Group Editor Marty Kauchak provides insights on the latest training challenges and opportunities facing the US air traffic control force, and a glimpse of developments for its counterparts in NAV CANADA.

Air Traffic Controller (ATC) training is prominent on the US Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) near- and long-term personnel management horizons. Indeed, in the next 10 years, the administration intends to replace the Baby Boomers who are retiring from air traffic control by hiring 10,000 new controllers. Tony Gagliardo, the FAA’s Director of Safety and Technical Training, said his organization is implementing certain measures to address the challenge that is now facing the workforce due to this generational shift.

In one instance, the FAA is modernizing its training methods and instructional approaches to better suit today’s learners. Elsewhere, the administration’s Office of Technical Training is undergoing a paradigmatic shift in how it utilizes technology to train and appeal to its diverse workforce.

Gagliardo emphatically linked the FAA’s focus on upgrading the ATCs’ training readiness and his organization’s training capabilities to air traffic safety. He noted an extract of MITRE’s March 2012 “Review and Analysis of Air Traffic Controller Education and Training” stated, “The transformation is expected to ensure that capable, flexible, high-quality learning tools are in place to handle the training needs while better educating air traffic controllers to perform their jobs effectively and maintain the safety of the” National Airspace System (NAS).

Technology Enabled Instruction

Accessions into the US ATC community have a straight forward path to being assigned a seat in one of the nation’s air traffic control towers or other operational sites.

The FAA has a three-pronged approach for selecting qualified air traffic controller candidates. The first step in this process involves screening the individual. Gagliardo said the candidates must take the AT-SAT (a competency test) and score at least 70 percent on the test in order to be assigned to an employment facility. “Once the candidate successfully completes the AT-SAT, they are placed in a facility based on vacancies, location preference and complexity level,” he said. Once the controller is placed at a facility, he or she must undergo approximately three months of training at the [Oklahoma City] Academy.” The accession training includes lectures and scenario-based simulation problems. And “once the candidate has successfully completed these courses, they must take and pass the Performance Verification (PV) examination,” Gagliardo pointed out.

Where the training processes within the FAA have largely been instructor-led, transitions are taking place within the classroom that includes updated, technology-enabled curricula. Some of the learning technologies aspiring FAA ATCs use include eLearning and web-based training. Gagliardo again referenced MITRE’s March 2012 report to emphasize the importance of learning technology in his organization: “The use of technology in education and learning is no longer an add-on to training; it is woven into the training curriculum.” He added, “The use of technology in training will not only enhance the learner’s experience, it will also reduce the overall costs associated with supporting traditional classroom environments.”

New & Emerging Learning Topics

The ATCs’ training syllabus remains dynamic, adding content about the latest systems and technologies in the NAS, including Performance-Based Navigation (PBN). The technology enhances safety, capacity, efficiency, and access within the NAS. PBN is much more accurate and reliable than current navigation techniques because it provides three-dimensional guided arrival approach and departure procedure that is currently not available.

“To date, no accidents have been attributed to PBN,” Gagliardo said.

The ATC training organization is also eyeing two other, significant developments. The Next Generation (NextGen) Air Transportation System is a major change in the management and operation of how the US public flies. The system is being implemented across the NAS.

Gagliardo noted that as the new technology and procedures of NextGen are introduced into the NAS, his community faces the challenge of not only maintaining what is already a rigorous training agenda, but that of adding completely new dimensions to the program. “Some aspects of NextGen will drastically change functions performed by controllers while others have less of a direct impact on the day-to-day operations,” he said, and continued, “Regardless, each newly introduced system or procedure requires an extensive look at the degree of impact as the design and development of a comparable training solution for existing certified controllers as well as revising the current programs for new controllers coming into the agency.”

Another watershed challenge facing the US civil aviation community will be the integration of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into the NAS. This spring the FAA called for proposals to select six sites nationwide to test the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles into the NAS by 2015.

