Staying Afloat

When a controller makes the jump to a new ATC facility, those new, uncertain seas can make for rough sailing for him and the pilots on his frequency.


Along with legions of other pilots, I learned to fly in Cessna Skyhawks, with six-pack instrument panels. Even when I moved on up to the 21st century and Garmin G1000-equipped 172SPs, the core aircraft remained familiar—similar V speeds, control yoke, nose wheel steering, big trim wheel. There was a comfort in the sameness.

But, I recently had the opportunity to fly a Cirrus SR22. While Cessnas and Cirruses run on identical physics, I realized the particulars were different as soon as I settled into the sports car-like cockpit. Much higher speeds. Sidestick control. The unfamiliar Avidyne glass panels. Steering using differential braking. Electric trim. It was a lot of fresh airplane for my brain to absorb.

As we headed across the state, the (literally) on-the-fly process of learning this new, exciting ride reminded me of my training as an air traffic controller. I’ve worked at a few different ATC facilities over the years. Each leap forward in my career was like taking charge of this Cirrus. The overall concept remained the same—keep airplanes apart and provide various services to pilots—but the confidence and familiarity to work the traffic at each new place took time to develop.

Transferring from one facility to another isn’t as easy as walking in the door and plugging a headset into a tower position or radar ‘scope. Just as every aircraft type is unique, so is every ATC facility. Training is a rigorous and soul-crushing experience for controllers of all skill levels. How can you help? Pack a little patience in your flight bag.

From Hero to Zero

Picture a high school, complete with zits, hormones and cliques. Over the next few years, students develop friendships, get to know their teachers, and absorb knowledge. By the time they don a cap and gown, they’ve got it down, kings of that particular hill as they enjoy summer.

Months later, though, they’re starting college. Suddenly, they’re mere freshmen. Whatever respect and friendships they previously earned mean nothing now. Everyone around them is bigger, faster, smarter, more experienced. The laws of the land have changed. There’s a new hierarchy, and they’re sitting at the bottom.

It is the same thing walking in the door of a new ATC facility. No more comfort in your surroundings. No collection of work friends to act as a support network. No respect for your abilities or experience. You have to start over, proving yourself to an all-new group of professionals doing one of the most complex, intense jobs in the world. It is humbling, to say the least. The touchdown zone—certification—seems a long way off.

The biggest hit is to your own confidence. I was one of the most senior at my last facility. While I still learned something new daily—everyone should—I could run my traffic effectively. In between the black and white text of our operating procedures and regulations, there were many nuances and tricks that I’d mastered through experience.

None of that mattered at my next station—different traffic, different airspace, and different people. It was like taking control of that Cirrus. I knew the broad strokes, but the particulars, even everyday things—like how to enter a transponder code—were a complete mystery.

A new facility is like a foreign land—different equipment, unfamiliar checklists, traffic flows that make no sense initially. Even something as basic as an IFR clearance can feel all-new. My first place didn’t have standard instrument departures or standard terminal arrivals. My next facility relied heavily on them. The new phraseology was just one of many new skills I needed to hone.

Blood in the Water

There’s a commanding, I-know-exactly-what-I’m-doing voice quality that’s often associated with capable controllers and pilots. That doesn’t come standard issue. That faith in oneself develops under pressure, training, and experience. A controller’s level of confidence is inversely proportional to the number of times you hear the words “uh” and “correction.”

How does this sound? “November Three Alpha Bravo… correction, November Three Bravo Alpha, turn left… uh… correction, right, heading zero eight zero… correction, uh, make that heading zero six zero.” Terrible, right? Indecisive. Can’t tell left from right. Can’t even say the call sign. Whassup wid all dat?

Well, just for a moment, come into the approach radar room with me. I’m a brand new transfer, plugged into a radar scope. The instructor to my right is loudly questioning a vector I gave to an aircraft and explaining why plan B would’ve been better. My supervisor’s leaning over me, telling me he’s coordinated something special for one of our departures. The guy a scope over yells that a plane he fed me is climbing to 5000 instead of 3000. Coordination calls from both a control tower and a neighboring center are blaring out a speaker to my left.

Oh yeah… I’ve also got 10 airplanes zipping across my scope that need services. That needs to be done according to piles of regulations, operating procedures, and airspace that I haven’t quite grasped yet. Two other—unhealthy—notions are also in the back of my mind. One: I hate feeling clueless, especially since I was certified elsewhere. Two: my family’s well-being is dependent on me getting my shtuff together, surviving this training, and getting certified. The combination is respectively frustrating and frightening.

Amid all of that, you call up for practice approaches. I’m already getting my butt kicked. That momentary silence you hear on frequency is the sound of my brain screaming. I try to push onward, and issue the corrective vector my instructor wanted. The silence returns as I acknowledge my supervisor’s departure coordination. I pick up the two land-line calls, while giving a thumbs up acknowledging my other coworker’s altitude change. Somewhere, I give vectors to a few other, known aircraft (which may or may not involve corrections from my instructor).

Now you’ve already been waiting a while, watching the Hobbs meter tick away. Perhaps you’re getting annoyed. Finally, I recall hearing a voice—your voice—somewhere in the middle of all that. I have no idea who you are or what you want, just that there was an unfamiliar airplane calling. I reach out. Instead of “Epic Controller Voice” from me, all you get is a shaky, “Last aircraft calling unanswered, say again?” You’ve got my attention… finally. How do you respond?

