Tuesday, December 02, 2008

On Training

I've stayed in touch with many of my classmates from Oklahoma City classes. It's great to hear that so many of them are doing well.

Many of them are already fully checked out. JR is done at DAL. JZ has been certified for nearly a year at ACK and is transfering to JFK. JT transfered to SRQ two months ago and is nearly certified. JA's been done for a long time at MTY. CW is done at Potomac TRACON.

I'm thrilled for them all. I remember when we were all starting out in the tower or RTF classes, trying to get a handle on things. How far we've come from there. I even recall some of them getting "you'll never make it" dress-downs from certain instructors in OKC. Yet there they are, fully certified CPCs a year later, some already transferring to better, bigger facilities.

I look forward to that feeling. I know I've still got a while left here. Of all the CTI, VRA, and OTS trainees here- most of which started when I did -not one has fully certified. In fact, until last week, none of the trainees had certified on more than one bank of three scopes. Another one is getting close. Maybe it's the facility. Maybe it's something else. I don't know.

Overall, I feel I am progressing. I'm definitely light years ahead of where I was three months ago. However, sometimes I don't think it's fast enough. Training really is a brutal roller coaster ride. I'll have a great session that's wall-to-wall good vectors and radio presence, and then do something utterly stupid the next one. I'll get down on myself really hard about it too, because I usually know better. Somehow, the most idiotic things I've done always seem to come on a skill check with my supervisor.

Learning Curve

I was talking with one of my coworkers the other day. He's the newest hire, and has only been here about three months. It's very interesting watching him go through the same initial learning curve the other trainees and I went through a year ago. He said something which I think exemplifies the training mindset perfectly:

"I like training. I just hate not knowing."

That is exactly how I feel about it. Everyone says training has its ups and downs. The peaks come when you're in your comfort zone, exercising procedures and rules that you know already. The downs occur when you cross into uncharted territory. It can feel like you've entered a desert wasteland without water or a map. The sun's blinding you, you're feeling mighty uncomfortable, and there's a sandstorm brewing from which you have no shelter.

Plenty of things can send you over the edge when you're training. Maybe it's the volume of traffic (like what happened to me yesterday when the number of planes on my frequency quintupled in the space of a minute). Maybe it's an unresponsive pilot who's causing all kinds of safety issues and distracting you (happened to me the day before yesterday). Or maybe you'll get an aircraft or facility in your ear asking for something you've never heard before (happening to me less frequently with experience, but every once in a while I get stumped).

Now, obviously, you can't train for every single scenario. That's why we learn our rules and procedures, so you know what's legal or illegal. The 7110.65, LOA's, and SOP's are all starting points, but they don't teach you technique. That only comes with experience.

If someone asked you how to drive from Miami to Los Angeles, you may not know the exact roads to take but you do know you have to drive on the right side of the road and obey speed suggestions limits. That's a start. That's the 7110.65. With experience and working knowledge, you'll be able to tell them more than "head west". After some time, you can tell them which highways they should use. Soon enough, you can give them shortcuts and tell them which exits to get off on for a good local meal.

But that takes experience. When you're training, you have none to fall back on. Unfortunately - and quite frankly - the pilot or other controller don't care whether you've been talking to airplanes 3 months or 30 years. They want something from you - whether it's an approval, a denial, or an action - and no matter what it is, you need to sort it out. That's the job.

The trick is to sort out those existing issues without causing more of your own.

Example: How to Make Your Life More Difficult

IFR day. I'm working the West sector of the localizer split - i.e. East and West sectors are divided right along the ILS 17 localizer for Pensacola Regional. A Cessna 172 requests a practice ILS approach (note the practice part) and afterwards wants to head to his home field 15 miles northeast. I'm vectoring him in and he is slow as heck in the headwind, showing 60-70 knots over the ground. He's at 1700 feet.

Uh oh. A Learjet's inbound from the northwest. Even though the Lear's 30 miles away, he's going to beat the Cessna easily. So... I give the Cessna a very short vector - maybe 4 extra flying miles - around on the west side of the final, getting him out of the way. I dunk the Lear in and clear him, and bring the Cessna back around. Sounds like a fine plan.

