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Message Terminals on Active Duty Since Air Controller Strike Period.

With heavy turbulence the only outlook following the nationwide strike of air controllers on August 3, 1981, Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) officials were forced to find emergency solutions that looked and performed like standard operating procedures. With literally millions of passenger miles flown each day, there is no margin for error.

One of those solutions was found in the brace of message communications terminals dispatched almost immediately to the Jacksonville, Florida, headquarters of the FAA's Central Flow Control facility, which is charged with the regulation of traffic between traffic control regions in the United States.

Prior to the strike, Central Flow Control--now located in Washington, DC--was one of the less-visible arms of the overall air-traffic-control scheme and had a fairly routine schedule of activities, according to John Richardson, manager of the FAA Data Systems Group. The message communications phase of its work was accomplished using 300-word-per-minute dumb data terminals, with message switching performed by the FAA's Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunication Network (AFTN) computer in Kansas City.

AFTN provides communications to all FAA installations. Aeronautical Radio Incorporated (ARINC), a similar type of network owned and operated cooperatively by the air transport industry, passes the same information to airlines and other concerned parties.

As early as 1979, anticipating the possibility of more complex tasks for Central Flow Control, Richardson and his staff had designed and ordered an integrated multi-user microcomputer system with large-scale communications capabilities and on-line mainframe access. As of August 1981, it was still in development and not promised for delivery until early 1984.

But the controllers wouldn't wait. They struck; and the numbers that had to be accomodated by an impromptu workforce were staggering. In all, about 78,00 arrivals or departures had to be handled each day at the nation's controlled airports, with about 22,00 of each focused upon the 22 busiest fields.

The emergency workforce that could be mustered was sufficient to handle only about two-thirds of the traffic. Immediately, flights were curtailed by 35 percent as the FAA struggled to keep the remaining flights close to schedule.

Appraising the situation, officials quickly determined that only one unit the complex agency had the methodology and experience to take on the job of coordinating movement of the 4,000-plane commercial and 210,000-plane general-aviation fleets, as well as armed forces aircraft. It was Central Flow Control, the little unit down in Florida that monitored the effects of the weather and unusual localized events like Super Bowl Football on air transportation scheduling.

Central Flow Control--known familiarly as CF.sup.2.--regulates traffic on a basis of the maximum number of arriving aircraft that can be handled by the various flight-termination points within each region. If the amount of traffic scheduled to arrive at a given airport during a given period of time exceeds its capacity to land the planes, Central Flow Control makes decisions to delay departures at certain fields, how long to delay them and how long to keep the delays in effect. Became Functional Hub

With the onset of the strike, Central Flow Control's role was suddenly changed. From a low key, largely administrative center, the unit now became the functional hub of the entire air-traffic-control system with extraordinarily complex duties that could be carried out only by using the excellent system that, fortunately, had already been devised.

Communications, the key to the system's execution, was the only weak link. An immediate upgrade was required, so that at no time would movement of message traffic from Central Flow Control to single, multiple and even total network destinations be interrupted. CF.sup.2. needed equipment that could function as fast or faster than a person could operate it; that had the capability to store forms and data for immediate-call-up and reprocessing into new messages; that would permit two or more people to work simultaneously; and that would permit many functions to be performed concurrently.

Richardson conferred with the Program and Plans Group, the engineering group within FAA responsible for evaluation and acquisition of equipment. As he described his requirements, a picture emerged that exactly matched a new message communications device that had been described not long before in a presentation by Sidereal Corporation. It was the Micronet 8, a multi-port message communications terminal that accommodated up to eight communications lines, could have up to three workstations and was multifunctional; that is, messages c in be created, edited, transmitted/received, stored and distributed concurrently.

It had 256K bytes of random access memory (RAM) and featured five megabytes of Winchester disk storage, along with 1.2 megabytes of floppy disk storage. The 6.2-megabyte total archival storage was enough space to store up to 2,500 400-word pages--more than adequate to hold the expected deluge of messages for as long as they would be required: minimally, 15 days.

Perhaps most importantly in the short term, it was an easy-to-use, menu-driven system that would allow operators to become proficient quickly, with minimum training. There was no time for education.

Richardson quickly perceived that he had the right solution. Within days, the two Micronet 8 terminals, each with an auxiliary workstation, were on location in Jacksonville.

A Sidreal service representative was on the scene to instruct operator personnel, some of whom had systems experience. Almost immediately, the equipment was in service and continuously accepting more of the load. Within a week, all of the message traffic required by Central Flow Control to communicate with the whole complex air-traffic-control network was being accommodated by the two terminals.

As operators became familiar with the new equipment, they discovered time and labor-saving capabilities beyond those they initially were trained to use.

For example, they developed a variety of specialized forms that could be stored as blanks, loaded with information and preserved as completed documents or complete messages. These could be recalled, updated and edited quickly and simply.

"Each time we originated something like this, we enlarged upon our ability to communicate with the regional centers," according to Mike Ego, one of the Cental Flow Control Center's air-traffic-control specialists. "As we were able to do this, it enhanced the efficiency of the entire network and, in no small way, it helped to speed the return of the country's air transportation industry to more normal conditions."

"The Micronet 8 more than replaced our several dumb terminals," Richardson says. "In fact, it was as important as the central computer. As we were able to format and store messages and formats, we were able to upgrade our efficiency dramatically. Formerly, we normally had to type each message from scratch. This procedure obviously would not work in the kind of high-volume emergency situation we faced. The various administrative and legal requirements necessary to cover the agency and the government in this critical period called for a large amount of mass storage, and the Micronet 8s accommodated this need very nicely." Air-Space Regulation

Central Flow Control recently organized a unit whose primary task will be to regulate air-space separation between civilian and military aircraft domestically and to assist counterparts in Canada and Europe with corresponding operations. As the message communications equipment for the new unit, the Micronet 8 terminals are in a secure room, with special rules and operating procedures devised for their new role.

The terminals have proved themselves," Richardson says, " and they are perfect for this new assignment because of their code, speed and protocol conversion capabilities."

This is critical, Richardson continues, because this function requires computer input/output as well as the ability to communicate over Autodin, the highspeed secure military telecommunications network. Only three of the Micronet 8 terminals' available ports are assigned, to begin with. These are to a VAX 11/780 computer, to AFTN and to Autodin.

"Without a doubt, the message terminals were a significant part of the reason the Federal Aviation Agency was able to keep air transportation functioning at a reasonable and continuously improving level following the air controllers' walkout," Richardson says. "They will continue to be an important part of the overall air-traffic-control system because we know that not only can we rely upon them to perform extremely well under demanding circumstances, but also there is plenty of capability remaining for us to use as requirements increase."
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Publication:Communications News
Date:Dec 1, 1984
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