Behind the scenes at the FAA

Mr. Roland Nunez casually arrives at the FAA security pavilion, with maybe his second coffee of the day in hand (he’s been at his post since just before 5 AM), to check me into the local Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) and Center Weather Service Unit (CWSU) here in Houston, TX. For one, I am working to make my connections to learn more about how weather impacts domestic and global aviation operations; Mr. Nunez has agreed to give me an exclusive view inside one of the FAA’s 22 ARTCC facilities nation-wide. Apologies for the lack of photographic proof here, but the ARTCC is secured, dimly lit and teeming with action in response to thousands of aircraft moving to and fro across U.S. airspace; it’s near impossible to focus on any one monitor for more than a few seconds once inside.

Did I mention Mr. Nunez’s “casual” demeanor? Not casual in the sense of ambivalence, but rather a mien that seems to say, “I’ve been providing weather decision support to Air Force interests and through my work as a specialist in the U.S. National Weather Service since the 1980’s”. Roland is a professional and he has briefed his top FAA collaborators hours ago on potential for local terminals to be “socked in” by low cloud decks in the next 1-2 days. He is attentive to my every question as we stray between aircraft metering screens that resemble The Matrix and computer servers that run from floor to ceiling (high ceilings, to be sure) in an otherwise windowless arena. I’m mostly wondering, what the heck is going on in here?!

If you have ever taken time to consider the sheer volume of business, private, commercial and general aviation flights that happen daily or notice that a plane arrives or departs roughly every 3 minutes at your local airport, you’ll appreciate that the 22 ARTCC facilities have their hands full. It is Roland’s job to keep air traffic controllers abreast of developing clouds, precipitation (read, ICE), and in the extreme case, intense thunderstorms as they may impinge on primary or secondary air traffic routes and airports. He is keenly aware of geographical and meteorological variations that exist across his domain extending from Big Bend, to just shy of Waco, on to almost Mobile, on down into the Gulf and back around to Old Mex. Explosive springtime severe-weather scenarios and juicy, tropical airmasses surely conspire to wreak havoc on efficient aviation practice here, but not on Mr. Nunez’s watch. He’s the Meteorologist-in-Charge at the Houston CWSU and his main goal at this post is to ensure that planes and the people they carry get to where they need to go.

We chat briefly about his tenure at the CWSU as he inputs the latest pilot reports (PIREPs) into the system for all stakeholders to have at their operational disposal. A flashing red banner pops up at a screen directly at our six and the conversation shifts to stacked air traffic route patterns with even or odd flight altitudes depending on travel east or west. Roland then quickly discounts possibilities of considerable low-level wind shear in the next 24 hours over Houston, seemingly as if he is on autopilot. He is busy, but I press him on his team’s research into how longer advanced notice for impending wind reversals at local terminals can be achieved. Finally we arrive in front of a massive screen that shows the latest view from the new NOAA bird in the sky: GOES-16. Roland imagines using high-resolution movies of temperamental cloud complexes from GOES to plot more-efficient, safer diversions for aircraft in the future. He plans to share his vision at the upcoming meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Austin, TX (January 7-11, 2018). I’ll be there, will you be?

-D.C. Stolz