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


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the best blog out there. I find myself checking back every couple of days to see what sage advice and stories are posted. I am a trainee at a level 10 TRACON and it's amazing how things are still the same now as they were when you went through. Keep up the good work.

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks, my friend. I'm glad you keep checking back. The change in seasons means I have a lot of outdoor projects that I can no longer weasel out of because of cold weather. That means less time to work on my Blog. I'll try to "keep up the good work" though!

When you say "how things are still the same now" I hope that means you're still having some fun at the best job ever. True; ATC never seems to shake those same old problems but that never stopped me from having the time of my life.

Let me know how your training goes and when the checkout party is. And thanks for the kind words!

Cheers ~ NLAF

Anonymous said...

NLAF - GREAT blog. You do have a gift for storytelling. As a recently certified controller I am fascinated by your experiences. I hope you have much more to share. - ANEWGUY

No Longer a Factor said...

To ANEWGUY; Thanks! After thirty-some years in the business, I wasn't able to walk out the door with a bunch of stolen office supplies but I did manage to escape with a treasure trove of memories. I'm trying to record most of them in this Blog. It'll take time but I'll get it done. It helps a lot to know you're enjoying it! Thanks again and congratulations on your check-out!