No training anymore.

The reality of this is only slowly sinking in, with two days of working on my own behind me.
Last Sunday – almost exactly two years and three weeks after I started my OJT – I finally had my last checkout, at the feeder position.

Was it easy?
Feeder in itself is probably one of the easiest positions to learn, since most of it is a kind of line-work – it’s mostly repetition of the same few tasks, and you repeat those a lot. Make no mistake, you have to use your brains every once in a while (especially to efficiently use the parallel runway system), but due to the sheer volume of traffic, after four months, you really have seen quite a lot of what this position can throw at you.
Also, after two passed checkouts, a certain confidence on one’s own abilities is unavoidable, making the stress of dealing with an exam situation much easier to bear with.

The downside of this position for a checkout – as I said above, there are many airplanes. And they are very close to each other. So not only do you have many opportunities for mistakes, these mistakes are also much more likely to end in a loss of separation (thus, usually a failed checkout).
Luckily, that hasn’t happened to me so far during training, and that trend persisted throughout last Sunday.

The result? I’m on my own now, within the whole air traffic (control) team of course. And I can tell you, it’s a great feeling. My coaches taught me a lot, and I’m thankful but glad to be rid of them.
More than five years ago, I decided I want to become an air traffic controller. Last Sunday, I reached that goal.

I am now an Air Traffic Controller.

Team Change

Rumours of my untimely demise are greatly exaggerated… *cough*

After almost a year without an update, it’s time to say hello again to the remaining souls still visiting this place every other day.
Unfortunately, while I have learned a lot during the last year, progress in my training hasn’t been as smooth as one would hope. Thus, as an incentive to change for the better, I have now been assigned a different team (from 7 to 4).

For those not familiar, Air Traffic Control is shift work done by teams which rotate throughout the, well, shifts. At our place (and I think throughout DFS), those are eight. What makes changing them so interesting to a slower-than-expected (and demanded) ATC student is the fact that these teams all work somewhat different from each other. So if you haven’t been too successful adapting to the style of one team, another might fit you much better and finally yield the wished and hoped for results.

So that’s the situation I’m in now – a new team, two (well, de facto three) new coaches, a new working style and, err, “could you kindly get done within the next two or three months”. The bumpy start is that during the first shift, I have to play sick (no really, got the Doctor’s paper!). But starting next Monday, it’s on to a new (and probably last) chance.

What else is new? Primarily, a fiancée living with me, with all the associated things like knowing all local furniture dealers by heart (part of the reason this blog stayed silent for so long).
Besides that, the decision to use a new style for this blog, ditching the aforementioned Linux experience for Windows 7 (still on XP or Vista? If you can, move on), adding a few new blogs to the sidebar in case you get bored by this one, and comments activated for those who wish to express their feelings or ask for a way to send those donations in (fiancée needs a birthday present! ;).

I try to update again a bit more often, wish me luck. :)

“training in progress”

The excuse when something goes (hopefully not horribly) wrong while the new trainee is sitting in position, trying to vector airplanes around the skies of Munich or bargain with adjacent sectors about the best way to transfer airplanes.

It has been used only once during an actual radio transmission by my coach so far (when telling a pilot to disregard his descent instruction as another plane was relatively close and was – not known to me – released to another controller), though a few other situations would probably have provided enough justification.

That said, apologies to the Condor pilots who were put on a vector for a straight-in approach (i.e., without the usual weaving and turning to get into the normal traffic pattern), but were then not descended accordingly, as there was another airplane in the way.
It probably caused some puzzled reactions in the cockpit to have to level off, and then being told that “you are a little too high for straight-in, turn left heading 340”. You might have been wondering what my plan was, or if I even had one, and you would have been fully justified.

It was “one of those days” anyways, days I also had back in the Sim (thankfully not that often), but which appear much scarier in real life (hopefully not that often).
Turning a police helicopter while he was still in someone else’s control zone, scratching another sector with an inbound turned too early (“München Approach South apologizes”), handing an airplane over too the next controller while it was way too high, and too fast (of course) – the safety net built into the system works well enough to prevent chaos and mayhem, but it’s things which add up and make such a day one to be put into the category “learned a lot, achieved little”.

It’s indeed “training in progress” (and, in case of anyone wondering, still fun!)

Fast Forward To…Now

It’s been a long time since the last update, and quite a lot has happened since then.
For one, I just had my fourth day at Munich Approach, which of course is some change from the Academy simulator I – and you readers – were used to.

This is the result of some further months of training, one partly successful practical examination (you could also say partly failed, but now how would that sound), a fully successful second try five weeks later, some looking for a flat inbetween, buying a new car, convincing the powers-that-be that I really really should be doing Munich Approach (because I…err…would really like to…and stuff. Convincing arguments like that ;) and so on.

