The bulk of my flying with our airline for almost two decades has been over water. A good portion of those hours has involved interaction with the oceanic division of the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center. In that regard, when I received an invitation from Mike Golden, Oceanic Airspace and Procedures Support manager, to visit the ARTCC in Islip, New York, I was enthusiastic.
The amount of airspace that New York Oceanic controls is extensive. Four sources of traffic flows are part of the system. The southwestern portion of the North Atlantic organized track system involving traffic between Europe and North America is one flow. Random tracks between Europe and North America are another. A flexible track system between Europe and Caribbean destinations is the third flow. And the high-traffic Western Atlantic Route Structure (WATRS) extending from the northeastern United States coastline through Bermuda and almost to Puerto Rico is the remaining traffic flow.
Radar coverage is available up to 290 nm south of JFK. A remote site on Bermuda allows for additional radar coverage to within a 200 nm radius of the island. Many of the Caribbean routes transit the area, allowing for direct VHF communications in the middle of the ocean.
Ironically, New York ARTCC has no jurisdiction over the airspace directly above its building. That airspace is owned by New York Tracon at lower altitudes and Boston Center at higher altitudes.
The fascinating aspect of New York Oceanic is that the majority of the airspace has no radar coverage. That being said, traffic is controlled by the most efficient and technologically advanced system in use today: Ocean 21. It is part of the NextGen ATC environment. Lockheed Martin modified the software for FAA adaptation. Ocean 21 has been operational in New York since June 2005.
Dry stuff? Maybe. But I had the good fortune of having my orientation presented by one of Oceanic’s most passionate supporters, Vinny Gerry. By the end of my visit, I was certain that he was the rightful owner of Ocean 21. Vinny has been with New York Oceanic ARTCC for the better part of 17 years. His background includes four years with the U.S. Air Force and five years in San Juan’s approach and en route environment.
Patricia Sarubbi, another Oceanic air traffic controller, provided additional enthusiasm to the presentation. She has been a controller for 23 years, beginning in Portland, Maine. Patty has been certified to train other controllers for 17 years and has been at the New York Oceanic ARTCC division for 19 years. She is currently on assignment as a support specialist.
My interest in Ocean 21 was the behind-the-scenes action as it related to our airline ops. The 777 is equipped with both CPDLC (controller-pilot data link communications) and ADS-C (automatic dependent surveillance – contract). The contract portion indicates information is broadcast to air traffic control facilities as per a specific agreement in regard to the parameters transmitted by ADS through the onboard flight management computer.
The CPDLC capability is a modern form of mostly pre-scripted airborne text messaging. Altitude requests and weather deviation requests are two such examples.
Not that we airline-types conspire to alter our route for no apparent reason, but on occasion a slight course correction for a dark and dirty cumulonimbus formation might be necessary. With Ocean 21, big brother is always watching — radar or not. A deviation greater than five miles alerts the controller.
In the old days, lateral separation between aircraft was large enough to accommodate temporary deviations without conflict. Because of the incredible accuracy of modern aircraft navigation, lateral separation will eventually be reduced to 30 nm. Such deviations can create a domino effect of potential traffic conflicts with aircraft on adjacent routes.
The good news is that, if a course change is required, the response time in obtaining a clearance with the new system is dramatically reduced. Rather than having to ask for a clearance via the ancient low-fidelity quality of a high-frequency radio first to an AIRINC (Aeronautical Radio Inc.) operator, who then communicates with an oceanic controller, the request is almost instantaneously received at the ARTCC when a CPDLC message is sent from the airplane. In that regard, the philosophy is that the best-equipped airplanes are best served.