24 December, 2012

The German Girl

I'm sorry, Kerstin.
Ever since my Dad died in '94 Christmas hasn't been the same.  A lot of families have their Christmas traditions and during my life, we've had some but they have been short-lived for one reason or another.  I've written previously about the traditional family things I've missed out on due to the large age gap between me, my siblings and cousins.  Those "traditions" changed frequently with the most stable part being my preteen years to 23.  My 23rd year was when Dad died.  Nothing has been the same since.  Toss in the loss of two cousins, three grandparents, a brother, one of my best friends... I sometimes think that I don't know how to celebrate Christmas anymore.  The stability I do have has come from my remaining family.  Years ago we stopped having Christmas at Mom's house and started holding festivities at my Sister's.  I have to say it has taken me awhile to become comfortable being a "Christmas nomad".  After my Sister and Brother in law (I will henceforth refer to him as "brother".  He's been around most of my life and is not an in-law, he's my blood as far as I'm concerned) bought their current home (it's huge), we started doing an overnight thing as near to Christmas day as possible.  The intent was originally for my nieces and nephews to all be together as well as the rest of us.  I wasn't too thrilled about the idea at the beginning.  I've always worked a night shift and have a seriously different schedule than everyone else; I've also never been able to sleep in "strange" places, i.e. not my own bed.  To add on to the schedule problem, I've been a smoker on and off (mostly on) for a long, long time.  When my Dad was dying I began to think about how I ended up smoking.  None of my other siblings are, or were, smokers.  I'm quite sure they've tried it on occasion, but never fell into the trap.  Somehow, I did.  Long story short, my Dad had a big influence in that area.  Please understand, when I was a kid in the '70s and 80s, smoking was not the social evil it its today.  The effects on our bodies was the same, but the social stigma was not attached.  I digress.  As my father was dying I realized he was probably the major reason I picked up the habit.  I don't hold him responsible, it was simply a different time.  However, I realized that my nephews and nieces were going to be rather impressionable at their young ages.  Somehow my Dad and I had been like-minded when the oldest of my nephews was born.  Dad and I never talked about it except for one time when I was in high school.  He knew I was smoking and he knew how addictive it was.  He confronted me about it one time and didn't scold me, but made his point in the way only he was capable of.  He was still smoking and henceforth couldn't scold me without being a hypocrite.  He simply said to me that he didn't approve of me smoking and if I was going to continue doing it that I was not allowed to smoke on his property.  With a few exceptions, I honored his request.  I also added to it.  By the time he died I had decided that my nieces and nephews would never see a cigarette in my hand or in my mouth.  I smoked in front of my Sister once or twice and one of my brothers fairly often, but never the kids.  I was hell bent on not having ANY influence on them.  As the kids got older I'm sure they were able to equate the smell of uncle Tim with smoking but, to this day, none have them have ever seen me smoking nor have really mentioned it.  I did discuss it with my two oldest nephews a couple of years ago since they were into their 20s and were not apt to be influenced by their wretched uncle.  The oldest of the kids know I'm a smoker, but since I've pretty much kept it hidden, they're thinking that it must be something to be ashamed of.  It will be awhile before the two youngest are clear of the impressionable stage.  I apologize for the long-winded side story, but it is relevant to the Christmas story.  So, having to spend a night at my Sister's over Christmas I, of course, had to be a non-smoker.  Those of you who have experience with someone going through with withdrawl (from anything really) know that it can be a rather bad time.  So, I had two things to battle.  Lack of sleep and nicotine withdrawl.  It has been a huge struggle to keep myself from turning into "Mr. Asshole" at these Christmas gatherings.  I loathed having to do the overnight thing.  Not because I couldn't smoke, but because I knew I would progressively become more of an ass the longer I was without cigarettes.  To top it off, in recent years, my Mother wanted me to drive her to my Sister's.  It only made sense.  Still, That was an extra two hours of driving that I had to battle.  The drive up wasn't bad, but by the drive home I always had a short fuse.  It took all I had to maintain my composure.  In my adult life, I made my Mother cry just once, and that was one time too many.  I have never felt like such a horrible person.  So,  knowing my limits, knowing what can happen to me, the overnight stays were not something I looked forward to at all.  Until this year.  Previous years, I had never had to work during the overnight thing.  There was a couple of years that I had to go to my Sister's after work, but was always able to spend the night.  This year it was looking like I would have to work Christmas eve and wouldn't be able to spend the night.  To my surprise, I was worried about it.  I still think it's a pain, but it's only one night.  Seeing my family in one spot all at the same time is well worth losing sleep and fighting the addiction demons.  Now my concern is what will happen when the kids are finding their own way in life and can't participate.  As the two youngest kids get into high school (considerable gap between them and the rest of the kids, all in their 20s) I think the overnight thing will end.  I'm not going to cry about it, but I worry about the youngest two.  This little event has been a large part of their world for many, many years.  I don't want them to have their Christmas traditions juggled about as it had been for me.  At least they'll have a stable family no matter what the event happens to be.  That's all I can wish for.  Now, just when you think I'm winding things up, I have more.  A lot more.  Hang in there.


Fall 1989.  I was introduced to Kiki (Her name was Kerstin, but she went by Kiki) by friends.  Kiki was an exchange student from Unna, Germany.  A beatiful girl with sandy blond hair and a smile that would knock your socks off.  As cheesy as it is, we fell in love very quickly and spent a lot of time together.  Her command of the English language was remarkable and we could converse normally with only the occasional pause to sort out some slang she had never heard before.  We went on dates, went to school dances, held hands, watched movies, made out... the things teenagers do (or at least did when I was a teenager).  Christmas eve 1989, Kiki's parents had scraped together enough cash to fly to the US and see their daughter.  They didn't speak a lick of English, yet they were here.  Kiki and I made plans for that night.  I was going to go to her host family's house meet her parents and hang out for a little while.  Keep in mind, this was before the world wide web, so other than phone calls and letters, Kiki had no way to connect with her parents.  No email, no IM, no skype... You get the idea.  Anyway, I was at my grandparent's house and then had to announce my departure.  Something I had never had to do before on Christmas.  I headed over to Kiki's place and almost wrapped my Dad's truck around a telephone pole due to ice and inexperience (strangely enough, that spin-out happened just six blocks from my current home).  Still, I arrived safely, met her parents and chit-chatted as much as possible given the language barrier.  Kiki then took me into her room, sat me down and handed me a little box that she had wrapped with much care.  I opened the box and saw the silver chain with the silver "K" she had always had around her neck.  It was strange that I hadn't noticed she wasn't wearing the necklace at the time.  But, she had given it to me as a token of our relationship.  It was a heavy moment that I didn't fully appreciate at the time.  About a month later I had asked her to accompany me to the annual awards banquet for the fife and drum corps I had been a member of for many years.  It was a way for me to reciprocate the devotion she had shown to me on that Christmas eve.  I arrived at her place to pick her up and she answered the door in pajamas.  I hadn't communicated our plans clear enough, she didn't understand or simply got the date wrong... Some innocent mistake.  I saw it as her not taking me seriously enough.  Something that had happened to me rather often in my youth (I was definitely NOT in the "in" crowd).  Like an ass, I stormed off.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  Not long after, March as I recall, Kiki's friends were throwing her a going away party just before it came time for her to return to Germany.  I did not plan on going, but a former friend somehow dragged me to the place.  I refused to go inside.  Eventually, my former friend came back out and we left.  That was it.  I found out later that Kiki had started crying when she found out I was outside and had refused to come in and see her.  She left this country on an unhappy note because I was a complete asshole.  The two most bitter enemies of any person, pride and selfishness, had gotten in the way of something that was beautiful.  I had allowed those two enemies to enter my life and destroy something that was very precious.  Love.  Like the clueless youth I was, I shoved that night into a corner and tried to bury it.  The guilt, however, has remained to this day.  Starting Christmas eve 1990, I started driving by the place she stayed while in this country, this city, in my heart.  Not to be nostalgic, but to remind myself of what a horrible person I had been, and can be.  I loved that girl.  When it came time for her to leave I had no idea how to deal with that situation.  My simpleton mind found an excuse and used it.  Wrong!  I wanted her to stay.  I think she wanted to stay, but also wanted to go home.  I can't hold that against her.  Maybe things would have worked out.  Maybe I could have gone to Germany to visit her.  Maybe she could have come back here.  Unfortunately because of my mistakes, I'll never know.  Making Kiki cry and hurting her is the wound, thinking of what could have been is the salt I pour into that wound every Christmas eve.  This year is no exception to the rule.  Twenty three years after the fact and I'm still beating myself up.  I'm sure she's long forgotten about that asshole in Wisconsin, but me having been the cause of her pain, I can't let it go.  Beating myself up every Christmas eve is my punishment.  Merry(?) Christmas.