Don’t be an Anchor

In my ATC career, I’ve seen many student solo pilots do, uh, interesting things. Attempt to land on the wrong runway? Check. Taxi out to a runway without talking to Ground first? Yep. Cut in front of the airliner they were told to follow? Uh huh. However, I chose to keep as calm as I could and recognize one thing: the student isn’t messing up on purpose. They want to do better.

I quickly learned to exercise patience with any pilot who identified himself with that verbal red flag “solo” or “student pilot.” I would speak to him more slowly. My instructions would be broken down into shorter, easily-digestible chunks. Of course, I’d be extra vigilant with him. My job would be to keep him safe, and a quick way to do that would be to not make too many demands. He may have been a future Boeing driver, but he wasn’t one yet.

That leads me back to my question: how do you, as a pilot, handle a trainee controller that’s out of his depth? It’s simple: be professional. Restate your request calmly and clearly. Don’t overwhelm them too much. Got multiple approach requests? Just start with the first one. Doing a photo mission with lots of targets? Take it step-by-step. Expect to play 20 questions until you’re both on the same page.

Don’t be like those pilots I’ve seen who’ve launched into a tirade and/or immature sarcasm after being asked to “say again” a couple times. “For the third time, we want…” Listen, I understand. Getting sub-par service sucks. My wife used to work telephone customer service for a cell phone company, and would spend an hour after work every day just venting about callers treating her like a punching bag over inconsequential things.

Those angry pilots lost sight of the big picture. We’re not talking about someone being unable to sext their significant other. A trainee controller is learning to deal with real safety issues with real lives at stake, and pitching a fit on frequency does nothing more than create a distraction for everyone. Take the high ground.

Imagine you’re taking your brand-new instrument rating for a spin, and shoot your first ILS approach in actual IMC conditions. You accidentally drop below the assigned intercept altitude. Would an approach controller verbally berating you about the altitude bust help you land in awful weather conditions? No. However, a controller calmly restating “maintain 2000 until established” can nudge you back to where you’re supposed to be. You know you screwed up. Now you can just focus on fixing it.

Under the Microscope

Whatever criticism I deserved as a trainee, it was delivered most brutally by two sources: myself and my instructors. I am certainly my own worst critic and was hard on myself—sometimes too hard—when I made errors. My instructors were a close second. ATC trainees are never on their own. There are no “solo” flights in ATC, no taking a scope for a spin by yourself without being certified. You’ve got an instructor plugged in next to you at all times, and they’ll document everything you did on written reports.

The instructor’s job is to push your boundaries, but only within his own limits. Traffic efficiency may suffer some during training, but safety and order should never be compromised. He can’t let a situation go beyond what he can fix himself. As an ATC trainer myself over the years, it was my job to take over if a trainee was struggling to keep up.

Each time I transferred and went into training again, I relied on my instructors to pull me out of trouble when I lost situational awareness. Once I certified, I’d apply what they taught me to future trainees. It’s the ATC circle of life.

There is another pressure point for transferring certified controllers: since we’ve already proven we can do the job elsewhere, we get less leeway. Sure, we get the benefit of experience. However, we may get fewer training hours. A “zero experience” hire off the street can get 100 hours per radar sector to certify. A transfer might only get 75. Or 50. Your peers also have much higher performance expectations for you, as they should.

Training is simply a real sensory overload. It was for me, as a private pilot, as a fresh controller, and as a transferring controller. However, the harder the slog to the finish line, the greater the accomplishment. It takes time and perseverance. I am forever grateful for the instructors who showed me their ways, and for the pilots who gave me a hand.

Is a controller trainee so far down the toilet they can’t see daylight? Work with them as best as you can. Act as you would wish to be treated when you were a student pilot, and, in time, they could be the one helping you out when you need it.

Defensive Driving

Flying under the less-than-inspiring eye of a controller-in-training? Here’s a brief, common sense survival guide.

Look outside. Trainees are still developing their traffic conflict scan. They may not see a target converging with you, or recognize it’s a factor. This is especially true in high traffic areas immediately around airports, or scenic areas like coastlines and other natural wonders that draw lots of VFR sightseers.

Verify everything. Did the trainee bungle the phraseology and give conflicting, unclear, or plain ol’ nonsensical instructions? Don’t read between the lines, or assume he really meant ABC when he said XYZ. Get concrete confirmation. “Say again heading?” “Say again altitude assignment?” It can stop a dangerous situation before it starts.

Report hazardous weather. If you see vertical cloud development ahead, speak up. Our radars don’t depict clouds, only precipitation, so we might not see rain or snow yet. Or, the trainee might not have noticed or forgot to issue it. Give him a reason to practice his weather phraseology and get you the information you need.

Look out for number one. If a trainee inadvertently puts you into an unsafe situation—like clearing another plane for takeoff when you’re on short final, or turning you towards an obstacle—do what you need to do. Go around. Delay the turn and ask for verification. Protect yourself. Their instructor is supposed to catch all these things, but they may be in the midst of putting out another fire and not have time to stop the new one from flaring up.

Tell someone. If you got some really bad service, many FBOs have the phone numbers for nearby ATC facilities. Talk to someone about what happened. We can research it and see what could be done better next time.

Tarrance Kramer has trained many controllers over the years, and appreciates the patience of pilots everywhere whenever he has to take over for a trainee and say, “Sorry about that. Training in progress.”


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