I recently got the privilege to go on a tour of the Ft. Worth Center facility. It was with our annual fly in group with Texas Top Aviation. The event was in Dallas, which made it very easy to get to the Ft. Worth Center facility by the DFW Airport.
Pulling into the parking lot and looking at the building, you would never guess that it housed enough man-power and frequency band to cover 4,000 square miles of airspace. It’s a very un-assuming building that hasn’t had an exterior facelift since it was built in the ‘50s or ‘60s. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure there was a sign outside the fence designating what it was. Only a guard shack and a fence around it making known the importance of the building.
Our tour started off with a very in-depth and interesting briefing from two Center controllers. It was highly educational to get insight from the other side of the microphone. I learned a lot and even picked up some new habits that I will be implementing in my every day flying (a few tips below).
After all of our questions were exhausted and the presentation was complete, we were guided into the center (no pun intended) of it all, the Control Room. It’s a massive room with 7 different pods filled with people staring at radar screens covering the airspace that stretches from the Texas/New Mexico border in the west, to Little Rock in the east, Waco in the South up to Oklahoma City in the north.
Each pod is a designated sector of airspace, split up into high, mid and low level sections. The controllers stay in their designated sectors on their different shifts, but shift around between the different levels. Each level in the sector has it’s own frequency and radar screen.
An ARTCC (Air Route Traffic Control Center) owns literally all the airspace from the surface up to above FL500. The Center then makes agreements with Approach controls and tower controls to allow the TRACON or Tower to utilize a piece of the Center’s airspace. When a tower or approach closes or goes down for some reason, the Center takes over
Watching controllers in action was pretty impressive. Man, can they type fast! In addition to the radar screen, there is another monitor next to it showing tail numbers (or callsigns) and the flight plans, then on the other side there is a massive tablet where the controller can type pretty much anything in to get information about a route, a call sign, a type of airplane, or anything else they need. It was very impressive.
We all got to buddy up with a controller and plug in to the frequency of that sector and level. I was in the Midland High sector, which is centered on the KMAF airport in Texas and stretches over to Hobbs, NM in the west, almost to Waco in the east, down to Mexico and up to the Panhandle, all above FL240. The controller told me it was pretty quiet and he only had 15 airplanes in his sector. That didn’t sound quiet to me!
A Japan Air flight came through going from Florida to Tokyo. Several Southwest and American flights passed through while I was watching, in addition to a bunch of private jets and turboprops (not many single engine pistons at FL240!). I learned that the pause you hear sometimes on the radio when you first check in is the controller trying to find you on the radar scope. When they tell you to IDENT, that makes the process quicker.
As a pilot, if you get the chance to tour a Center facility, do it. You learn a lot, get to see what is going on in the Control Room, and you get a newfound respect for the profession of an Air Traffic Controller.
Some tips from the Controllers:
- Always get flight following, whether it is for 3 minutes to say hi or for a 3 hour flight. If Center sounds busy when you are trying to get your flight following, it may be because of you!
- ADS-B traffic should not be substituted for radar flight following. Don’t try to be your own controller. However, if you see traffic close to your airplane on ADS-B and ATC hasn’t said anything about it, definitely ask.
- When filing an IFR flight plan, put your cell phone number in the Remarks section. Center doesn’t see your phone number when you file, so this gives them a way to text or call you if you have a radio failure
- The Center has no better than Nexrad weather radar which has the same delay that XM weather does (8-12 minutes old)
- Don’t fly through MOA’s VFR. You could cause the military to scratch their whole day’s mission
- Don’t hesitate to declare an emergency
- There is always a really good reason for re-routes, whether it be a traffic conflict, weather or something else
- Monitor 121.5, Guard, because Center might not be able to hear an ELT
- Report everything: ice, turbulence, even fires on the ground
- Canceling IFR in the air is helpful for ATC as it frees up the airspace around your destination airport, but it does cancel all search and rescue services too. If you are concerned, cancel on the ground even though it is less convenient. To expedite, always ask ATC if they have a frequency on the ground you can reach them over.