15 September, 2012

Memories and Perspective

I recently received a letter from an Aunt (my Dad's sister) letting me know my cousin sent her a photo that I had on Facebook.  I sent a letter back to her and my Uncle which wandered off into my memories of Dad's hometown.  Dad came from a small town that was typical small town.  There was a noon whistle, an evening whistle, neighbors sat on their front porches in the evening etc.  I loved that town, and still do, but my Smalltown is not the same Smalltown my siblings and cousins remember.  Except for one cousin on Mom's side, I'm the youngest of the family's generation by a considerable margin.  Eight years to be exact.  I grew up hearing stories about family trips to Grandpa and Grandma's for Christmas.  The whole family would be there, shenanigans ensued, inside jokes etc.  I did get to experience that, but I was too young to remember it well.  My memories of those Christmases are just bits and pieces.  What I mainly experienced was day trips.  Once around New Year's Day and usually once during the summer.  Dad took me up there once on a "father and son" trip, which he did for my siblings as well.  I have pretty good memories of that, but again, I was rather young.  Not long after that particular trip, Grandpa was bed-ridden.  He had emphysema, but from what I have heard, he just gave up.  So aside from the spotty Christmas and father/son trip memories, I remember Grandpa as a bed-ridden man who never left his room.  That is the main reason day trips became the norm.  Being a small town my parents had no issues with turning me loose.  In my younger days my brother, Chris, would also be with us and I would wander the town with him.  Chris would take me to the railroad tracks and we would pick up old spikes, sometimes we would go to the "river" which was nothing more than a stream, or maybe we would go to the mill pond which fed the river.  The same route was usually taken to these places and when I was old enough to go out on my own, I usually went to the same places by the same route.  I hadn't been anywhere else despite it being a small town so I never ventured outside what was familiar to me.  As I got into high school Grandpa and Grandma got to the point where the house had to be sold.  I remember a particular trip where Grandma gave me $5 and told me to go get myself some ice cream.  I didn't realize it at the time, but they were getting me out of the house so they could discuss where Grandpa was going to be put, where Grandma would live etc.  I went downtown and got nachos instead of ice cream.  In the process I decided to venture outside of what was familiar.  I went and saw the high school that Mom and Dad attended and then walked a different route back to Grandpa and Grandma's.  It was like seeing a whole new world.  There were spots in that little town where I knew exactly what was on one side of a street, but drew a complete blank as to what was on the other side of the street.  Crazy as it may seem, that's the way it was.  I had one last overnight trip to that wonderful town and that was the weekend when we got everything set up for the auction.  I figured it might be my last opportunity to explore the place I loved so much and I made the most of it.  I visited places I had heard my siblings and cousins talk about, went back to the "usual" places and generally explored the town.  In later years, my siblings and cousins couldn't quite understand how I wasn't able to relate to their stories.  My Smalltown was not the same Smalltown they knew.  When I left that place I figured I would never see it again, but I've been back there three times since.  For Grandpa's funeral, a quick stop when passing nearby during a camping trip and the last time for Grandma's funeral.  After Grandma's funeral, since I drove myself there and had no other obligations that day, I drove around the area a little more.  I went across the river into "Upper Smalltown" and, believe it or not, got lost.  I quickly found my way back to something familiar and then went home.  That was in 2000.  I haven't been back since.  I wrote about all of this in the letter to my Aunt.  My experience with Smalltown is unique compared to the rest of the family.  I also feel that I missed out on a lot of good times because I was so much younger than my siblings.  It's not a bad thing, of course, but I still feel like I'm being left out when we get together and talk about Smalltown.  I can't relate to their experiences, nor they to mine.  It's very strange.  My Uncle (Mom's brother) and Mom paid a visit to Smalltown a few weeks ago.  My Uncle hadn't been to Smalltown since the late 1950's when he was a boy.  The little village had changed so little that he had no problem finding his way around.

This same story can be applied to yet another place.  I have an Aunt and Uncle (now deceased) from Mom's side of the family that live in Tennessee.  Again, most trips were made when I was too young to remember much more than a few highlights.  With the exception of a trip down there two years ago for my Uncle's funeral, I hadn't been there since I was 17.  My Aunt and Uncle had lived on one of the mountains for a long time in a house they had built.  The trip when I was 17 was the last time I saw that house.  When Uncle developed health problems they moved to a nice gated community in town, right on the Tennessee River.  On the trip down for Uncle's funeral, I stayed at a rather nice hotel downtown.  I was on the seventh floor and had a great view of the city and surrounding mountains.  I didn't get to see the old house, but it doesn't matter.  I couldn't have found my way there anyway.  But, staying in the city for that trip, I got to see things I had never seen (or simply don't remember seeing) on previous visits.  I must say, I fell in love with that city. 

It's strange that a group of people, family in my case, can have memories of the same places, but yet those memories are completely different due to passage of time.  More accurately, the memories are the same, it's the perspective that's different.

05 August, 2012

Shop Class

I went through junior high (they're called "middle schools" these days) in the mid-1980's.  Personal computers existed, but were really nothing more than glorified calculators.  During the time I was in junior high, shop classes were referred to as "industrial arts" and these classes, though unknown to me at the time, were on their death bed.  I grew up in a manufacturing town where the middle class was dominant.  The majority of the families lived comfortably, but money was usually tight.  Fathers fixed thing themselves and built a lot of things that were needed.  It was quite normal for sons to help their fathers around the house.  Fathers would teach their sons about tools, how to use them and care for them.  As a boy I also learned about tools and their use through Cub Scouts.  Somewhere from my generation to the current generation, these skills have largely been lost.  The skills my father taught me I am quite sure he learned from his father.  When I reached junior high, it was only normal to take shop classes.  In seventh grade (my first year of junior high) there was a series of classes that were mandatory for everyone.  Girls and boys.  There was a shop class where basic metal and woodworking skills were taught, an art class which, again, taught basic art skills and a "home economics" class that taught simple sewing, cooking etc.  I, and many others, found the shop class and "home-ec" class to be a breeze.  Most of the things that were being taught, we already knew how to do.  As previously mentioned, my father had already taught me about tools and their use.  But let's not forget about Mom!  I learned a lot from her as well.  The home-ec class was a breeze because, due to my Mom, I already knew how to cook and sew.  The art class was the only one that was all new to me, but I soaked it up like a sponge.  As rudimentary as all these classes were, I still draw on those skills as a 40 year old diesel mechanic.  For example, recently I was at work and had a thermostat housing that was warped.  I pulled out a file and started draw filing it until it was flat again.  It occurred to me, while I was filing away, that I had learned that skill in school, at age 13.  Before I reached 16, I had operated a table saw, scroll saw, band saw, power planer, drill press, wood lathe, metal lathe, power hack saw, box and pan break, hand operated metal formers, soldering irons (the furnace heated type) and a whole slew of hand tools.  It was quite normal.  Enter the computer age.

