The philosophy doesn’t mean that an airplane with an old-fashioned system doesn’t receive the appropriate service. As a matter of fact, Ocean 21 provides integration of the old and new. It just takes longer for the old equipment to generate a response. Requests from all airplanes are translated into a task list that is displayed on one of the controllers’ operating screens.
Speaking of operating screens, if one were to view an oceanic controller’s display, it would have the appearance of a radar unit. Airplane symbols still inch across a darkened video map. Data blocks of airline and airplane information still accompany the symbol. Jet airways and sector boundaries are still indicated. Missing is the infamous track ball, replaced by a computer mouse.
The picture on the screen is dictated by time calculation. The source of the calculation is transmitted either automatically through an ADS system or by direct communication from a pilot reporting a specific waypoint. Both methods allow a real-time picture to be drawn on the controller’s display.
Early in his presentation, Vinny had shown a 1940s photo of New York ARTCC. The noticeable feature in the photo was the flight data strips stacked like rows of cordwood across the controller’s positions. With the exception of modern lighting and furnishings, a fast-forward to a 2005 photo presented a similar scene.
Oceanic controllers were still creating mental pictures of air traffic via the data strips. Situational awareness was enhanced by arranging the strips in appropriate positions. As an example, a cocked-out data strip indicated that the flight required coordination or clearance. When a particular controller became overloaded with flights in his or her sector, an entire section of data strips was rolled away to a colleague via a portable stand.
The past’s methodology created a mysterious in-house stigma between ARTCC’s domestic controllers and the oceanic controllers. It still exists today even with Ocean 21. The domestic folks seem satisfied not having knowledge of the “Back Room’s” activities.
Much of the workload in the previous generation of oceanic air traffic control involved housekeeping chores. The chores were an organizational necessity. Now the organization is completed with a mouse click.
In addition, sector coordination required direct land-line communication. Although some voice communication is utilized, it occurs mostly between oceanic facilities not equipped with equivalent NextGen software.
Back to situational awareness. Rather than task a controller with creating a dynamic traffic picture of potential flight path conflicts in his or her own head, Ocean 21 has the ability to warn of such issues via simple color-coding. A red airplane symbol indicates a potential conflict within 30 minutes’ time. An orange symbol indicates a potential conflict of more than 30 minutes.
Vinny offered me the chance to try my hand at oceanic controlling. Fortunately, I had his guidance. And more fortunately, the screen was a simulation. The display was a re-creation of an actual period in air traffic time. On another computer, Patricia initiated a mock CPDLC altitude request from an airplane. The cool stuff was that the system allows a “probe” of the request to determine if a conflict will occur with other traffic. A few simple entries into a selection box are all that is required. Despite my clumsiness with the process, no near-miss reports were filed.
The reliability structure of Ocean 21 is similar to those of the 777’s electronic backup systems. Two channels exist. If one fails, the other is available. And if a software update is required, it is uploaded to the channel not in use. As on the 777, if a controller’s screen fades to black, the controller can easily transfer the original sector display to another position with a click of an entry button.
One of my favorite features of the system is the ability to obtain my oceanic clearance via an ACARS (aircraft communications addressing and reporting system) printout. No read-back is necessary. The only required action is for me to press the “accept” button on the glareshield eyebrow. Our company procedures instruct us to accept the clearance regardless. If a modification is required, we are to initiate a voice call.
Vinny and I began a lively discussion over this procedure. His response was “That’s not nice.” From his perspective, I understand. The oceanic controller adjusts his traffic flow according to the immediate and long-term needs of each flight. An accepted clearance that can’t be complied with may affect other airplanes. Vinny and I arm-wrestled later.
Although the information that I didn’t report could easily fill this magazine, the perspective I gained for managing air traffic was invaluable. Much of my understanding was conveyed through a very energized and passionate controller. The system might be considered NextGen, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s Vinny’s Ocean 21.