little things can make a big difference

My training has now reached the stage where all theory and paper exams are complete. All that remains between now and the 'summative' simulator exercises -- on whose satisfactory execution the continuation of my training depends -- is a further half-dozen formative simulator exercises. Six half-hour exercises in seven days.

In other words, if I'm not rostered for a simulator, I have nothing to do. No studying, no administration, no practicing of phraseology (I remember it all from the last time around). This morning, at 8:30, I went to college for an exam. At 10:30, I came home. I had time for my morning cuppa before I did.

I am now here with all of the feedback forms from my simulator exercises to date (including those from the summative exercises of my last - failed - attempt at the course). On each one, the instructor (who watches you run the exercise and interjects as appropriate) writes comments on how successfully you achieved particular objectives, assuming you did anything warranting more than a tick or an "ok".

Here are a couple of quoted objectives from an early phase of simulator exercises:

react immediately to any pilot request for re-routing and promptly issue any necessary instructions which will vector the aircraft along the newly requested route

constantly monitor the progress of each aircraft and react promptly to any perceived need for heading changes

Bold type is theirs.

Counting up these reports, to date I have spent approximately 32 hours controlling simulated air traffic. The only thing that remains to satisfy any notion of due diligence is to go over my reports and look for particular patterns of behaviour or consistent errors that I can add to my list of clueless newbie mistakes to avoid. These 'lessons' are some of the points that I have taken from such study, and I hope to pass them on in a fairly digestible manner.

* * * * *

We are still in hour one of our retrospective. In this very early stage of practical training we are controlling aircraft in the horizontal dimension only: manually vectoring (issuing turn instructions to) aircraft through a series of gates on our radar screen. We will have no more than three aircraft on the go at once (present-day-noder's note - by the end of NATS's 'Foundation' course on Area control, it is not unusual to be controlling upwards of 15 aircraft simultaneously) . Although these goalposts are around five miles wide this is not as easy as it sounds for a beginner.

The few of us that are resitting the course this time took some amusement from the looks of horror and bemusement on the faces of the wee ones during the practical briefing (this being, by and large, their first exposure to ATC work of any form). Of course, being the supportive and empathetic people we are we moderated these reactions, also wishing to avoid (what would be fairly reasonable) comments like "fuck you, if you're so great why didn't you pass the first time around?" I was rather daunted the first time I did this, as is probably clear from my first experience.

One of the things that has been battered into us trainees over and over by instructors is to constantly scan our strips while we are controlling. It's a habit to get into; the idea being that you don't miss things that need doing with aircraft.

[As I've now discussed elsewhere] the strip scan is an integral part of controlling; at least, that's what they keep telling us. Certain instructors go on about how they 'just used teevee' to control traffic in Their Day, but that's neither here nor there. The idea is that you use your flight strips as a 'safety test' of sorts for what you're considering doing with your aircraft. I'm not going to go too deep into that - and I can hear noders sighing with relief - as I've done it in the flight progress strips writeup, but suffice it to say that a flight progress strip represents a single aircraft. The controller keeps a board in front of them, on which resides the flight strips for all the aircraft they're controlling, the aircraft they will soon be controlling, and in some cases, aircraft they are no longer controlling.

The idea is that the controller goes through the strips one by one - the 'active' strips are kept in one or more vertical layouts in front of the controller - and asks themselves three questions for each aircraft represented therein (pardon my gender bias):

  • What does he want?
  • What does he have?
  • What can I give him?

These questions will almost always concern direction or - and I'm jumping ahead of this lesson's place in my training cycle here - level. If an aircraft is on its own navigation (it is not flying in a direction instructed by the controller, but is following its own planned route), then these questions will generally pertain to the aircraft's level:

  • What level does he want?
  • What level have I given him so far?
  • If that's not the level he wants, can I do any better than I've given him already?

For every aircraft you're asking these questions, and you're asking them in the space of a few seconds. When you get busier, you can't afford to spend longer than five to ten seconds pondering an aircraft's situation before taking some action or moving onto the next one. Things run away with you if you think too much.

