The trainee provides and accepts support. He/she considers the suggestions of other team members. He/she admits his/her mistakes and corrects them.

He/she feels responsible for team performance with regard to safety and efficiency.

This is the start of a new mini-series, taking a look at each of the items we get rated on (using so-called Exercise Debriefing Sheets). For one, this provides a little insight into how our performance is measured. Second, it might also serve as a guide to the abilities, skills, and knowledge an Air Traffic Controller has to possess, albeit I don’t claim this to be accurate and/or complete.

The first item I’ll look at is teamwork, and it’s not a random choice to put it in front. While it will be seen that the other items are also (considered by me to be) quite essential, at this stage of training I am pretty much convinced that teamwork is probably the foundation without which everything else simply could not work.

The air traffic system by nature is a team effort, with multiple partners playing together to make it work, and Air Traffic Control as a part of it is no exception.

Most visible to us (and our coaches, which is why they rate us on it) right now is of course the teamwork between the individual controllers, both on the same sector (Executive and Planner) as well as with the crews of adjacent sectors (in the simulator, usually three to four sectors are working together).

The quote above taken directly from the debriefing sheet is a start to describe what is necessary for our team to work, but there is much more to it.

For one, it doesn’t mention empathy (probably because it is hard to judge from the outside). Everyone is different (despite all Air Traffic Controllers seemingly sharing an equal kind of crazyness), with different abilities, emotions, needs etc.
One example which used to be difficult for me (I think I’m getting better at it by now though) is the difference between some fellow trainees allowing, and even requesting constant input from the Planner when they are Executive while others prefer to fully formulate their own solutions, rather relying on more subtle interaction with the Planner (unless it’s really urgent).

Some have no issue at all with the Planner being right over their work-space all the time, arms crossed over the flight progress strip board with everyone writing things down at the same time, fingers pointed at each other’s radar screen (both Executive and Planner have one screen each). Others wish for more room to breathe, shooing the Planner away if he gets too close for comfort or has his hands in their way.

None of these characteristics are “good” or “bad” – they are simply there, and have to be taken into account. They basically set the “tone” between Executive and Planner. If that tone is not clear to both sides, and adhered to during the run, team efficiency will suffer.

Of course, every run will end (usually after one or two hours), followed by a new one, usually with a new team, and a new tone. Empathy goes a huge way in making these constant transitions easy on all sides. It is basically a “force multiplier”. It can, will and already did make or break a successful (and fun!) run.

I’m glad to say that during the recent weeks, I have given and received an increasing number of compliments about our teamwork, to and from fellow trainees very much differing in their “tone” preferences as described above. I think we are on a very good way with regards to teamwork – and that means we are on a very good way overall.

too easy?

A good handful of runs today, with some high traffic in between.

At first though, my Planner and I, scheduled for a Langen Arrival run, are sent back to bed because the system at our position is not working properly. I use that time to try and teach my computer to make me coffee, but for some strange reason, it doesn’t work.

[chester@Lucifer]:~$ make coffee
make: *** No rule to make target `coffee’.  Stop.

Obviously, it doesn’t know the recipe. Oh well, can’t have everything.

After that, we start a two hour Donau Low run. My Planner and I are hovering on the verge of falling behind for the first five minutes or so, which are already full of complex traffic – compared to the usual “start slow and build from there” scheme former runs followed. With a good team effort though, we manage to get back ahead of the situation and the rest of the two hours pass by smoothly.

After the lunch break, two one-hour runs on Wuerzburg-Low, one as Planner and one as Executive. We have delegated the north-western corner of our airspace to a new sector which is busy keeping our Langen inbounds in a hold.

I get to an excellent start as Executive in the second run, for about 40 minutes everything seems to work perfectly – and then I get bored.

The end result is that for the next fifteen minutes, nothing seems to work. I miraculously manage to keep the traffic apart from each other, meaning it is (somewhat) safe, but it is certainly not nice. For some reason, the picture simply eludes me, pre-planning is pretty much down the drain and adjacent sectors start to wonder why they are not getting airplanes sent to their frequency in time.

However, probably due to the perfect first forty minutes, I still get a good to excellent rating on this run from the coach.

Lesson learned today – it is never ever boring (it probably was during a few runs at earlier stages of training, but those are long gone). If you think there is nothing to do, check again – you probably missed something. And even if not – the time spent during slow periods to look at all future traffic, analyse its conflicts and plan ahead to resolve them, is going to be invaluable during the next rush (and it will come).

P.S.: The laugh of the day is mine on Donau Low when I instruct a military jet (easily capable of that) to descend at 8000 feet per minute. After that, I descend an airliner (where you can be happy if it can do 3000-4000 fpm) right above the military jet. Of course, we have to keep that legal (vertical separation needs to be maintained), and I instruct the airliner to descend at 8000 feet per minute or less. A puzzled pilot and two laughing trainees respectively coaches are the result. :)

changing the rules

New week, new things – and this time, we actually had a briefing about it before.

