Saturday, July 18, 2009

I LOVE Air Traffic Controllers!

Have I mentioned how much I love Air Traffic Controllers? When things get, er, interesting - as they did last evening - there is nothing more reassuring than the calm, professional voice of a skilled controller working the situation along with you.

The summer afternoon standard-issue convective weather was kicking up its heels over eastern Pennsylvania as I launched from KBDR; wheels off the runway at 2120Z. My IFR clearance was for the usual routing: SAX V249 SBJ V30 ETX V39 LRP V93 BAL Direct, at 8000 feet. I was watching the NEXRAD weather radar picture from XM Weather on the Garmin GPSmap 396 and planning a strategy for working between and around the nastier looking bits.

Shortly after turning south at Sparta VOR (SAX) the New York controller gave me a small shortcut to LANNA intersection on V30. It was 2159Z and the picture looked like this:
N631S wx situation at 2159Z on 07-17-09

Before the shortcut to LANNA I'd been headed to SBJ, well clear of the storm cell west of my track heading northeast. Before accepting "Direct LANNA" I'd looked carefully at that and concluded that the resulting track was still going to keep me out of trouble with that one.

At that point I shifted my focus to the cell that shows up south of the airway west of LANNA - that's V30. In the picture above it's partly hidden by the track readout "237" but it was headed in a threatening direction.

Just about then, the New York controller said, "31 Sierra, contact Allentown Approach on 124.45." Before checking in with Allentown I looked at the weather situation. The prudent thing to do would be to continue toward LANNA until clear of the cell to the west, then turn behind it to the west so as to miss the one up ahead. I transmitted, "Allentown Approach, Skylane 631 Sierra, level 8000 with a request." That got me an immediate, "631S, Allentown altimeter 29.75 and what is your request?"
I said, "In about 15 miles 31 Sierra will need direct FJC, then direct ETX to rejoin V39, for weather avoidance." The lady said, "31S that will be approved...you may not need it when you get there."

I settled down to watch the weather evolve and listened as the controller did a masterful job of using her radar weather depiction (Approach Control Radar reportedly has pretty good weather capability) and her complete grasp of what each airplane in her airspace needed to keep the potentially chaotic situation under perfect control. Controllers would say of her, admiringly, that "she had the flick."

The cell I was watching continued to move into my path and just as I was about to key the mike and ask for a diversion the controller transmitted, "Skylane 31 Sierra, cleared direct to the Allentown VOR." I immediately entered Direct FJC into the GPS that was driving N631S and turned away from the storm cell. It was about 2222Z and the situation looked like this:

About halfway to FJC I was wondering when to ask for "direct ETX" when my favorite controller said, "Skylane 31 Sierra, from your present position it looks like a straight shot to East Texas will miss all the heavy precipitation. What do you think?" I figured I'd probably catch just the edges of the moderate precip, but was well past the core of the cell, so I responded, "31 Sierra thinks direct East Texas now will be fine." She said, "31 Sierra, cleared direct East Texas."

I did fly through some moderate rain, and minimal turbulence - no big deal. As I flew toward ETX I continued to be impressed by the lady's work, sending airplanes where their pilots needed to go, advising that some requests for re-routes were a Bad Idea and generally doing a fantastic job at a busy time. And I never heard even the tiniest hint of stress in her voice.

Soon, she said, "Skylane 31 Sierra, contact Harrisburg Approach on (some freq) and have a good evening." I thanked her for her help and said, "Great job!" Minutes later I was out of the precipitation and dealing with clearing skies over Lancaster.

Today, I'm working on tracking down an e-mail address for the manager at Allentown Approach. I want to let them know that the lady on 124.45 at 2200Z last night is one terrific controller.

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