Simulators prepare air traffic controllers of tomorrow

By Maria José Subiria


Stepping into a virtual control room, one can see the two runways and the surroundings of the north side of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on a 180-degree video screen. To view the south side of Hartsfield-Jackson, the image is moved 180 degrees, making the three runways and the surroundings of the south side of the airport visible.

The views are provided by the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Tower Simulator, located at the air traffic control tower at Hartsfield-Jackson. The tower is the tallest in North America, and the third tallest in the world, according to airport officials.

"We can get to the basics down here [in the simulator], before you get to the tower," said Michael Bosch, a Federal Aviation Administration front line manager at the air traffic control tower.

According to Bosch, every controller, depending on their skill and experience level, is taught with different training methods. Controllers may have had previous experience in the military, or in other air traffic control towers in the country. Others may have been involved in the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative, a program offered by the FAA through a partnership with a variety of colleges and universities. In the program, two- to four-year, non-engineering aviation degrees enable graduates to become air traffic control specialists, he said.

Bosch said when prospective FAA controllers first enter the field, they must train for five months at the FAA Academy, the main training facility in Oklahoma City, Okla., regardless of their background. Controllers assigned to Atlanta's airport are then trained on the simulator at Hartsfield-Jackson.

"You have specific training you get, from whatever airport you go to," said Kathleen Bergen, communications manager for the Southeast region for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Bosch, who has been working at the Atlanta tower for 10 years, said the amount of training each controller receives on the Atlanta simulator depends on their level of experience.

He said that once he is notified a trainee - known as a "developmental" - is joining his team, he appoints two certified professional controllers to assist in on-the-job-training for the developmental at the simulator. "Someone with a lot of patience and tolerance makes for better instructors," he said.

The certified professional air traffic controllers are certified in all of the 13 different positions at Atlanta's air traffic control tower, he explained.

A few of the 13 positions include a clearance-delivery and flight-data position, with a main responsibility of ensuring that an airplane has the correct flight plan, including route, slot and departure times; two ground meter positions, which assist the ground controller by sequencing aircraft that enter and exit the ramp; three ground-control positions, which move airplanes from the terminal to their designated runway and from the runway to the terminal; five local-control positions for each of the five runways at Hartsfield-Jackson, which guide airplanes for take off and landing; and a front line manager, Bosch explained.

The simulator allows developmentals to experience all sorts of weather and an array of situations, Bosch said. Its variety of settings challenges controllers in training to guide airplanes through difficult weather conditions, such as thunderstorms, fog and even snow during the day and nighttime. The simulator can also create difficult situations, such as an airplane experiencing a malfunction, accidents on the runway or even a terrorist attack.

Bosch said developmentals communicate with a "pilot" who sits in the back of the room and manipulates the simulator's settings. Developmentals give directions to and receive responses from the pilot, just like they would in the tower, he said.

"There is not one specific thing that makes one person [air traffic controller] better than the other, but you've got to multi-task," said Bosch.

According to FAA officials, the agency has been using tower simulators, developed by Adacel Systems, Inc., since 2006, in Chicago, Miami, Phoenix and Ontario, Calif. In December 2007, the FAA awarded a contract to Adacel Systems to install an additional 24 simulators in 19 cities, which included the simulator placed in the Atlanta air traffic control tower in September 2008.

"They [developmentals] get into the system faster" with simulator training, said Bosch. "When they do get upstairs, they've got the procedures down here."