Another skill I learned during my junior high years was computers.  I had been exposed to the Apple II computers in sixth grade, but it didn't amount to much.  It was simply learning how to turn it on, insert a floppy disc and load a program.  Similar exposure happened in seventh grade, but with IBM computers.  The big change happened at home.  My brother brought home a Commodore Vic20, probably intending it to be a gaming machine (if you could call a Vic20 a "gaming machine").  Like everything else of his I used it when he wasn't around.  Even then, the Vic20 was almost outdated.  The limited amount of software available for it was out of my reach since I didn't have any money.  What I could do was buy the occasional magazine "Run" which was all about Commodore computers.  Programs were included in the magazine... in print form.  They were all in Basic and had to be typed in line by line.  I had no storage device so each program was typed in, debugged, run and then lost when the computer was turned off.  I taught myself Basic this way.  Another skill that would lead me down different paths.  Upon reaching high school, a computer lab appeared.  I never got to spend much time there but it was a strange mix of Apple and IBM products.  Meeting certain credit requirements and still retaining classes that I wanted such as band and auto shop prevented me from taking any "industrial arts" classes until I was a senior.  I skipped the shop classes the first two years in favor of auto shop.  I wanted to know how cars worked.  My senior year, however, I had an open spot and signed up for a welding class because I wanted to know how to weld.  I had grown up knowing my father did some welding at the local factory (only spot welding as I found out later in life) and one brother went to the local tech school's welding program.  I, of course, wanted to emulate my heroes.  I suppose it was a sign of changing times that the welding class was cancelled due to a lack of people signing up for it.  In exchange I was thrown into a general metals course with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores.  I was a little disappointed, but it turned out to be a great class.  Some things I already knew how to do, but I learned two skills that would help me in later life.  I did learn how to weld in that class, but only in a general sense.  I learned how to use arc and mig welders and also how to gas weld with a torch.  Gas welding I had a problem with.  I just could not get the hang of it.  A freshman showed me how he did it and it all fell into place.  I also learned how to cast metal in that class.  I've never used that skill since, but I know how to do it.  Sort of.  The things I was learning in metal shop and the things I was learning next door in auto shop would, some day in the future, come together.

These days, the fear of students getting hurt on machinery and the thoughts that there is no practical reason to teach children "shop" skills, has led to shop classes disappearing from the schools.  I find that to be a serious problem.  Granted, the US isn't the manufacturing giant it once was, there is still a need for people in the skilled trades.  Digital technology, bio technology, financial management are where we are concentrated now.  But who will build the labs, the office buildings, the equipment and furniture inside them?  What about the factories that make the equipment and the tooling the factories use?  Who will maintain these labs and office buildings as they age?  The lack of interest in skilled trades as a profession has caused an imbalance that needs to be corrected.  Societies view on the skilled trades, among other issues has a lot do with the problem.  Shop classes have long been looked down on as a place for the kids who aren't smart enough, or aren't ambitious enough, to go to college.  Because of this view, manufacturing jobs are usually low-paying.  Who wants low pay?  Workers used to want to get into a factory, or cabinet shop, or machine shop etc.  I also think that parenting has a little to do with the problem.  Parents, naturally, want their children to have a better life than they had.  Since manufacturing jobs disappeared overseas, parents would do all they could to give their children the chance to go to college and learn how to be accountants, doctors, lawyers, scientists, computer programmers etc.  These people are needed, too.  With the rapid increase in all technologies, there needs to be people to fill those positions.  What good is a manufacturing job if there isn't a doctor who finds, through his research, a need for, say, a new heart implant?  The doctor finds the need for a product, an engineer designs it, a scientist comes up with a new material for the product, the accountants figure out how to pay for it, the marketing people figure out how to sell it and the people in the factory figure out how to make it.  Sometimes you really have to dig, but most professions are intertwined with each other to some degree.

There's long been a stereotype of the office worker looking down on the skilled trades, and the skilled trades trash-talking the office worker.  It needs to stop.  Sure, I might not make the same money as a diesel mechanic that an attorney makes, but I don't expect to.  An attorney would have spent, easily, twice the time in school that I put in.  Not too mention the amount of money they had to spend getting through school.  They SHOULD be taking home more money than me.  I will admit to trash-talking the professional trades in my younger days, but as an older (and, I hope, wiser) man, I see that everyone has their place.  When I was in school I preferred the shop classes, but I also learned so much from the other classes.  The typing class I took in tenth grade is a good example.  I took it partly because I wanted to learn how to type, but I also signed up because I figured spending an hour each day looking at girls (typing was still considered a "woman's job" even in the '90s!" wasn't a bad thing.  Oh, how I underestimated that class.  I took to it like stink to shit and, much to my surprise, got a lot of good grades.  That typing class went hand in hand with an English class I had.  More specifically, with the teacher of that class.  This teacher gave us a weekly vocabulary list of 20 to 30 words.  Through the week we learned each word.  How to spell it, its definition and how to use it.  Later, I purposely took a class on "Futuristic Literature" i.e. science fiction, because it was taught by the same teacher.  I have a larger than normal vocabulary due to that man and I am forever grateful.  As in shop class, the vocabulary lists were a skill that would be practical in later life.  I only wish I had given more attention to previous English classes.  If I had, my grammar and punctuation skills would be much better. 

To wind this up, this blog is a perfect example of what I have just written about.  I'll let it sink in for a few minutes while I go take a break.  Figure it out yet?  The fact that I'm writing this blog and the fact you're reading it is a tribute to many, many people.  The people who created computers.  The people who made the world wide web possible.  The people who design, manufacture, ship, sell and repair computers.  The people who build the offices, ships, trucks, labs and factories where the computer industry does its thing.  The teachers who taught us how to build things, how to write, how to spell, how to add and subtract, how to use computers and design software.  Without so many people sharing and using their skills, I would not be writing this blog, nor you reading it.

08 July, 2012

More Vatsim Shenanigans

I've been working a tracon for about seven hours straight today.  It's a minor, low traffic airspace that is next door to a major class B airport.  It's been so dead that I've been watching movies and occasionally glance at the scope to see if any targets are on the display.  Not long ago I scanned for targets, didn't see anything and then went back to the movie I was watching.  A minute later I hear the sound that announces a text radio transmission.  Looked at the display and saw nothing.  No flight plans shown, no targets, nothing but empty airspace.  I thought it was someone on the ground somewhere because I can't see anything below 1200 feet AGL.  Conversation with the pilot went something like this.

AAL964:  Approach, with you at FL110 (first hint it's a noob) 40 miles west of your airport (second noob flag), heading 273, speed 230 (third noob flag).  Request full stop landing (the icing on the noob cake).

Me:  AAL964, good morning.  Say airport you are west of.

AAL964:  ?

Me:  AAL964, there are 16 airports in my airspace.  I don't see any targets on my display so you'll have to be a little more specific.  You might not be in my airspace at all.


Me:  AAL964, open your GPS (almost every noob is GPS direct EVERYWHERE) and tell me the nearest airport to you.

Me:  AAL964, if you were 40nm west of my major airport, you're outside of my airspace laterally.  If you're still heading west you're only getting further away.  At 11,000 feet you're outside of my airspace vertically as well.  Since I don't see any targets on my display I can't see you.  You don't have a flight plan in the system so I am unable to know where you came from or where you're going.  It's reasonable to assume that you are, in fact, outside of my airspace.  Monitor advisory, frequency change approved.

AAL964:  Roger.

Now, I did actually have some idea where he was at from looking at Vatspy, but that software only updates traffic every five minutes or so.  He was actually EAST of my airspace the last time Vatspy updated traffic information.  I should have seen him on the radar display but didn't, so I couldn't actually verify his position.  He certainly didn't know where he was.

