OJT ~ A New Instructor

The transformation was swift. From uncertain trainee, I evolved through the unsteady journeyman phase and on to become a most unlikely OJT instructor. It took far less time than I expected and a lot less time than I required. After all; gaining confidence isn't like gaining weight. It takes time. Its more like growing. I'm sure I could gain five pounds in five days but growing five inches taller could take several years.

My guileless post check-out expectations were that I would spend a few years honing my skills, methodically acquiring some certainty in my abilities and establishing that all important credibility among my peers. But there I was; less than a year out from my facility rating and already being asked to work with the developmentals on our team. It seems I failed to consider that my expectations might differ somewhat from those of Big Time's supervisors and management staff. But why? Why the difference between their expectations and mine? The answer was shrouded in my callow naiveté.

The things we don't know at a particular time in our life will eventually catch up with us. Unfortunately, by the time they do, it usually doesn't matter so much. What was going on today would later be firsthand knowledge to me. For now though, I couldn't fathom that my being prematurely pitched into in the deep end of Big Time's OJT instructor pool was due in part to a document known as the Tracking Report. To this very day; the specter of this document still sends me off sweating and screaming. A little background may be in order.

The scourge of every new kid to the Training Department, Tracking Reports took days to complete. No wonder. Combining the most boring aspects of a spreadsheet with the irritating qualities of a skin infection and the incriminating evidence of a signed confession required a lot of time. But what was it really?

A distillation of the entire month's worth of OJT reports (there were hundreds); your typical Tracking Report detailed the status of every developmental (there were dozens) in the facility. It revealed what position each developmental was currently training on, hours allocated and hours used ~ plus a projection as to when certification was anticipated. Once compiled, the fresh data was whisked off to the Regional Office where it was perused and compared with previous monthly reports. This made it fairly easy for them to identify the trainees who were receiving the most OJT hours and the least. Comparing the most recent report from Big Time with previous monthly editions allowed the Regional Office to detect apparent trends and build mountains of data from which they could jump to amazing conclusions. Those jumps usually landed them in the middle of some very rough terrain, armed only with a pointing finger. But once they pointed that thing at us; they were prepared to use it.

To the facility staff ~ a discernable dip in the aggregate OJT hours could easily be attributed to annual and/or sick leave used, inappropriate traffic conditions, equipment problems and other routine factors. There were also the less tangible reasons; not the least of which was fatigue. If one of the better OJT instructors had just taken a beating on one position, it was hard for an empathetic supervisor to send them into an OJT session. To the regional office however, it often meant we were just goofing off over there at Big Time. That's when a phone would ring in the front office.

The Air Traffic Manager and Training Officer would be grilled by The Region's Training Branch Manager and one or two of his sycophants over why our OJT hours had fallen off. Such discussions usually afforded The Region an opportunity to showcase their superior knowledge of the way things are supposed to work in a field facility. A long, forensic debate would ensue, during which both hair and rank would be pulled. As the Regional Office always outranks any of their air traffic facilities, the home team would make their best case in the strongest possible terms; inevitably capitulating and promising to do better next month. Next, a caustic, morale-eating memo would be fired off to the Area Managers and supervisors, with a requisite copy to the Region's Training Branch. (Hey, they needed proof we were actually doing something besides working a hell of a lot of airplanes!) The memo was crafted to inspire everyone to get more OJT done.

One way to accomplish that was to ordain more instructors. This is where I stumbled into the picture.

Damn! I was still having to make excuses to the wife about why I got home so late from my checkout party, still trying to separate the good from the garbage I learned while training, still striving for consistently adequate personal performance, still masking my fear of floundering with a little flourish. Arguing with my Supervisor, who insisted I'd be a great OJTI, was not where I expected to be at this point. I countered his rationale with every reason I could think of why this wasn't a good idea. The discussion ended shortly after I said I wasn't ready and couldn't do it.

Later that day, as my new radar developmental and I shuffled off toward the TRACON, I wondered how my logic had failed, whether I could actually do this and why my mouth was so dry. Surprisingly, that day was the beginning of what would develop into a career-long interest in training. But there were obstacles.

At first; I felt like a paint-by-numbers artist trying to teach that "deaf-dumb-blind kid" how to draw like Leonardo da Vinci. I had my own lessons to learn ~ largely at the expense of those I was assigned to train. One of the most important lessons and probably the most difficult for me to master was to never preempt a good learning experience. Trainees needed to be given enough latitude to get themselves into a degree of difficulty that was commensurate with their time on the position. Low time trainees could become overwhelmed much sooner than ones who had several hours on the position but, regardless of where they were in their allotted hours, I had to let them make mistakes. As long as I could still see a way out ~ there was a chance they'd find it too. This required a lot of poise, patience and self confidence but I was short on all three. If I stepped in too soon (highly likely at my stage of development) I'd preclude an important learning experience. Step in too late and I'd end up listening to tapes and filling out paperwork.

