ATC isn't always formally structured with processed flight plans and strict clearances. Any controller who's been certified for more than a week has had to handle a pick up IFR or a request for VFR flight following. And in the T-38 sector at ZJX there was never anything more than a handoff, a callsign, and a request for either Barrels or Shuttles (the two types of airwork the pilots wanted to perform). However, high altitude is almost always highly structured with advance flight plans. But there's always something…
One day (14 February 1972) I was working JAX High with perhaps the odd half dozen aircraft in the sector. ZJX was somewhat unique in that we had at least five approach controls who owned 23,000 and down—PNS, VPS, PAM, VAD, and JAX. The first three were on account of the vast Warning Areas in the Gulf of Mexico to the south which made it much more convenient for them (and to an extent, us) to transition aircraft in and out of their areas. VAD had it becuase of the Undergraduate Jet Pilot Training Commnad with their T-38s—sufficiently high performance aircraft to make dealing with a low altitude sector for less than 20,000' in altitude a possibly risky distraction. JAX had three Naval Air Stations, one of which housed an A4 rework facility, and it was easier to transition high performance aircraft from High to Approach directly without involving Low.
Naturally, I had a direct line to JAX Approach and they hollered at me with a Rework flight. Rework was the call sign used by A4s which were getting major maintenance at the facility at NIP, and if it was engine work, they typically wanted to take the A4 up to altitude and wring it out. “Ten south of NIP, Rework 558, requesting climb for engine check.”
No flight plan, of course, but no problem—just grab a blank strip, write “RW 558” in the callsign box and “A4” in the aircraft type box just below. We were well into the FPA state in ZJX, which had computer generated flight plans, but this was a single sector test hop and didn't need anything more than a handwritten strip for documentation (and two points for a departure in the all important traffic count). A moment later he checked on the frequency with his requested altitude, and I gave him a clearance to work all quadrants southwest of NIP, and to climb and maintain FL350.
He read back the clearance and started up. Within a matter of moments he reported level at FL350 and proceeded to meander around. Of course I couldn't see what he was doing—it could have been level turns, it could have been rolls, it could have been stalls. It didn't matter to me, because he wasn't near any traffic, and I owned from FL240 (24,000') all the way up. There wasn't any conversation—he'd let me know when he was done and wanted to RTB (return to base).
In one of my scans a few moments later, I noticed his target had disappeared (his transponder or beacon target (the normal method of tracking aircraft in high altitude). I called him and told him his transponder had failed and asked him to recycle. No response (which is not unusual in that particular event) and no transponder. I asked him again, with no response. That was unusual. Thinking maybe a partial system failure of some sort (it is a rework facility, after all) I asked him to key his mike if he could copy. I heard a couple of key clicks. I then asked him to click twice if he needed to get down. Two more key clicks. I gave him a clearance to FL240.
While doing this, I had already turned my primary radar up and found his target in the same general area I'd last seen him. I punched on the line to JAX Approach, gave them the location of the aircraft and informed them that his last clearance had been FL240 but he'd had somewhat of a comm failure and may need to get right on down. The one drawback of an ad hoc flight such as this is there is no formal flight plan which would provide the framework of the comprehensive lost comm procedures which both pilots and controllers understand and follow. In this case, about the only thing to do is keep clear of the target and block all the altitudes below it.
Approach told me he was good down to the ground (meaning I could clear him to any altitude if I ever talked to him). I got off the line, cleared Rework down to 50 (5,000 feet although I could go lower), gave him the altimeter, and kept watching the target (the existance of which was actually good news). After a couple of minutes I heard, “Jacksonville, Rework 558.”
“Rework 558, go ahead.”
“Rework 558 is back with you. We had a flameout and lost most electrical. We're down to about 15,000 here, so we'll cancel the clearance.”
“Rework 558, roger. You're still in radar contact. Would you like a clearance back to NIP?”
“Nah, I think we're going to fly around a little bit and settle down out here”
“Roger. Glad it worked out for you. Radar service is terminated, frequency change approved.”
I punched the line to JAX Approach and told them the story and then went back to the routine of airliners on their way north and south over Florida's First Coast. Just another day in the blocks. Pretty cool, though. Incidentally, when I found the paperwork on this in my archives, I noticed I’d had a D-side—none other than my friend Roddy. He has no recollection of it.
Last updated: 19 December 2009