Not too long ago I was working a CTR position and had a pilot call me up from Toronto Pearson Intl. requesting take off clearance.  Thanks for calling up buddy, but you're in Canadian airspace and there's a whole other ARTCC between you and me.  He obviously had no clue where he was.

24 May, 2012

The "Spidey Sense"

I don't know if this happens for all mechanics, but over the years I seem have to developed a "spidey sense".  More commonly referred to as a "sixth sense".  I first noticed it during my time at the courier company's shop.  I did a lot of services and it was very repetitious work.  Doing the same thing over and over during the course of the day, I would sometimes start to wonder if I had put an oil fill cap back on, or had I forgotten to tighten an oil filter etc.  Since the vehicles were all the same, there was nothing that stood out on any of them to help me remember.  I did most of my work after the vehicles were done being used for the day so if I thought I had forgotten something, the solution was a simple walk out to the parking lot for a look.  However, we once had a manager from one of our terminals in the northern part of the state come down for a couple of days.  They drove a company van down and it came due for service while it was with us.  I serviced the van and then moved on to the next project.  Not long after, I couldn't remember if I had tightened the oil drain plug.  I went to see if it was tight but the van was gone.  I panicked.  I tried and tried to remember tightening that plug but I couldn't confirm it.  Forgetting a drain plug is a cardinal sin for a mechanic and I worried about it all night.  So much that I barely slept.  When I got to work the next day I expected someone to tell me the van had a seized engine because all the oil drained out of the engine.  As I walked toward the shop I saw the van out in the parking lot.  Hurray!  I grabbed a wrench and walked over to the van, expecting to find a tight drain plug after spending the whole night worrying about it.  It was only hand tight!  I had not tightened it. I vowed that I would never let that happen again.  I began the habit of checking  drain plugs just before I drove the vehicles back to the lot.  That way it was fresh in my mind.  I still have moments when I can't remember if I had done something and it's worst when someone (like my current foreman) is nipping at me telling me to "Hurry up, we have a lot of work to do!"  I'm not the fastest mechanic and that is because I have to be thorough so I don't forget things.  When I get into too much of a rush, I forget things.  I know my limitations.  I would rather be hollered at for being slow than for causing an engine seizure.  A perfect example is what happened last night.

We had a truck in the shop from a recently acquired regular customer.  We had to change king pins, steer tires, a tie rod end, a drag link and then align the thing.  I started the king pin job two days ago.  Yesterday the day shift finished the suspension work and then I aligned it.  The driver had been waiting at the shop all day, my foreman was giving me the "hurry up" speech and the alignment was very difficult.  One of the last things I do during an alignment is straighten the steering wheel.  The steering wheel would just not come off on this truck so I went to rotate the column shaft where it connects to the steering gear.  I pulled the shaft off the steering gear, found it had a master spline (which means I couldn't rotate the shaft to where I wanted it) and then slipped the shaft back on.  Took the truck for a test drive and then sent the driver on his way.  Immediately after that I went on a service call and right after the service call I did another alignment.  As I was putting my tools away I saw a ratchet with a 5/8" socket on it and wondered "Now what did I need a 5/8 socket for tonight.. HOLY SHIT!  DID I TIGHTEN THE STEERING SHAFT LOCK BOLT?  DID I EVEN PUT IT BACK IN !?!?"  I totally panicked.  The first alignment job, I could not remember if I had put the lock bolt back in the steering shaft.  The shaft could possibly slip off the steering gear rendering the vehicle uncontrollable.  To add to my anxiety attack, the ratchet's "on/off" lever was still in "off".  Long ago when I couldn't remember if I had tightened something, I started looking at the ratchets and impact wrenches to see if they were in on or off.  When they were in the on position, I generally found whatever fastener I was worried about was tight.  When the tools were in the off position... on rare occasion the fasteners were loose.  I got in the habit of putting my tools away at the end of each job because looking at the tools reminded me of certain things.  It jogged the memory.  The driver of the truck with the questionable steering shaft was long gone by the time I thought about the lock bolt.  I looked for a cell phone number.  We didn't have the driver's number.  I called his company hoping to get his number.  They were closed.  "Shit, shit, shit!!"  The anxiety attack increased in intensity.  I went as far as driving to all the truck stops within 20 miles, and also to the warehouse I know this company picks up loads from, hoping to find him parked and sleeping.  I didn't find him.  I didn't care about anyone knowing I possibly forgot what is probably the most important bolt on a truck.  I just wanted to resolve the situation before anyone got hurt.  My pride rebounds with time.  An out of control truck will cause a lot of damage.  I started worrying about people getting hurt or possibly killed, getting thrown in jail for my negligence, losing my job, disgracing my family name... the list goes on.  I called the company every half hour until someone answered.  The lady couldn't give me the driver's number, but dispatch could.  They would be open two hours later.  It was the worst two hours I've had in a long, long time.  I finally got in touch with dispatch, they gave me the driver's number and I called him immediately.  It went to voice mail.  I was hoping he simply didn't hear his phone.  I left a message about my concerns and asked him to call me back as soon as he could.  More anxiety.  "Was he laying in the middle of a wreck?  Was he sleeping?  Did people get hurt?"  Fifteen minutes later (felt like an hour), the driver called me back.  He was about to stop and said he would check the steering shaft.  He was alive!    He called me back after stopping and said the lock bolt and nut were wedged between the steering gear and frame, and he had put them back in and tightened them down.  Problem solved.  I will be beating myself up over this for a long, long time but I learned from it and luckily nobody got hurt.  I will never again let an agitated foreman or an impatient customer distract me from taking the time to double check (triple in some cases) my work.  I'm human and I make mistakes, but I make the effort to ensure mistakes happen as infrequently as possible.  Preferably not at all. Sometimes the "spidey sense" saves me from mistakes, sometimes it doesn't.  My coworkers think I'm being too paranoid, but I find it a necessary part of the job.  I should have been asleep hours ago, but sleep can be done without for a little bit.  Especially when the alternative is an accident.  This post is my confession.  It had to be written to clear my conscience and put an end to a nauseating anxiety attack.  Please don't judge me too harshly.

