I've said it before that simulators are no replacement for the real thing. However, I do strongly feel that simulators are very important for getting procedures and patterns down. They create an idealized environment where you can build habits and see how things flow. You can try things and experiment with no danger to anyone. Your instructor can freeze the problem and point out a possible conflict, and discuss possible courses of action. In addition, you're learning the airspace and the frequencies. They're great for getting the fundamentals down so you don't have to think about them anymore.
Going through RTF teaches you the basics of radar terminal control. Vectoring, speed control, approach clearances, etc. However, they use generic air space. Every ATC facility out there is unique and each has its quirks. It would have been nice to have some runs on a Pensacola-based simulator before getting on the real scopes, as there are certain operations here that are truly unique. It also lets you see potential problem areas in action. I've had more than one experienced CPC here tell me this is the most screwed up air space they've ever seen.
Unfortunately, we're not setup for simulation here. Whereas the folks at Miami Tower and Potomac TRACON can work simulated problems using their real airspace on ATC simulators, we train with live traffic. No ghost pilots, no "pause the problem" so you can work it out. The only time we can experiment is when traffic is very slow, allowing some breathing room so we can get a little more experimental with our vectors (I recommend not flying in our airspace when it's slow, LOL... just kidding).
So, while you're developing your stripmarking, your paperwork, your airspace and attempting to build your basic understanding, you're working with real people on the other end of the radio. The issue with that is that there's no control over what you get. ATC is a fluid business, and you are guaranteed at least one or two odd-ball requests every time you sit down... if you're lucky. Most often you'll have more. So, as opposed to a structured "curriculum" where you build certain skills over time, here you need to be ready for anything at any given moment. That's just the nature of ATC.
Real World Example
Let me give you an example, but first I'll explain a little about our operation: Nearly all of my training has been on the Whiting Naval Air Station bank of scopes. The fixed-wing aircraft from Whiting use what are called VFR course rules. Course rules are essentially highly "proceduralized" (is that a word?) flight plans that the training flights follow to get into and out of Whiting. On departure, they'll climb to a pre-determined altitude, turn to a pre-determined heading towards their practice area, and cancel flight following at a pre-determined point. They'll each have a specific pre-determined practice area (A1, A2, A2F, or A3) in their scratchpad, so you know exactly which course rule they're flying. When they come back, they'll call in over three possible pre-determined fixes at a pre-determined altitude, be issued a transponder code by you, fly a pre-determined route back into the airport, and switch to the tower over a pre-determined fix.
It's pretty predictable and usually works smoothly. I guess a parallel would be a SID or a STAR. The only real controlling you need to do (outside of handling specific requests for holding and practice approaches) is traffic calls and sequencing for arrivals that are arriving too close together.
All that goes out the window when the weather is IFR.... which is exactly what happened the other day when a massive front came through bringing all kinds of nastiness.
Departures: Due to the IFR weather, the course rules were completely unusable, so all of the procedures I'd been training with were worthless. For the departures, Whiting was launching every aircraft as a VFR-On-Top (OTP). This meant the following:
- They each had OTP in their scratchpad, so we didn't know which area they were heading towards.
- They were IFR, so we had to request a cancellation from each one.
- They were not following a course rules procedure, so once they cancelled IFR we had to:
- Ask each one "What's your working area?"
- Enter it into the scratchpad
- Issue them the appropriate heading and altitude for their working area so they wouldn't go wandering off randomly.
- Issue traffic and a flight following cancellation as usual.
- The only good thing is that, due to IFR separation rules, they were launching them with some more space between.
- Firstly, I think I'd given maybe two of these types of clearances previously over the past month, and now I was giving them out left and right, vectoring on the fly.
- One of the major reporting points they call over is inside another sector. We have pre-arranged coordination with that sector so we don't need to call them with course rules Navy trainers that call in at the appropriate VFR altitude. However... the trainers were calling in at a variety of altitudes, so we had to coordinate and point out every one to the other sector.
- They were all "Cleared to Whiting via radar vectors" so I had to - as the clearance suggests - provide radar vectors to get them to the TACAN. It was excellent vectoring practice since they were coming from all over the place.
- With every aircraft requesting the same TACAN approach, now you've got a congestion problem that requires real sequencing and IFR altitude separation - 3 miles or 1000 feet. It really works your speed control and vectoring skills, plus your knowledge.
- In addition, I was working both the arrival and departure sectors combined. This meant that I had two frequencies open, and overlapping transmissions coming from both.
I kept up with it for a good while, but there came a point where I just fell behind. My instructor had to take over for a couple minutes as they were just calling in from everywhere. He told me after I took over again not to feel bad, which I really didn't. I was perfectly fine. I'd never worked any traffic like that in any great quantity, so I'm glad that I kept up with it as long as I could.
You have to step up to the plate and swing with all you've got at that moment, and I did. I have confidence that the next time this situation comes up I'll be ready for it. It was a hell of an interesting experience and I'm much better for it in the end.