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June 10, 2016 // Facility Spotlight: I90, ZHU, IAH, and HOU Overcome Challenging Weather

For a little over a week, from May 26 through June 3, Texas and the Gulf Coast were pummeled with severe thunderstorms and rain. The entire city of Houston and surrounding areas were saturated. Local controllers were unable to get to work due to flooding. The controllers who could make it had a significantly longer commute time due to road closures. Controllers at Houston Center (ZHU), Houston TRACON (I90), Houston Intercontinental ATCT (IAH), and Houston Hobby ATCT (HOU) displayed the total team effort throughout the storms that is indicative of NATCA members across the country.

“It was the worst weather I’ve seen in nine years working planes in the Houston area,” said I90 Vice President Adam Rhodes.

One of the worst nights during that time period was Friday, May 27. Almost every pilot that entered or left Texas airspace reported severe turbulence. The wind was shifting throughout the night and IAH had to change runways three times in a span of 20 minutes.

“I am constantly amazed by the incredible work our controllers do everyday,” said IAH FacRep Will Hutson. “The challenges we faced during the severe weather events in May were nothing short of extraordinary. The teamwork and “can do” attitudes of all involved truly represents the importance of solidarity. I’ve never been more proud to be part of the NATCA family.”

According to I90 FacRep Clay Matheny, breaks in weather that night were few and far between but, when they did come, the airlines were doing everything they could to get as many aircraft on the ground as quickly and safely as possible. The entire Houston team worked extremely hard to accommodate the demand.

“I90, ZHU, IAH, and HOU all displayed the total team effort that we knew they would when thrust into a situation like this,” said Matheny. “Many times throughout the night, ZHU had aircraft lined up for a hundred miles to bring them into Houston and after I90 took a handful, they were forced to tell ZHU to hold the aircraft because it was unsafe to bring them in with the weather.”

These changes caused a much higher workload on all areas at ZHU as they went into no notice holding on at least five separate occasions. Routinely, controllers were tasked with managing flights with weather diverts, minimum fuel, and in one case, even emergency fuel at the same time.

“Many controllers were even held over that night,” said Matheny. “The holdover time ranged from 15 minutes to two hours.”

Unfortunately, the holdover time wasn’t the end of their night for some. Due to poor road conditions, some had doubled and even tripled commute times back home. Over 70 controllers at ZHU were either called in or held over past their shifts to help carry the load during this period.

“Record flooding in the Houston Area was quite a challenge for residents across the region,” said ZHU FacRep Chris Parris. “Air Traffic Controllers at ZHU, a facility that now has fewer certified professional controllers than we’ve had in over 30 years, not only had the challenge of ensuring their families were high and dry, they also faced the very difficult test of getting to and from work. It was only through the highly professional efforts of our membership, combined with the now routine teamwork from all Houston area facilities, that made this historic weather event as smooth as possible for the flying public.”

Mark Crystal, an XJT pilot and friend of Matheny, said that it was one of the worst nights of weather that he has seen in a long time. Crystal reported moderate, severe, and even extreme turbulence. He recognized I90 controllers for remaining calm and giving the pilots as much information as quickly as they could. His flight eventually was diverted to Austin ATCT but not before he noticed the professionalism and ability of the I90 controllers.

Matheny is extremely proud that I90 controllers, traffic management, operations managers, and front lines showed outstanding resolve to make sure everyone flying into I90 airspace that night made it home safely to their loved ones, saying the amount of coordination, skill, and patience it took that night is immeasurable.

“To be able to do something like what they did that night is very impressive, considering we are a critically staffed facility,” said Matheny. “We start out short most days and May 27 was no different. Everyone working that night should be proud of the work they did, I sure am proud of them.”

Parris added of the impressive efforts put forth by controllers, “It is my distinct honor to represent a group of NATCA members that are the gold standard for air traffic control, even when the most difficult and complex conditions exist.”

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