27 April, 2012

A Mile In Their Boots

Many "armchair generals" will wonder what combat is like. Many never experience combat, or even anything resembling combat. I am included amongst them. I've read many, many books on WWII and a few on WWI and Vietnam. I'm no expert by any means, but I consider myself an amateur WWII historian. My favorite books aren't really books at all, but memoirs. Written by the people who were there. My original interest was WWII aviation, but it branched out to the guys on the ground. Soldiers and Marines. When I was a young child, my next door neighbor was a WWI veteran. His son served in WWII in the USN and was killed. My Father and his brother both served in the USN between Korea and Vietnam. Another uncle was a Marine during WWII serving as a radio operator aboard Marine transport aircraft. Yet another uncle was an Army doctor in the early days of Vietnam. So, as you can see, my exposure to US Military started at birth. My days of elementary school exposed me to even more veterans. A few teachers at my school were Vietnam veterans. One of them was a Marine. I had this man as a teacher two years in a row, not because I flunked a grade but because he simply moved to teach another grade and I happened to be in his class again. It was a big bonus for me because he was/is a fine human being. However, the second year I had this man as my teacher, the Vietnam war memorial was opened in Washington. My teacher and the other veterans from my town took some time off so they could visit the memorial. I can't remember if it was before or after my teacher had visited the memorial, but he thought it necessary to discuss Vietnam with his students. Probably as a way to get things out in the open so no rumors could start. It was a bold move on his part considering he was going to discuss a rather sore point in US history with a room full of ignorant fifth graders, but he did it anyway. I, along with previous generations of boys, had a fascination with war from a young age. I checked out a book from the school's library on multiple occasions that covered the instruments of death. Small arms, tanks, grenades etc. Basically, it was a picture book. I frequented the Army/Navy surplus stores and had some hats, fatigues and a pistol belt with canteen. It was still acceptable to play "war" when I was a child. It was a game because I didn't know any better. I remember my teacher showing me how to properly roll up the sleeves of the olive drab shirt I wore every now and again. I had no idea at the time that it may have been bringing up memories for him that he'd rather forget. In hindsight, I feel very stupid for having taken war as lightly as I did, but I didn't know any better. I had some sense that war was not a good thing and that was about it. In my teacher's discussion about Vietnam, he kept it very basic and told us what he did during his tour and some of the problems he had after coming home. One such problem I remember him describing was not being able to sleep on a bed. He would sleep on the floor and had to tell his parents not to barge in saying "Time to get up!" He had to tell them to simply whisper into his ear and he would instantly be awake. Combat experience did not instantly leave him. It was gradual. He also showed us the more mundane things like what kind of food he ate. Cans of peanut butter, beans etc. When my teacher opened the discussion to questions from us, one girl raised her hand (I can still see it like it was yesterday) and asked "Did you shoot anybody?" A totally innocent question, but even at that young of age I knew that it wasn't an appropriate thing to ask. My teacher, in a fine example of the person he was, calmly declined to answer the question. I sensed that having been in combat, he probably had killed people. It wasn't important anyway. He survived his tour, came back to this country and became an excellent teacher. My favorite teacher in fact. Hands down. From that time on, I didn't really play "war" anymore, but I think that's when I started reading about it, wanting to learn more so I wasn't ignorant about war. The first book I read was "War and Rumors of War." I got it in sixth grade during one of the book sales schools used to have. The other kids were like kids all over, the majority of them got a book about Michael Jackson. I thought it a stupid decision on their part. However, even though I had been a "reader" from an earlier than normal age (thanks Mom and Dad!) the book I got was a bit beyond me at the time. I read it a couple of times later in life (still have it) and it made more sense. It was written by a junior officer who ended up being captured by the Germans during the battle of the Bulge. My collection has only grown from that point. The biggest revelation was when I was at my Uncle's place for a family event. This is the Uncle who was sitting at the radio set of Marine aircraft during WWII. Keep in mind that up to this point I had absolutely NO idea that he was a WWII veteran. He was simply "Uncle Bob." I was in their living room with him and some other family when I saw a book "Making the Corps." It was a book that followed recruits through USMC boot camp. I was immediately enthralled by it and quickly disappeared into my imagination.  Then it happened. My Uncle quietly said "I was a Marine." To me it was as if someone had reached out and bitch-slapped me in the face. I was floored. Within seconds I had understood. He was the right age to have been in WWII, was always in good physical condition... My previous experience with my classmate asking my teacher if he shot anybody flashed into my mind. I automatically assumed that if my Uncle hadn't mentioned his time in the Marines for all those years, he probably didn't want to talk about it. So, I kept it simple. "What did you do?" He then told me that he was a radio operator on Marine transport aircraft and had been to places like Peleliu, Kwajalein and the like. He told me that he enlisted at a young age and had to get his parent's permission. I got a few other pieces of information in later years, but I never asked anything. He had to volunteer the information. One such time was after I was at a surplus rifle shoot in Iowa. I had the opportunity to fire an M1 rifle and even got a short video clip of me firing it. I showed it to my Uncle and told him about it. He recited the serial number from the rifle he was issued during boot camp. Without hesitation. I asked him how he could remember something like that and his reply was classic "We were expected to know those kind of things." I initially found out about him being a Marine about 13 years ago and I still only know a little about his service. I really, really want to know more, but am afraid to ask. Other veterans have entered my life at different points. Some combat veterans, some not combat veterans. I have the same respect for all of them. At this point in my life, I know quite a lot more than the average person when it comes to war, specifically WWII, but I have not been in the military nor have I ever been on the "wrong" end of a rifle. However, like most people who revere veterans, I can't help but wonder if I would have what it takes to serve my country in combat. I'll never know and, frankly, I hope I never find out. That is because I have just an inkling of what it might be like. I also have a fear of talking about war and appearing as if I'm talking out of my ass in the process. So, I took some measures to learn a little about what it was like for our veterans. The first experience was when I was predominantly interested in WWII aviation. I worked in another town and had to commute about 85 miles each day, round trip. Knowing that WWII bomber crews flew day after day in unpressurized, unheated aircraft at 17,000 to 23,000 feet with only electrically heated suits to protect them, I hatched a plan. On one of the coldest winter days of that year, I suited up in my insulated coveralls, gloves, fur lined hat, goggles, insulated boots... Every piece of winter clothing I had at my disposal. I then drove the 40-ish miles home in my truck. Every window and vent opened, heat turned off, speeding down the interstate at 70mph (the bombers would have been cruising at around 130 to 140mph indicated air speed). Let me tell you, even with every piece of cold weather gear I could round up it was fucking COLD!! And I was only going about half as fast as a bomber and nobody was shooting at me. Those bomber crews did that day after day after day... That little experiment of mine only increased the respect I had for combat veterans. Just to make sure, I did the same thing the next night. Years later after my reading had ventured to infantry memoirs, I had another idea. I picked one of the most humid and hot days of summer for this experiment. I put on a set of modern BDUs, then loaded a pack with random stuff until it was about 80lbs, loaded all the magazines I had (six total), put on a helmet (an old steel WWII vintage was the best I could do), grabbed my AR15 and spent an entire weekend with all that equipment. It started when I got home on a Friday evening and I didn't remove anything until I had to leave for work Monday afternoon. All the food I needed for the weekend was carried on my person in the form of MREs and I only allowed one refill of my canteen. I never let the rifle be out of arms' reach either. I slept on the floor with all the gear and the BDUs only came off when I had to take care of nature's business. I also jumped in the shower briefly with all the gear on just to add to the misery. Let me tell you, it was a miserable weekend. If I didn't have such nosy neighbors, I would have dug a foxhole in my yard and spent the weekend there. Still, I had a glimpse of the hardships infantrymen have to deal with. As with the "bomber" experiment, my respect for veterans increased exponentially. I wouldn't call it walking a mile in their boots. It wasn't even a quarter of a mile. Again, I could stop when I wanted to and nobody was trying to kill me. Still, as miserable as I found those two experiences, I would do them again. I don't complain about the cold in winter and the heat in summer as much as I used to. When temperatures seem to be getting bad, I only have to think of the veterans and then I realize my situation isn't bad at all. The reason I don't have to suffer foxholes in winter and deserts in summer is because our veterans already have. I'm not going to end this by saying something cheesy like "My hat is off to you!" or "I salute you!" because it would only accentuate the fact I have no clue what you veterans have gone through. I will simply say "Thank you." and hope that you will know that you have my undying respect. Thank you.

18 February, 2012

A really bad pilot

Yes, I know I bitch about bad Vatsim pilots, but I have a prime example of what controllers have to deal with. What follows is the chat log from a session I had with a total and complete noob. I would not have been surprised if the pilot had told me they had purchased and installed their simulator that day. This situation shows, quite clearly, what I wrote about in my previous post. There is nothing in the Vatsim registration process to keep totally clueless pilots off the network. In the following chat log, the lines that are marked with an "o" are pilots, the other lines are me. The pilot giving me problems is UAL354. We started with voice communication, but since he was having problems I switched to text for clarity. SWA3551 and CSN478 are shining examples of pilots who know what they are doing.

