Does Size Matter?

How big can a combined tower/TRACON facility grow before becoming too big for its controllers to handle? In an arena where the players are always presumed to be at the top of their game; how many control positions can someone reasonably be expected to maintain proficiency on without a decline in performance? Rhetorical questions, of course, to which I have no answers. But I thought about them a lot during my FAA years.Consider a TRACON with several busy radar sectors; some that change size, shape and complexity according to the primary airport's landing direction. To that, add an entirely different set of skills needed to handle the various tower positions. Throw in a steady upturn in the daily traffic count. Shake well and let stand for a year or so. Sooner or later, someone will suggest adding one or more new control positions to better distribute the workload; a short term solution with long term limitations. You end up with even more positions to stay current and proficient on. In time, another sector or tower position may be needed. What then? Something's got to give. With luck, it'll just be a dip in the quality of anticipated service but there are obvious "worse case scenarios."

Would splitting the facility so that controllers worked exclusively in either the tower or TRACON help? How about excising the TRACON from your facility altogether and consolidating it with other approach controls elsewhere? More short sighted solutions with long term limitations? I'll talk about that some other time. For now though, I'd better stay with what I started before I confuse myself.Let me set the "Wayback Machine" to 1966, when I began my military air traffic control career. I was assigned to the control tower at Oceanside Air Force Base. It was the only place I worked. I drove across the base each day, parked in front of the Operations building, climbed the tower steps and signed on. Others in my barracks worked in the RAPCON or 'Radar Approach Control.' It was the only place they worked. The radar troops queued up at Base Operations too, but only to catch another ride. The RAPCON was located on the other side of the airport, adjacent to the runway and only accessible by Air Force van.

In my time at Oceanside, I grew comfortable with tower operations. There were only three operating positions; Flight Data/Clearance Delivery, Ground Control and Local Control. In a one-runway operation, things were pretty straight forward. I learned the necessary skills and performed them every day. With only three positions to work, maintaining proficiency was never a problem.

It was pretty much the same when I was transferred overseas. The base sported both a control tower and a mobile radar unit called a GCA (Ground Controlled Approach). The GCA was located in the middle of the airfield and controllers rode an Air Force van to get there. Since I had stateside tower experience, I was assigned to the tower here. With four operating positions, including a non-radar approach control, tower operations were vastly more complex than at Oceanside beach, Still, I was in my element and able to become certified much quicker than if they'd assigned me to the GCA unit. Even with four tower positions, staying proficient was not a problem here either. So I sharpened my skills, grew increasingly comfortable in the tower environment and daydreamed that one day I'd go to work for the FAA. That dream became a reality in 1974.

On arrival at Big Time I learned it was an "up and down" operation. That is to say controllers were required to certify through all tower and TRACON positions. Even though Big Time's Tower was far busier and more complex than anything I'd seen in the Air Force, there was a note of familiarity to it and I was able to draw heavily from my Air Force experience. That greatly facilitated my progress toward tower certification, which still took nearly a year.

The day I was tower certified, my supervisor congratulated me and said; "The hard part is over." He wasn't kidding but I couldn't take him seriously. Looking ahead at learning radar operations for the first time and having to check out on nine sectors plus the associated handoff positions seemed daunting. I wished I'd had even a little prior radar experience.

It was hard and often humbling work but I eventually did certify through the TRACON. That's when "the hard part" my supervisor had mentioned started all over again. The hard, nearly impossible part was in trying to stay proficient on all five tower positions. Once TRACON certified, a controller was rarely sent to the tower. If I was sent upstairs it was usually to work with a tower trainee for a couple of hours. After that, I'd be sent back down to the TRACON.

Supervisors, who had even less "hands-on" time in the tower than us journeymen, understood our situation. They'd usually try to send us upstairs for proficiency time when traffic was relatively light. If traffic was heavy and/or conditions bad; we were needed in the TRACON. Actually...tower-certified trainees were the best people to have upstairs when the place was rockin'. They worked in the tower every day and, in significant ways, were better at it than the journeymen.

You see; there is a rhythm to the tower - and any good tower controller knows how to keep time. Scanning the square miles of airfield, monitoring the arrival flows, assessing the departure lineup at each runway, deciding which ones can go immediately, positioning the airplanes, scanning again, seeing the most recent arrivals off the runway and clearing the next departures for takeoff, always scanning...looking for what needs to be done next. Miss a beat in the tower and you've probably missed an opportunity. Keep scanning. Someone could have departed or crossed an active runway or simply have been moved into position to hold. The whole thing makes sitting in front of a radar display almost seem claustrophobic.

After years of working mainly in the TRACON, there were few things more daunting than being sent to the tower during peak traffic periods. Having worked there only sporadically over the previous months and under relatively light demand, I could become overwhelmed quicker than you could say "Hold short!" This, of course, was great entertainment for the trainees who essentially lived in the tower. It was their home court. For me though, it was an away game. Minus the self-assurance and alacrity I once had up there, all I could do was muddle through safely; albeit sluggishly and sloppily. The tower operation was like finding my way around an unfamiliar city during rush hour. I still knew how to drive a car but kept missing the turns and getting lost. The rhythm of tower operations gone; my domain was now the radar room.

The reason for my weak tower performance was the same reason I gave up instrument flying. I had a hard time keeping up with the currency requirements and couldn't do enough instrument flying to feel comfortably proficient. I wisely gave it up before I killed myself. Of course...giving up the tower was not an option.

There are still plenty of "up and down" facilities across the country. From a controller's standpoint they're small enough to remain manageable yet large enough to provide consistently good service to the aviators. I'm sure there are other combined facilities that are taxing the capabilities of their staff every day. People ask; should they be expanded or somehow divided up?

Big Time was nearing a tipping point. Traffic was on the rise. Those who owned and operated the airport were planning to construct another runway. There was talk among Big Time's staff about adding tower and radar positions. Most of us were just trying to keep up with what we already had. To be sure, size matters. Would Big Time be too big to fail...or was it becoming too big not to? And how do you measure success or failure in an ATC facility? That can be a pretty subjective process, depending on where you sit. As a controller, I wanted to feel good about my performance, no matter what position I was assigned to. If I couldn't, if my coworkers couldn't; that had to qualify as a sign the facility was failing.

© NLA Factor, 2010

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Aprendi mucho