Consider it a Perk

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My final work shift at Oshkosh Airventure 2010 was my favorite shift of all.  Not because it is time to go home.  Not because the airshow and fly-in/out is over this evening at 8 pm.  Not because I miss my family.  All those reasons are true.

I’ve already described how much I love working the departure part of the runway (2 entries ago in “Adrenaline for Dinner”).  We worked a few airplanes during our IM shift, but this morning was tailor made for a busy, airplane-filled shift.  A few wisps of fog threatened to slow the airport down, but by the time we got out to the Mobile Operations platform, clear skies ruled.

Planes first get an EAA flagman to escort them to the runway and another flagman lines them up for us to talk to at the hold short line.  Two of us (although we had extra controllers with us today – so really 3 of us) waved the planes up to the line and then the Fly-By departure controller (named “Fly-By” because it is on the runway that all the airshows perform over) clears them for takeoff.  We had to wait for the EAA people to back the C-5A Galaxy onto the runway and all the way north of our normal departure point (the Blue Dot).  By the time the huge jet had backed past us, we had a line of about 40 airplanes ready to go.

“Adrenaline Central, prepare a full shot right into the Cerebral Cortex”.  “Cerebral Cortex copies”.  “Shot delivered; checking heart rate”.

Four airplanes into position and hold; 2 on each side of the runway.  “rwy 18R, left side, position and hold, pull up to the first runway light”, “rwy 18R, right side, position and hold, pull up to the first runway light”.  Two more times into position and by then the first airplanes are ready for takeoff, alternating sides of the runway.  Two more into position behind the 2 still holding, 1 cleared for takeoff at a time, 2 more onto the runway in a constant loop for about 20 minutes.  I just kept moving the metal, baby!

Have you ever seen a high-powered leaf blower – like the ones they use to clean out a baseball stadium?  The C-5 cleaned that runway like a can of high pressure air cleans the toast crumbs out of a computer keyboard.  Four F-15’s left in a flight and those jet engines cooked all the bugs on the runway into little tiny charred bits of carbon.  Seriously, put the carbon back into the Milky Way.  It’s ready to restart the Cycle of Life.  More Thorax-rattling F-18’s, an T-38, and (after all those jet engines) a cute little new T-6 Air Force Trainer.

Absolute pure fun.  Every airplane full of people and camping junk, all of them fully briefed (from the briefing shack), and stuffed full of “fresh made donuts” and Wisconsin brats.  The food kind, although some of the planes had kids in them.  Looked well behaved to me.  Most of the kids had headphones on; an Oshkosh perk.  Perquisite – like something extra to the requisite (or required).

I soaked up every bit of that last shift.  Stood out there wondering if I was getting a sunburn.  Waved my orange batons at each airplane whether they needed baton assistance or not.  Wore those headphones (the pilot-y kind) until my ears ached and my jaw got a cramp (the kind you get from chewing double bubble all day).  I couldn’t stop grinning.  And when I got a break from one of the other controllers, I stood around for as short a time as possible before I went and gave another controller a break.  All the other controllers had worked before so they didn’t mind letting me get back into the game.

May I just say I remain humbled by this opportunity.  It may never happen again due to various and sundry factors way beyond my control.  But I was here this year – Oshkosh 2010.  The best of what aviation has to offer showed up this week.  I am proud to have served with the best controllers I’ve ever met.  I am proud to have been a small worker in the biggest show around.

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The Briefing Shack

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Even Oshkosh tower slows down if the weather isn’t good.  Saturday morning was an IFR day with ceilings around 800 ft AGL until around 11:00 am.  We worked a few IFR arrivals in on the VOR 27 and RNAV 27 approach.  The tower was fully staffed and ready for a ton of traffic, but it just didn’t happen.

During one of our breaks, I walked out to the EAA departure briefing shack.  The EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) has the shacks all up and down the parking and flight lines.  All pilots are required to get a pre-flight briefing from one of the volunteers in these shacks.  Before they can taxi, they have to show their briefing sheet they got from the briefer.  Rwy 18’s briefing sheet is a 1/4 sheet orange piece of paper with rwy 18 instructions on one side, and rwy 36 instructions on the other.  Off rwy 18, VFR pilots must depart on a heading between 150 and 180 degrees.  Once they leave the 5-mile limit of the Class D airspace they are on their own.

I wanted to hear the briefing from the briefer anonymously, but my pink shirt is immediately recognizable as “air traffic”.  Still, it was good to hear this side of the microphone.  These pilots are the reason we all gather to work the tower.  These pilots are why the EAA exists.  Pilots and builders and dreamers alike all congregate here because this is the center of the general aviation universe.  They fly in and out with all this heavy traffic because they want to be here for this weeklong workshop.  There is a staggering amount of information, parts and literature available here for all levels and areas of interest.