I learned that making this work meant having to advise trainees ahead of time whenever I was going to let them dig holes for themselves. If I didn't at least do that, they'd usually assume, based on experience with a few other instructors, that I would likely step in and straighten things out for them.

There were also a few developmentals who liked to debate with me during the training session. While a civil debate could be useful during the debrief, it only got in the way during OJT, while the airplanes were flying thick and fast.

I also learned that my technique in a particular situation might not have been the best. A few trainees had some damned good ideas that I'd have never learned if I'd made them do it my way. "Out of the mouths of babes" as they say. I'd show them my techniques but never insisted they do it my way. Creativity is an amazing thing to witness and learn from. I believe I learned as much or more in the process of providing OJT than I did when I was receiving it.

So The Seventies rolled on. Planes flew in and out of Big Time's airspace as I joined with various trainees in their struggle to succeed. Most made it while others faded off into failure. Of those who failed ~ some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time but went on to become impressive controllers elsewhere. Others departed in anger and bitterness. Blaming their shortcomings on everyone and everything that moved; they left ~ victims of an overweening ego and self-deception.

The ones who concerned me the most were those who couldn't make it as controllers at Big Time, yet eventually ended up working in the Regional Office ~ judging our monthly Tracking Reports.

© NLA Factor, 2010


OJT ~ A Caterpillar's Journey

On-The-Job Training, call it OJT, seems a daunting process. There are so many things to learn and so little time allocated to getting it right. While the academic environment gives you time to study, memorize and rehearse, often among others who are doing the same, OJT places you midst practiced professionals who know the job cold. You come across as the caterpillar slinking through a cluster of butterflies. And like the caterpillar, you are the one most likely to be stepped on.

Depending on who I was working for, the substance of hands-on training varied pretty widely. In the military, OJT was mainly an exercise in knowing precisely what to say and when to say it. Phraseology and procedure took precedence over the more practical skills needed to actually work the traffic. Tools like turning airplanes away from their intended course, delaying them in order to accomplish more pressing priorities, slowing them down or speeding them up to benefit a bigger picture were always there in the toolbox but rarely used. For example; nobody would instruct an F-4 pulling a drag chute to "expedite off the runway" for landing traffic. Nor would they risk raising some high-ranking eyebrows by clearing a flight of three for "immediate takeoff." It was understood they'd taxi onto the runway, line up in departure formation, finish their checklists and await word from the flight leader. They would roll in their own good time. So my initial OJT on Ground and Local Control was steeped in phraseology, procedures and learning the rules, both written and unwritten.By the time I was transferred to my next duty assignment at Desolation Air Base, phraseology was second nature to me. All I needed to do was learn the local rules and numbers. The idea of actually reaching into the picture and manipulating my traffic was still obscured behind a veil of military protocol. Fighter jets, transports and helicopters hustled in and out of the base at their own pace, their pilots taking the controller's traffic information under advisement as they decided the order of events. When the day came to step into my first FAA facility, it would be like stepping into a bathtub with an electric toaster.

Suddenly I was expected to muscle and hustle the traffic situation; pushing, pulling, bending it to my will then cramming it into the big picture, whether it wanted to fit or not. Waiting for things to happen was frowned upon and rarely tolerated. Trainees were taught the assertive art of making things happen.

For pure pushing, bending and cramming, there was no better place than Local control during one of Big Time's peak hours. Long lines of departing flights inched toward the runways while one arrival after another flashed across each landing threshold and touched down; leaving a cloud of burnt rubber behind as they rolled on toward a high-speed turnoff. If a Local Control trainee waited till all that happened before clearing the next departure into position there'd be hell to pay. That airplane had better be moving toward the hold line in time to continue right onto the runway just as the arrival went by. It came down to learning how long it took the various kinds of airplanes to reanimate after sitting, inert, on the taxiway. Not to worry though. There was always a red-faced OJT instructor standing ready to facilitate your learning process in a loud, demonstrative and often profane way. Once you got that piece down you could understand the timing of events. You could anticipate required separation and make it happen while quickly adjusting the tempo for different types of airplanes. These were the skills central to keeping Big Time out of departure delays and the OJTI off your back. Thanks to the Air Force, I already knew how to say "Taxi into position and hold." I just never guessed I'd be saying it while the next arrival was still somewhere out over the approach lights.

