Vinny’s Ocean 21

A step into the NextGen environment unveils one of the most technologically advanced air traffic systems in the world.

Oceanic Airspace

Oceanic Airspace

** The Back Room: The New York Oceanic Air
Route Traffic Control Center's training lab
facility and alternative control stations.**

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.

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.