Military and civil traffic vie for European airspace



It doesn't take a war for military and civil air traffic to be in conflict. Each side is vying for its own piece of valuable - and crowded - European airspace.

With 80-100 air movements a day in Europe, the US Air Force (USAF) contributes just 4% of European daily air traffic, which last year averaged 26,000 movements every 24h. However, the USAF and its sister services' lack of knowledge about what one USAF officer calls "the rules of the road" has, until recently, accounted for many calls to the Eurocontrol Central Flow Management Unit's (CFMU) help desk.

Furthermore, the US military, unlike civil carriers and their European military counterparts, had no centralised mechanism to negotiate fewer or shorter delays.

"The US military were aliens on another planet," says Ian Jones, head of operations for the CFMU's flow-management division in Brussels. "While [European] national militaries were looked after by their national representatives, the US military was lost."

The situation has taken a turn for the better in the last year, however. In 1998, the USAF created an operation known as the Initiation Cell, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, that was designed to co-ordinate its aircraft movements in Europe and its traffic between the USA and Europe. USAF Reserve Maj Tom Manley was put in charge of the Ramstein cell. He says the initiative's start-up was part of a larger programme that the US-based Air Mobility Command instigated to build "one big dispatch system", linking airlift assets and command and control authority around the world.

On his arrival, his first task was to look at delays hampering USAF missions, and he determined that "no one thing was going to delay a mission more than any other. All it would take was one person to send the wrong message at the wrong time."

Manley also realised that, despite having flown 2,700h in Europe, he did not understand Eurocontrol's procedures and found such lack of knowledge was common among his USAF colleagues, down to the correct filing of flight plans. He says: "People didn't know the rules of the road; they weren't aware of where [air traffic control] sectors were, and our publications were out of date."

Also, there was no direct, interactive link between the central European air traffic agency and the USAF's European head-quarters. So he developed a relationship with Eurocontrol to learn the ins and outs of Europe's flow management picture in the late 1990s. "If you don't know the rules, you can't play, and I didn't like my 'company' to be a high-maintenance one, which we were," Manley says. "Most of the calls to the help desk were from USAF customers."

Jones says that, before Manley's arrival, his Eurocontrol phone number seemed to have been widely circulated within US military circles. Callers included a bomber pilot who wanted help with a flightpath and clearances from his home base in Missouri to the Paris Air Show. Typical of calls seeking immediate help would be that from the low-ranking airman who would request to move a "priority" flight earlier. Jones would question the clearly inexperienced airman about how he was defining "priority."

Another disadvantage to the collective knowledge inherent in the US military's operations is high turnover between assignments. "As soon as someone's up to speed, they vanish," Jones says. "You've got to explain the same thing every 18 months."

Operating in Europe is considerably different from in the USA, accounting for the confusion of US airmen when they experience flying, air traffic control and base operations abroad. "In the USA, you could, in theory, take two darts, throw them at a map and fly point to point with minimum problems. We have so much airspace there, and you're dealing with the same infrastructure - the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration]," explains Technical Sergeant Darren Williams, chief of base operations at RAF Mildenhall. "Here, even though you have ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organisation], each country is still unique."

Mildenhall, home of the USAFE's (US Air Forces in Europe) tanker fleet and the 100th Air Refuelling Wing, has been no stranger to delays. However, the creation of Eurocontrol itself is largely responsible for fewer and shorter delays throughout US bases in Europe in recent years, say Williams and mission planners there. Before Eurocontrol's presence, "delays of 4h, 6h, 8h were not uncommon," Williams says of a previous assignment at the busy Rhein-Main Air Force Base, Germany.

In the Initiation Cell's first year, or "concept phase", Manley concentrated on developing the organisation into a monitor and liaison point between the USAFE and Eurocontrol and on replacing Eurocontrol's help desk on the front line of working out flight priorities, slot times and delays for most USAF aircraft in Europe. The percentage of USAF movements that had to be regulated has dropped from 40% "to probably down in the low 20s", Manley says. With the cell now in its "test phase", Manley is seeking funding "in the six digits" and a staff of up to 19 to put the office in place permanently.

As Manley educates the USAF on Eurocontrol requirements, systemic changes continue to evolve, such as revamped frequency usage that took effect in October. "Less than 1% of our missions were affected," Manley says.

While military aircraft are exempt from the added frequency coverage, Mildenhall, in the UK for example, has begun to add new equipment that incorporates the prescribed changes - described by USAF Capt Art Primas, a Mildenhall mission planner, as "the slicing of VHF into thirds". Eventually, US tankers will also be fitted with the equipment, Primas says.

Next spring will bring more changes when Eurocontrol installs its c36 million ($39 million) Enhanced Tactical Flow Management System, which will allow controllers to know exactly where an aircraft is at any given time, says Jones. "We hope we will become much more accomplished in management of traffic."

In his view, the USAF's experiment with the Initiation Cell has been "a tremendous success. I want this cell to be the USAFE centre of expertise for flow management and ATM [air traffic management] issues because, as a day-to-day operation, we feel the heat.

They can solve problems and the expertise will be there to train people up." He adds: "I can't remember the last time I had a [help desk] call from the USAF."

Jones would like the office to eventually serve as the central voice for the US Navy and US Army in Europe as well as the USAF. He still gets "a lot" of calls for help from the USN outpost at Souda Bay, Crete, but few from the army, which flies the least of the US services in Europe. Jones asks: "Why don't they all join together like a single airline? Obviously, it would make life a lot easier."

Source: Flight International