Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The Air Traffic Control Meltdown This Morning


Our daughter escaped Seattle yesterday afternoon before the great meltdown of 11 January 2023.

She had spent a month with us and working remotely.

But as George Harrison once sang, all things must pass.

Her flight left four minutes early.

That was what is known in the business of flight a fxxxxxg miracle.

But she got to RDU and, presumably, has reconnected with her life.

We have an intermittently dysfunctional texting relationship. 

Not so with a lot of randomly chosen victims of the great airline/FAA cosmos.

They got to see their flights cancelled.

And they weren't even on Southwest.

All of this got me to remembering.

Not that many years ago I heard a news story that I was not remotely surprised by (Ronald Regan firing all the air traffic controllers pointed to a level of cavalier ignorance of safety in the air network that seemed to point to the possibility that the machines - the computers running the air traffic control system of the United States - were so archaic that we might not really even have an air traffic control system; if the controllers were expendable, why would we pay for state of the art software and hardware?)

The story that I heard centered on the fact that, at the time of the story, the FAA was using very old, maintenance consuming, computers.

I said that I got to remembering.

What I remembered was that the FAA had been an early adopter of computer technology for its mission of safety and control, and that the machines that had hosted the software in support of that mission had come from IBM.

Those machines were powerful for their day.

But they weren't really computers as computers came to be defined not many years later.

They were high speed, flexibly programmable calculators.

And their logic circuits were driven by vacuum tubes.

Not old fashioned three wired transistors.

Not, certainly, modern "chips".

Not certainly, Moore's Law exponentially increasing power, chips.


Heat generating, always burning out, constantly maintenance prone, tubes.

IBM service waxed very profitable.

Nobody but IBM knew how to maintain those tube driven artifacts.

But in the day that the FAA made their decision to adopt computer technology, transistors and their progeny had not yet been invented.

So tubes were the best choice at the time.

But - time went on, and, for whatever reason, those "computers" remained in place at FAA as IBM announced and delivered real computers of immense power and vastly heat reduced reliability: 1401, S/360, S/370, S/3 S/34, S/36, S/38, AS/400 - and even - the PC.

FAA liked the tubes.

I guess.

IBM liked the maintenance revenue stream.

I know.

In the depths of IBM mythology there is a story that the company briefly flirted with deploying a dedicated FAA sales team to continually convince the decision makers at FAA against upgrading to a state-of-the-art system: the maintenance revenue stream was just that rich.

And it kept getting better. 

But that's probably a myth.

The story referred to back several sentences mentioned that the FAA, at that time, was using computers with tubes.

That made my IBM pension feel a little more secure.

I had to wonder this morning if they still are.

Using the tube machines.

As an IBM retiree, I certainly hope so.

If they are that would cause me to do another post on how you program an old, old, old computer, and what a mnemonic is.

I'm pretty sure Kevin McCarthy and the boys are working on fixing the tube problem.

Just as soon as they root out the deep state. 

No comments:

Post a Comment