Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Instructor's Lament

I started working on this idea several months ago, while taking a cross-country train trip. I found riding the train to be a much more relaxed experience as compared to commercial air travel. Needless to say, you don't get there nearly as quickly, but neither is the experience likely to be as harried. Anyway, while riding the train, I had plenty of time to start on several ideas for blog entries. The suspension of my most recent trainee's training reminded me of this one:

Besides talking to airplanes, one of my duties is the instruction of new controllers. I should say newly-arrived controllers, since I don't believe we're going to be getting any more brand new controllers at LAX. That experiment didn't work out so well, as only a couple of the roughly two dozen 'newbies' we got have been able to make it through the training program. Prior experience is not a guarantee of success either, as we've had a fair number of controllers transfer in from other facilities and not make it to certification. I should explain here that any time a controller transfers to a new facility, they have to be trained and certified to work at that particular facility. While the basic rules don't change, the local application of them is peculiar to each individual airport, thanks to no two airports being exactly the same.

By the time the student reaches the tower cab, he's already been in the building for a month or so, as the training process starts with the classroom phase. So the basic stuff, like maps and routes, and other book knowledge, should already be taken care of. Before starting actual on-position training, the student will monitor other controllers as they work the position, to get a feel for how things actually work. As an instructor, I have to amend my instruction to suit the needs of my student. Therefore, the first one or two training sessions are, for me, sort of an evaluation of where we're starting from. The facility's operating procedures form a rough outline of what you need to cover, and each instructor also has his own checklist of things that need to be taught on a given position. I would venture to say that nearly every item on each instructor's list stems from something that happened to that person at some time. We all have our own experiences with various little traps, gotchas, and procedural gaps or loopholes.

This last statement is particularly applicable to Clearance Delivery and Flight Data, which I will refer to jointly as "Clearance." As evidence, I'll just mention that over the last year, LAX has had more errors on Clearance-Flight Data than all of the other tower positions taken together. These two positions are normally combined together, and are the positions where the training process begins in the tower. The controller working Clearance has to contend with two radio frequencies and three computer systems. Through experience, we've learned that a trainee who has difficulty with this stage of training is guaranteed to not be able to make it successfully through the training process at LAX. As an extreme example, we had the fellow who couldn't even keep track of his own training hours. Each stage of training is pass/fail, meaning that if you can't make it through Clearance, you don't even start on Ground Control.

In the past two years, I've had five trainees. Of those, two are in the final stretch of their training at LAX, while the other three are now pursuing their ATC careers elsewhere. The first two came to LAX from other FAA facilities, and had military experience prior to that. Both are expected to certify later this spring or summer. The other three all came to LAX as their first FAA facility: One from the military, one from a well-regarded college program, and the last was furloughed from a regional airline. While none of them was successful at LAX, they absorbed at least as much, if not more, training resources than the guys who are making it.

To be sure, this job is not for everyone. I recall a trainee that I had at another facility: I have never worked with someone who was so ill-suited for what we do. By the time it was all said and done, every instructor in the building had put their time in, and the universal conclusion was that the situation was hopeless. Unfortunately, this particular trainee was politically delicate (read "untouchable"), and so the best we could do was manage to pawn the whole thing off on another facility, where the trainee and their spouse had been selected (talk about 'sweet and sour': We didn't want to lose the one; we couldn't afford to keep the other). Another trainee I've had withdrew from the training program because they couldn't eat or sleep from the worry - not at all a tenable situation. I have empathy for the latter trainee, while the former was an unbelievable source of frustration.

I wrote the above in March. Since that time, the two trainees in the final stretch of training have been certified, and I was assigned a new trainee. This one came from another FAA tower, and had previous military experience. It was the suspension of this trainee's training on Clearance Delivery that brought this essay to mind. Also in that time, LAX has "lost" three other trainees at various stages in the training process.

My original choice of title, while apt, baffled me, which seemed odd since that was the actual premise. After re-reading what I'd written and considering what has taken place, I think it amounts to this: Despite our best intentions and efforts, we're not always able to be successful in our mission; That the training of air traffic controllers is not an easy task, and there is no system or technique that will work on every trainee. Just like most other things, some folks catch on quickly, others have to struggle, and in the end some just can't get it. I don't have any statistics at hand, but I do recall that in my initial class of 19 at the academy, only six or seven of us made it. Since then, I've seen training failures at every facility I've been assigned. We invest just as much, if not more, time and resources on the training failures as we do the successful check outs. It can be mentally and emotionally exhausting work for the trainee and instructor alike. A wash-out always seems to leave me with the nagging concern that I somehow failed the student, despite the trainees' denials and supervisors' reassurances.

With this latest trainee, I admitted to the supervisor fairly early on that I had a gut feeling that we didn't have a 'keeper'. At times, I've seen other instructors make similar statements about their (or someone else's) trainees, and while I sometimes was in agreement, at other times I was left wondering how they came to that position. I've heard of old hands who claim that they can tell just by meeting someone and shaking their hand whether or not they'll make it. In this instance, being the primary instructor, I felt an even greater responsibility to make every effort to keep it from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. And yet, when it came time for the 'make-or-break' checkride, that still wasn't enough.

And so farewell to another LAX hopeful. All is not lost, as their success at their previous facility means that they have a future, either there or elsewhere. Where the training begins anew . . .

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