The theme of this lesson really concerns the third of the questions above. You're always looking to improve on what you've given an aircraft so far. Every time you look at an aircraft you're asking yourself what else it needs. Does it need a climb? A descent? A turn? These things, on their own, may be quite small things, but in a chaotic sort of way the situation can balloon if you miss opportunities to do them.

Let's say you're vectoring - turning - an aircraft so that it can establish on the ILS for an airport. The ILS is ground-based equipment that transmits signals to aircraft that allows the pilot to use instruments to see where their aircraft is in relation to the projected centreline of the runway (even if they can't actually see the runway itself), and in relation to the ideal 'glideslope' - an 3° descent path projected up from the touchdown end of the runway.

It is usually ATC's responsibility to position IFR aircraft (rather than VFR aircraft, which navigate their own way visually) so that they can 'establish' on the ILS - to get lined up with the ILS 'localiser' which marks the runway centreline. There are generally a minimum of three turns needed to establish an aircraft on the ILS, more depending on its initial direction relative to the runway.

Here's an example approach path an aircraft might follow:

- - - - - - - -> DOWNWIND LEG >- - - - - - - - - - - - - - *turn*
                                                            \
                                                              \
                                                               |
                                                               | BASE LEG
                                                               |
                                                               | 
                                                               | *turn*
                                                              /
+---------------------+                                    /  CLOSING HEADING
| - - - - - - - - - - |  - - - - < FINAL APPROACH <- - -/ - - - -
+---------------------+                                  *turn*

As the aircraft is moving all the time, at least one of these turns is time-critical. A turn has safety implications less commonly than a climb or descent, so the position of the aircraft usually gets higher consideration than its situation relative to other traffic (and I'm not going to go into the 'unusually' in this writeup). So this would be one of the aforementioned 'small' things.

So you get your aircraft onto the downwind leg of its approach, then turn it onto the base leg. Now it is approaching the projected centreline of the runway at right angles. Only one turn remains, for the 'closing' heading. The closing heading needs to be about 30° off the runway heading so the aircraft gradually converges with the runway centreline (if the angle is too great, the aircraft will not be able to turn tightly enough to establish and will fly through the localiser beam). The turn onto final approach is done by the aircraft itself, once it establishes on the localiser.

That's fine, the aircraft is now happily on its base leg and you turn your attention to your other aircraft.

Give traffic information to her...Give that one a climb, and -- oh, hold on, is that aircraft blocking the climb? Let's have a quick look at his strip...Yeah, he's in the way...Turn them both...Climb the guy that wants climb...Have a look at the next few aircraft coming into the sector, and...OH CRAP I forgot to turn the inbound onto a closing heading and he's flown through the localiser...Turn him again to establish from the other side, and...OH CRAP the climbing aircraft I turned has gone outside controlled airspace...Turn her back in, give her clearance to re-enter controlled airspace...check the other aircraft I turned and make sure he's not going outside the airway...oh jesus more aircraft are calling me...okay climb him, descend that one and give him the ATIS...did I descend that inbound? CRAP I forgot, he's too high to pick up the glidepath signal...give him expedited descent...SHIT, that RAS aircraft is about to merge with a 7000 squawk, give him avoiding action! Nope, this approach isn't happening - "Monarch 457: Go around, I say again, go around!"

This is not too extreme an example for an early trainee - certainly not for this one - but it does illustrate how one oversight or unusual event can put you on the back foot and affect everything else. Once you establish a steady rhythm to your controlling, you have plenty of spare capacity for the occasional misstep, pilot mistake or (later) emergencies, but at the beginning your workload capacity is quite small and you can overreact to small problems. Getting stressed makes everything harder and increases the likelihood that you'll make more mistakes and compound the situation further. You gotta pay attention to the details.

So, who wants in?

<<Lesson #3 | Lesson 5>>


Note: if anyone cares, I started this node some 18 months prior to the noding date, so it doesn't fit my present circumstances. I have completed it in the same vein as I began it.

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