Air Traffic Control
4 min read

It’s difficult to remember now, but as 1999 was drawing to a close the country was in a panic. The fear was that all, or at least most, computer systems would crash as the year ended because of a fundamental software error.

To save precious memory, computer systems then didn’t include the digits “19” in the year. The year was simply recorded as 97, for 1997, or ominously, as 99 for 1999. When the clock struck midnight on December 31 of 1999 computers would roll over to 00 for the year.

Would that set the computer network back to the year 1900? Or would the electronic brains instantly believe it was the very first year of AD—0000? Nobody knew. But experts of all stripes were certain computer networks would crash. The pending disaster was named “Y2K” for year 2000.

People worried about the national power grid failing after the computer networks that control it failed. Maybe crazed computers would open the floodgates of dams across the country. Most certainly the banking system would fail and your credit cards and ATM card would be worthless.

The list of possible calamities was endless, but near the top of worries was the FAA’s antiquated air traffic control computer system. The news media claimed the FAA’s computers were so old they still used vacuum tubes. Not true. But the ATC computer system software was notorious for the number of times it had been “patched.” And for the number of big-name tech companies that had tried to modernize it, and failed.

As New Year’s Eve 1999 approached the country pretty much went on what we now call “lock down.” Almost all plans were cancelled as people hunkered down, many with enough survival supplies stocked to last for months. The airlines cancelled essentially all flights. Maybe airline officials weren’t really frightened of Y2K, but since passengers were, and wouldn’t buy tickets, it didn’t matter what the airlines thought would happen.

As I was thinking about the Y2K panic it dawned on me that the FAA and its computers all operate on a single time—Zulu. It’s what we called Greenwich Mean Time for many years. It’s the global reference all systems need to account for time zone changes. There are no calendars in FAA traffic facilities, only clocks showing Zulu time. The ATC system runs on a 24-hour cycle that rolls over at 0000 Zulu.

That meant Y2K would arrive at 7 pm eastern time on the Zulu clock. If the ATC system were going to blowup it would happen then. So I decided that was the perfect time to be in the air and flying in the system.

I filed an IFR flight plan from my home base at Westchester County Airport (HPN) just north of New York City to Atlantic City with departure at 6:30, or 2330 Z.

I was the only one moving on the airport when Stancie and I taxied out in our Baron. There were no delays in getting the IFR clearance, or takeoff clearance, as there would usually be. We were the only ones on the frequency.

We flew along in pretty good weather for the end of December in the northeast with only the most perfunctory communications with the controllers. The routing was the standard across JFK and down the Jersey shore to Atlantic City.

We were in Atlantic City approach airspace when the clock rolled over the 7 local time, 0000 Z. Nothing happened. All the nav signals continued. I called the controllers and asked “are you guys still there?” They were surprised by the question. So I told them to look at their clocks.

Then it dawned on them. Y2K had arrived for ATC. The clocks showed 0000 and were counting up. Everything worked. I could hear cheering and laughing when they keyed the mic. The dreaded deadline came and went without a whimper.

They asked if we wanted to land, and I said no, we want to go back home to HPN. And then the real miracle of Y2K happened. I was cleared direct. That never happens in New York. As we were handed to each controller they were full of questions about what we saw, what we heard, and was everything working.

Then New York approach control gave us a vector to fly. “That will take you right over Times Square. 2,000 feet is the lowest we can give you,” was the clearance. That never, ever happens. The controllers wanted to know if we could see the crystal ball that would drop in just under 5 hours. We couldn’t be sure, but we did see one heck of a lot of lights.

We made it home in plenty of time to go to our neighbor’s New Year’s Eve party where we watched Y2K arrive in local time. It was the second New Year for us, and it, too, went off without a hitch.

Mac McClellan
8 replies
  1. C
    C says:

    I was a controller at LCH for Y2K. The supervisor was quite anxious about 0000Z and what would happen. At 0001, we lost power to the radar and to everything. We thought, Oh No , this is it. We soon found out that an vehicle accident took out a power line pole.

  2. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Mac, your story brought back a lot of memories. I made sure to log on to my computer after midnight CST, and found it working just fine, thank you. Wish I could have been with you on the flight to/from Atlantic City, for the sight of Times Square, if nothing else.

  3. LC
    LC says:

    Distinctly remember New Year’s Eve 1999. I was “on-call” for a group of General Internist’s in a small southern town and approaching 9:00 PM CST my phone started ringing. I was fielding calls from patients with pacemakers and defibrillators who were anxiously awaiting the turn of the century and given the Y2K hysteria, concerned this might be their last. It dawned on me then that patients with similar hardware in the Middle East apparently had not experienced any apparent difficulties as there had been no breaking new releases. Suspect there was a Hugh collective sigh of relief for millions when the clock struck midnight nonetheless!

  4. David Achiro
    David Achiro says:

    I can remember being at my house. We were having a party and My cousin Jim and I were outside by the breakers. When the clock struck midnight Jim and I pulled the main breaker and the house went dark. Everybody was panicking until we turned it back on literally about 15 seconds later. Everyone was like…..”Oh no the whole grid went out. It was just our house.

  5. Peter Zajkowski
    Peter Zajkowski says:

    Those who think Y2K was “much ado about nothing” probably have no idea how much work was done to fix the problems before 1/1/2000. I worked for IBM at the time, and EVERY piece of equipment was reviewed to make sure Y2K would not be an issue. I don’t know what the FAA may have done, but I’m sure other companies did the same.

  6. Douglas Leamon
    Douglas Leamon says:

    On a lighter note; I had a neighbor in 1999 whose wife wanted to purchase a new VW Beetle. He successfully stalled the transaction long enough to purchase the car as a surprise for her birthday. On the day of her birthday party he came around the corner with the new car and pulled in the driveway. She was delighted. The license plate read, “Y2K BUG”.

  7. Joby
    Joby says:

    I was a power engineer at my electric COOP, I would get calls from people who heard that our “Smart” circuit breakers would open on Y2K. They were relieved to hear that our breakers were still “dumb” hydraulically operated devices that didn’t know what day it was.

  8. Tom
    Tom says:

    What most people fail to realize, or admit, is that for YEARS before Y2K, tons of programmers who still knew old languages like Cobol, Algol, and stuff the old programs were written in, and especially anyone fluent in assembly language, were working on patching the systems. They fixed stuff and ran the systems in virtual machines to prove it worked. So when Y2K actually did roll around, virtually nothing happened. (I heard of a minor glitch or two in someones local database, but that’s nothing) The interesting thing they did? A thing called sliding the century, or sliding date windows (among other things). They programmed the systems so that 0000 was no longer thought (by the system) to be the start of the next century. They “moved the start date” for changeover to the next century (20xx instead of 19xx). This was a very common thing done in larger systems, and it worked fine. Oh, what date did they choose for the system to changeover? 2020. They figured in 20 years the old systems and software would be replaced anyway. Right? Tell me, how old were the FAA systems in use in 2000? (hint, some had dates older than 1980) At work, I use some systems that were designed in 1985. Just food for thought as we enter 2019…

Comments are closed.