[07:13:42] >> UAL354, squawk 1303
O [07:13:59] UAL354: Clear to CLE Maintain 5,000 FL 230 sqk 1303
O [07:15:42] UAL354: Can you please send by text, I will copy and read back correct, I was just going to proceed I am still a newbie Just started flying
[07:16:11] >> UAL354, Runway 28 taxi via A, F, M, M7.
O [07:16:23] UAL354: Runway 28 taxi via A F M m7
O [07:18:34] UAL354: Should We take the left or go straight
O [07:18:59] UAL354: Left and then straight and another right?
[07:19:06] >> UAL354, just taxi to 28 at your discretion. You're not even close to A, F, or M.
O [07:19:12] UAL354: Ok
[07:21:36] >> UAL354, Runway 28 wind 290 at 11. After departure turn left heading 140. Cleared for take off.
O [07:21:54] UAL354: runway 28 wind 290 at 11
O [07:22:13] UAL354: Cleared for take off turn left heading 140
[07:22:54] >> UAL354, confirm squawking 1303 and transponder in Mode C
[07:23:25] >> SWA3551, Leaving my airspace. Cleveland center is not online, radar services terminated, frequency change to advisory approved. Good morning.
O [07:23:46] SWA3551: unicom for us now, thanks for being online, we'll see ya SWA3551
[07:24:33] >> UAL354, radar contact. climb and maintain FL230. Proceed on course
O [07:24:47] UAL354: Roger
O [07:24:58] UAL354: Should we turn, to 140
[07:25:10] >> UAL354, Proceed on course.
O [07:26:22] UAL354: Roger
O [07:29:04] UAL354: Are We Correct
[07:29:25] >> UAL354, Are you on course to KCLE?
O [07:29:33] UAL354: Yes
[07:29:56] >> UAL354, Then you're correct.
O [07:30:42] UAL354: How long should I stay on this route for, This is my first landing, where do I land? How do I now I need to land
O [07:31:07] UAL354: Know where I need to land (rephrased)
[07:31:25] >> UAL354, I'm assuming you'll want to land at your filed destination.
O [07:31:51] UAL354: Ctr, How would I now I am near the filed destination
[07:32:24] >> UAL354, Navigation is the pilot's responsibility. I can't fly the aircraft for you.
O [07:32:42] UAL354: Thank you Chicago Center
O [07:33:11] SWA3551: CTR, 3551 again, request IFR to CLE, had to reset sorry sir
[07:34:00] >> SWA3551, Welcome back. Cleared to KCLE as filed. Maintain 3000. dep freq 127.80 squawk 1361
O [07:34:24] SWA3551: maintain 3, stay with you 1362
[07:34:45] >> SWA3551, Squawk is 1361
O [07:35:09] SWA3551: i did it again, my bad, it will be 1361 in the box for 3551
[07:35:25] >> SWA3551, readback correct,expect runway 31c for departure, call ready for taxi.
O [07:35:45] SWA3551: we will expect 31C and call for taxi
[07:36:09] >> UAL354, Leaving my airspace. Cleveland center is not online, radar services terminated, frequency change to advisory approved. Good morning.
O [07:36:30] UAL354: Should I just land my slef correct
O [07:36:35] UAL354: Self
[07:37:21] >> UAL354, The pilot usually lands the airplane so, yes. You'll land yourself.
O [07:37:51] UAL354: I mean no one will be directing
[07:39:00] >> UAL354, no control currently availabe for KCLE.
O [07:39:37] SWA3551: ready to taxi to 31C
O [07:39:37] CSN478: gday CTR info Q req IFR to PANC
[07:39:53] >> CSN478, CSN478 stand by.
O [07:40:03] CSN478: rgr
[07:40:12] >> SWA3551, 31C via Y, T, E. Cross 31R
O [07:40:30] SWA3551: Y T E cross 31R to 31C
[07:40:33] >> SWA3551, KMDW altimeter 3033
O [07:40:47] UAL354: Should We Change Radio
[07:41:16] >> Yes. That's what the "frequency change approved" part was earlier.
[07:41:47] >> CSN478, cleared to PANC as filed, climb and maintain 5000, expect FL340 10 mins after dep, dep freq will be 127.80, squawk 1320
O [07:42:44] CSN478: sq 1320 c/m 5000 expect FL340 10 mins after dep
O [07:42:59] UAL354: Thank yoi Chicago Center. Have a good Night

[07:43:03] >> CSN478, readback correct,expect runway 28 for departure, call ready for taxi.
O [07:43:22] SWA3551: ready to go 31C
O [07:43:25] CSN478: rgr rw28
O [07:43:25] UAL354: Permision to disconnect? We have overshot the runway
[07:43:36] >> SWA3551, rwy 31c wind 280 at 12 G18. turn right heading 090. Cleared for take off.
O [07:43:41] UAL354: Landed but overshot runway

Can you see why there should be some basic requirements for Vatsim membership? UAL354 could not fly a direct GPS route, had no idea how to fly his aircraft (an overloaded 747 by the way), did not have even a general idea where he was, slewed directly to the approach at KCLE and, due to being totally overloaded in an unfamiliar aircraft, overshot the runway and crashed. I could tell he was trying to hand fly the aircraft because his altitude was always changing drastically by thousands of feet. It must have been a roller coaster ride. No planning, no skills, no clue what-so-ever.

07 January, 2012

I'm not impressed.

I control on the Vatsim network and am currently rated as a C1 (en-route) controller. For those of you not familiar with Vatsim, it's a place where virtual pilots can fly and interact with virtual controllers. To those of us who would love to fly or control in real life and will never have the chance, Vatsim is a wonderful place. We can satisfy our addiction to aviation with people in similar situations. Unfortunately, there's a huge problem within Vatsim that is both the cause of its popularity and the cause of angry controllers. All a pilot has to do to join the network is sign up with a valid ISP based (not Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail etc) email account. There are regulations, of course, such as the Code of Conduct, Code of Regulations and Pilot Requirements, but those documents are not required reading. There are too many pilots who sign up, keep clicking the "next" button and then pop onto the network having no clue what they're doing. A simple check box at the end of each document, each of which would need to be checked during the sign-up process, could solve a whole lot of problems. It hasn't been done. At the very least, a pilot should have to verify that they have read and agreed to the pilot requirements. It's a very short document that outlines simple things such as requiring pilots to be able to maintain an altitude and heading, follow ATC instructions, not to join a live session with their aircraft on a runway etc. Each batch of new pilots seems to get worse. Vatsim is a learning environment and generally speaking, controllers are willing to help new pilots. However, it requires the cooperation of the pilot. A pilot needs to have a certain base of skills in order to have any chance of being successful. I can't tune their radio for them, I can't fly their aircraft for them, I can't tune their transponder for them, etc. When I joined Vatsim I already possessed a thorough background in aviation (virtually speaking), but I read all of the documents and made sure I would be able to hold up my end of the stick. I knew I would have no problems flying or navigating, but I had never interacted with a controller before and was very nervous. My first flight was a disaster. I panicked because I couldn't understand the controller due to my lack of knowledge regarding the tool that enables pilots and controllers to communicate. But, I learned from it, came back another day and had a successful flight. We controllers expect pilots to make mistakes resulting from situations they never considered could happen. Having voice communication issues? Not a problem, we'll just communicate via text and if I have time I'll try and help solve the voice comm issues. Don't have any idea how to fly a route by any means other than direct via GPS? Not a problem. I can suggest some simple things you can do that will allow you to fly a basic VOR to VOR route or I can direct you to some websites that teach aerial navigation. I can even direct new pilots to websites that will generate routes for them. There's all sorts of issues that can crop up, but controllers are equipped to handle them. A pilot still has to be able to fly their aircraft and follow instructions. As I mentioned before, the state of the recent crop of pilots isn't very good. But, what about the controllers?

