TAMR: Great Milestone Achieved at D10
Friday, May 10, 2013

The D10 STARS Transition Team. Front Row (L to R): Patrick Crean, Caroline Wessels, Melissa Clevelle, Karen Taylor, Larry Jenkins, Andy Atchley. Middle Row: Gian Burdhimo, Rich Davis, Chuck Davis, Scott Kendrick, Joe Iovanisei, Ken Fraser, Gary Trosper, NATCA's National TAMR Phase 3 Segment 1 Representative Doug Peterson. Back Row: Nick Zuk, Tony Williams, William Butler, Ron Ellis, David Hughes, Phil Willows, Jeff Grace, Kenneth Noll. Photo credit: ATO.

(This article was produced using information reported by both NATCA and FAA Communications)

As the threat of furloughs turned into reality last month, with the added challenges of an already understaffed facility, the entire workforce of controllers, other safety professionals and management at Dallas/Fort Worth TRACON (D10) completed one of the most notable milestones in recent air traffic control modernization history.

Controllers are now using the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) to guide air traffic 24 hours a day.

“It’s nothing short of sensational,” NATCA’s National TAMR Representative Mitch Herrick said. “The men and women of D10 cannot be commended enough for what they did, especially in the face of furloughs and short staffing.”

D10 declared initial operating capability on April 3, and after a series of progressively longer runs handling live traffic and some software and adaptation changes, the decision was made to switch to STARS for full time operations. D10 is now the first large TRACON to begin using STARS as part of Phase 3 of the Terminal Automation Modernization Replacement (TAMR) program. (Phases 1 and 2 brought STARS to 51 TRACONs from 1996 to 2009.)

“Change is hard, but the reaction of the D10 crew and all of our towers has been remarkable,” said NATCA’s National TAMR Phase 3 Segment 1 Representative Doug Peterson. “I feel like the change has been embraced. It's not an easy sell to tell somebody, ‘Make the change, you're gonna love it. Trust me.’ In this case, I think controllers did trust that NATCA was watching out for them and working with the agency to ensure that this was going to work and going to be worth it.”

It’s the latest chapter in the success story that is NATCA-FAA collaboration, Herrick says.

“An amazing two years of planning led to this achievement,” he said. “The effort is a model of teamwork and collaboration. Everyone in the program has been pulling the rope in the same direction. Additionally, the individual performance of the people on site, bringing the system to life and finding the issues and correcting them has been great. The amount of information and lessons learned from Dallas which we can now take to the next site – Northern California TRACON (NCT) – is immeasurable.”

Peterson says there has been excitement in the facility about learning something new and gaining new capabilities. “There are things we had to fix and things we are still tuning up, but I think the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

It’s the culmination of years of work to get ready for the transition from the Common Automated Radar Terminal System automation platform to STARS.

TAMR program manager Jeff Yarnell said getting controllers and Tech Ops technicians involved in the testing process from the beginning assured the program stayed on track.

“Early user involvement was essential,” he said. “We had great participation and feedback in testing at the factory, at a number of test events at the Tech Center, and throughout the installation and testing of the equipment at the facility. The collaborative environment really allowed the system to be developed jointly.”

Deborah Young, program manager for TAMR Phase 3 Segment 1, credits the rapport that developed between D10 and the program office at headquarters for easing the project through many of the hurdles that arose.
“We could not have asked for a better partner than Dallas/Fort Worth for our key site,” she said. “While this partner was in fact many individuals, Gian Burdhimo, our site activation lead, should be recognized for helping to build the bridge that united these partners.”

Curt Batie, the Tech Ops manager for the Dallas/Fort Worth TRACON, was equally impressed by the teamwork.

“I have been an FAA manager for more than 10 years and I’ve participated in a fair number of implementations,” he said. “I have never seen such a high degree of collaboration between Tech Ops and our air traffic counterparts. We are very mutually supportive, and that support made it possible to complete this project without impact to safety or operations.”
The collaboration included efforts from Terminal Services, Technical Operations and the Program Management Organization, and drew on the expertise of members of NATCA and PASS. And the work didn’t just take place at the TRACON. Employees at a dozen towers in the area also put in long hours supporting the transition.

Those efforts and expertise had a big impact, including improving the training that got controllers ready for STARS.

D10’s management put training in the hands of those who know the operation best: controllers. A group of four controllers, three training specialists and one supervisor developed a much more efficient and effective training plan. They created 10 hours of simulator training from what had been dozens of hours of computer-based training.

“Imagine having the most boring guy on TV read you a four-page document,” said Peterson. “Or imagine having someone who works next to you everyday sit next to you at a radar display and show you how to make three or four keystrokes to accomplish a function.”

The training team obviously chose the latter. They set up a PowerPoint presentation in the radar lab and let controllers practice on the simulator what they had just learned from the briefing. Controllers took advantage of the opportunity.

“Controllers never left their [training] positions,” Peterson said. “They kept asking questions, doing entries, setting up pref sets. All the controllers used every minute they had to get a clear understanding.”

A version of the training plan was used at all 12 towers in the Dallas area that switched to STARS as part of the TRACON’s transition. And the plan will be shared with upcoming TAMR sites like NCT and Atlanta TRACON.

The commitment on the D10 project extended to the North Texas Operational Support Facility. They started preparing for STARS three years ago, beginning with supporting a gap analysis to determine what software functionality existed in Common ARTS that needed to be added to STARS. They also helped with operational testing and evaluation at the William J. Hughes Technical Center and Raytheon, and played a key role in the live runs leading up to continuous operations.

Once the software and adaptation arrived in Texas, they began to test it at the facility.

The OSF team worked closely with the controller training team. The controllers would find things that needed to be changed while working with STARS in shadow mode, and the OSF team would adjust the adaptation. One of the most apparent advances of STARS is the displays, which use LCD screens and are crisper and brighter than their cathode ray tube predecessors. The new displays are also easier for Tech Ops technicians to maintain.

Since they are brighter, facilities will be able to adjust their light settings as they would like, Herrick said. Controllers will no longer have to work in near darkness to be able to see their displays.

Aside from the screens, STARS is set up to function much the way CARTS did, allowing controllers who have spent years working on CARTS to use the new automation platform without a major adjustment.

“We want to make [the switch] as transparent as possible to the controllers,” Peterson said. “We want the picture and the key strokes to be as close to identical as possible in STARS as they were in Common ARTS — 95 percent of the keystrokes are going to be the same in STARS, minimizing the front line impact.”

That doesn’t mean the features of STARS won’t be available in Dallas, along with the most-liked features of CARTS.

“Now we have best of both, all the tools from CARTS and all the tools from STARS,” Peterson.

To read more from Peterson about the process to achieve the STARS milestone at D10, please click HERE.