Vector: Hampton

(Published Aug-Sep 2007)

By David G. Young

Preface:

Perhaps nothing has changed more in the past ten years than America’s air transportation system. In the wake of 9/11 new, stringent security measures have transformed air travel from an adventure into an ordeal. The following article was first published in the original Hampton Magazine in May, 1994. It arose from a Saturday afternoon discussion with my neighbor at the soccer fields. As we watched our sons playing soccer we noticed jet after jet passing low overhead on their way to Pittsburgh International airport.  We wondered why there seemed to be so many more jest passing over Hampton than other communities. 

Radar-image

That conversation led me contact the Federal Aviation Administration at Pittsburgh International Airport. When the FAA invited me to visit the air traffic control facilities at the airport I jumped at the chance. I’m certain an invitation like that wouldn’t be extended today, in light of post 9/11 security concerns. Other things have changed as well. Later that year, on September 8, USAir flight 427 tragically crashed in Hopewell Township, just a few miles short of the airport, due to a design flaw in the Boeing 737 jet. But in early spring of 1994 I had the opportunity to learn first-hand how the air traffic control system operated at Pittsburgh International (and why so many passenger jets crisscrossed the skies of Hampton). Following is a reprint of that article, with minor revisions for clarity.     

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For Hampton residents, the thunder of passenger jets crossing overhead is a fa­miliar sound. On most days a steady parade of Boeing 737s, DC 9s and other craft rumbles across the sky at altitudes so low you can almost make out the identification codes sten­ciled beside the engine. High in the strato­sphere other flights can be seen pushing silent­ly ahead of thin, wispy vapor trails, racing to some distant destination. The airspace over Hampton is some­times so filled with passenger planes that many residents can't help wondering ... Just where are all those planes coming from and going to?

To find the answer to those questions, I contacted the Federal Aviation Administra­tion at Pittsburgh International Airport. I wondered whether it was just my imagination that Hampton’s skies seemed busier than other communities. As it turns out, I learned that I wasn’t imagining things. Hampton Township happens to be located near a major aerial intersection above the airport's control space. I also got a clearer picture of how all arriving and departing flights in the greater Pittsburgh area are guided by the Air Traffic Control Specialists at the Pitts­burgh Tower.

It's may be easy for the general public to take the air traffic controller's role for granted. Traveling across country in the '90s seems al­most as easy as traveling across town. Passengers simply hop a flight in one city and, with precious few problems, arrive safely in another city thousands of miles away.

Yet, throughout the journey the air­craft's progress is monitored closely by Air Traffic Controllers, whose job is to ensure the safe and timely flow of air traffic across America, as well as into and out of airports. In 1992 (the last full year for which data are available) FAA Airport personnel across the country directed the landings and de­partures of over 61,000,000 flights! Pitts­burgh International Airport ranked 13th in the U.S. in 1992, with over 430,000 flight operations.

From the tower at Pittsburgh Inter­national Airport, 240 feet above the run­ways, the Federal Aviation Administration’s controllers are responsi­ble for directing all incoming and outgo­ing traffic within a 30 mile radius, rising to 14,000 feet. Within the Terminal Control Area (now called Class B Airspace) all air­craft ‑- whether commercial, military, or civilian -‑ must remain in touch with the controllers at PIT (the official designation for Pittsburgh International Airport).

"The Class B Airspace is often de­scribed as an upside down wedding cake," explained Paul Amholt, Assistant Air Traf­fic Manager at the Greater Pittsburgh Tow­er. The airspace consists of a series of con­centric circles that rise from the surface at PIT to 8,000 feet. Within that area the skies over the airport regularly become congest­ed with planes seeking clearance to land or depart in spurts of intense activity, punc­tuated by long stretches with light traffic.

On a recent Friday evening, for example, nearly 50 flights arrived at the airport within a 30 minute period between 8:00‑8:30 p.m. The sudden fluffy of activity commanded the urgent attention of eight controllers in the radar room located in the tower's base and another four controllers located in the control center at the top of the building. The ebb and flow of air traffic shifts constantly, reaching a 'high tide' of activity in the early morn­ing, at noon, during dinner, and early in the evening. At other times the slack flight activity permits the controllers to catch up on the details of the job as they casually chat among themselves.

The view from the control room at the top of the Tower commands a breath‑taking panorama of the airport and its environs. To the east the city skyline peaks above the hills of Green Tree. To the northwest bil­lowing steam from the Beaver Valley power plant is visible. At dusk the lights from a line of incoming aircraft approaching from the northeast flicker like a luminescent necklace cascading down a flight of steps.

The specialists manning the glass-walled control room above the airport pace between various ground and airborne radar displays, trailing corkscrew‑shaped cords behind their radio headsets. The atmo­sphere in the tower is nothing remotely like the strained, tension‑filled scenes so often portrayed in popular Hollywood comedies. The controllers are calm, relaxed and coolly efficient as they issue instructions to out­going and incoming aircraft. Their terse jar­gon conveys a maximum amount of infor­mation in the fewest possible words. It's a language that only controllers and pilots could appreciate, spoken briskly with an air of easy familiarity and quiet authority.