To make it short, on March 23rd at 9am six other hopeful trainees and I arrived at my new working place, Munich Centre, situated to the west of the Munich Airport terminals, between the two runways.
What followed was the to-be-expected theoretical introductions to our new airspace, some simulation to get used to it all, quick change of plans (“and btw Robert, you are not doing the Freising sector you learned for for the last three days, you are doing the München sector”), getting to know a lot of new people (“Damn, what was that guy’s name again…”) and general settling in to the new surroundings.

After a week of this, I had my first introduction to “the board” (a.k.a. actually sitting at the working position), at first as Planner which is pretty useful if you have an airspace test a few hours later, as it gives you the chance to see all those adjacent sectors, airspaces (temporary reserved or not), waypoints, navaids, frequencies, coordination procedures…the lot…in action.
It could be considered to be pretty natural that the new trainee is confused when receiving his first real coordination call ever and, instead of the proper phraseology (keyword, coordination point, call-sign, the rest) used at the Academy, only gets some seemingly random call-sign. That call-sign can be an arriving airplane, departing, crossing, flying somewhere near so we have to consider it, descending through our airspace or doing something completely different. Finding out is the challenge here for the new trainee, and admittedly taxes the patience of the other Planner quite a bit.
Thankfully, after some getting used to, that problem slowly disappears. Sometimes I even know what the matter could be as soon as I see which sector is calling us, but that remains the exception for now, of course. ;)

The first half hour as radar controller is pretty much uneventful due to a lack of actual traffic. Of course, the very first airplane I talk to in my OJT career is an Italian who doesn’t seem to get half of what I tell her. Figures…

The next few days continue along those lines, with the coaches being less and less merciful, resulting in radar controller hours with more and more traffic.
And yes, it is absolutely great fun.

Two days ago saw my first day with fog, resulting in reduced traffic (them airplanes can’t land as well when they don’t see anything), some holding and some more fun. Well, fun for us, not for the regional jet from the Balkans that has to stay in the hold for 2,5 hours. It’s amazing how much fuel he brought with him, although probably less if you see that only airplanes who need a visibility of 250m for landing were permitted to actually depart with destination Munich, and this guy came in needing 300m – when we actually had somewhere around 150m. It’s called pre-planning, I guess.

My personal highlight comes later when I accidentally want to clear a Lufthansa to some point when the coordination actually hadn’t been done yet.
“Lufthansa 123, proceed direct….disregard”
“I guess we should ask the other sector first…”
“No problem, we didn’t find Disregard in our database anyways”

I guess I should be thankful, one of these days there will actually be a point “Disregard” where airplanes can fly to, and I will really be screwed.

And the joys of this job? Clearing an Airbus 330 from Emirates Airlines almost all the way to his landing course, then going off shift, driving towards the airport and seeing that same A330 taxiing to its gate, having landed safely. Gives you some good feeling. :)

A Day At The Office

Hauke, a fellow trainee from a newer course, presented his readers with an overview of a day at the Academy during the early stages of training. It can be found here (in German).

I guess I could use this chance to give you some insight into how my day works, less than four months from the end of Academy training. While we also have late shifts, I will be describing an early shift, since these occur much more often.

The day starts like every self-respecting Linux-geek’s day should start.
Precisely at 06:04 (all times local), the computer wakes up from its deep sleep, preparing to serve its master.
Between 06:08 and 06:10, it gets the latest news and e-mails, and starts my favourite play-list. It then continues to make coffee, get the toast ready, close the window, increase the heating….okay, perhaps it doesn’t, but eventually…;)

After the usual abbreviated routine (indeed, no toast actually. cornflakes need to be sufficient. the difference of 5 minutes of sleep is important!), I head to the simulator, aiming to arrive at 7am – 20 minutes before the first run starts.
This should give us enough time to prepare the flight strips, set up the radar, make our radio-checks with the pilots and get a quick look at the first 20 minutes of the run.

That first run usually lasts one hour, followed by a mix of further one-hour runs and one two-hour run until we have filled five hours of simulation a day.
Two long breaks interrupt that flow, one shortly after 9am lasting about half an hour, one during lunch time lasting almost an hour – sufficient for enjoying (sometimes “enjoying”) the canteen food and relaxing for a few minutes. In my case, to loud music, but that’s obviously different for everyone.

The last run ends approximately at 14:30, followed by quite a lot of spare time.
Err…quite a lot of learning of course, having regular looks into the manual of operations, sector charts, acronym lists, procedures etc. pp.

