EATNN TTUNA SNWCH - hold (at) MAYYO: More on the Secret Language of the Skies

"The approach fixes, in order, are TRAMP, FLOZY, SILKY, and JAKOR. I'm sensing a pattern here but would love to know the back story."
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Recently Deb Fallows, aviation veteran and linguist, did a popular item about the strange and whimsical patterns of naming aviation waypoints, plus other aspects of flying-speak. She has gotten a lot of interesting response about why the system works the way it does, and she will follow up soon on some linguistic aspects she's learned about. For now, she has asked me to handle the messages that address the "National Airspace System" itself, so here goes.


Mustang Ranch

Your call for interesting waypoint names brought back memories of flying out of Mather AFB near Sacramento, CA.  Crews from the surrounding AFBs of McClellan, Travis, and Beale would construct “training” missions dialing in the MUSTNG VORTAC for recreation at the eponymously-named Ranch of ill repute.  Then times changed and it was given the less-controversial nomenclature of RENO which it bears today.  While you’re in the area It is worth checking out some locally-flavored waypoints such as PYGOW and BLKJK.

 

Hold the mayo (as shown above)

I always enjoy the inventiveness that folks at the FAA are able to use in making up instrument waypoints. My favorite is the RNAV (GPS) approach to runway 1 at NPA [Pensacola] - omitting the [several waypoints], we get:

EATNN TTUNA SNWCH - hold (at) MAYYO.


Nathaniel Hawthorne, Andy Griffith 

Consider: WITCH and WAXEN in the vicinity of Salem, MA.

Last year I was enroute from White Plains to an airport outside of Atlanta, and happened to pass by Mt. Airy NC.  Being somewhat bored at the time, I pulled up the approach charts and was thrilled to see the Andy of Mayberry cast of characters immortalized there:  ANTBE, OPBEH, BOMRR, OTISE, ANDEI, TALRR, FIFEE, BRNEE, etc. 


Take that, LeBron

I wanted to point out one intersection over here in Cleveland that has fallen on hard times. "LEBRN" was named after LeBron James, the superstar Cleveland Cavalier who left abruptly for the Heat in 2010 among much local angst.  I have been told - somewhat tongue in cheek - that local controllers started pronouncing it "Layburn" shortly after he left.


There must be a back story 

As I understand it, these are chosen by the local air route traffic control center (ARTCC) in collaboration with the "big FAA" folks who design approaches, SIDs, and STARs. For example, I remember (but couldn't find a citation) that the local folks named the BAXTR intersection near Beaumont, TX after Gordon Baxter, the well-known columnist for Flying magazine and long-time Texas radio personality. 

My favorite is the ILS 36R to Orlando (MCO). The approach fixes, in order, are TRAMP, FLOZY, SILKY, and JAKOR. I'm sensing a pattern here but would love to know the back story.


Say again

I chuckled when I saw the discussion of "say again" in Deb's latest post. I'm not a pilot, but back in 1981-82, when I was barely a year out of law school, I worked at the firm that represented PATCO during the air traffic controllers strike, and in the aftermath of the strike we represented lots of fired controllers in their appeals. As a result, I spent a lot of time talking to controllers, and I picked up the "say again" habit, which I still have more than 30 years later. 


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How the system works. These last two messages go into the details of how the FAA comes up with the names. 

I am a controller at Chicago Approach Control.  I've been here for 23 years and the number of way-points in our airspace has increased by an order of magnitude over the last few years.  With the increase in the use of GPS approaches the trend will continue. 

I don't know your history in aviation but I'll try to explain the history of aviation navigation and waypoint naming.

You mention the VORs and they were the bedrock of the navigation system for decades.  [VOR stands for VHF Omnidirectional Range; you can learn more here.] We still use them although they are mostly used for non GPS aircraft, instrument approaches, and pilot training.... The airways all had intersections on them with the 5 letter names although they weren't as creative in the naming back when they were designed.