I start the monday as Executive on the sector Donau-Low. The first good deed of the day is to break apart two formations of two military jets each so they can land individually at their airfield, Neuburg.

This is called “split” in our lingo, its aim is to get a distance between the jets so we can call it “separation” – in this case, that is either 1000 feet vertically or 5 nautical miles horizontally. Naturally, I take the easy way out and initially just descend one of the two jets (Eurofighters, for anyone actually interested), breaking him away to whatever direction I desire once I have the 1000 feet.

The good thing about easy ways is that usually they work quite easily – no disappointment this time either.

The next challenge is airplanes intending to change their flight rules – from VFR to IFR or vice versa. I guess a bit more of an explanation will be required at this point though…

VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules and basically means airplanes finding their way completely on their own, relying on visual clues (terrain or man-made objects) to navigate, keeping themselves separated without the help of Air Traffic Control (there are certain exceptions to that, but I will get to those later). This is probably the easiest way to fly with the most freedom, but also the one least relying on any outside support (namely ATC) and thus less safe than IFR. Also, good weather is a must here. As is daytime, because at night, it’s dark, and there is so much less to see (d’uh). Thus, mostly small private airplanes fly according to these rules.

IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules. In this case, airplanes are constantly in contact and under the control of ATC, which has to ensure they are separated from other airplanes. Instead of navigating via visual clues, they mostly use special radio beacons, inertial navigation systems or GPS, removing the need for good weather and daytime (good weather is still quite liked though). This is the more heavily regulated form of flying, however usually considered more safe than VFR. In general, all transport airplanes (airliners) will fly according to these rules.

Alright, got this out of the way.

The first flight rule change of the day is a very, very, very, very old Beech 18 on its way to Gunzenhausen, a very, very, very, very small airfield in our sector. Since this airfield is not served by Air Traffic Control (too small, too remote, too little traffic), we can’t get IFR flights to it, so they have to change to VFR (“cancel IFR”) before they can land.

Before they can do that, they have to be descended below flight level 100 (roughly 10.000 feet altitude), because as a rule, they can’t (usually) fly VFR above that. They also have to find a spot of nice weather where they can actually see. And yes, daytime comes in handy, too.

Today we have perfect weather conditions, it’s a clear day and the Beech very quickly cancels IFR once below flight level 100. As is customary, I tell him his position (“Gunzenhausen at your 12 o’ clock, 30 miles”), instruct him to change his transponder setting to indicate a VFR flight and allow him to leave my frequency. With that, he’s gone, meaning he can freely roam around the skies (within certain, well-regulated airspace, airspeed, traffic etc. pp rules of course – this still is Germany), and we have one less airplane to take care of. More time for the newspaper. Oops, we forgot to tell him his QNH – yes, coach, next time I won’t forget it, promise. :)

Next, an airplane taking off from Gunzenhausen (still not served by ATC. Thus he departs under VFR) wishing to change to IFR (an “IFR pick-up”). Easy as pie – give him his clearance…no wait, first give him his discrete transponder code so we find out where he is on our radar scsreen…oh, he also should know the QNH? Okay okay…now give him his clearance…no no no, first ask if he is actually ready to copy his clearance (pen in hand, preferrably)…now his clearance – who was the other airplane just calling in on our frequency? Ah, he can wait – now the clearance…I think I better climb the guy now.

“IFR starts now”. As I said, easy as pie. Well, next time, with some luck…

This continues throughout the whole run, with mostly military jets either wishing to cancel IFR (the weather is so good today, why be bothered with those ATC guys) or changing from VFR to IFR (let ATC guide us home, it was a long day anyways).

To make matters interesting, there is also other traffic, Donau-Low’s usual mix of departures from Munich and Nuernberg, arrivals to Munich and Nuernberg and some overflights. It actually gets busy when three departures want to get separated against two arrivals while three military jets want some flight rule change, and if we could have that right now please?

But it’s a good run for a Monday morning with new things to do, and next time I really won’t forget to give him the QNH, honestly…

The rest of the day is rather uneventful, two times as Planner on Donau-Low respectively Wuerzburg-Low, and the last run as Executive on Wuerzburg-Low.

In order not to bore my coach too much though, I add in two cleared conflictions (i.e. “airplanes will be too close for comfort if you don’t change the crap you just instructed real quickly”) in that last run.

With big thanks to the ever attentive coach (first one) and a great Planner (“Are you sure they are going to be five miles apart?” “Of course” “Well the system says three miles” “Err….Adria 212, turn left!”) I manage to just-so prevent the simulated aluminium shower over both the south-eastern and the north-western corner of Wuerzburg-Low.

