As I was driving down the freeway today, I saw typical Houston summer thunderstorms darkening the sky. I saw a low flying private jet as it attempted to climb out of the Sugar Land airport and navigate around the severe weather. I remember going to work, year after year as an air traffic controller, driving in for the evening shift that started just about the time these storms were developing in our air space. Many times I wished I could just turn around and head back home. I felt the same queasiness now as my stomach tightened and my blood pressure began to rise. I reminded myself – I’m retired. I don’t have to do that any more!
The chaos that comes from storms passing through our air space is some of the worst stress me and my crews ever faced. Under normal circumstances, when the skies are clear, airplanes enter and depart the air space on defined airways and specific radar vectors. We have been trained to pack airplanes in and out of our airspace, making Houston one of the best on-time airports in the country. We are efficient and skilled.
But when thunderstorms enter the picture, the whole ball game changes. Although summer ‘thunder bumpers’ (as we called them) appear large as you drive by them, they really aren’t that big. I’m talking about the kind of thunderstorm that pops up like popcorn here and there. The actual area that a pilot must navigate around is really just 8 – 10 miles in diameter. Sometimes the storms do link up and form bigger chains, but most of the time, one storm will develop here, then another one 15 miles away, then another 20 miles on the other side of the airport, and the next thing you know, you’ve got 8 or 9 of these storms dotting your radar screen.
Chaos is what happens next.
That doesn’t necessarily mean things get unsafe, or that we are not prepared to handle the extreme challenges and concentration required to provide service. We know how to do it. But it is chaos, nonetheless.
Pilots are no longer able to stay on a predetermined airway, or stay on a vector. They have to deviate around the build-ups. Inside those clouds are micro-bursts, damaging winds that could tear an airplane apart. Hail is often present too. Pilots demand to fly around those cells.
Controllers will work with Traffic Management, and when I say ‘work’ I actually mean that they ‘yell’ for help in asking for relief. Departures and arrivals are spread out from 3 miles minimum spacing, to usually 10 miles-in-trail separation. That reduces the number of airplanes that a controller has to work, allowing more time and space for the special handling that these flights will need. They’ll need lots of radio time, talking about the weather ahead, and discussing routes to return to their original flight plan. Weather alerts must be read to all traffic. Controllers must do extra coordination as deviating aircraft come close to adjacent airspace. Often, entire banks of aircraft are re-routed to avoid trouble spots. That takes massive amounts of coordinating among sectors and facilities, and it takes massive amounts of time to get the changes implemented. Once the weather passes or rains itself out, then a new plan has to be developed, implemented and adjusted again. Over and over, all afternoon and night. These thunderstorms wreak havoc.
And as if that isn’t enough, it happens almost daily throughout July and August in Houston. That means that you do it today, tomorrow, the next day and the next week too. Many times, controllers would spend well over 2 hours on a control position, working without a bathroom break and giving up meals in order to keep as much traffic moving as possible. Many of those dedicated controllers never receive anything more than a heart-felt thank you, yet they do it day after day.
Controllers are amazing people. They work tirelessly. They take a lot of abuse. They always bounce back. The good ones recover their energy quickly, and return to work after short breaks, and sometimes, with very little sleep from yesterday’s stress.
Still, that’s not all that the chaos brings. Inevitably, lightning will hit a vital antenna and knock out radios. We could quickly switch to a backup radio located in a different part of Houston, or to a different antenna, but that sometimes meant we didn’t get as good reception in the sector the aircraft was flying.
Worse yet, was when we were saturated with this kind of traffic, taxing the computers, radar, radios and land lines to the max, something else would fail. The computers might begin to slow due to the processing of re-routing flight plans. The building generators might fail ( we had multiple backup power systems, but you often had to quickly check your equipment just to be sure). Strong winds from storms at the airport might even make it impossible for aircraft to depart or land. Now we’ve got holding patterns and alternate airports to deal with.
I’m telling you, chaos will turn your stomach. You might just take a closer look at how much sick leave you have and decide you might not be up to the challenge today. The best controllers never did that. The best were always ready. There were those though, who knew they needed a day off, and a replacement could be called for them that day. Which also added stress to the managers at work because now they had to quickly make phone calls and find someone to come in to help staff the shift.
As I turned off of the freeway and headed home, I was very thankful that I had a fabulous career, but also, that it is now over. I am very fortunate to be able to take advantage of an early retirement. Instead of being stressed out over these thunder bumpers, I can go home and watch the mockingbirds chase a neighbor’s cat along the sidewalk. It’s a whole lot nicer than trying to coordinate with 14 controllers, 3 phones, and a boss downstairs who wants to know why you’re having so many delays at your airport.
Ahhhhhhhh. It’s time for a little more iced tea.