Dealing with intersecting runways involved similar skills. Being able to accurately anticipate just how soon an airborne arrival would roll through the intersection versus how long it would take your departure on the crossing runway to get there had important benefits. The Final controller could maintain an efficient interval to one runway while the tower kept a crossing flow of departures moving without delay. Getting it wrong would create some fairly intense consequences, such as a go-around, an aborted takeoff or both.

For even higher drama you might end up with both a departure and a go-around ~ who's trajectories would take them simultaneously to the same point in space. This was not simply a Kodak moment but one that could add years to your life in a matter of seconds. To a developmental it meant an immediate end to the OJT session and a training report that was so hot he'd have to pick it up with oven mitts.Training in the radar room was an even bigger challenge. Since my Air Force career never provided me the opportunity to obtain a radar certification; Big Time TRACON was as alien an environment as I could imagine. Just getting acclimating to the odor down there would take months. The stink of sweat, cigarette smoke, stale ashes, jet exhaust and flatulence (because farting was seen by some as hilarious) sometimes made the place smell worse than the bargain basement of a second-hand coffin store.

The TRACON even sounded bad. There was a nearly constant cacophony caused by the incessant chatter of flight data printers mixing with ringing telephones, chiming interphones, nagging voices amplified through overhead speakers and controllers shouting from one end of the room to the other. It was sensory overload. It was also the ideal learning environment because this was where I'd have to work.

Actual, practical learning in the TRACON had to begin with an understanding of the interrelationships between Big Time's sectors. None of them could function autonomously but were rather like a series of gears that had to turn and mesh with clockwork synchronization. During rush hours or times of rugged weather the room became a swiftly spinning mechanism that hummed and murmured along; pushing and pulling the traffic in what seemed an endless pageant of arrivals and departures. One after another, they hammered the runways or hurtled off toward some place known as "the destination airport." If any one part of the mechanism slowed or stopped it could eventually slow or stop the entire operation. This changed the sound of the radar room ~ an audible change in the pitch, detected immediately by the supervisor, who would soon appear at the source of discord. One or two controllers would then be extracted from their positions like bad teeth and replaced. Soon after, the gears would start whirling and humming again.

It was also about timing. You and I know that, in life, timing is nearly as important as it is in air traffic control. Its also a difficult concept for trainees to seize onto. Learning to recognize the moment when an aircraft must be turned, when speed control must be applied, new altitude assignments made or handoffs completed were just a few of the challenges I wrestled with. The timing of other, more subtle events was even more difficult to understand. When to initiate a pointout, when to stop departures or begin holding arrivals, when combining sectors was a good idea and when it was not were ambiguous junctures on an ever changing continuum. Learning to recognize them, however, was unequivocal.

Most important to the whole OJT experience were the instructors themselves. At Big Time in 1975, there was a veritable smorgasbord of talent ~ ranging from the mad and meticulous to the lax and lazy. I had my favorite. He was a perpetually angry little anal retentive named Charles. Charles's attitude may have been a bi product of his relatively short stature. I don't know but, at just over five feet tall, he looked up at nearly everyone ~ unless he was working radar. In that particular arena he was at least equal to but usually greater than his peers. A savant; he knew the books and could handle what seemed to be a limitless amount of traffic. To watch Charles at work was to witness the perfect synchronicity of knowledge and praxis.

Most of the journeymen resented Charles because of his low tolerance for anything less than perfection. Still ~ he was the guy they'd want working Departure Control if they were stuck on Local with dozens of departures that needed to get off the airport, around a few thunderstorms and up into Center's airspace. The trainees feared him because of his brutal frankness, impatience with inadequacy and eruptive temper. He also had no tolerance for excuses and if you were dumb enough to proffer one after screwing things up ~ you'd be talking to yourself.

Charles was just what I needed and he was usually available because nobody else wanted to train with him. I learned that if I came to an OJT session prepared and willing to listen, Charles would spend the ensuing hour or so working as hard as he could to improve my game. If, however, he asked a question or two that I couldn't answer ~ he'd shake his head, unplug my headset and tell me to get lost.

When I finished up my OJT at Big Time, the final check-ride with my supervisor seemed anticlimactic. I thought I was ready for anything the system could throw at me. Little did I know the Facility Rating was merely a licence to sink or swim. It was just another landmark on the map to my future; a jumping off point from which the truly hard lessons would eventually be learned. It was nothing more than my first solo flight around the traffic pattern was some years before. Landing the airplane safely didn't make me a pilot and this rating didn't make me a controller. That would take much more time.

© NLA Factor, 2010