P.S.: I’d like to point out the small ATC dictionary I added to this blog, for all those strange words we tend to use in this business. It may just make this blog a bit more understandable for normal people. :)

They actually pay me to do this?!

Ah yes, monday. The perfect day to start with a few completely new runs in the sim, along with the announcement that “we’re doing holdings today”. Great – besides being a good way to delay airplanes if necessary (pretty much letting them fly in circles), holdings are also something we only did once about four months ago, and never since.

For some reason, it still works (somewhat) well, and once we get that done, the feeder/pick-up (with me as pick-up) run actually turns out quite well.

After that, it’s a two hour run on area control again, with me as planner (i.e. the guy who coordinates with other air traffic control units how they send us their planes and how we send them ours). As with the first run, the teamwork is quite good. I still create some unnecessary work for my radar controller though when I accept an airplane that needs to climb below another one that needs to descend. Not exactly “wrong”, but “not nice”. I decide to use the “Monday excuse” here. :)

A short break later, it’s again feeder/pick-up, this time with me as feeder.

The result manages to put a big smile on my face (on Monday!) and is more fun than someone should be allowed to have when he’s actually getting paid for it. The whole run goes extremely smooth, the sequence works, the “extra-bits” fit in perfectly (visual approach, “maintain own separation”), the pilots play along well (“we have the traffic in sight”) – all with enough traffic to not get bored, perfectly hand-fed to me by the pick-up controller.

i.e., an unusually perfect end for a monday. But of course, it’s not all good – we still have that exam on wednesday, so back to learning. :)

Relaxed separation

0705: My day starts. Quite early, but not early enough – I should have been in the simulator five minutes ago, the actual run starts in 15 minutes. Perfect beginning of a day working five hours as a radar controller.

0725: Five minutes late, after a shortened and hectic morning routine and a rather abbreviated briefing, we start our run.
We, that is my course mate and I, him working as “Pick-up”, and me working as “Feeder”, together being the team for “Langen Arrival”.

Langen is the imaginary international airport used in the simulators, which just “happens to be” in the same location as Frankfurt in real life, with a similar runway layout and similar airplane traffic patterns.

The ATC unit “Langen Arrival” takes airplanes from the route network they use to fly from A to B, guiding them to a position from where they can actually land, mostly using “vectors”, which is mostly our fancy term for the directions we sent them to.
It can be split as today, with the “Pick-up” first taking airplanes, descending and turning them closer to the airport, then handing them over to the “Feeder”, who fine-tunes their approach and distances to each other until they finally get to land.

This is the first time we work this way, so we are a little anxious. It actually works quite well though, with only a few things to talk about after the run, and some ideas how to do it better next time – notably, how to get light and very slow airplanes in between the landing stream of the mostly heavy and fast ones.

After one hour, we switch roles, me being Pick-up now. The run is okay according to the coach, though there are still some things we are not fully happy with – there is still some confusion about those plans for the slow ones, and I send some planes over to the Feeder too late, still being used to the old way of doing this alone.

Then, it’s again switched roles, with a new runway direction (airplanes always land into the direction from where the wind is coming, and the God of Sims just changed the wind).

This time, the whole experience feels really smooth, we manage to work those slow planes in almost perfectly, partly relying on visual approaches for them, where the pilot is able to fly his own way instead of being sent around the block by us, allowing for much shorter ways and less time of a Cessna hanging around in the path of Jumbo jets.

The traffic volume is actually higher than with the first two runs, and the runway direction one we are not yet used to, but we actually manage to have fun and, indeed, be relaxed. I guess this is how it’s done!

After the lunch break, a two-hour long run follows, this time area control, with traffic mostly flying along fixed routes (with many conveniently placed intersections so airplanes have a chance to hit each other).

It’s not as relaxing as the first three hours of the day, but still quite good. Once I actually send an airplane to a point I for some reason believe to be to the east of it, causing it to turn north. :)
Well, happens, and some good work of my coordinator ensures that nobody really notices.

With a few very good ratings from the coach, the day ends. Well, turns over to the learning part really, since we have a theoretical exam next week. I would prefer a few more hours in the simulator relaxing with separation, I guess…

Something New

Since August 2006, I have been in training to become an Air Traffic Controller with the German air navigation service provider, DFS.

By now, I have pretty much left theory behind, we (our course of 16) are now in a stage where we are mostly trying to keep airplanes apart from each other in the simulator, during so-called “runs”.

Having thought about this for quite some time now, I will now try to tell a few of the stories we experience here during and surrounding our training.

In between I will still try to add a few links I find interesting, in the hope that someone else might find them interesting, too. :)

I just noticed that tomorrow is scheduled to be quite a workload-heavy day, so with some luck, an interesting post may result – unless I am too tired then.