Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Art of War (As Applied to ATC)

I recently picked up a copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War at my local Barnes and Nobles. As a student of military history, it's always intrigued me from afar. I took the plunge and I must say that I'm glad I did.

The book is a collection of statements, all of which are divided into eleven different chapters such as "Laying Plans", "Maneuvering", and "Variation of Tactics". To put it simply, it's a For Dummies guide on waging war, covering topics such as tactical advantages of terrain, financing military campaigns, maintaining troop morale, surprise, and deception. It's remarkable how relevant this man's treatise is thousands of years after it was written. Whether it's the D-Day beaches of WWII or the sands of modern-day Iraq, the majority of the piece remains thoroughly applicable.

What's even more remarkable to me is how much of it applies to the "art" that is air traffic control. As I read the verses, I couldn't help but notice the appropriateness of the material.

Sun Tzu Wrote:
The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy's not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unavailable.
- VIII, verse 11
In short: be prepared, come whatever may. When you sit down at your radar scope or stand up in your tower you need to be on your game and ready for anything. Whether you end up working two planes or two hundred is irrelevant; the important thing is to be prepared for two hundred and keep your edge sharp. If you go in thinking the session's going to be a cakewalk, you'll be on the wrong side of the power curve when the unexpected storm of traffic hits.

This not only applies to attitude, but technical preparedness as well. Do you know your airspace? Your approaches? How about your Letters of Agreement? How fresh are the Standard Operating Procedures in your mind? These are all "weapons" that you need to have at the ready, on call at an instant's notice for application.

Before I go on, I'd also like to emphasize that I do not view pilots as the "enemy". However, like an opponent, they present unpredictable situations that need to be dealt with using grand strategy, local tactics, planning, and speed. If not handled properly, they will cause harm - either to themselves, your career as a controller, or both.
He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.
- IX, verse 41
It's your job to look ahead and prevent situations. Say you've got two airplanes on your scope that are forty miles apart but whose paths cross. You take a glance at it and blow it off, thinking "Eh, they'll never hit." You know, the old betting on the come routine. Minutes later your luck runs out, the CA-CA goes off and you're taking a CA-CA of your own in your pants. You should have prevented that, either with an altitude change or some other means.

Be proactive. Don't just solve problems but step up and keep them from ever forming. You need to look into the future, whether it's one minute or twenty. If you're only thinking about the present, you're already far behind.
Success in warfare is gained by carefully accommodating ourselves to the enemy's purpose.
- XII, verse 60
This is a twofold statement. First you must determine the pilot's intentions. This can be divided up into two additional levels: near-term and long-term. For instance, in the near-term this pilot wants to do several approaches at your airport. The long-term plan after the approaches is for the pilot to depart VFR to the north and get flight following to a neighboring city.

Secondly, you take this information and incorporate it into our "big picture". You plan how you're going to insert this aircraft into your approach pattern along with the other aircraft you're working. You also determine how the aircraft will eventually depart northbound, factoring in elements such as airspace and traffic flow. While the pilot conducts his approaches, you reassess constantly to verify that your plan will in fact work. If there are doubts or issues, you reformulate your plan on the fly to make it work.

In short, be flexible and responsive. Do not become so attached to a plan that you tie your own hands behind your back.
If, however, you are indulgent, but unable to make your authority felt; kind-hearted, but unable to enforce your commands; and incapable, moreover of quelling disorder: then your soldiers must be likened to spoilt children.
- X, verse 26
Your job title says "controller" in it, so take control. If you're sheepish on the radio, pilots will jump all over you like a pack of ravenous wolves. Confidence in your voice and your instructions will leave zero doubt of who's control on the frequency.

This is especially important when you're busy and reaching your operational limits. You don't have time to deal with questions. You simply need pilots to comply, and comply now.

Additionally, you are supposed to provide the pilots as much service as you can, but not at the expense of order and safety. There just comes a point where you cannot provide optional services to them any longer. If that pilot is requesting one more practice approach and you've already got a pattern full, "Unable additional practice approaches. Say intentions." The tone and firmness in your voice will dissuade them from questioning your authority.

The facts are:
  1. Sometimes you just need to come off like an arrogant (but G-rated phraseology-compliant) jerk in order to get the job done right. "Stern parent voice" works nicely.
  2. Not every pilot is going to get what they want all the time.
  3. Do not accommodate optional pilot requests to the point where safety and separation are lost.
  4. Pilots will whine and question if given the opportunity. Do not waver.
Old Truths Ring True Today

The 7110.65 is the quintessential source for Air Traffic procedures and regulations. Its hundreds of pages are full of dry phraseology and methods that lay down the rules but do little for the nuances of the job.

When it comes to the strategy, personality and mentality of ATC, there are plenty of sources from which you can draw inspiration. First and foremost are the controllers who have been doing this for twenty years and are full of techniques and tricks. That "tribal knowledge" is an irreplaceable, invaluable resource that helps us new trainees determine what we need to focus on during our length training process.

Outside of their vast experience, you can find comparative works in the strangest of places. The Art of War is such a perfect piece because its subject matter shares considerable similarities to ATC. Timing, tactics, overall strategies, proactive maneuvers, priorities of duty: these are all things that come into play every time you plug-in.

I highly recommend the book, whether you're into:
  • Air Traffic Control
  • Military history and tactics
  • Or... actually, you know, planning to invade a small country.
If it's the latter, I recommend Monaco to start. With a land area of only .76 square miles, it should be a pushover. I hear the beaches are choice. :)

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