Hi folks. To recycle an increasingly-tired node opening: some of you know I am currently training as an air traffic controller. I have already expounded on the trials of getting started, but until recently have said little on what has occurred since then.
Those few of you subjected to regular contact with me may have a vague inkling that I have had some problems; how vague I don't know, since I honestly can't remember who I've mentioned it to and in how much detail. As much as I love my job (seriously), I expect it doesn't float many people's boats. I try to avoid talking about it to 'normal' people unless I'm asked, soon after which the asker usually regrets that status. I watch with dismay their eyes glaze over within about a minute of the "so, what do you do?" question as I try to describe it and elucidate its draws for me.
The people who do not have this reaction are, funnily enough, a subset of people I love.
I realise my noding the subject doesn't quite tally with the above paragraphs, but it does with my general mission drive of demystification. Phew. Total existence negation subverted.
So, problems then.
ATC training with NATS Ltd begins with a 12-week 'Basic' course, at their college next to Bournemouth International Airport (it's the first building on the left when you go down the approach road to the terminal). The course begins with about five weeks of theory on such spiffing subjects as aviation law, meteorology, aircraft characteristics and recognition, navigation and a raft of smaller subjects. There are paper exams throughout, and virtually everything that is taught before they occur is examinable. More than that, a large chunk will go on to form a part of daily working life so it isn't a case of cramming to pass the exam then forgetting about it.
That isn't really a problem. Learn how to study and you're sorted. If I'd studied like that at University I'd have walked out with a First and still had time to blow my student loan on creative drinking two or three times a week. Here, I went to college, did the lessons, came home at five, studied until about nine or ten at night (with dinner in there somewhere), went to bed and repeated the same the following day. At least one day of the weekend was largely given over to studying, the other to watching DVDs or playing EVE Online.
In week six, practicals start. You start doing simulated ATC work. You work through several phases of exercises as the traffic levels, number of tasks and operating principles you have to work with stack up. An instructor sits with you for each 'run' and gives advice or comments on your controlling, writing up a report at the end with specific things you did well or need to improve for next time.
The 'formative' (practice) phase consists of some fifteen hours of simulated controlling. None of these exercises are assessed (though if you're consistently good or bad, people notice - students and instructors alike); they are simply there to develop some basic controlling skills and smooth out the uncertainties of this early stage of training. Some questions, if asked, seldom lead to anything bar further confusion but thankfully these are few and of debatable import.
Theory continues to be shovelled on while this is going on, albeit at a reduced rate to make room for sims.
At some point after the practicals start, all the paper exams happen. This was fine. I passed all of them first time (pass mark 70%) with respectable marks. I was somewhat chagrined to get 100% for the aircraft characteristics and recognition mock exam but 'only' 96.7% for the real one, but that's neither here nor there.
I remember feeling fine about things at this stage, the first time through. I will likely go into this further in a 'lesson writeup but the reports from the last of my formative exercises support this feeling fairly well. I was expecting to pass. I didn't think it would be with flying colours, but I thought it would be... okay.
This isn't to say those first three months went without a hitch; I was isolated geographically and financially from my colleagues, several of whom I'd become good friends with. This was unfortunate because when you're working so hard in such close proximity with people it's impossible to avoid getting close to at least some of them, and virtually everyone develops a set of close friends at work as the course progresses.
These are more than just 'work friends'.
Work is the main feature of your life at this point and for the most part, people that are ensconced in it with you are best able to understand how it makes you feel, and give meaningful support and encouragement. Unwinding with these people is important, but the opportunities I permitted myself to do so were rare.
I also had a problem with asking for help, though never thought I did. I didn't try hard enough to seek solutions to problems I was having with controlling, hoping and assuming they would iron out with practice. The course being as short as it is, it was unrealistic to think I had that kind of time.
Once the formatives are over, the 'summatives' follow in short order. They are five simulator exercises that you run to demonstrate understanding of the rules you are expected to follow, the flexibility needed to adapt to changing traffic situations, the ability to plan ahead and to execute those plans in a manner consistent with prescribed procedures. That means you say all the words right and don't break any rules. Your performance in these five exercises is used to assess you. Multiple exercises are used to get a reasonable average of your ability, rather than risk catching you on a good or bad day with a single exercise.
The only difference between these and the previous formative exercises is the 'exam conditions'. The traffic is no busier, there are no new procedures, but the instructor sitting with you is silent. They sit watching with an ominously pink report form and write comments as they watch you run the exercise. You sit at the simulator, run the exercise and try not to die.
Afterwards the instructor gives you a debriefing, similar to that which follows a formative exercise, only it is less of a discussion. The instructor may ask you about things you did during the exercise, perhaps to establish whether you understand related rules and procedures, or point out things you did wrong or (gasp) compliment things you did.
Once the debriefing is over you receive the completed summative report form. This contains the instructor's comments on how successfully you achieved twelve objectives (things like separation, communications technique, flight data presentation, vectoring and... well, about eight others). For each, on top of the instructor's comments you get one of four marks for each objective - 'fully achieved', 'mostly achieved', 'partly achieved' or 'not achieved'.
Fullys and mostlys good, partlys and nots bad.
