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Ripon resident kept airliners flying safe

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POSTED July 13, 2017 1:01 a.m.

Air traffic control duties are often tedious for some computer operators because of the different sleep patterns that controllers are forced to endure due to the timing of shifts around the clock.
That’s according to retired Air Traffic Control Chief of the Houston Center, Randy Patchett, told Ripon Rotarians during their Wednesday noon meeting at Spring Creek Country Club.
Patchett and his wife Cheryl live in Ripon. She owns and manages the Striplin Pharmacy and gift shop in Manteca having earned her doctorate in Pharmacology.  Three of her daughters work in the store with her.
Patchett noted controllers would often be seen taking a quick nap during their 15 to 20-minute break in the lunch room just to get a short power nap as they attempted to stay alert at their computer screens in his airport control tower.
He noted there are 8,500 controllers across the nation with only one out of seven graduating after receiving their extensive educational training for the stressful control tower duties.  Patchett has helped set up airports across the country and has offered numerous pilot seminars.
A routine schedule would see controllers working over five days with the first day working 3 p.m. to 11 and the second day 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., the third day 6 p.m. until midnight and the fourth day 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. with the final day on the job 6 p.m. to midnight.
The body is quickly put out of kilter from its old established sleep patterns, Patchett said, noting it took him over a year to get used to the hourly demands of his position.
Asked for his opinion on the best airline flying the skies today, Patchett, who is now a private pilot himself, said without a doubt it is Southwest Airlines with “the best pilot training program and their safety record is impeccable.” 
He noted that the people living in the United States don’t know just how fortunate they are with the freedom to roam from one state to another without getting a permit to enter the different states either in their cars or in a private plane or on an airline. 
“No other country provides that freedom,” he said.
The current radar system was designed in the ‘50s is now switching over to GPS providing an accuracy of 300 feet, he said.  The Oakland Center now controls a large section of the aircraft flying over the Pacific Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico experiencing some 7,000 aircraft in the air daily.
Patchett compared San Francisco International Airport to Dallas Fort Worth with the Bay Area airport having two runways and Dallas with eight sometimes needing 45 minutes of taxiing into the terminal from the farthest of the runways a half mile away.  Houston, like San Francisco, has only two runways, he said.
Rotarian Don Moyer asked about military aircraft coming out of Moffet Field in Alameda – “Who controls their departure?”
Patchett replied that the airport tower at the Navy facility provides the takeoff clearance and then Air Traffic Control takes over the pilot’s flight plan headings. 
Patchett said there was an earlier proposal to have one central control center established in the heart of the country saying that it could have been catastrophic compared to the existing 22 centers in the nation.   It would have presented the opportunity to shut the whole country’s aviation activities down with a single blow to that center.
He said controlling the military aircraft was exciting and interesting in what he described as a fun job.  A transponder in the cockpits presents a picture of the aircraft as it climbs and dives along with the pilot’s blood pressure and heart rates at the moment – rather than seeing just a blip on the screen.
The Air Traffic Control system in Mexico was designed by the French as well as some European countries.  There are four different systems in operation with none of them talking to each other, he said.  Patchett added that his son is a Green Beret in the Army and they have to spend time verbally communicating with each other in the world-wide operations.
Asked if the Air Traffic Control personnel provide weather data and direct pilots around storm fronts, he said that is totally up to the pilots using Ryle Radar.  He said Ryle is a sharp system compared to the Doppler that is six minutes old when it reports weather conditions – six minutes that could make a difference for an airline flight.

To contact Glenn Kahl, email gkahl@mantecabulletin.com.

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