Unlike pilots, controllers can't simply join Vatsim and start controlling. There are a multitude of controller ratings and new controllers start at the very bottom and have to work their way up. The rating structure is as follows

  1. OBS (Observer). Controller may only observe air traffic control. They are not allowed to work active positions
  2. S1 (Student 1 or GND). They are only allowed to staff Ground or Clearance Delivery positions.
  3. S2 (Student 2 or TWR). They are allowed to staff airport control tower positions or lower (i.e. Ground or Clearance Delivery)
  4. S3 (Student 3 or APP). They are allowed to staff radar Approach/Departure positions or lower.
  5. C1 (Controller 1 or CTR). They are allowed to work en-route control or lower. This is generally the highest the average "Joe" will get.
  6. Misc. ratings. I1 and I3 are C1 or C3 controllers who are allowed to instruct student controllers. SUP are supervisors. C3 is Senior Controller. Vatsim staff ratings are many and are divided by division, region and BoG (Board of Governors). Typical call signs would be something like VATUSA12 (the number denotes their position within their facility), VATNA1, VATUK4, VATGOV8 etc.

A newly minted controller starts with the rating OBS (Observer). They can only watch air traffic and are not allowed to work an active position or interact with air traffic in any way. The new controller must first take the basic ATC test and pass it before moving on. The basic test includes questions about airspace structure, what each position does etc. Once a pilot passes this first test, they're assigned to the region, division and facility of their choosing. Once at their facility they will begin training for the next rating of S1 (Student 1, or Ground/Delivery controller). During this training process the new controller works with an instructor (I1 or I3 rating). When the instructor is satisfied with the students progress, the student is assigned to take the S1 exam. If the student passes, they are given their S1 rating and are allowed to staff an active GND or DEL position. This can vary by facility. Sometimes newly rated controllers are only allowed to work the "quieter" airports until they gain some experience working with actual pilots on the network.

After a certain time, the S1 will start training for the next rating of S2. It is the same process they experience while learning about S1. It only involves different training material geared toward working a TWR position. Once the student passes the S2 exam, they are allowed to work live TWR (example BOS_TWR) positions. Vatsim offers what is called "top down" control services. Each controller position, in addition to working their current position, provides services for each position below them if they're not staffed. With our BOS_TWR example TWR not only provides TWR services to pilots, they also provide clearance delivery and ground services for that airport if those positions are not staffed. From the pilot's perspective, when they have filed their flight plan and are ready to get clearance to fly that plan, they would normally look to see of BOS_DEL is online. If not, they are supposed to look for BOS_GND. If GND is not online, they should look for BOS_TWR. BOS_TWR being online will provide flight plan clearance and taxi instructions in addition to the duties of BOS_TWR (mainly take off and landing clearance). The
S2 rating is a controllers first experience with multitasking and can be a bit bewildering until they gain experience. The S2 rating is also, usually, the first time a controller must pass an OTS (Over The Shoulder) test in addition to the written test. The OTS is supervised by an instructor and the controller is watched to make sure they're capable of handling live traffic.

The S3 rating is next. The jump from TWR to APP/DEP is the biggest challenge for most Vatsim controllers. As an S1 and S2, the controller was only working one airport. As an S3, they are responsible for all airports within their TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach CONtrol). The S2 working towards S3 generally has the most trouble with vectoring aircraft onto approaches separating aircraft, sequencing aircraft and figuring out how to handle pilots calling them for services at a multitude of airports, both controlled and uncontrolled. The same "top down" procedure is followed. Delivery, ground and tower services at each airport within the controllers airspace. The student usually doesn't realize what they're in for. I passed the S3 written exam with flying colors, but failed miserably during my first simulated sessions (no live traffic, just bots on a training simulator) and also botched my first OTS. The student can only be prepared so much. Live traffic is the only real way for the student to gain experience which allows them to figure out how to deal with the situations they'll encounter. When they're ready, the Student is allowed to work TRACONs on their own. Most controllers get an immense feeling of satisfaction upon earning their S3 rating and being allowed to work without supervision.

The last rating most controllers will work for is the coveted C1. The jump from S3 to C1 isn't very difficult. The only major challenge is learning to deal with such a large airspace, alone if there are no other controllers working lower positions. Being able to work a CTR position such as ATL_CTR is a reason to be proud, and rightly so. The road a controller takes from OBS to C1 is a long one. It's easy for some, difficult for others but unless the controller is really bad, most make it to C1.

So, as you may see, controllers on Vatsim are trained to deal with air traffic and must earn their ratings by proving they can meet the standards set by Vatsim. Generally speaking, controllers get better as they gain experience. Some don't, but most do. But what about pilots?

Pilots on Vatsim can generally be expected to know what they're doing. Most will not file a flight plan or fly an aircraft that they are not capable of flying. It's almost like a real world student pilot. Start simple and work up the ladder. There are exceptions. Since there are no pilot ratings (there is a P1 rating so far, but it's only a voluntary program) a new pilot who couldn't hand fly a Cessna 172 can jump into a 747 and fly around. Usually with disastrous results which causes much stress for the controller. When the pilot just goes ahead and does what they want regardless of controller instructions, it will make the controller quite angry. The new pilot has no idea that they might be in the way of other aircraft, or that their incessant use of long-winded transmissions is blocking the controller from giving another pilot important instructions. Here's a typical conversation between a controller (we'll use an ATL_CTR controller) and a clueless pilot who has decided to connect to the network with their 747 sitting on an active runway. We'll begin with the pilot cutting in on the controllers current transmission to another pilot.

N1975: Atlanta tower request take off.

CTR: Last aircraft calling ATL_CTR, say call sign and position.

N1975: request takeoff clearance.

CTR: American 123 turn right heading 2 *N1975 cuts in again*

N1975: Tower do you hear me?

CTR: Last aircraft calling, this is Atlanta Center, not Atlanta Tower. Say call sign and position.

N1975: Center I am at Kilo Alpha Tango Lima airport request take off

CTR: Last aircraft calling from Atlanta, say callsign.

N1975: N1975.

CTR: N1975, ATL_CTR. You have no flight plan in the system. Please resend your flight plan. *controller goes to a local view of KATL*

CTR: N1975, you are blocking an active runway, please move your aircraft to an appropriate parking space and resend your fl *N1975 butts in again*

N1975: I am going to Houston.

CTR: N1975, Roger. I still need you to send me a flight plan. Again, please move your aircraft off of the active runway.

[N1975 finally moves off the runway and blocks the most commonly used taxiway to the active runway. At least he's off the damn runway.]

CTR: N1975 I'm still waiting for your flight plan.

N1975: Roger tower, I have resent my plan.

[Flight plan is a mess. IFR to KHOU GPS direct, cruise altitude 5,000, Boeing 747-400. The leading the pilot by the hand begins now.]

CTR: N1975, cruise altitude incorrect for direction of flight. Can you accept 10,000?

N1975: Center, I filed 5,000 feet.

CTR: N1975, I see that but flights to the west require even cruise altitudes such as 6,000 8,000 10,000 etc. Houston is to the west of your current position.

N1975: Roger I will take 10,000

[now to see if they can fly to/from at least a couple of VORS]

CTR: N1975 do you know how to use the "direct to" button on your GPS receiver?

N1975: Roger tower (keeps calling the controller different things).

CTR: N1975 I'm going to give you two way points for you to fly. Use the direct function to fly to the first, when you cross over it, use the direct function again to fly to the second.

N1975: Roger. Ready for take off.

CTR: N1975, I have not issued your clearance yet. Hold at your current position until told to do otherwise. Advise ready to copy your clearance.

N1975: Roger.

[minutes pass by]

CTR: N1975, advise ready to copy your clearance.

N1975: Ready to copy center.

CTR: N1975 cleared to KHOU via direct MGM, direct BTR (expecting this idiot to follow vectors is pointless at this time) maintain 5,000 expect 10,000 ten minutes after departure. departure frequency will be 121.35. Squawk 1234.