Well, not so fast. The East side suddenly gets a flurry of arrivals, most of them airliners. Then I get a few myself. All of them are jets. We keep boxing the poor Cessna on the west side of the final, trying to make a hole for him. Unfortunately, with a 60 knot ground speed, he's just incompatible with the Embraer 170s and the MD-88s coming in. Also, he's a practice approach, which takes lower priority than the scheduled airliner traffic.

Things deteriorate. The weather keeps getting worse. The Cessna's home base - an uncontrolled field within our airspace - only has a GPS instrument approach. The Cessna is not GPS equipped. The weather has now gotten so bad that he can't cancel IFR and is now requesting a full-stop at Pensacola.

My instructor and I get relieved and the guy is still out there. I stay behind to monitor the next controller. To make a long story short, the Cessna pilot ends up being boxed around for nearly an hour total. Once the flurry of arrivals passes, he's cleared and lands safely. I feel pretty awful about it and half expect a phone call from the pilot. I know that pilots can't always get what they want, but I think I could have done something better; I just don't know what it was.

Afterwards, in talking with the controller working the East side, she makes a simple observation:

When I first had the Cessna coming in for his approach and the Lear appeared, why didn't I just climb the Cessna to 3000 feet?

Such a simple and obvious solution. I could have left the Cessna on his original vectors, but at 3000 feet. I could have dropped the Lear underneath him at 1700, cleared the Lear, and then cleared the Cessna once the Lear was past him. The Cessna would obviously never catch him, and wake turbulence would probably not have been a factor since he would have been far above the glidepath of the jet.

Instead, I had taken the hard road, and caused myself - and the relieving controller - a tremendous headache while leaving some poor student pilot and his instructor tooling around in IMC conditions for an hour.

Just goes to show: the easy road is usually the best road. You just need to be able to recognize the exit ramp that takes you there. :)


Towerboss said...

We've all done that one!

Anonymous said...

I spent 13 yrs there at P31 and the way you described the cessna scenario tells me you are getting it. Keep plugging. P31 is a very unique facility. When I first got there having left CLT I certainly questioned the move.
It is a great place to live though..

Anonymous said...

Would climbing the C182 to 3000 have put him above the glideslope? If so, then you would have had an IFR a/c chasing the glideslope down, which is a bad thing too. If not, that seems like it would have been THE plan. But at the time, the wx had not yet deteriorated and the Cessna was still a practice apch (lower priority/additional duties, for you non-controller types). Sometimes, the bear eats you. AL

Anonymous said...

So Nancie just plugged in, took over and bailed you out?

Anonymous said...

I have a general question for you...
I've just applied online to the general public application for ATC and I'm only 19 so I don't have the 3 years experience, I have alittle over half that..I just wanted to know if you know or have heard of them considering someone even if they don't completely fulfill the basic requirements?

Wicked Penguin said...

@Anon: "I'm only 19 so I don't have the 3 years experience".

From what I understand, they require either 3 years of work experience or a 4 year degree. Based on your age, I don't think you have the 4 year degree.

Anything's possible, but - to be perfectly honest - I wouldn't get my hopes up too high. The basic requirements are there for a reason, and my friends who have gone through the process say the FAA sticks to them.

One option is a 2 year CTI degree at a relatively low cost school like Miami Dade College. It's quick, gives you a fair background in ATC, and guarantees you a hiring slot. It's something to consider if you don't have a pre-existing aviation background.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

SaMMy said...

I just wanted to let you know how much i love your blog here, i read all the ATC blogs i can find, but i love how yours isnt all politics and "contract" gripes, youve actually got some ATC info. I am a soon to be graduate of a CTI school and hope to be at the academy by next fall...all the other blogs say that i shouldnt even want to get into the FAA, but aviation and ATC are things that are bred deep inside me, its almost like a calling really. So anyway, thanks for actually having a blog with some ATC content rather that ATC/FAA gripes.