Contact: Doug Church, 301-346-8245
WASHINGTON - Hundreds of NATCA members at two dozen facilities within and surrounding Chicago Center (ZAU) airspace are concluding a second full week of continuing to safely and efficiently handle the massive amount of air traffic control responsibilities caused by the Sept. 26 fire at ZAU that destroyed critical communications and other systems.
This effort will continue through the next several days as the FAA works to complete repairs at ZAU.
NATCA members and other FAA employees at affected facilities continued to meet one of the toughest challenges of their careers and execute one of the most memorable and impressive operations in the history of the air traffic control profession.
“It's really nothing short of miraculous,” said Jim Larson, NATCA Facility Representative at Indianapolis Center (ZID). “All of the facilities involved in this project have accomplished things they were never designed to do. It's been the most incredible 10 days of my entire 27-year career. I've never been more proud of my coworkers and my profession.”
Kansas City Center (ZKC) Facility Representative Aaron Merrick added that what is happening at his facility is a “picture perfect example of professionalism in action.”
“From that first day, ZKC controllers worked to get the airspace in the southwest portion of ZAU back up and running, and kept it running efficiently until ZAU controllers arrived,” Merrick said. “With the addition of extra sectors to help reduce the workload, ZKC and ZAU controllers have worked hand in hand to keep the steady flows of traffic moving into and out of O'Hare and Midway.”
ZKC and ZID have been joined by Cleveland Center (ZOB) and Minneapolis Center (ZMP) in the operation as the other centers that border ZAU's airspace. Each of these facilities have helped assume the ZAU airspace responsibilities since Sept. 26, and worked very well with Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities in Cedar Rapids, Champaign, Des Moines, Fort Wayne, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Madison, Milwaukee, Moline, Muskegon, Peoria, Rockford, South Bend, Springfield, and Waterloo. All have played a crucial role in the effort to get traffic moving as a temporary solution while ZAU is down.
Cedar Rapids (CID) is one example where incredible amounts of ingenuity, flexibility, teamwork, and collaboration have been poured into the operation.
“I could not be more proud of my employment as an air traffic controller!” CID Facility Representative Jerry Reichenbach said. “I am working with the most dedicated individuals in my 35-plus year career as a government employee. We here at Cedar Rapids have faced a contingency that we have been briefed on, but never thought in a million years we would ever have to implement.”
In addition, Grissom Air Reserve Base in Kokomo, Ind., and Volk Field in Wisconsin have also contributed greatly to the operation by providing important air traffic control services. ZAU NATCA members Gabriel Torres and Kenneth Evans, who are in the Wisconsin Air National Guard, travelled there to work traffic after ZAU was evacuated. Torres was at ZAU at the time of the fire.
Here is a sampling of some other perspectives on the operation from the FAA Command Center and around the Midwest:
- FAA Air Traffic Control System Command Center: When the fire occurred, FAA employees at the Command Center worked to reestablish communications with ZAU and develop initial operations to ORD and MDW, and then minimal operations into the other airports in ZAU airspace. First up were those that were tower en route to ORD and MDW, then the expanded operations through the underlying terminals, and finally by a successful divestment of the ZAU airspace. They began by developing a minimal route structure, and by day 4 were running flight plans to support a safe, efficient operation at ORD and MDW. In addition, the Command Center has routed traffic in the high altitude structure clear of ZAU airspace and will continue to do so until infrastructure is in place to accommodate these operations.
- Chicago TRACON (C90): There have been 30-32 positions open in the facility to handle the traffic demand, up from the 20-21 open prior to Sept. 26. They are using 18 ZAU controllers each shift to help with the operation, including passing departure and arrival flight plan information to adjacent centers. “The ZAU controllers have been invaluable,” C90 NATCA Facility Representative James Hall said. “Without their help, ORD and MDW would be at a stand still. Throughout the past two weeks we have worked closer to our brothers and sisters at ZAU than ever before. This experience has brought our two facilities closer than any solidarity event ever could.”