N1975: Roger.

CTR: N1975, you need to read your clearance back to me so I know you understand it.

N1975: Cleared to KHOU with squawk direct, N1975 (first time pilot used their call sign. A miracle!)

CTR: N1975, cleared to KHOU via direct MGM, direct BTR (expecting this idiot to follow vectors is pointless at this time) maintain 5,000 expect 10,000 ten minutes after departure. departure frequency will be 121.35. Squawk 1234.

N1975: Copy Center. REady for take off.

CTR: N1975, your clearance is not valid until you read it back to me. I will not let you proceed until you read the clearance back to me.

[by now the pilot is beginning to realize how unprepared they are, that the controller is losing his patience and needs to start following instructions. Or they disconnect from the network or just start flying all on their own. If they start flying on their own, not following instructions, I'll find a supervisor and get them to handle the situation. It usually results in the pilot being kicked off the network.]

N1975: Cleared to KHOU as filed maintain 5,000 squawk 1324. N1975.

CTR: N1975 confirm squawk code 1234.

N1975: Squawk 1234.

CTR: Read back correct. KATL altimeter 29.95. Advise ready to taxi. (Pilot doesn't know what ATIS is, much less think of letting you know they've listened to it.)

N1975: Center, ready for taxi. N1975.

CTR: N1975, runway 8R taxi via E, E1.

N1975: Roger center.

CTR: N1975, you need to read back instructions. A "Roger" is not good enough.

N1975: Center repeat taxi instructions. N1975.

[*forehead slap* There's just no end to this pilot's stupidity. The best you can hope for is that these idiots will disconnect before they ever get this far. To be honest, if the pilot is oblivious to even the basic rules of flight, I'll be hard-nosed with the intention of making them disconnect. Problem solved.]

CTR: N1975, runway 8R taxi via E, E1. HOLD SHORT of runway 8R. (competent pilots know that they're supposed to hold short of ANY runway unless being explicitly told to cross/enter it. To avoid more problems than already present, new pilots get told to HOLD SHORT of their departure runway otherwise, they'll just taxi right onto it and start rolling).

N1975: Taxi via E, E1 to runway 8R.

CTR: N1975, you are required to read back hold short instructions.

N1975: Say again for N1975. (See the trend here? A pencil and piece of paper solves all sorts of problems. Write down instructions.)

CTR: N1975, for the third time, Runway 8R taxi via E, E1. HOLD SHORT runway 8R.

N1975: Taxi to 8R via E, E1. Hold short 8R.

[Thank God! He's got it. But wait, there's more.]

N1975: REquest progressive taxi.

CTR: N1975, Look at your airport diagram (he doesn't have one obviously, but it's a nudge to them that maybe they should get one). You are currently on E, facing East. The sign for E1 should be at your 11 o'clock and in plain view. (What I want to say is "How stupid are you? You started on 8R and moved just off of it ten minutes ago. You actually expect me to believe that you can't find your way BACK to 8R? You're a fucking idiot!)

N1975: Roger.

[Our clueless pilot begins to move, blows right past E1 even though it was right under his nose and before the controller knows it, the pilot is at the other end (26L).]

N1975: Center N1975 ready for take off.

CTR: N1975, you were assigned runway 8R, you are at 26L. Turn around and taxi to 8R via E, E1. You can find airport diagrams here (inserts URL for pilot).

[normally a pilot this bad will make all sorts of mistakes before finally getting into the air, but we'll give this clown the benefit of the doubt. Again.]

N1975: Center ready for take off.

CTR: Last aircraft calling for take off, say callsign *nudge, nudge*

N1975: N1975 ready for take off.

CTR: N1975 runway 8R wind 090 at 05. After departure turn right heading 110. Cleared for take off.

N1975: Roger.

CTR: N1975 what did I say about reading back instructions?

N1975: Cleared for takeoff, N1975.

CTR: N1975, after departure turn right heading 110. (he won't)

N1975: heading 110, N1975.

[Pilot manages to get a 747 fully loaded with fuel for a short trip off the ground. Immediately starts going direct KHOU.]

CTR: N1975 say altitude leaving.

N1975: 2,500 N1975.

CTR: N1975 radar contact. What was your assigned heading after departure?

N1975: We were assigned 110. N1975

CTR: N1975, and what heading are you flying now?

N1975: 250, N1975.

CTR: N1975, were you instructed to fly something other than heading 110?

N1975: No.

CTR: N1975, in the future, follow your assigned headings and stay on it until told to do otherwise.

N1975: Roger.

[pilot has by now blown through the initial altitude assignment of 5,000]

CTR: N1975, what was your assigned initial altitude assignment, which I might add, you received in your clearance and read back to me?

[pilot didn't write anything down and is simply parroting instructions without being able to understand them, much less thinking to let the controller know they don't understand something.]

CTR: N1975, your initial altitude assignment was 5,000. You are now at 8,400 and have not been told to climb higher than your initial altitude as of yet.

CTR: N1975 climb and MAINTAIN 10,000. Proceed direct MGM.

N1975: REquest vectors.

CTR: N1975, use the direct to function to fly direct to MGM. You informed me that you knew how to use the direct to function.

N1975: direct MGM, N1975.

[At this time, the controller is on the land line with the next CTR controller letting them know that this pilot is a total and complete moron. N1975 finally gets pointed towards MGM. Ground speed indicating 520 knots because, of course, the thrust levers are all the way forward. Upon next contact with the pilot, the "click, click, click..." of the over speed warning can be heard in the background.]

CTR: N1975, maximum airspeed below 10,000 feet is 250 knots indicated. Reduce airspeed to 250 knots or lower until reaching 10,000.

N1975: Roger.

[Pilot didn't read anything back, but at this point the only thing the controller wants is for this idiot to get the hell out of his airspace.]

CTR: N1975, contact Houston Center 125.40

[no response]

CTR: N1975, contact Houston Center 125.40

N1975: Roger.

Now, wasn't that just lovely? Could you sense the controller's frustration? Could you see how unprepared the pilot was? Now imagine having to deal with this idiot while also working with 20 other aircraft on the ground and in the air. Can you understand why it should be necessary for pilots to have read the pilot requirements document and code of conduct? Controllers expect to help pilots every now and again, but as you have read, this pilot needed to be led by the hand through every part of his flight. The pilot's arrival at KHOU will be just as frustrating to Houston center, approach, tower and ground. Regulations prevent controllers from telling pilots that they're fucking stupid, but believe me, if a pilot thinks things are going well even though they're completely clueless, they have another thing coming. Every controller along the pilot's route will know how much of an idiot they are. We'll all remember their name and call sign, too. If I know some of these fucktards are coming to my airspace, sometimes I'll sign off until they're gone. They need to learn, but the frustration and stress of teaching them is just not worth it. I worked hard to get my C1 rating, I should be able to hold pilots to some very basic standards. But I can't. As a matter of fact, I would like to be controlling now, but there's too many new pilots flying through the airspace and I just don't want to deal with them. It takes all the fun out of it. There's also a trend of pilots putting things in the "remarks" section of their flight plan such as "Real world pilot", "VA Hub manager - Chicago", "ZXX controller" etc. "Real world pilot" usually only means they've only controlled an aircraft for thirty seconds during their first lesson. "Hub manager/Lead instructor pilot/Terminal supervisor" doesn't mean jack shit to me. And the "ZXX Controller" thing doesn't mean anything either. It's probably just an observer who just signed up and doesn't know the first thing about air traffic control. These self righteous remarks don't mean a damned thing and have no reflection of the person's abilities. I've seen pilots with comments like these who aren't worth a damn behind the controls of an aircraft. You want to impress me? Don't do it with stupid remarks. SHOW me.