learned that any time I can depart VFR it saves the controllers working DCA arrivals and departures a fair amount of trouble. I also know, now, why it's better on occasions when the weather demands an IFR departure to depart Runway 6 at KVKX rather than Runway 24. (It has to do with the initial heading providing a diverging flight path relative to DCA traffic, while Runway 24 would be converging...which is less good.)

We then moved to one of the radar monitors around the circumference of the room and Sarah brought up a live display of the Washington Class B airspace. I was very interested in seeing how the RNAV Rwy 6 approach at KVKX cuts directly across the localizer for the ILS Rwy 1 at KDCA. Therefore, if I need to fly the instrument approach, the controller working KDCA arrivals has to orchestrate a gap in the arrival stream timed to let me slip in - no mean feat!

We talked about the fact that they always want me at 6,000 feet crossing KBWI on Friday evenings to avoid the arrival and departure flows. I asked, if I really needed 4,000 to avoid icing conditions could that be worked out? Sarah assured me that they were sensitive to pilots' needs to avoid adverse weather and would always work out a safe, acceptable flight path. All I have to do is ask for what I need and tell them why I need it.

Speaking of weather, my one disappointment is that for this visit there wasn't any! It was a perfectly clear morning, so we couldn't see the radar's weather display capability. Sarah agreed with my impression that the Approach Control radar has pretty good weather depiction capability. To minimize clutter, she usually works with the Level 1 and Level 2 returns suppressed (that's the green stuff on the NEXRAD display), but will watch the Level 3 and up returns and will work with us to stay clear of the mean stuff.

I asked Sarah if there was one thing we pilots could do to make the job she and her colleagues do a bit easier. She said that when the frequency is busy, we should be judicious in our readbacks and make more use of "Wilco". Yes, we need to read back altitude restrictions and approach clearances and the like. But for many transmissions, "Wilco" is a perfectly fine acknowledgement.

And here (left) is a photo of Sarah and me, taken as we were on our way out. I want to express my great appreciation to Sarah and Eric, and Al, their Supervisor, and the rest of the folks at PCT who went out of their way to let us have a look into their fascinating world.


Anonymous said...

Great stuff. Thanks for sharing, and thanks to all the controllers at PCT for their outstanding work. And that tip about using runway 6 at VKX for IFR departure is GOLD!

Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Anon:

Thanks for reading. I agree with you, the PCT folks do wonderful work. But always remember, it takes teamwork. We need to hold up our corner.



Roger D. Parish said...

Keep your eye out for announcement of an "Operation Raincheck" at your local ATC facility. These are organized tours for pilots. There was one at Potomac TRACON in November of 2009. I attended one at Washington Center back in the early 80's when I was still flying. They are very informative.

Frank Van Haste said...

Roger, Roger! [I've always wanted to say that! :-)] The Raincheck events are great opportunities, but I understand that it's quite a strain on the TRACON to put one on, so they can't do it too often.

I don't interact with Center too often, but I'd like to see their shop, too.

Take care, and thanks for reading,