Discombobulation (n., U.): the fact of being made to feel confused or uncomfortable by something.

Hello dear readers,

I hope you’ve had a pleasant week on the ground, in the air, or behind a control position. As a matter of fact, I would like to share with you another short story of that happened back in my days as an air traffic controller.

You know, airport operations and aviation is general goes a long way further than just the work done between pilots and air traffic controllers, and I think it is about time we shed some light on the too-little known other major actors of flight safety, like ATS Engineering personnel, AIM, and also meteorological personnel, who, all in their respective jobs, play an indispensable role in our everyday life.

Have you ever flown at an airport where low-visibility operations were used? Pilots may also know it as AWOPS for all-weather operations, and basically it refers to those times where weather is so poor that even IFR flights are hampered in their operations.

Until quite a few years ago, landing in IMC was still conditioned to weather minima, as the electronic aids brought up an assistance to pilots that had its limitations. Generally speaking, what is now referred to as category I operations limited the use of an instrument approach to a minimum visibility of 550 metres, and imposed a decision height (DH) of 200 feet. And we all know that sometimes, the weather just doesn’t want to participate, and the conditions are so bad that no flight would be possible.

So, research was done, engineering developed gradually more accurate navigation aids so that we are lucky enough today to be able to accommodate CAT III-C landings with 0 visibility and no decision height. But there are still operational conditions to that.

Back in the day, low-visibility operations (when RVR dropped below 550 metres or ceiling below 200 feet) had to be “prepared” by the airport authority, to put all safeguards in place before we could allow aircraft to attempt landings in CAT III operations. Notably, there was a whole geographical area on the airport that had to be sealed off by fences and chains to avoid that persons or vehicles would approach the runway without being seen, and also that the area around the antennas of the instrument landing systems were off-limits to ensure interference-free operations. On top of that, the self-service fuel pump had to be switched off, GA hangars locked and all vehicles of the airport authority and airside operators had to be accounted for to make sure nobody was, to put it simply, lost in the fog.

All in all, starting low visibility operations required a preparation that lasted between 20 and 35 minutes, as checklists had to be followed, tests had to be carried out on the equipment and only then could operations resume.

Of course, all involved personnel were thoroughly trained, and whenever we would see that the weather was deteriorating, we would all literally hang on the edge of our seats, waiting for the call from the meteorological office that they were forecasting low visibility weather.

But then, meteorology is of course an inexact science. And believe you me when I tell you that being a meteorologist can be a very tough and thankless job. Basically, making very educated forecast extrapolating on data earns them no thanks when they are right and a storm of criticism when, for reasons beyond their control, things turn out differently.

On that particular day, from the control tower, we saw that low clouds were rolling in from the west, despite the weather forecast which still gave us a visibility of 2000 metres and ceiling at 700 feet, and I placed a call to our colleague at the weather office just two floors below us. In spite of what we all saw through the window, the meteorologist looked again at all his numbers and confirmed that even though the ceiling may come down by a few feet, low visibility procedures were, according to his data, completely out of the question for at least another two hours.

It actually took 12 minutes before he called us back, devastated and completely dumbfounded. Instead of 2000 metres of visibility and 700 feet of ceiling, we were down to 225 metres and 150 feet respectively. Actually way, way below the values that would trigger the installation of the safeguards for LVO.

It went from a quiet and dull Tuesday afternoon to a complete pandemonium within seconds, with the airport authority scrambling all available hands to respond as quickly as possible. The problem was that until all safeguards were installed, equipment checked and checklists completed, nobody could land or take off. 3 commercial aircraft were about to get into the holding, and we didn’t know either how much endurance they had to wait for LVO to start, nor how long it would take to be up and running again.

I cannot help but think how hard, lonely and, let’s face it, terrible, it must have been for our weatherman, who had done the best job he could with the data he had, and yet found himself having produced a completely wrong forecast nonetheless.

I know it is easy to say afterwards, and also that the passengers who had to be kept waiting, or even had to divert probably will have had a harder time excusing the mishap, but dear friends, when go fly, or when you take up your ATC shift, please keep in mind that all the teams who strive to provide you with the best service are working hard, and that they also have difficult jobs. Let us not forget all the times when a weather(wo)man gave you a forecast that was brilliant and accurate to the minute.

We are all working as a team here. When something goes wrong, it’s not the fault of one person. We all succeed as one, and we must also fight as one and rise up to the challenge together when things are set on not going our way.

Have a nice week, and see you next Sunday, dear friends. Stay safe, and bring a chocolate to your weather office some time. They deserve it.