some instructors are really picky you don't know anything
So it's July 31, 2006. I'm sitting in front of a simulator bank in H-Block, affectionately called the 'Cow shed', which is where our 'Basic' course will do all of its practical work. I got here about five weeks ago and for all of that time I have been ensconced in the most interminable tract of spirit-crushing theory I have done in my life.
That isn't true.
Only parts of it are actually spirit-crushing.
I'm incredibly happy to be here. This job has been my dream for about five years, and finally I made it through. Most of the theory is interesting in some way, and the stuff that isn't I am happy to devote equally obsessive studying time to, since I'm so damn motivated after spending five years getting the job.
My college is next to Bournemouth International Airport. It's summer. One just has to poke one's head out of the door to get an authentic al fresco kerosene vapour experience. The windows of the classrooms shake from the rumble of baby Boeings taking off outside. The Red Arrows stop by every now and then. One of our instructors is quite tight with them and knows all of the goings-on. Not so long ago some of us were studying on some benches out front of the college after work, when the Sparrows (RAF colloquialism) flew over, looped overhead in formation and did a Vixen Break aiming straight down towards us.
Yeah, we didn't really get much more revision done that evening. Buzzing like idiots. You just don't get that kind of thing at an airshow. Aerobatics isn't permitted over crowds. A couple of weeks later we were standing at the end of runway 26 when they came back from a display over Bournemouth Beach; you haven't seen the Sparrows until they've passed 50ft above you in formation, done a horizontal break over the runway, circled round behind you in two separate arcs and reformed into a perfect nine-ship convoy, passing overhead for a second time to land.
Anyway, theory isn't done yet but now the practicals have started it feels like we're starting work proper. I'm reminded a little of the whole 'we won't make you work' surprise of University and A-Levels as it becomes clear I have insufficiently prepared for this, my first simulator exercise.
The simulator bank towers over me as I sit down; less, I will soon learn, than any of the sims I will use on future course, but for now: shit. There's a thick desk with a sloped wooden board to put flight strips on, a 19" CRT serving as a radar screen and a 15" CRT next to it with weather information on it. The desk has a couple of DIN sockets for headsets, a foot switch on the floor for the R/T (radiotelephone) and a PTT (push to talk) switch on the left side of the desk. That does the same as the foot switch, should you prefer not to use it. On the other side of the desk is a telephone panel, with lots of buttons to press. I will only use one of them today.
I have no idea what I am doing. My instructor is Russian. He used to fly MiG-21s and 25s (those are just the ones we know about) but otherwise I know little, except that he is one of two instructors here who would have attacked each other's air bases if the balloon had ever gone up. This is my first ever sim run, and I am rather intimidated and shaky.
Did I mention I have no idea what I am doing?
I should have studied some of the requisite phraseology and procedures by this point; this is as clear as the fact I haven't. Fortunately the range of instructions I will give in this 'phase' of exercises is fairly limited - "turn left/right heading xxx," "turn left xxx degrees and report heading" and "resume own navigation <destination>" covers the basics. However, there are other things; I don't even know I'm supposed to do radio checks and telephone checks before starting the exercise and have to ask my instructor what I need to say. He tells me with a roll of his eyes and an intonation my timid brain easily interprets as a tonal wonderment of how I passed selection:
"Just press the 'Seaton Tower' button and when he answers it, say 'Tyne Sector, telephone check', then do it with the radio for input one and two - 'input one, radio check, one three two decimal three'".
"And then the same for input two?"
"..." A withering stare. "Yes."
'Input one' is an assistant controlling the simulation. They are the ones who actually make the aircraft onscreen do what I'm instructing, and they also play the part of some of the aircraft for the purposes of reading back my instructions. 'Input two' is another student, like me. For each simulator exercise you're paired with another student. One student controls first, while the other plugs in on the input side; they have a script and will play the part of the rest of the aircraft in the exercise. After my exercise is over, the other student and I will swap places. Each exercise will last about thirty minutes.
I go ahead and do my radio checks then, cringing, ask what I'm supposed to say next. My god, this is terrible.
"Just do a countdown, then say 'clocks on'."
"Okay." (I key the foot switch) "Three, two, one, clocks on."
"Clocks on," the assistant responds.
Blips start plodding in from the edges of the screen. For these early exercises I'm supposed to turn - vector - aircraft under my control so that they successfully pass through a series of gates. There is a paper strip for each aircraft, which says the sequence of gates they want to fly through. We are not concerned with the altitude of aircraft at this stage, we're just controlling in the horizontal dimension.
