Luke DeCock

From the archives: Mapping the air, one team at a time

Since this story was published on May 27, 2007, the FAA has added a Hurricanes-themed departure to RDU International Airport’s airspace.

When planes fly out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport, they often follow one of three departure routes. Each has a name -- BLUE DEVlL FOUR, PACKK FIVE and TAR HEEL SIX. It’s like a Tobacco Road through the sky.

Head into Concord’s airport, where much of NASCAR’s massive airfleet is based, on the NASCR ONE arrival. Exit Charlotte via the HORNET TWO or PANTHER SIX departures.

Given those names, it’s not very difficult to figure out exactly where you are -- and what’s important to the people who live there. In a nod to both geography and America’s fascination with sports, the road map of the sky is littered with sports figures and teams in a sort of athletic aerial cartography.

The pathways of our skies are organized by a complicated series of airways, radar beacons and navigational fixes that planes use to get from one place to another in a sort of organized chaos -- virtual highways whose road maps are unspeakably complicated.

Radar beacons, known as VORs, are the cornerstone of the system. They emit a signal that planes can follow from hundreds of miles away. Airways connect the beacons to get planes from point to point. Where airways cross, or at other key points, fixes -- also known as intersections -- are specific points in the sky located by their distance and direction from a VOR.

The upshot of all this sky-mapping is that these beacons and intersections need names. A VOR gets a three-letter code (like the one on your luggage tag that identifies your destination) and full name, and an intersection gets a five-letter name.

The VOR that sits next to the southeast runway at RDU is known, not surprisingly, as “RDU” and pronounced “Raleigh-Durham.” The main intersection that planes from the north are funneled over as they approach the airport is “ARGAL,” which has no meaning other than it’s easy to pronounce. And these VORs and intersections are often combined into arrival and departure routes that funnel planes in and out of airports in an orderly fashion.

There are 37,000 navigational fixes in American airspace, and the government office responsible for all this nomenclature is the FAA’s Flight Procedures Office, which is constantly seeking new names as the airspace system undergoes a constant series of changes to accommodate the steadily growing flow of traffic. Sports is a natural fit.

“The main thing we’re concerned about is safety,” FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said. “That’s one of the reasons why we’ll choose fix names that are appropriate to that spot. It makes it easy for pilots and controllers to remember.

“Coming up with names is not unlike personalized license plates. We screen them for anything offensive and if they’re used for air-to-ground communication, and not all are, you have to be able to pronounce it.”

Flying over the vast open spaces of the United States, it’s hard not to laugh sometimes, because some of the identifiers are almost maddeningly clever. On the way into Kansas City, you might fly over SPICY, BARBQ and RIBBS on your way into runway 1R. But in the absence of such wit, sports is often the default naming fodder. Fly into Colorado Springs on the DEBERRY ONE arrival, and you’ll fly over TRPEL, OPSHN and FSHER, in honor of former Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry and his flexbone offense.

The VORs in Indiana are known as “Hoosier” (Bloomington), “Boiler” (West Lafayette), “Brickyard” (Indianapolis) and “Gipper” (South Bend). The ROKIT7 arrival into Houston’s Hobby airport features ROKIT, SSLAM, DUUNK, MRPHY, AKEEM, RUDDI and DRXLR -- a history of the NBA franchise in seven words.

Retired NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace is one of racing’s most accomplished pilots. He helped break ground on the construction of the airport in Concord, where many racing teams are based. Every time he flies the NASCR ONE arrival in his Learjet, he knows he’s coming home.

“You do get a lot of pride when you come into your local airport and the approach is called NASCR ONE,” Wallace said. “It makes a lot of sense. I’d like to see them make an approach called the RUSTY ONE -- no, RUSTY TWO -- departure or arrival.”

He may be retired, but he’s still connected to the No. 2 after driving that car for so many years. And his idea isn’t too farfetched. One of the waypoints on that arrival is ROUSH, in honor of team owner Jack Roush, whose 727s can often be seen sitting next to the runway in Charlotte.

A new departure system designed to improve the flow of planes out of Atlanta’s airport, for example, resulted in procedures called FLCON ONE, BRAVS FOUR, DAWGS THREE, DOOLY THREE, GEETK FOUR, JCKTS FOUR, RMBLN FOUR, THRSR FOUR and UGAAA ONE, and while flying them one might cross intersections like FUTBL, HRSHL, HYZMN, BDODD and SMLTZ.

A rabid Carolina Hurricanes fan who stuck a Stanley Cup championship magnet to the doorway of his Delta Airlines plane last summer, pilot Fred Bekker flies those procedures in his 737 all the time.

He would like to see any new waypoints around RDU recognize the area’s major-league team: CANES, BRIND, STRMY and STAAL all seem to fit. He even input them into his plane’s computer to see if they were available.

“They’ve got the [college] ‘big three’ covered already,” Bekker said. “It seems like throwing the only professional sports team in there would be pretty easy.”

Sometimes, though, it works the other way. The intersection most closely associated with a sporting figure didn’t take its name from a famous athlete. It happened the other way around. When the late Allen Paulson needed a name for one of his young horses, he drew upon his aviation background -- he once owned Gulfstream, which makes private jets -- and chose the five-letter identifier from an intersection.

For one particular colt, he picked a significant waypoint in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, 120 miles west of Tampa. Cigar went on to win more money than any other racehorse, tying the great Citation with 16 wins in a row.

Way back when, CIGAR didn’t have anything to do with sports.

It does now, another intersection where sports and the sky come together in the air.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.