A Good Website to Learn About ATC History: ‘ATC – 25 Best Years (1958-1983)’

Here’s a suggestion, for those who want to learn more about the evolution of ATC and technologies used in ATC: check out the website by retired air traffic controller Ron Fandrick. Ron’s career started in 1969, and included certifications from Chicago Center to Oakland Center, and some mid-career time spent at FAA Headquarters.

The ATC – 25 Best Years (1958-1983) website is laid out with a set of ‘Albums’. Ron has put a considerable amount of effort into finding and compiling photos, newsclips, and other data relevant to each event in the FAA/ATC timeline, including accidents, technological advances, the introduction of new aircraft, and much more.

The images alone are invaluable in showing how far ATC has evolved from FAA’s inception during the Eisenhower administration, in 1958. 20161130cpy-shrimp-boats-f-atcs-25-best-years-1958-to-1983-album-3-by-r-fandrick20161130cpy-radar-display-presentations-transition-from-horizontal-to-upright-f-atcs-25-best-years-1958-to-1983-album-3-by-r-fandrickBack then, center (aka ‘enroute’ or ARTCC) controllers used a primitive horizontal radar display and pushed flight-ID ‘shrimpboats’ across to ‘track’ flights, all while pinching their head in a visegrip headset trying to hear crackling transmissions through radio static … and they made it work! Since then, the old equipment has been upgraded many times; shrimpboats are now just a distant (and, even somewhat incredible) memory.

Despite the politicized misinformation being pushed today by FAA and industry players, our ATC technology and systems have evolved quite substantially. For example, by 1983, most of the following improvements were made for the radar displays:

  • horizontal presentations became upright (enabling easier coordinate between adjacent ATC positions)
  • secondary targets were added (enhancing the radar, reducing an early problem of target intermittancy)
  • digital datablocks were added (enabling controllers to see the whole picture, without reference to paper strips, and also enabling controllers to add information tags useful in coordinating with adjacent controllers)
  • conflict alert and resolution functionality was added (software automation that increased controller productivity)
  • automated handoff functionality was added (again, substantially reducing controller workload, as the computers eliminated earlier requirements to punch a button and verbally coordinate each flight to the next ATC sector)
  • the radar presentation was digitized, to enable full color display enhancements, mosaicing of data from multiple radar systems (including weather radar), time estimates, separation ‘bubbles’ and lines projecting positions X-minutes ahead, precise background maps, and many other valuable functionalities
20161130cpy-r-d-side-image-with-2col-strip-bay-f-atcs-25-best-years-1958-to-1983-album-13-by-r-fandrick

A typical ATC sector workstation, as it would appear by the early 1990s, staffed by a radar controller (R-side) and Data controller (D-side). The R-side’s left hand works a slew ball (similar to a computer mouse), and his right hand works an alphanumeric keyboard. The D-side manages the paper flight strips and handles landline communications, such as to coordinate with the next ATC sector. The D-side anticipates what the R-side needs done (marking the paper strips, punching buttons to call/coordinate with other sectors, scanning for problems and assist the R-side to resolve them, etc.), and accomplishes those tasks while the R-side focuses on handling all radio communications. Note some strips are ‘cocked’ as a very efficient method for the D-side to help the R-side manage the full picture. Note also the radar presentation includes datablocks showing flight ID, speed, altitude, destination, etc.

Of course, the improvements have continued over the past three decades, too. GPS was incorporated into air navigation in the mid-1990s; satellite communications, including via (text) datalink, has been used for decades now. So, when Bill Shuster, Nick Calio, Paul Rinaldi et al try to sell you on the ‘need’ for NextGen as a ‘transformative’ technology upgrade, well, they’re fibbing. It’s that simple.

Here are two links to help you enjoy this website: