Things You Should Never Say While In Training

My lingering impressions of On-the-job training are that it was stressful for everyone involved and a kill shot to the ego for some. Apparently though; it isn't always that way. Take a look at the training session below. The instructor maintains a professional demeanor, remains admirably calm under pressure, and is clearly a master of his trade. 

Also; check out the way his student conducts himself. Sure, he falls a bit short on taking the initiative. As we know; doing something, even if it's wrong, can occasionally be preferable to doing nothing at all. To his credit though, he seems to know what he wants and is eager to start at the bottom to reach his goal. He also takes direction well, has a strong desire to learn and shows complete confidence in his mentor.  I wish a few of the air traffic control developmentals I worked with had this kid's attitude. 

And before I forget; kudos to the customer who remains patient throughout the ordeal. In our business, I've heard too many pilots become snippy and obnoxious when they realize controller training is being conducted. It's as though they forgot all the mistakes they made between their first solo flight and the day they earned their Air Transport Pilot Certificate (ATP). 

Anyway, in this installment of "What The Air Traffic Controller Saw" I'm going to examine some common problems instructors and their students encounter while in the throes of on-the-job training. With all its pranks and pratfalls, stalls and setbacks, awkward moments and accomplishments ~ OJT is still the only way to learn and fully understand air traffic control. 

If you are currently or soon to be involved in receiving it; read on because I'm talking to you! But first, enjoy this short video. I'll catch you on the other side.

No matter how long we're on the job, we never stop learning. But in the early years of your career there is so much to learn and such a limited time to learn it. Although OJT instructors are there to help you succeed; you have to be up for and open to the process. You've already been through a lot of classroom training, taken dozens of tests and committed more things to memory than a thumb drive. You did well in the 'learn at your leisure' halls of academe. Now it's time to step into the 'learn at the speed of flight' environment of OJT; where simply keeping up isn't good enough. You'll need to stay well ahead and that, as Tommy said, can be "quite complicated."

Your instructor already knows that developmentals are as varied as the planes they're learning to handle. You could be brilliant ~ an ATC natural. You may also be overconfident, apprehensive, argumentative, inept, indolent, unprepared and occasionally even unfit. Instructors must be able to anticipate and be tolerant of these and other traits you may bring to the position - but only to a point. It takes a lot to short-circuit a good instructor but believe me; if you are heard to utter statements such as those below, you may see some sparks.

"I was just about to do that!" Maybe you were. Part of any instructor's skill set should be the ability to let a developmental begin setting up an inefficient or potentially urgent situation. The challenge for instructors is to withhold direction or intervention until it is nearly too late to take corrective measures. In other words; give you enough time to resolve the situation on your own. If you take no action to fix things before they absolutely have to be fixed; then it's hard to believe you were "just about to."

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, lets assume you actually were "just about to" take action. If the instructor had to intervene beforehand; then you were too late and should have acted sooner. Don't complain about it. You'll be talking to yourself.

Keep in mind that doing things when they need to be done is one of the keys to success as a controller. Whether it's initiating a handoff, assigning a new heading or altitude change, clearing one flight for takeoff or instructing another to "Line up and wait" ~ such things may have to be done at precisely the right moment. Teaching you how to recognize that moment is part of what an instructor does. Your challenge is to 'be there' when the time comes to issue that instruction. Even a small distraction or misplaced priority can result in you being too late. That's when your instructor may have to do it ~ even if you were "just about to."

"It would have worked." Really? There will be times when, in the course of a developing situation, the trainee will attempt corrective action. Taking the initiative is good but if the action could potentially exacerbate a shoddy situation; the instructor may intervene and issue different instructions. When that happens, it does little good for you to claim your plan "would have worked." Remember; instructors have undoubtedly seen the same or similar situations, dozens ~ maybe hundreds of times in their years and have experienced the various outcomes. Give them credit for their experience, take the knowledge they're sharing and make it your own.

"You expect too much of me!" There is occasional truth in that statement. For whatever reason, some OJT instructors may have unrealistically high expectations regarding your current skill level. It is also possible they simply expect you to be doing better for the amount of time you've spent so far in OJT. Another likely possibility is that you don't expect enough of yourself.

Setting your goals lower than your capabilities might make them much easier to achieve ~ but the air traffic control system requires that you give it everything you are capable of. You might actually be doing well but should always try to do better. While sitting comfortably at a control position, remember; you are not the one who relies on ATC to keep you on schedule, separated from other airplanes and safe. However, pilots and their passengers do. You owe them the best effort you are capable of.

Instructors may not know the upper limits of their own ability (does anyone?) but they can sure tell when someone else isn't meeting the minimum criteria. Raise your own standards and expectations. Push yourself harder. Insert yourself into the traffic picture, assert yourself with the pilots and maybe you'll avert those expectation blues.

"I don't know." Ouch! Either saying or demonstrating that you "don't know" means a lot to your instructor and none of it is good. Not knowing implies you may have come to the OJT session unprepared. Now is not the proper time to be groping around your memory for such things as sector frequencies, landline numbers, letter of agreement specifics and such. Those things, along with your facility's Standard Operating Procedures, FAA Order 7110.65 (the original "Fifty Shades of Grey"), appropriate Facility Orders, etc. should be second nature by now. Instructors want to use the training session to show you how to put all the pertinent knowledge together and safely manage the position. They don't want to waste their time and yours by going over things you should already know.

Among the group of developmentals I began my training with; 'not knowing' often resulted in the instructor pulling our headset jack out (with malice) and sending us slinking away toward the break room. The price we paid on the forthcoming training report might have been high but the instructor's verbal barrage of expletives were always free. In time, we came to understand it was simply tough love.

Bring to each OJT session all the supporting knowledge you'll need, so that you can spend that time learning how to manage the airplanes.

"This traffic is too light for my ability. You're wasting my training time." These are words your Supervisor and instructor might consider if you are running out of training time. Keep in mind the unpredictable mature of our business though. You could learn important lessons; even in the lightest of traffic conditions.

You can also use those periods of light traffic to refine the skills you'll rely on when traffic is heavy. Don't allow the pace of  a slow period slow your working pace. If you always work the position as though it was busy; you'll keep your skills sharp and not have to change tempo when traffic picks up.

"You're teaching your own technique!" This statement is often followed by a reference to how some other instructor wanted it done and claims of confusion over which way is the best. Do you know how many recipes there are for meat loaf? Probably thousands and every chef will tell you theirs is the best. Truth is; there can also be several workable ways to solve a control problem. That being the case, your instructor may feel most comfortable with one way in particular.

There were several techniques I used regularly throughout my controller years. I thought they were the best tools for the job. Then one day I'd see or hear one of my peers handle the same situation another way. It was a solution I never thought of. It was an epiphany! I passed it on to everyone I trained but never sold it as the only way or even the best way to get the job done.  I knew better than that.

There's no doubt that OJT can be at least as frustrating as an attempt to perform brain surgery with boxing gloves. Everyone you work with went through it and succeeded. Now you have your own opportunity. Take it, and while you're at it, take ownership of your failures as graciously as you would your successes.

Never ever argue with your instructors during an OJT session. You may disagree and you may even be right but they are the ones responsible for the position. Save it for the debrief.

Focus. Try as hard as you can. Your instructors will appreciate your efforts, see your seriousness and sense your sincerity. When they do; you'll be surprised at how far they'll go to help you succeed.

Have fun working at the positions you're certified on. Keep trying to improve your game! You may be surprised at the level of skill you are capable of.

One other thing. Understand that, as you make your way through the OJT process, you are laying the groundwork for how you will be perceived throughout your career, both there and elsewhere. Whether good or bad; controllers can never outrun their reputations. The extended ATC family is a relatively small one. I can guarantee that if you transfer to another facility, your reputation will get there first.

Okay. As a reward for making it through this entire post; here's another training session for you to observe. Once again we have an eager student paired with a calm and competent instructor who does her best to put him at ease. Notice how she checks her student's level of preparedness before beginning the actual training. Visual aids are always a good means to that end.

I predict this guy will one day have Tommy as his First Officer. 


© NLA Factor, 2013