A Small Nudge from Technology


When Adam and I started training, the radio work was very difficult for me. I am sure part of it is that my primary instructor was impatient with the progress (or lack) that I was making on that front, so I was double-tongue tied worried about pissing off the controller and pissing off my CFI. Eventually I bought a hand-held radio and set it next to my cereal bowl in the morning and just listened to the Santa Monica tower. I slowly learned the script that they were following, making it a lot easier to formulate my own lines to say. And that allowed me to join this invisible community in the sky, which included these wise, helpful, sort of omnipresent, omniscient members that were earthbound. 


What I picture, although this is a Navy controller

When Adam and I were returning from Las Vegas on one of our first night flights we flew into a “sucker hole” and it was the calm voice of an air traffic controller who guided us out of the dark clouds and to a safe landing at Brackett Field.

The controller was able to do this, in part, because we were “squawking and talking.” We had a discrete code plugged into our Mode C, altitude-reporting transponder and every time it was brushed by a radar sweep it spit out the code and our altitude. Commercial flights, and every plane on an instrument flight is doing the same squawking. For flights under visual flight rules (VFR), even at night, it is optional. Learning how to request “flight following” is one of the things they taught us as student pilots and we were required to get it for our solo cross-country flight (the first time we were flying the plane by ourselves away from our home airport). Once I understood how it worked and what it provided, I asked for it every time I took off. Even when I was just flying up to Camarillo for a burger, I got on the radio with SoCal and asked for a transponder code and “VFR flight following up to Camarillo,” like I was going to the north pole and wanted the elves watching over me.


Tap tap and go

I recently attended an FAA safety seminar given by a controller from the SoCal TRACON, the set of controllers who are in charge of all of the low-level airspace in Southern California. It is a huge, busy, and complex piece of airspace, handling as many operations per day as all of Europe. One of the things he talked about was the number of flights which are not using the service offered by air traffic control. He said that in an airspace where they handle 2.2 million flights per year there are another four million flights that are not talking to them. That often means that they have to turn an airliner away from a traffic target because they don’t know the intentions of the mute, unidentified target.

He said it would be a lot safer up there if they could get more VFR pilots to talk to ATC and get a squawk code. He cited a few reasons he and fellow controllers thought they were getting the requests including, “some older pilots telling new pilots that if you have to talk to a controller it means you don’t know what you are doing.” I’d not heard that. I had heard quite a few pilots talk about not liking to make the initial call.


A tagged radar blip, click for detail

That makes sense. My sister-in-law doesn’t like calling the Chinese restaurant or pizza place. But that’s how you get the food (some nights). And calling ATC is how they get your little radar blip “tagged up.” Driving home my thoughts drifted, as they usually do, to possible technology solutions. Ideally, airplanes would be like little computers, nodes on the ATC Internet and the moment they were airborne (or strobe flashing, because even on the ground having an aircraft identified can be helpful) they should grab a code. It should be like the dynamic host control protocol (DHCP), which is what lets your iPhone hop on the hotel WiFi even though you don’t have an IP address to plug in to find the router or dynamic name service (DNS) servers.

That sort of technology is a long way off. But what if there could be a little nudge? A pressure in the right direction? I’m pretty sure that if you could make it easier to get a flight following code on the ground, more VFR pilots would get one. At Santa Monica airport, when we started training, you were not able to get a code from the ground controller. Once you were airborne you would talk to SoCal itself on 125.2 (or 135.05 if you were headed East) and tell them your particulars, and they would assign the code. You would then duck your head down inside the plane to dial the code into the transponder. But something changed a couple years ago at KSMO and now the ground controller can get you a code. That’s good. That’s a tiny nudge in the right direction and I am sure that it has resulted in more pilots taking off with a flight following transponder code already dialed in. But you can’t do the same thing at Camarillo, they just tell you to talk to Point Mugu approach. We need another little nudge, one that would work at places like Camarillo and un-towered airports like Santa Ynez and Santa Paula (just over the hill from Camarillo).

What would the nudge look like?


iPhone Screenshot

There are computers behind the ATC operations. I know from talking to pilots of larger planes that some of those computers are capable of assigning squawk codes. So if there were someone inside Information Technology at ATC, they could set up one of those computers to assign a set of codes that were for self-assigned VFR flight following codes. Then you would need a layer between the ATC computers and the VFR pilots. Something that would talk to pilots over their smartphones.

In about an hour I had sketched out an idea and sent it off to Rob Reddig, then controller from SoCal who had given the seminar. That night I didn’t sleep well, but I spent some of my dreams talking to my friend Ilya about the idea and he pointed out some of the problems, how I might set up a demonstration, what portions might get complex. It was great to kick the idea around with Ilya, since he’s so smart, but also because he passed away over a year ago and I don’t get to talk to him as often as I’d like. In the morning I started writing code and by the end of the weekend I had an ugly little demo running on the Heroku infrastructure.

I have already started gathering comments from other pilots and air traffic controllers. I have not found the most important piece, which is someone from the Information Technology side of ATC. Their systems are, in parts, antiquated, but then there are whole divisions working on a project called NextGen, where they are creating the air traffic control system of the future, which will slowly be slid into place while the current one is in operation. That’s like changing a tire while rolling down the highway, so that’s really worth a blog post all on its own. I already fly with a piece of NextGen in my plane (the ADS-B traffic equipment, and I was disappointed to hear that SoCal TRACON doesn’t use ADS-B at all yet.

If you are a pilot or controller, comment away below and I will change the project accordingly. And feel free to push this a little more widely, I even made a tiny url for you to use: http://tinyurl.com/ff-xpdr and I might add a menu item up there at the top for it. Web services like Facebook, Uber, and DoorDash all use a development cycle that is rapid and known as “Agile.” The more often you have someone test the product, report back, and you change the code, the faster you move toward a real and perfect solution.






About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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