- Cleveland Center (ZOB): Operations are mostly going very smoothly. The two departure sectors created when ZOB assumed ZAU airspace are running at near 100 percent capacity. All flight plan information from Chicago TRACON is still being manually coordinated with very little issue. “From the moment this occurred, ZOB controllers have met the many numerous challenges associated with taking a portion of ZAU’s airspace with unprecedented ingenuity and professionalism,” NATCA Facility Representative Drew MacQueen said. “The fact that ORD was the busiest airport in the country within days of the fire may have been astonishing to some, but not to the controllers of ZOB. Anything less would have been unacceptable in their eyes. Mere words cannot express how proud and honored I am to represent the incredible controllers from ZOB. I’m simply in awe of the amazing work they do, day in and day out.”
- Fort Wayne (FWA): A normal day at FWA is roughly 200-250 operations. For the first few days after the fire, those numbers nearly tripled. Since then, ZAU controllers working at Indianapolis Center have taken over the Wolf Lake sector of ZAU above 16,000 feet. But while the traffic lessened a bit, FWA controllers have still received a stream of MDW traffic from the east, and also from the southeast, along with Grand Rapids arrivals, and other traffic in the region. “Everyone, including controllers, supervisors, and tech-ops, have jumped at the opportunity to help one another, and to assist in any way possible,” FWA Local NATCA Vice President Andrew Douglass said. “Also, controllers from bordering facilities (including ZOB, ZID, and South Bend) have been working great with us. Everyone has been doing a great job and we have seen a great team effort from everyone in the facility.”
- Madison (MSN): MSN controllers took over 5,000 feet of ZAU airspace and also have seen a substantial increase in overflight traffic. There are three ZAU controllers at MSN to provide support. “We have been dynamically working with our new neighbor at Minneapolis Center to facilitate O’Hare and Midway arrivals,” MSN NATCA Facility Representative Dan Holland said. “This amazing group of controllers here has stepped forward together, working longer and harder to keep aircraft moving safely around the current inefficiencies.”
- Peoria (PIA): PIA controllers have seen a 140 percent increase in traffic during the ZAU outage. They have kept 3-4 positions open in the TRACON to work that traffic, where normally there is only one position needed. “Throughout this entire ZAU outage, watching how everyone has come together to continue to work the airspace both safely and efficiently is awe-inspiring,” PIA NATCA Facility Representative Matt Dresher said. “All of the adjacent facilities have worked above and beyond to help support each other. The controllers who came from ZAU to aid us are already a part of our local family. They showed up and were ready to help out any way they could. Without their help and support, it would have been a lot more difficult and frustrating to work. This teamwork truly shows how dedicated everyone in this profession is and just makes me proud to be a part of it.”
- Rockford (RFD): The tower cab, in addition to its usual duties of dealing with local traffic, has opened two and sometimes three data positions to deal with writing, passing, and verifying flight plans. These positions write out flight strips and do manual coordination of all traffic entering and exiting our airspace with neighboring facilities, including Madison, Moline, Milwaukee, and Chicago TRACON. “Everyone has been cooperating and pulling together during these abnormal operations to ensure a safe and efficient airspace system.”
- South Bend (SBN): Conditions have improved drastically as of last week, when ZID and ZMP took over O’Hare arrivals from the southeast and northeast, respectively. Prior to that, every aircraft landing in the Chicago area from the east, northeast, and southeast was being routed through SBN airspace, which made the workload there quite challenging. “Every single person in every single facility that underlies ZAU has stepped up in ways I never thought I would ever see in my career,” SBN NATCA Facility Representative Matt Walters said. “I'm truly proud of everyone at my facility and I'm humbled to have the privilege of being their representative.”
For a look at our complete photo album of NATCA members, and other FAA employees at work in the affected facilities the past two weeks, please click HERE.