Many of the names were created when the original STARS [more here] were designed years ago.  You mentioned BEARZ and KUBBS.  They have been here longer than I have and they are each about 40 miles from O'hare, KUBBS to the northeast and BEARZ to the southeast near Gary.... 

When the RNAV and GPS approaches [landing procedures based on GPS signals rather than radio beams] were first designed about 10 years ago the FAA had a computer generate the names used for the fixes.  This was an unmitigated disaster and many of the the names were unpronounceable....

Because of the computer generated name disaster in the GPS approaches, the local Procedures staff were allowed to name these way-points and they got creative in doing so.  They had certain rules to follow such as no duplicates nationwide, 5 letters, nothing considered offensive, etc...

Some are named for places they are near:  PLANO is near Plano, IL,  FARMM is over or near Harvard, lots of farms out there.  NUELG, near Elgin, NAPER is near Naperville, etc.  Look at a terminal airspace chart to see them. 

There are many named for retired controllers.  Most of these are fixes on the ILS approaches into ORD.  Just to name a few:  GRABL, MISCH, CHSTR, FNUCH.

SIMMN intersection west of Dekalb, IL is named for Senator Paul Simon, a great champion of aviation. 

We have the following STARS into ORD:  ROYKO, PATON, ESSPO, BULLS.  Can you guess who they are named for?

We will be getting some interesting fixes early in 2014.. A number of them will be named for local football, baseball and hockey players.  These are new GPS approaches into MDW.  I remember seeing CUTLR and DITKA....

And after the jump, one more detailed explanation.


On the PUDYE TTATT sequence

Read your article with amusement. The PSM [Portsmouth, New Hampshire, site of the PUDYE TTATT approach] intersections are well known, but they are a typographical artifact only--they would never be said in sequence. They are solely for the amusement of staff specialists and aviation writers.

The key phrase is "staff specialists". In each facility (well, enroute, because that's where my expertise lies) there are specialists in the "Airspace & Procedures" office, which also have regional office and headquarters oversight. The specialists, under the very general supervision of the facility A & P Officer, do all the foundational work necessary for charting and procedures development unique to that facility.

The specialists are controllers--some there as part of their resume development, some as temporary assignees due to anomalies in their certifications (usually medical--we had a couple of full-time specialist who were there in the days when Type II diabetes was a medical disqualifier for direct ATC duties). They clearly aren't necessarily humorless.

A little history, ALL fix names (except naval bases) were initially derived from nearby geographical features, including place names. Some are obvious (MIA, ORL, BOS, CLE, DAL, etc.) and some are not so obvious (MBS, ABE, TRI, see below). Where two airways cross and in lots of places where they don't, the intersections/fixes were also named for something nearby, and in the old days were pretty much spelled out... Many of those intersections had three character (and later four) identifiers which we old manual flight data people used to speed strip preparation. 

When ATC automation got geared up, and then doubled down by RNAV [GPS] systems (with their "waypoints"), the 1 number, two letter intersection identifier system became unwieldy. As an automation guy yourself, you'll understand the requirement. What was needed was a standard, probably alpha only, and a constant number of places. Five was the answer, which is why we now have all those unpronouncable, or at least, difficult to read fixes.

Knowing several of the specialists at ZAU [air-traffic control center near Chicago], I tried for years to get LRODD adopted somewhere in the area [based on this reader's name] but I had poisoned a lot of wells, and it was never possible...

Regarding "November": yes, our ATP (Air Traffic Procedures, FAAH 7110.65x) specifies using that as the U.S. prefix for GA callsigns, but we're also given the option of using the aircraft type instead. My experience was that generally, the use of "November" is most common among non-pilot controllers, while controllers who are pilots (and aviation industry savvy) are more likely to use the aircraft type...

To this day, and I've been retired for 16 years, I am incapable of writing, even to non-aviation people, without using three letter identifiers as place names. Cruel, but in those cases, most of them are pretty obvious (see MIA, BOS, CLE...).

 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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