Amateur hour with Zulu time–Part 4


This post only means to show some of the “weirdness” some government agencies go through as they run their programs.  It is not meant besmirch any reputation of any agency or person.  Anyone who doesn’t take any of this with the grain of salt it deserves, maybe should think seriously about yoga.  But just so you understand, agencies are bureaucracies with masochistic cultures, so things can just get a little or a lot wonky—enough to stymie the smartest of engineers.  If you’ve ever seen the movie, “Brazil,” you kind of get an idea of how bad and weird things can be.  Sometimes there’s so much head-shaking going on in these agencies, you’d think you were one of those bobbing dolls sitting on a Volkswagen Van dashboard with blown suspension going down an extremely bumpy road.

In these past posts, I hope I’ve shown you there were good reasons for the adoption of Zulu time.  You know the British paid a hefty amount to John Harrison to develop a clock so British navies and merchants wouldn’t get lost at sea.  You know the establishment of the Prime Meridian is a key part of the longitude answer the British eventually came up with.  And you know Greenwich Mean Time’s establishment as the “Zero” reference time was just as important for navigation.  So much so, both Prime Meridian and GMT were accepted as standards internationally, too.  The fact the US military trains with Zulu time emphasizes the standard—so much so, it’s not even questioned.  It becomes a small thing, a rule and standard you don’t expect to disappear—until it does.

Umm, yeaahhh, we’re using a different time…

The standard was changed on me when I started working for an agency responsible for defending the USA against rogue missiles.  The weirdness started when I noticed other times than GMT (although GMT was also there) were being used for conducting test projects.  I had been out of the United States Air Force (USAF) a short time, but this time displacement felt like I had been moved to a different dimension.  The USAF used Zulu time for everything.  It didn’t mean people weren’t aware of local time, but for an organization conducting operations on a global scale, Zulu made sense.  Besides, the military had the ATP-1 (Allied Tactical Publication-1, Volume II: Allied Maritime Signal and Maneuvering Book) to abide by, too.  Soooo, this “Missile Defense” agency I worked for, led by a general, populated with a mix of military, retired military, analysts, engineers, etc., somehow figured Huntsville Time would be a great reference time zone.

I’m not kidding—there’s no such thing as “Huntsville Time.”  I know that.  There’s Central Time, which is the zone in which Huntsville, Alabama is located.  I must say, I’ve never had the privilege of attending Alabama schools, so maybe there is something extra special in the state’s school curriculum I wasn’t privy to. Madison County, in which Huntsville resides, is reputed to have the best schools in Alabama’s education system.  But that’s kind of like saying you have the smartest child of all the remedial kids.  Depending on your upbringing, some of this lore will not come as a surprise, to you, dear reader.  So we somehow had a Huntsville Time zone to deal with during missile tests.

Sometimes, if the missile tests spanned other time zones, things got mixed up.  Sometimes tests would include Hawaii.  So there was the Hawaiian Standard Time and others.  That particular time zone starts with “H” too, which really didn’t help.  But since I worked with satellites in the agency, our organization was using Zulu.  It almost seemed like I had been dropped in the middle of amateur hour during an ironic comedy.

Compensating for others’ incompetence

I eventually asked questions:  “Why aren’t we using Zulu or UTC as the only reference time?  We have tests and people all over the globe, why not coordinate both using Zulu?  People will confuse the times if you show all time zones in the countdown checklist.”  The answer I received was surprising and disheartening:  “Well, we’ve had a few people, including mission managers (one of the key test coordinators), show up late because they couldn’t figure out what time to show up.”   !!!!  I asked if we could, please, since our space systems were using Zulu, have only Zulu time on the test execution checklist.  I was given a “no” as an answer.  And honestly, I wasn’t inclined to repeat the request, because our teams were just so busy getting ready for tests.  Like in many organizations, the capable people were overtasked with many different things.

At risk of sounding like an old fogey, if anyone had showed up late because they couldn’t tell the time in the USAF, well, there would be a talk.  And maybe some drills on how to tell time.  If it happened again, then that person was obviously an ill fit for the required work and might be encouraged to seek out a different career.  But this agency, full of smart people trying to develop nation-saving tech, was unable to use only Zulu for its operations and unwilling to allow people to grow up and learn how to use it.  Mind you, this is only the same Zulu that most of the rest of the Western world uses for critical operations.

No drama…yet!

Fortunately, these problems and weirdnesses do get ironed out—but they never disappear.  And with each new test, someone will inevitably confuse HST with HSV or CST, but the test teams do catch them.  If they only used the one time, Zulu, it would be one less thing to worry about.  If they continue down the road of listing all the times of the different time zones involved, there will eventually be a mistake which the test team won’t be able to recover from.  This is a thing that never should be an issue to begin with.

So, as I stated right at the beginning of these posts, it’s a small thing, something you expect to be present and correct.  I definitely expected the “professional” civilian agencies to use the right time standard, in this case, Zulu Time.  If only because there’s a lot of history behind Zulu time, and a lot of good reasons to keep using it—at least until something better comes along.

4 thoughts on “Amateur hour with Zulu time–Part 4

  1. Good posting John. Having worked in satellite operations for many years, I can easily convert between GMT and either Daylight or Standard Time, depending on which US time zone I find myself working in. It will be interesting to see your post on the difference between GMT and GPS time, to include Leap Seconds. I happened to be on shift during a couple of different instances where the system time clock read 86400 for more than a second, as leap seconds were added into the system. Seriously geeky stuff I know.

    Keep up the good work!



    1. Hi Matt!

      Thanks! I don’t know if I’ll go into the GMT/GPS time differences, but I do see how there would be interest in that kind of thing, since GPS is in almost every part of our lives now. I’m not really a GPS guy, though, so I’d have to do some thinking on that..


  2. First off I want to say awesome blog! I had a quuick question in which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was curious tto know how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing.
    I’ve had a hard time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas
    out. I do enjoy writing but it just seems like
    the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost just trying to figure out
    how to begin. Any recommendations or tips? Many thanks!


    1. Thanks! I don’t really have a special zone, I’m sorry to say. I just write when I feel like it. And I write about things I like while trying to make the information relevant and entertaining to my readers. A lot of the posts are works in progress. It’s not unusual to find myself “fiddling” with a post after I’ve posted it. But I try not to mislead or fiddle with the idea of the post, just how it’s written. One thing: maybe try not to concentrate on the amount of time it takes to “settle in” to an idea. That might make your situation more stressful than you might like (I know it would me). When you have an idea of what you’d like to write about, just write it down. If more words come out, great! Just keep going until you need a break or are done (that can sometimes be a while).


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