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7/6/2004

Aviation program takes flight

July 6, 2004 Tuesday

The Deseret News Publishing Co.
Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)

BYLINE: Stephen Speckman Deseret Morning News

At 11:45 a.m. on Friday, June 25, there were 5,181 planes in the airspace over the United States.

It can be an intimidating number if you're learning for the first time about how air traffic controllers fit into this picture, colored in confusing splotches of pink, yellow and blue on a computer screen in a dim room at Salt Lake City International Airport.

It was the first time a group of high school students had seen the inside of the airport's Air Route Traffic Control Center.

About 28 students from all over Utah were taking part in the Utah Aviation Career Education (ACE) Academy, sponsored by Salt Lake Community College and Westminster College.

For many students, the big payoff at the end of the five-day camp was a chance to fly a plane alongside a licensed pilot.

Kyle Little, 14, and his friend Chris Ellsworth, 15, came from Cedar City for the camp. Ellsworth said he likes speed when it comes to airplanes and is thinking of joining the Air Force. Little likes "everything" about airplanes and wants to fly for a commercial airliner. Both can't wait to get in the air.

First, they'd have to learn about who, besides the pilot, gets a plane from point A to B.

Since the events of 9/11, the June visit to the airport's control center -- not to be confused with the more visible tower -- was considered a rare glimpse into the now more secretive world of air traffic controllers.

Students needed approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, and they were each searched by an officer with a gun and a metal detector before being allowed entry into an unassuming brick and metal building within earshot of the roar of traffic on I-215.

Once inside the control center, students learned that out of all those planes, 164 aircraft would be landing just at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago within a few hours.

Getting those planes to their destinations safely depends in large part upon controllers coordinating air traffic within the flight paths of those planes.

Controllers these days use a combination of high-tech equipment and computers and the old reliable paper "strip" system, which consists of small rectangular pieces of paper that contain information about a plane's speed, carrier name, flight number, altitude and other vital facts. The strip system that is commonly used throughout the industry will be converted to electronic data on screens at the Salt Lake City control center starting around September.

In a room filled with simulators, students got a chance to experience what it's like to be a controller. Some rose to the challenge, others created havoc in their pretend skies.

"You pushing the foot pedal?" Andy McClunie asks a student. McClunie is the ACE coordinator for the FAA -- and he talks fast. "OK, try it again. . . . We've got to keep a record of everything. . . . It worked, see?"

The student McClunie is talking to is Jason Cheney, 16, from Lehi High School. Cheney picks up on the lingo and how to use the controls right away.

"Oh, I've got to pick him up," Cheney says to McClunie while looking at "data blocks" on his scope.

The scope is an oversize monitor filled with diagonal lines going every which way and blocks of numbers and letters representing planes. It's exactly what grown men and women look at every day as they guide real planes filled with real people through the air.

"I don't want to lower him now," Cheney says to McClunie. Then into his headset Cheney replies to a simulated pilot sitting behind him, "SkyWest, two, five, one, Salt Lake center, roger."

It's Cheney's job for a few minutes to make sure that each of about 10 planes on his screen maintain a five-mile bubble of clear airspace around themselves. FAA regulations also require 1,000 feet -- or 2,000 feet if planes are flying above 29,000 feet -- of clear vertical air space between planes.

In another small room at the control center, students would learn that Robert Fairchild handled 35 planes at once when he was a controller.

Students are told that if those air space bubbles are penetrated in real life, there would be an FAA investigation into the cause. It happens on average about six times a year at the Salt Lake location, one of about 20 such larger control centers around the country.

A flashing data block is cause for alarm, which means a student needs to tell one or more pilots what to do in a language foreign to most. A few students encounter five or six flashing blocks at once, making for some unfriendly skies.

One student admits, "I just don't get it."

What students do get for their $150 entry fee into the academy is a week's worth of instruction, advice and close-up peeks into a world they had previously admired from a distance.

Not everyone, though, can afford the cost of entry.

"If I believe they have a sincere interest, I'll find a way to get them in," McClunie says.

He's trying to make the ACE camp an annual event. Before last year, the last ACE camp was 1994. Last year 19 students showed up.

As Holly McWilliams, 16, finishes her turn directing planes, an instructor tells her she sounds like a "pro" and asks how she liked being a controller.

"Not very much," the Granger High student replies. "I don't think I'll be an air traffic controller." That's despite hearing that some eventually make more than $100,000 a year.

At about the same time McWilliams writes off being a controller, you can hear McClunie telling a student, "Those two are about to crash, but that's OK, we're going to fix that."

A few students take a dip in the "pressure cooker" of separating aircraft that a few instructors promised in advance.

It's just the kind of experience SLCC camp counselor Sheila Humphries hopes students will have.

"We're just trying to explore all the ways they can use aviation in their lives," Humphries says.

Cheney tells FAA instructor Jimmy Mancuso how much fun he had and that being a controller was like playing a video game.

"You got to figure there's people aboard," Mancuso tells Cheney.

In another part of the room, Ellsworth and Little are side by side, impressing Keith Buys, another instructor who trains controllers. Buys listens to Ellsworth give commands to a pilot.

"You gave two at once -- that was cool," Buys says, giving two thumbs up behind Ellsworth's back.

"November four, seven, zero," Ellsworth pauses, then stares at his scope. "Now what do I say?" E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com