In fact, the lack of apparent stress was so striking that I couldn't help comment­ing on it to Alex Polcovich, Jr., Area Man­ager at the Greater Pittsburgh Tower.

"Dif­ferent people respond to stress different­ly," he said, "but, we try to hire people with the ability to handle stress in a calm and productive manner." The FAA’s recruiting brochure, which lays out the requirements of the job for prospective applicants, says that controllers must have the ability to establish priorities, to look at errors objec­tively and reconstruct situations, and to think abstractly. The brochure goes on to say that the ability to carry three‑dimen­sional mental pictures is also vital to the controller's work.

Teamwork is another key ingredient to managing flight operations at PIT. Con­trollers with different responsibilities work closely together in a kind of relay race, in which arriving or departing planes are passed from one individual to another.

The departure of a USAir flight to Philadelphia serves as a case in point. As the USAir pilot departs the concourse gate, the ground controller in the tower instructs him on which taxiway to use to reach the assigned runway. After the jet has reached takeoff position, the controller tells the pi­lot that he's cleared for takeoff. The USAir pilot throttles up the jet’s engines, and the flight races down the runway before pulling into the air, beginning a sharp climb to reach cruising altitude.

As the jet rises above the airport, trailed by a diminishing shadow on the runway, the airport's departure controller in the base of the control tower takes the 'hand off' from the tower. In the cool, dimly lit radar room controllers seated at two banks of radar consoles closely monitor the progress of numerous arrivals and departures. Bright green blips swarming over the radar screen, accompanied by data tags, identify each plane's direction and altitude. The departure controller will watch over the USAir flight, among many others, as it gradually climbs out of the Pittsburgh Terminal Control Space.

When the Philadelphia‑bound flight reaches an altitude of 14,000 feet, control of the plane is once again 'handed off,' this time to an Air traffic Control Specialist from the Cleveland En Route Center. The Cleve­land Center will watch over the plane until it passes into the hands of yet another “en route” center, or into the control of another airport approach center. Along the way a combination of state‑of‑the‑art technology and human vigilance will ensure that the passengers reach their destination in a safe and expedient manner.

So, what about all are those planes that pass over Hampton? Where are they coming from and where are they going?

At four compass points along the outer limit of Pittsburgh International’s terminal air space are four "fix" intersections that serve as air routes into and out of the airport. Each has a unique name to identify it readily in radio conversations: The northwest inter­section is called "Cutta," the southwest in­tersection is called "Whisky," southeast is called "Nesto," and the northeast intersec­tion is called "Grace."

This last intersec­tion, "Grace," sits just 9.6 miles northeast of the Butler County Airport, or approxi­mately fifteen miles northeast of Hamp­ton Township.

Arriving flights approaching the international air­port from this intersection are usually de­scending from 10,000 feet to around 6,000 feet, on a southwesterly heading. Many of the planes that seem to come roaring over Hampton Community Park are ar­rivals following this path. From time to time a departing flight may be held below 5,000 feet to keep it under the incoming arrivals, so some of the low flying aircraft may also be outbound.

If you spot a plane heading north at between 10,000 to 14 000 feet the chances are good that this is a departing flight head­ing toward Ellwood City. Three jet routes -‑ part of the national airway system --   pass over Ellwood City heading south to east, south to west, and east to west. Flights headed toward this juncture from PIT are most likely headed toward New York, Phil­adelphia or Boston.

Another reason our view of passing aircraft may seem better in Hampton is due to the Township's elevation above sea level. Measured at Butler Coun­ty Airport, our local elevation is around 1284 feet, nearly 100 feet higher than Pittsburgh International Airport, which is 1203 feet above sea level.

So its no accident that the skies over our township seem at times to be teeming with jet planes either departing or arriving. Hampton turns out to be a spectacular place from which to monitor air traffic to and from Pittsburgh International Airport, considering that the township is nearly 100 feet closer to Heaven and only 15 miles from “Grace!”

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Afterword:

Obviously many things are different since this article was last published in 1994. While USAir flights still operate in and out of the Airport, the 2005 merger with America West reduced PIT’s status as the “hub” for a major US airline. Certainly, the heightened airport security and slow check-in procedures have made traveling across the country a frustrating, and oftentimes grueling, experience.

Pittsburgh International Airport isn’t as busy at it was back in 1994. According to the Federal Aviation Administration PIT has dropped from the 13th busiest U.S. airport to the 44th busiest, falling from 430,000 flight operations annually in 1992 to around 230,000 operations a year in 2006. But don’t let that stat fool you. PIT is still serving a lot of passengers … more than 11 million per year! Back in 1994 the airport’s new terminal facilities had been in operation for only two years. Today, 10 years later PIT continues to win awards and still serves as a model of design and traffic flow that inspires new airports around the world.

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