Gagliardo recalled that simulators and other learning technologies help train and prepare the US Air Force and other services’ members for foreign and domestic missions within the NAS, and provide for UAS training. The FAA training official also added the “challenges such as the lack of an onboard pilot to see and avoid other aircraft and the wide variation in unmanned aircraft missions and capabilities must be addressed in order to fully integrate UAS operations in the NAS in the NextGen timeframe.”

NAV CANADA’s Experience

ATC training may also be viewed through the lens of NAV CANADA, a private sector organization. Margaret Martin, NAV CANADA’s Director of Operational Training, provided one high level perspective of her entity’s successes in the training sector when she noted, “We can say that NAV CANADA’s own training programs have improved significantly since privatization in 1996. We have been able to reform our selection process to make it more cost-effective and ensure it delivers high quality candidates. We have also been able to introduce new training-supportive technologies in a highly responsive manner based on the appropriate business cases being met.”

Martin outlined the accession process for her program’s candidates, noting they initially use NAV CANADA’s online candidate applicant tracking system (ACT) to guide them through a hurdled application process. After creating an account and providing pertinent personal information and work history, candidates take two online tests: a work personality test and a general knowledge test. “Those who succeed at this stage become eligible to participate in more comprehensive, in-person testing that evaluates a number of abilities (e.g. information processing, memory, communication, multi-tasking) and includes a paper-based simulation exercise,” Martin said, and continued, “Candidates who succeed at this stage participate in telephone interviews with experienced controllers, then a final interview with training program and local managers. Those who are successful throughout the process enter our pool of candidates available for upcoming training courses.”

Training Overview

Candidates who enter one of NAV CANADA’s training programs first complete a 60-hour computer-based training module. They then enter the classroom environment where they learn all the basics of air traffic control, the manual of operations and specialty training. Martin pointed out that for tower controllers this component lasts from 4 to 6 months. “For area controllers, this component lasts approximately 7 to 14 months. During this period trainees also receive simulation training. After completing classroom training, trainees enter on-the-job training where they perform the job supported and coached by a licensed controller who serves as their on the job trainer,” she added. On-the-job training lasts from 4 to 12 months for tower controllers and 6 to 12 months for area controllers, until they are issued their license.

Aspiring NAV CANADA ATCs use a blend of technology to enable their instruction. Students’ initial exposure to learning technology is during pre-course learning with a computer-based learning program. “As students enter the classroom environment, they are provided with an iPad that includes manuals and other reference materials, materials for demonstration purposes as well as commercial simulation applications,” Martin said.

The NAV CANADA training leader noted during simulation training, the goal is to support skill development prior to on-the-job training. “The tools used include generic tower simulators and complex tower simulators (which closely represent the environment in one of NAV CANADA’s more complex environments, such as at CYYC [Calgary International Airport]) for tower controllers,” she explained. For area controllers, NAV CANADA employs desktop simulators in the classroom as well as high-fidelity simulators for specialty training that closely mirror specific airspace sectors. “These integrate with NAV CANADA systems to present the trainees with the same computer-human interface and hardware platform employed in the operational environment in our Area Control Centres,” she added.

NAV CANADA’s courses use customized technology acquired from the air traffic control simulation company UFA.

Need Your Help

As the FAA embraces learning technology to bolster its ATCs’ training readiness, some program shortfalls remain. As a follow up, Gagliardo shared his “help wanted” list.

The first training challenge within the FAA is that there are not enough simulation devices available in the inventory. “In other words, not all FAA locations have simulation capabilities,” the administration official said.

The training leader also notes the high sticker price on simulation systems and other learning technologies. In a suggestion that would resonate clear with his military counterparts, Gagliardo remarked, “The FAA needs to encourage industry and collaborate with the government to find more effective ways to disseminate information.”

Finally, “it is difficult to find instructors who are experts on simulation, and to locate resources that can fulfill training requirements,” he concluded.

NAV CANADA’s Martin noted that a key area of interest for her organization is ensuring the simulation environment closely mirrors the real world environment so that students acquire the necessary skills to help them transition into the operation. “Our programs benefit when there is a high degree of compatibility/integration between simulation and operational systems,” she remarked.