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


CenterPuke88 said...

Gonna disagree on "I don't know" as being always bad. I've had a couple of trainees who, on their first sectors, I wanted to say "I don't know" rather than groping for an answer, if they didn't know.

We'd then have them look it up...

No Longer a Factor said...

"Center Puke?" Don't be so hard on yourself. Yes, we in the 'terminal world' occasionally used the phrase, but purely as a term of endearment. We were always mindful of the fact that our shift's success often hinged on you folks.

As for the "I don't know" thing; the instructor's reaction depended on exactly what the trainee didn't know. If it was one of the things I mentioned that were required knowledge for working the position then, yes, we'd often send them off to study up on it rather than waste their training time.

There were instructors who would pop a hypothetical question every now and then. "What would you do if the radar went out right now?" was a popular one. "Suppose the ARTS computer failed and you lost all your data blocks?" You know...stuff that we all had to improvise around whenever it happened. Such questions were more about opening a discussion than judging the response.

Thanks for writing!

sjdunham said...

Ah, training...

Herewith, my three favorite rules to control by, which if adhered to would keep many trainees out of trouble:

1: There is a major difference between watching somebody and watching out for them. ATC exists to look for things that are going wrong and intervene. It's not a spectator sport.

2) You don't earn your money by saying "Cleared to land." You earn your money by saying "Go around." If everything went well all the time, no one would need you.

3) You aren't done when you tell a pilot what to do - you're done when they do it. Issuing perfectly correct instructions but failing to monitor and ensure compliance is useless, and potentially fatal. (Severe example: Lexington.)

To me, the biggest success you can have in training someone is to get them to understand why their job exists. It isn't to sit there and recite the same rote clearances every day. While "normal" certainly has be mastered to keep the airplanes moving, you need to have the talent and readiness to jump in and act effectively when "normal" falls apart. If you don't understand your own equipment, aircraft limitations and potential emergency situations such as loss of attitude instrumentation, weather effects, ATC emergency procedures, etc, etc, you're not really a professional yet.

One of the things that drove me crazy as a trainee was not knowing what I didn't know. There was so much to learn, and without understanding the overall context it was sometimes hard to figure out what was important and what wasn't. So...annoying as it was, sometimes the right answer was "I don't know." When I became an instructor, I didn't actually mind hearing that from a trainee as long as it wasn't something that should have been readily available in their database. Blissful ignorance of the 7110, for example, was (and still is) unacceptable. I didn't mind an "I don't know" answer as long as it wasn't followed with an apparent "...and I don't care that I don't know, either." THAT was a problem. Luckily, people with that "as little as I can get away with" attitude tended to wash out at some point.

Thanks for another fine post - I really like reading your stuff.

No Longer a Factor said...

I like your three rules. How right you are that ATC isn’t a watch, wait and see thing. We have to make a plan then put it into motion; knowing that certain things could go wrong. We watch for signs of trouble and, hopefully, take preemptive action. Now the “watching out” for others is an idea that seemed to be receding into ATC history well before I retired. When I was in training though (back during the Roman occupation of Britannia), knowing what was going on my own sector wasn’t enough. I needed to maintain situational awareness of what was happening in certain other sectors and, if able, be ready to assist when needed. This is an important skill and is especially difficult for trainees who are focused solely on learning to handle their own control position. Far from a spectator sport; ATC is actually a team effort.

Verifying compliance with instructions is also great advice for trainees. In time, we all learn that pilots will occasionally misunderstand or misinterpret what we tell them. Undetected readback errors have ruined many a controller’s day. And like us, sometimes pilots simply make mistakes. When those mistakes go unnoticed (Lexington is a good example), bad dreams can come to life. The importance of constant vigilance is one of those things that we won’t find in the .65 but one good scare will etch the idea in stone for us. I was in a tower during a busy night shift, with at least four other controllers, when an air carrier took off on a parallel taxiway. The Local Controller didn’t notice. None of us noticed until the plane was well into its takeoff roll. The tower Supervisor, who also hadn’t noticed, ended up calling the company’s Ops Office. Meanwhile, we were all giving each other that “WTF” look of disbelief.

For me; “not knowing what I didn’t know” was a relatively short term condition. As a new trainee, all the undocumented skills a journeyman possesses became clear to me by watching the operation from the tower or TRACON. For instance; how could a guy work Final for nearly two hours and constantly provide the minimum required interval between arrivals at the runway? How did the approach controller know when to reduce an arrival from 220 KTS to 180 KTS so that it would coast right into a position five miles in trail with another flight? I knew the answer to these and so many other questions would not be found in my study material. I would have to learn them by observing and from my instructors. All the niggling little details like LOAs, the SOP, the point-sixty-five and such had to be well known to me before embarking on an OJT session, so that I could concentrate on learning the necessary skills.

Thanks for writing "sjdunham" and for the nice compliment. I’ve enjoyed your comments.


CenterPuke88 said...

OK, the flower smell in here is getting a bit strong...

In the EnRoute environment, the system is much more tilted toward the normal stuff than the tower/TRACON environment. We see a lot less of the abnormal because of the type of flying we deal with. That being said, when working a low altitude sector with an airport that gets vector to the ILS, you can see a lot more "action".

The EnRoute rule of thumb is that we're there 98% of the time saying "Roger, climb and maintain", but get paid for the other 2% of the time when things go to hell.

During the go to hell minutes, everyone around you is pulling all the business they can away from you so you can concentrate on the important stuff (even the pilots try to help that way). I remember starting with about 10 aircraft on frequency, a number that magically dwindled to about 4 as I worked on locating on a Sectional, then radar identifying a lost student pilot from India whose transpoder had failed. I switched a couple without really noticing, a couple of others switched over...heard the discussion...and popped back to the last guy and asked what they wanted them to do because I was very busy with a lost aircraft.

The biggest problem I see now is the ever fewer emergencies that trainees get exposed to before being signed off. So of them just don't handle the real thing very well on their own the first time (or first several times).

No Longer a Factor said...

“OK, the flower smell in here is getting a bit strong...”

Hah! Yes, it’s the “Compass Rose” and it grows in both Terminal and Enroute environments.

I suppose you’re right about today’s trainees not getting enough ‘hands on’ time with emergencies. In the military, we probably averaged one a day but in the civilian world; not so much. It’s like how I dread the first flat tire on my new car because that’s when I’ll have to figure out where the jack is and how to use it. Oh sure; there’s the owners manual but it’s so boring. I’ll figure it out when the need arises.

Learning how to handle aircraft emergencies is a similar situation. Like flat tires, they don’t happen very often. You can read about them and listen to other controller's accounts but the best way to learn is through experience. In lieu of that, one thing we used to do (maybe you still do?), was conduct pilot/controller listening sessions. It was a great venue for pilots to explain what they needed from us during emergency and other situations. We’d sponsor separate ones for General Aviation and Commercial pilots. I once got to meet and listen to one of the pilots aboard UAL 232 (the 1989 DC-10 crash at Sioux City, Iowa) explain how they managed to land that thing. Talk about an eye-opener.

Thanks again for writing! I love hearing from folks who are still on the boards.