I've basically been getting one long check ride over the past several days. The day before yesterday my supervisor sat down with me for a bit, but the traffic wasn't cooperating. The controller I relieved on the position had been busy and the controller that relieved me was busy, but I apparently scared all the planes off when I sat down. For an hour and a half, I had only light, sporadic traffic.
Yesterday, it looked like it might start off the same. The weather was pretty crappy, which has two effects: 1) it cuts down somewhat on the amount of flying the Navy does and 2) the flying the Navy does do is usually filled with strange requests and lots of unexpected behavior. In other words... perfect testing conditions to see how I worked under unusual circumstances. It was a session filled with both standard and non-standard operations.
The non-standard stuff included:
- An aircraft with "special needs" - a T-34 with a landing gear issue was flying at reduced speed and requested a TACAN approach followed by a low-flyby so the tower could inspect his gear. I coordinated with the tower and passed on the pilot's requests.
- IFR popups coming in from many different directions requesting TACAN and GPS approaches.
- Aircraft - both VFR and VFR-on-top departures - deviating from assigned courses and altitudes all over the place for weather.
- Low ceilings compressing our T-34s vertically to the same altitude. Typically they're inbound at 2700, 2200, or 1700 depending on where they're coming from, which provides vertical separation if they all happen to arrive over the arrival fix simultaneously. The low ceilings forced many of them down to 1700 feet, requiring extra sequencing and traffic calls.
At the end of that marathon 2.5 hour session, my supervisor stood next to me and asked, "How comfortable do you feel on these positions?" I answered truthfully: "I feel comfortable, though there are some things I have to think about harder than others." "Well," he said, "how would like to work it by yourself for a bit?" I lit up. "Sounds like a plan," I said. He replied, "I'm going to unplug and go get someone to relieve you in a little bit. " With that, he unplugged and headed towards the exit.
And there I was, all by lonesome. :)
It's a funny feeling, because you feel both the euphoria of getting checked out along with the instant weighty knowledge that every decision is well and truly in your hands. There's no one watching over shoulder, no one to say "Disregard last! [Insert contrary instructions here]". No one can hear what you're saying other than the pilots and you. If you put two planes together, it's your ticket. If you violate someone else's airspace, it's your ticket. No one else's. Whatever problems there are need to be solved by you.
As with anything worth doing, it comes with a price. The goal is to get certified and be a good controller. The price of achieving that is that you now have all of the responsibility on your shoulders. I've been very good about keeping the whole "We're dealing with human lives every time we plug in." aspect of the job out of mind. Thinking about it too much can drive you crazy. However, that reality has been a little more prevalent in my mind.
Today, I worked a couple sessions on my own, including opening a position for the first time by myself. I found myself extremely alert and proactive. It is true what they say: you will scare yourself sometimes, or at least make yourself go "Well, I coulda done that better...". I also found the bad weather simulation scenarios we'd run extremely helpful, as the weather today was marginal VFR at best. All those simulated runs made me very comfortable with my mental vectoring and sequencing "tools".
It's really difficult to get good photos inside the TRACON. The only lighting comes from the screens and comm panels, plus a few task lights here and there. As a result, these photos were taken with 4 second exposures at 400 ISO, so we were balancing the camera on the backs of chairs to keep them steady.
Here's me today, on the Whiting arrival scope. Note: if you see my ponytail stand on end, get me a handoff!
Here are my buds Adam (left) and JT on the Whiting departure scope, with JT working his handoff. We all got checked out within a couple weeks of one another - JT first, then Adam, then me.
Things to Keep in Mind
Over the past few months, I'd received several skill checks from my supervisor. Based on the feedback, I'd been concentrating my energy on several areas. Along with operational knowledge of the airspace and standard operating procedures that are specific to our airspace, my instructors and supervisor were looking for the following in my own working habits:
- Positive control: We've all heard the term "bet on the come". Positive control takes that out of the equation by preventing problems from forming. If you know that you've got a guy climbing to 5500 and a point-out from another sector descending to 5000 crossing in front of him, stop your guy at 4500. Now A) you don't have to watch them that closely and B) you've ensured separation.
- Thorough Scan: You will be hearing the word "scan" in your sleep. This is such a huge part of ATC. You're constantly monitoring not just your traffic for speed / altitude / course, but anything else that could conflict with them. It could be another sector's traffic, a non-tagged VFR that just descended into their face, or, well, anything.
- Constant Motion: Always look for something to do. Did I get this guy on the proper course to the next sector? Did I send the strip over to that sector? Did I change his data block's scratch pad to reflect the approach he wants? Have I put him in handoff status yet? Have they taken the handoff? If so, have I switched him? Do as much as you can, as fast as you can. Be ahead of the game.
- Know your limits: Be aware of your saturation point. Do not be afraid to call for help, either for a hand-off or a sector split.
- Always bring your A-game: You never know when you're going to get inundated with airplanes. If your facility is like mine, there's no handy-dandy TMU arrival screen giving you estimates of when you're going to get busy. We deal largely with VFR and IFR popups, working them as they come. There's no way to predict whether you'll get five or a hundred and five airplanes when you plug-in.
Now, as thrilled and ecstatic as I am about getting these two scopes under my belt, the reality is that I still have a very long way to go to full certification. That road is paved with the final, most challenging sector in this one bank, plus the two largest and most complicated banks of scopes in this facility.
Here's what I've been certified on. It's got more shelving than I showed on the west, southwest, and eastern sides, but this is the basic shape of it. I put the airport ID's on there so you'll know which airports to avoid if you're crazy enough to fly around here. :)
Here's how big that area is in comparison to the rest of the facility. It's a small piece of the big picture. Click to zoom in.
It's been a good week and I can't wait to relax this weekend. This whole week felt like one big deep breath, and I need to let that out.
I hope everyone has a Memorial Day full of good times and good friends.