A tour of Seattle TRACON

Saturday I participated in the FAA’s Operation: Raincheck, a rare and fantastic opportunity to get behind the scenes of the world’s most sophisticated ATC system.  An all day event, Operation: Raincheck brought in FAA controllers from Seattle Center, Seattle TRACON, Boeing Field, Seattle-Tacoma International, and Paine Field…not to mention a US Navy supervisor from NAS Whidbey Island (well known in this area for its coverage of the San Juans). This all-star event permitted pilots and controllers to interact, swap questions, exchange ideas and hear presentations about the changing face of ATC,  its technology, its future and its people.

We met at Seattle TRACON’s new and modern facility adjacent to Sea-Tac airport, and the friendly FAA staff running the event set a welcoming atmosphere with a full spread of coffee and baked goods.  The modern facility was very nice as well — it’s only six years old, and is quite well appointed.

As the day progressed I was pleased with how cordial, knowledgable and genuinely pleasant the FAA controllers were.  These were people with decades of experience in the flight control business — some of them had started their careers after Reagan’s mass firing in 1983.  Perhaps surprising, many of the controllers were also qualified pilots, affording them the rare wisdom that comes from seeing two very different, and sometimes conflicting, sides of the aviation world.  It is, after all, no secret that the AOPA and the FAA sometimes square off regarding new rules and procedures.

We discussed everything from the pilot-controller relationship, to upcoming changes like NEXGEN, to Sea-Tac’s proposed Class Bravo airspace changes.  Questions and answers peppered the talks, and the tone was cordial, friendly … even jovial.  These are people who usually only exist as sterile and authoritative voices on the radio, so putting the human face on Air Traffic Control was a wonderful benefit.  The overarching message throughout the talk was the reinforcement of the pilot-controller partnership, and dispelling the notion that there is or should be tension between the two.

The day concluded with a facility tour — a real highlight.  We were able to visit the simulation room where full stations and scopes showing real-time aircraft data are used to train new controllers.  I was immediately impressed with how modern and efficient-looking the equipment was; I confess that in my ignorance, I had half expected clattering dot-matrix printers, green radar screens, and a lot of beige plastic. Quite to the contrary, the technology employed to display and control busy airspace like that around Sea-Tac airport was thoroughly modern and frankly quite a bit more Hollywood than I would have anticipated.  (We were able to experiment with the training scopes during the presentation, which I of course enjoyed.)  After the training area we were ushered through the actual control room where we were able to observe actual ATC in action.  The control room was windowless, cool, dimly lit, and fairly quiet; the controllers exuded quiet competence as they handled their assigned sectors with obvious skill.

The only disappointing thing was attendance: perhaps 25 of the 40 RSVP’d invitees were present; the rest were no-shows.  This was a damned shame: not only did those no-shows miss a fantastic day, but by needlessly filling up the limited attendance slots they prevented other people from attending.  My recommendation for future reference: if you want to get into one of these presentations, just show up.  I’d wager there will be no-shows and plenty of room for drop-ins.

I tip my hat to the FAA for organizing this event and for keeping the skies organized and safe for us pilots. Some people may find the relationship contentious, but it is clear from the caliber of folks that I met that ATC takes safety and efficiency very seriously. They are good partners to have.

You may be interested in learning about similar seminars in your area.  The best way to do this is to join the FAA WINGS program at http://www.faasafety.gov/.  There you can subscribe to a mailing list to be automatically alerted when seminars are scheduled near you.

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