Reality is something inbetween these extremes. It can be said though that with the end of the theoretical part of training, most of what you look up in the afternoon hours is completely up to you, there is no new learning matter from daily lessons as before – as long as you do not screw up in the simulator due to a lack of knowledge that is.

Most people will still spend some time over the books occasionally, partly to just stay current (you DO forget those frequencies of sectors you rarely send traffic to, and the one time you need it WILL be at the moment where you have no chance at all to look it up), partly because you really never can know enough.
Be it another 100 airline acronyms (like DLH, which stands for “Lufthansa”, or UAL for “United”), the locations and characteristics of various smaller airfields in your region, routings and important waypoints beyond your sector (it comes in handy to know “SPY” -or Spijkerborg – when a direct there can help you (or you just want to provide some service))…the list is endless.
So, if you fancy doing some learning, there is plenty of opportunity to do so – and it should be used at least every few days.

If you don’t fancy learning, there is usually enough room for some spare-time activity as well, like sports (mostly cycling and jogging for me), computers (one day it will make coffee for me!), games with course-mates (Werewolf, anyone?), watching movies (with about 300 people at the Academy, someone just has to have a good movie at hand) or whatever else floats your boat. It may get boring at times, but that’s usually one’s own fault. :)

So that’s a normal day for me. If you wonder about those aforementioned late shifts – start sim at 15:30, end at 10-11pm, arrange the rest of the day around that.

Oh, And It’s Raining Again

(First post after some weeks of abstinence. Enjoy!)

“….requesting heading 330 to avoid weather”
“Who is requesting heading 330?!”

Welcome to my airspace. Available today: plenty of thunderstorms. If you order quickly, you get a free token for lightning, hail, turbulences and heavy rain. As a side-order, we recommend holdings over your favourite navigation aid, since your destination airport has just run out of usable runways (i.e. ones which are not flooded).

Special offer today: headings. Get them all, get them fast, following your normal routing is out of fashion and won’t land you any success with the girls.

And so it goes. Smack down in the middle of our airspace, the weather god (or the run-writer) has planted a CB. CB stands for cumulonimbus and is Latin for “Avoid me!” As a consequence, pretty much every airplane transiting through this area will request an altitude change or, more often, a “heading to avoid”, i.e. some way to get around the thundercloud.

For controllers, that basically means two things:

  • Try to maintain a picture when everyone is pretty much zig-zagging around the sky.
  • Work with much, much less airspace than you normally have, since half of it is full of hail (a redeeming feature? Hardly. The picture may be smaller, but it is much more complex).

One of the more interesting aspects of this is that we, as controllers, can only roughly see where the bad weather is (actually, in the Sim, due to technical limitations, it’s pretty accurate, but that’s got nothing to do with reality). The “clouds” we see on the screen are returns from our own ATC radar, which is limited to one fixed position on the ground. Put a few rain particles between it and the REALLY bad CBs, and you won’t see the latter. And of course forget about any direct information on where the clouds begin and end vertically.

The pilots on the other hand are at a clear advantage here. Most of them (pretty much all airliners at least) have weather radar installed in their airplanes, enabling them to see what’s in front of them, with pretty good accuracy both laterally and vertically.
Which basically means that the big picture about a pretty important user of our airspace (aforementioned CBs) is not with controllers, but with pilots – changing our relationship somewhat.

Since bad weather, especially thunderstorms, poses a serious threat to any airplane attempting to fly through, saying “no” to an avoidance request by a pilot isn’t really an option. The “control” in ATC thus reverts to an accepting of almost every request, while trying to still keep them all apart. When everyone has to be able to turn at any time he/she deems necessary, that can become quite a challenge.

The key to success here is vertical separation. If everyone has at least 1000ft between them, it doesn’t matter where and when they turn, there will always be separation (when someone requests vertical avoidance, that plan has to be altered somewhat, but as mentioned before this doesn’t happen as often as requests for headings).
Two airplanes at the same altitude just isn’t an option here (unless perhaps they are at opposite corners of your sector).

One other problem arises when everyone is flying on custom, hand-made headings – the next sector usually expects an airplane to arrive via its normal routing, not “25 miles south on heading 330 and once he is clear of the CB, he might actually turn back to his route”. Thus, that next sector needs to be made aware of the situation, so he can adapt to it.

And here comes the Planner. Busily handling multiple phone lines, preferably at once, he or she tries to make sure everyone stays up-to-date on the chaos we are throwing in their laps to work with. Actually, he trades that chaos with fresh chaos for our own sector, since thunderstorms have a habit of stretching around multiple sectors. It’s basically “trash comes in, trash comes out”.

How anyone stays alive on such a day is starting to become (hazily) clear after a week of this in the simulator, after being pretty much of a mystery at first.
A learning experience? You bet.