My summatives did not go well. The first exercise garnered me a 'not' for creating about as dangerous a situation as two aircraft can get into without actually having an airmiss (flying directly at each other, just barely getting 1,000ft of vertical separation before losing five miles horizontal separation). That exercise probably torpedoed my confidence for the rest, as I went on to rack up 16 partlys and my first ever airmiss on the last exercise, which had gone splendidly up to that point (I didn't even notice the error happen).
I did say I'm out to inspire confidence.
I thought a pass was possible after this, but in honesty I thought it could go either way. The encouragement I received along the way from one person in particular has not been forgotten and I'm very grateful for it. You know who you are, or I hope you do. I'll make sure you do.
Results day, late September 2006, all of the course (50 or so) were gathered waiting for result envelopes to be handed out. We had been waiting for several hours so the initial, thickly pensive atmosphere had given way to bored fidgeting, larking about and, er, chess. Once the course manager finally arrived, silence descended again like an anvil. As the envelopes were passed around and opened, this did not change. There were gasps, sighs and murmurings.
Twenty-six people had failed, and I was one of them. I was floored by this, but initially not able to comprehend very much at all. The people who had passed were taken into another room for a conversation with the course manager, and I was later told by several of them (who may have been trying to make me feel better) that no-one was smiling in that meeting. All of them had one or more friends amongst our number. A 50% failure rate is... unusual.
I'm not going to go ad nauseum through the process that followed; suffice it to say I had to do a panel interview with some managers to convince them permitting me another attempt at the Basic course was worth it. That I had learned from my mistakes and had a strategy for overcoming them. I succeeded in said convincing. After about three months of waiting (during which I worked at the London Area Control Centre at Swanwick, Hampshire, which I heartily recommend you visit if given the opportunity) I restarted training in January this year.
The theory was a fairly pleasant experience this time through. We (there were several of us resitting) were frequently booted out of lessons by instructors who recognised us and excused us from attending. Unlike before I did not spend my weeknights studying; instead I caught up on reading, interweb mooching, flight simming and even the (gasp) occasional node. I passed all but one of the exams with a higher mark than previously, with a total revision for all subjects of about six hours.
Once the practical work started it initially came much more naturally and easily, but problems soon arose. About halfway through the formative phase quite a severe round of depression and tension hit me seemingly from nowhere (though I have had depression, on and off, for around ten years now). The isolation was (and is) still present but was bearing much harder for unknown reasons, otherwise manifesting itself in severe and repetitive mistakes, inability to concentrate properly while controlling or to relax outside of work. A lot of my formative forms had paraphrasings of 'you can do much better than this,' and I was generally feeling extremely low but unable to tell anyone.
Coupled with financial problems and other personal stuff it felt like an unrecoverable situation. A couple of nights saw me sobbing into either my pillow or the phone. The phrase "there's a difference between 'difficult' and 'debilitating'" sticks in my memory from one conversation with my parents. I didn't feel like I was capable of doing the job and didn't know who was 'with' me on my efforts. All of my family are very reserved and poor communicators (me included) so I still have only the vaguest idea what the view is of this venture of mine.
After speaking to my manager about all of this I considered suspending my training on health grounds. I went to my GP, who rather disappointingly offered me antidepressants after talking to me for all of five minutes. I didn't take them, or the beta blockers I came away with a prescription for. But, for reasons passing understanding, I gradually started to feel better and over the following weeks returned to a decent level of controlling aptitude.
Take-two of the summatives began on the 23rd and by this time I was feeling confident again. The difference was this time it was informed by extra experience and hindsight of my previous attempt, so it felt like justified confidence. However, I did feel like simplifying things a little: I dumped my laptop in my locker at work, bought an armful of books and started reading. It seemed to be beneficial one way or another, and I will be doing this more often.
Although I still, predictably and fairly reasonably, had some anxiety before each summative exercise, things concluded rather well overall. To recap: on attempt number one I totalled 16 partlys over all summatives. This time I got two, one each in two exercises, neither with safety implications and neither particularly serious, and not for the same thing. On attempt number one I only had one 'clean' run (in which all marks are fullys or mostlys) out of six; this time I had four and moreover, my two highest-graded exercises were my last two. The result for my very last exercise was eleven fullys and one mostly. Assessors like it if you show an upward trend, and it's great to finish on a high like that whatever the overall result is.
At the end of the interview which determined I would be allowed to retake this training, I was told it was not just a pass that was expected of me, but a good one.
Well, I got it. Today was results day. Again.
I am out shortly to get off my face but before that, a little perspective: I am now approximately one-sixth of the way to becoming an air traffic controller. In a few days I start training for an Area Control Surveillance Rating, which will take a further six months, then I will be posted to an ATC unit and begin a further 12-18 months of on-the-job training, which I must complete satisfactorily before I can work alone. There are roughly a hojillion kabillion chances for me to fail between here and there.
But I'm not worrying about that tonight.
After nine months I've finally completed a course of training that should have been over after 12 weeks and am ready to start some 'real' work. This was the first year of Uni (which, funnily enough, I also sat twice): a hurdle to clear for admittance to the second year.
Once again I want to show my gratitude to those of you who have spoken words of kindness and encouragement over the last few months. I needed it and you gave it. I'm humbled. Thank you.