The first aircraft calls up, tells me his magnetic heading and route he wants to fly. In a slightly wavering voice I repeat his callsign in reply and say "Roger, maintain heading 255."
"Don't say that," the instructor says, "say 'continue present heading, report heading.'"
"Okay," I say, and repeat on the R/T what he has just said. The 'aircraft' reads it back, so I guess that was the first thing I did right. Not quite precisely enough though: apparently I said "Continue present heading, report your heading." The appropriate section of the post-sim feedback form says 'Use only phraseology which is either standard, as per [The Manual of Air Traffic Services (MATS)] part 1, or agreed between [The College] and [The CAA] and taught in classroom instruction.' A comment was added: "report
I do reasonably as the exercise progresses, with some decent vectoring to get aircraft through the gates they want. Apart from failing to say "degrees" on the end of heading instructions that end with a zero and telling aircraft to "resume own navigation" (use its own navigation equipment to route through the sector, rather than just flying in the direction I'm telling it to) without actually telling it where to resume its own navigation to, things seem okay. Ish. Until the first time I come to get rid of an aircraft - that is, to give it the radio frequency for the next sector before it exits my airspace:
"Alitalia four-five-four, contact Medway Control on one-three-two decimal niner"
"STOP CLOCKS!" yells the instructor.
"Clocks off," the Inputter replies, demonstrating far greater control over his inflection than I did over my bowel functions. The radar screen freezes.
"Okay," continues my instructor. "Where did you get that from?"
He gets a copy of MATS Part 1 down from the top of the simulator bank. "Where in MATS does it say 'contact Medway control, on one-three-two decimal niner'?"
Oh dear god.
"Er, I d-don't remember..."
He shows me MATS's phraseology index: "You don't say 'on', just say 'contact wherever', and then the frequency. Have you ever done anything like this before, any R/T?"
"Never before, okay." He scribbles a bit more on the feedback form.
"But I used to listen to ATC quite a bit before I joined."
"Okay, where did you listen to this?"
"On the Internet."
"Yeah yeah, but where was it from?"
"Oh, it was from U.S. airports. O'Hare, Atlanta.."
"Okay, don't listen to U.S. controllers, they're crap."
"Er, okay." This is rather uncomfortable. "I've been listening to Heathrow lately as well, though."
"Oh, well don't listen to them either, they're crap too. While you're here, MATS is your bible."
It wasn't a disastrous first exercise. All of the aircraft got through the gates they wanted, though I was being too realistic with my vectoring early on; allowing a large space for bigger aircraft to make their turns when in this sim, all of the aircraft have turn rates that would see every passenger's gin decorating the opposite wall of the cabin.
I will later discover how incredibly easy this exercise is, but the lesson to take from this short story is that you need to demonstrate you know the rules before being allowed to bend them. Such bending happens constantly in the operational world, which I had already picked up some bad habits from.
Retrospectively, automatic phraseology is incredibly important. This is now clear. Pilots know what kind of phrases to expect from you and will take longer to react to instructions that aren't phrased in standard ways. Furthermore, if you have to spend time thinking about what you need to say to achieve the desired result, that's less time you've got to plan with. Although we refer to the level of traffic in this exercise as 'dead', later on extra seconds become more important. Being able to automatically rattle off the phrase you need to get an aircraft to do what you want is critical. This was exemplified just the other day when an aircraft of mine wanted a descent and I forgot to give it. This is the exchange that occurred when I was about to dump him on the next sector:
"Continental six-four contact Medway Control one-three-two decimal zero fife fife."
"Er, we'd rather like a descent for Newtown [airport] please, Continental six-four..."
I mutter "shit," do a quick radar scan for opposite-direction traffic and about half a second later key the foot switch:
"Continental six-four take up a left-hand orbit, roll out heading zero-six-zero degrees, descend flight level one two zero."
With less than a second of thinking, the response came out. No fretting, no tearing my hair out, no asking the instructor what to do. Yes, I screwed up or I wouldn't have had to do that, but I'm quite pleased with how automatically I handled the fallout.
As I am retaking this course I have now done the aforementioned vectoring exercise a second time. It was absolute pish.
Yes, part of the quoted exercise above appears in another of my nodes. I thought it bore repeating in a different context.