Chasing NORDO Tails

I just had my monthly refresher training, which usually consists of computer lessons.

The latest refresher training included how to contact the Domestic Events Network (DEN), including the phone number and a recording of the format to be used in a call to the DEN.

To reiterate, the DEN involves an ongoing conference call that includes the FAA and military representatives, that is supposed to track and react to developing aviation situations/incidents, such as Northwest 188, that went out of contact with air traffic controllers (NORDO) for over an hour last October enroute to Minneapolis.

If needed the military can scramble jet fighters to intercept such flights.  (In the case of Northwest 188, exactly what the fighters would have done if they would have intercepted the wayward airliner is anyone’s guess.)

Only in the case of Northwest 188, a few managers decided they were too busy to make the calls they were required to make as per procedure, and the notice to the DEN that the flight was not in contact with air traffic controllers was delayed significantly.  By the time the DEN was notified, it was too late to intercept the flight prior to it overflying the Twin Cities.

The news repeatedly stated “air traffic controllers” failed to notify the DEN, but it was in fact air traffic control managers that failed to make that call in a timely manner, an issue I tried to make clear previously.

Because of that the suspicious airliner was allowed to proceed unfettered towards a major metropolitan area, something that wasn’t supposed to be allowed to happen post 9/11.  As luck would have it , it turned out to be merely due to an extremely distracted flight crew.

After the event the military made it clear that the fighter jets didn’t get airborne because of the FAA’s delay in notification via the DEN.

So the FAA reacted by briefing all its controllers, over and over again, of the significance of NORDO aircraft and the importance and methods of contacting the DEN, even though contacting the DEN isn’t something a controller would ever do (or for that matter, even has the ability to do while working)!

Notification of the DEN is (supposed to be) done by an FAA manager.  Period.

But at last count my refresher training was at least the fourth briefing we’ve gotten as controllers on NORDO procedures and how how important it is to contact the DEN in a timely manner, even though it was managers were responsible for the greater part of the delay in notifying the DEN.

Delays in realizing the aircraft were NORDO by controllers were due at least in part to the fact that the FAA currently has no mandated procedures for indicating whether an aircraft is on frequency.

As I wrote about here, when the FAA deployed URET (User Request Evaluation Tool) at the enroute centers, they eliminated the paper flight strips that controllers used to write on to tell whether or not an aircraft was on frequency.

In the course of “upgrading” air traffic systems, they failed to replicate basic functionality in the new equipment.

That’s been a known issue ever since URET went into use.

That means one of two things:  either the FAA didn’t care to replicate that function, or it was an oversight and they inadvertently eliminated it.

Ultimately however, what our managers haven’t figured out is that despite the fact that air traffic controllers don’t have a method of telling which aircraft are on frequency, the problem with flights like Northwest 188 isn’t something the FAA is going to be able to fix.

Situations where the flight crews are so distracted and so far “out of the loop” that they can fly over the continental U.S. for long periods of time, without realizing or caring about having a single radio transmission to or from air traffic control, are simply an anomaly.

No procedure the FAA is going to come up with is going to address that problem.

So the FAA is now foolishly chasing its own tail in trying to create a solution for a problem they’ll be unable to solve.

If they intentionally eliminated the ability to ascertain whether an aircraft was on frequency with URET, then it shouldn’t be a problem now either, regardless of the fact that NORDO events have made the headlines.

Since ERAM (a replacement radar display system for the enroute centers they’re testing now) doesn’t have the means to indicate whether an aircraft is on frequency either, we can only assume the omission from both it and URET was intentional, which means the FAA didn’t think controllers needed it at all.

But now it looks like the FAA may be changing their minds, which in turns means another “workaround” is bound to come soon for controllers.


  1. From what I hear, HQ is thinking of mandating that center controllers click the box on the left side of the URET screen when an aircraft checks on. While I don’t fundamentally have a problem with that (since it basically mirrors what we did with strips), I do have a problem with mandating what in essence is basically a technique. Our facility mandates only checking the box when a D-side is staffed. The R-side by themselves don’t have to do it. It’ll work fine when its slow. But add workload, weather, bad rides, low altitude sequencing, VFRs, etc. into the mix, and it, like strips, will be summarily abandoned. Then management, in their all-knowing performance management abandoning unless its to their advantage knee jerk reaction brain, will try to claim its a performance issue.

  2. We’re being told by supervisors that HQ is going to let facilities solve this problem themselves (that way HQ doesn’t have to make a decision).

    The problem is that there is no existing efficient method available (since paper flight strips) whereby the sector team can share responsibility for indicating when aircraft check on.

    Do any other centers currently have mandated policies for indicating which aircraft are on frequency?

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