Air Traffic Control Computers

or "The Oddball History of U.S. Air Traffic Automation"

Ever wonder what kind of computers are used in the world of Air Traffic Control? or what services do computers provide?
Allow me to inform you about Air Traffic Control automation in the United States, it's unusual history and software design

Connecticut Power and Light and the FAA??

In about 1965 U.S. Air Traffic Control (ATC) systems began to be automated. This is of interest to me because I worked in the Air Traffic Control (ATC) automation field for 25+ years. All of of my professional work as a computer specialist/programmer was on these machines. Before I became an "Automation Specialist" I was an air traffic controller. The way I and others like me became programmers is what makes this story interesting. When ATC computers first came on-line, the FAA decided to actually train some air traffic controllers to be "Automation Specialists" Principally the job was about maintaining the database of an Air Traffic Control system. Each FAA automated system is unique in terms of it's radar scopes which are uniquely identified in the software, keyboards which associated with radar scopes and who have their own flight plan assignments that may change depending on runway in use, time of day such as mid-night shift, and traffic load. Then there are secondary airports which have their own unique adaptation. The topology of the geographic area has to be kept up to date. Any of these things may need to be changed based on decisions of Air Traffic administrators. The Automation Specialist's job was to encode any requested changes into binary, the to octal or hex (depending on the system), figure out which address(es) in memory to to change, make the change permanent on tape or disk (depending on the system) and implement the change. So you may wonder Why would the FAA use a controller to do this kind of work?
The FAA based their decision on research that was done by the Connecticut Power and Light Company (to the best of my memory that's the name of the company but it could have been just Connecticut Power or something similar) about how best to maintain software. The question that they were trying to answer was "is it best to train a programmer to understand the power business or train a person who already knows the power business to become a programmer? Their conclusion? After a scientific study was done on this subject it was determined that it is better to train an expert the field than to train a programmer to become an expert in some new discipline. The FAA bought into this idea and launched an effort to train Air Traffic Controllers how to maintain the database and even write software for ATC automation. These are the "cowboys" I refer to, that is, a bunch of non-technical controllers were to be employed in maintaining the database at their local facility. When the initial hiring was done in the late 1960's through the 1980's it was a requirement that all automation specialists had to be have been certified as Radar Controllers in order to qualify for the posistion. This is because they understood the nuances and subtleties of Air Traffic.

Let me first explain a little about the system in the U.S.
See Part 2 Structure of ATC system

Alone in a sea of non-programmers
Home ATC Automation Part 1 ATC Automation Part 2 ATC Automation Part 3 Scatter Scatter Part 4 Radar Handoff - part 5 The Tower Controller