It’s good to be reminded of the “why” sometimes.  Pre-flight helped me do that.

Adrenaline for Dinner

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OK…  I’ve found my new favorite job!

Friday afternoon we worked out at the Itinerant Mobile MOOCOW (which is some acronym that basically means a flatbed trailer 250 feet from the runway edge with a some antennas right next to it and at least 3 radios hooked up to it).  I think there are 2 FM radios (again like walkie-talkies) and one VHF Local Control radio.  This time all of us had headsets (like pilot ones with big ol’ earcup/coverers) and big boom mikes.  We could intercom with each other, FM with the OSH tower, and VHF with the departure aircraft.  Two of us stood on top of the trailer – one communicator and one coordinator/spotter.  The other two of my team stood at the runway edge line on either side of rwy 27.  For this airshow, we’d gotten a waiver to use a 125′ foot hold short line instead of the standard 250 foot hold short line.

The whole purpose of this position, called IM (short for Itinerant Mobile), is to clear all the departures from rwy 27 for takeoff.  The OSH North Local position talks to all the arrivals, and the IM talks to all the rwy 27 departures.  I’ve described the North and South Local in another post or two if you want more info on those.  IM watches the downwind leg, base legs, and straight-in for arrivals, and when it looks like there is a gap large enough for a departure, IM clears an aircraft for takeoff.  The aircraft all taxi right past the IM position so we use can call signs on the radio.  The pilot first taxis with the permission of the EAA flagmen, then they see the 3rd or 4th pink-shirted controller of our team, then they finally tune in the IM frequency (121.75 if you’re keeping track).

After the airport re-opens post-airshow, when there are a bunch of departures to go, the communicator puts 4 aircraft in position to hold at once.  “(airplane callsign), rwy 27, left side, pull up past the orange dot”, “(different callsign), rwy 27, right side, pull up”, “(diff. callsign) rwy 27, position and hold”, “(diff. callsign), rwy 27 right side, position and hold”.  Before they all get actually in position the first one is cleared for takeoff, followed 1500 feet by the second guy.  The 3rd and 4th move up, new aircraft go into position behind them, and we keep clearing them for takeoff.

All while watching for arrivals coming in for the same runway that are on a totally different frequency.  If an arrival looks too close to one of the departures, the spotter/coordinator can key up the FM radio and tell the tower to send the arrival around.  Normally, though, the tower has already seen that there is not enough spacing and sent the guy around before we can call.  During my hour or so, the North LC only had to send one BE18 around because of a departure.  The tower asked the BE18 to sidestep to the right (so he could go back into right traffic, if you’re thinking ahead) and I told the departure to offset left.

All the departures get a blanket broadcast saying something like “depart on a heading between 270 and 360 at or below 1,300 ft MSL until leaving the Class Delta”.  We want them to stay low because they have to tunnel out underneath the Fisk arrivals that are staying at 1,800 ft MSL until entering the right downwind for rwy 27.

Ok, that’s all the technical stuff.  Now let me explain why this is my new favorite position.  I volunteer to work it for the next however many years I have left as an air traffic controller.

A C750 had an IFR clearance and wanted the whole runway for departure.  So I taxied him into position then cleared him for takeoff.  He flew right by the IM platform, which I was standing on, at just about rotation speed (there is some fancy name for that, but it means right before he leaves the ground and is flying).  This C750 had winglets (yes, it’s got winglets!) and the sight of them streaking by so close is really cool.

A bunch of small airplanes taxied right up to the runway, the “pink shirt” stops them at the hold line, and I cleared them for takeoff, one after the other.  It’s like the best computer simulator set on automatic tennis ball machine or batting cage.  They just kept coming and taking off when we said so.  The busiest time of our session out there was handled by the more experienced guys on our team, and that is even cooler to watch because they make it sound and look so easy.

An F-18 came in, did an overhead (which is a tight circle about 1500 AGL) to the right, back to do a touch-and-go (a bounce and go, really – like he was actually on the carrier), then FULL afterburner on the go.  I was on the IM platform, a mere 250 feet from this.  The complete possession of all the molecules of air surrounding the F-18 is almost impossible to describe.  The raw power of its engines is somehow primal, in a hi-tech way.  It’s like what they show when they show rockets or the space shuttle or all that billowing smoke and fire at Cape Canaveral.  Except I was standing RIGHT THERE.  My ribcage resonated.  Not like a gentle hum when you lean against a refrigerator, but like when they organ in church really wails on those huge long pipes that take up the whole back of the church.  Then add in a whole bunch of decibels plus heat from the fire in the engines.

Adrenaline.  It’s what’s for dinner.

IM flightline departure position; C17 behind me.

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