Air traffic controllers get (nearly) live training

By Pfc. Michael SynerMarch 12, 2010

Air traffic controllers get (nearly) live training
Sgt. Timothy Weidenhammer, an air traffic controller with 3rd General Support Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, watches an incoming helicopter on a voice recognition simulator created for air traffic controllers. The si... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT DRUM, N.Y. - Air traffic controllers of 3rd General Support Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade recently implemented their new Voice-Recognition Air Traffic Control Simulator, a training tool that is supposed to make Soldiers more proficient in handling incoming and outgoing aircraft on an airfield.

The simulator was purchased last year and was installed only a few weeks ago, said Lt. Col. Dennis McKernan, battalion commander. The system cost roughly $272,000.

Despite the price, the simulator has been receiving praise from its users.

"It's a great tool, both for new and experienced air traffic controllers," said Sgt. Timothy Weidenhammer, an air traffic control specialist with the battalion.

The new system improves on the battalion's old training methods, which mostly consisted of supervised time in the control tower observing and controlling real aircraft, said Joe White, aviation chief at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield's air control tower.

With the new simulator, air traffic controllers use voice commands to instruct the computer-controlled pilots what to do, which are displayed on a series of monitors for controllers to watch.

"It's very realistic," said Sgt. Danny Oliver, another air traffic controller with the battalion.

The program can run a wide variety of scenarios and locations.

"We primarily use Wheeler-Sack as the location," White said, "though we can set it to other places, including desert environments. We can even set different weather effects, and make it snow."

The most important feature of the training set, though, is the voice recognition.

"The voice recognition makes a huge difference," Weidenhammer said. "We use a very specific phraseology, and the computer only recognizes the proper terms and commands from us. If it doesn't understand, it will ask for us to repeat ourselves. If we can't tell it in time, the pilots may wreck."

"We brought in some of our most experienced controllers," White said, "and they were having a tough time with the simulator, because they were used to using slang."

"I've picked up a lot of bad habits," Weidenhammer said, "but this brings me back."

The unit intends to cycle some of their air traffic controllers through the simulator every day until their deployment in the fall.

"Repetition is the key to getting this right," said Warrant Officer Jonathan Braun, aeronautical information services platoon sergeant.

The new simulator also is expected to cut training time by as much as 50 percent for the controllers, White said. This is because of the realism and relative ease of setting up a scenario for them.

As with real-life air traffic control, there are three key positions for controllers to man: ground controller, flight data controller and local controller. The simulator allows three different people to be practice all three positions at once.

The simulator also can replay the actions and transmissions of the training team, allowing them to review their mistakes and highlight the parts they did well.

"By letting us review what they did, we can help them improve their skills," White said.

The simulator is life-like enough to cause controllers using it to feel some real stress.

"It can be really stressful," White said. "But that's a good thing. If these air traffic controllers get used to the stress now, they can better cope when things get hectic on the real runway."

Even though the simulator may cause Soldiers some stress, they still see the value in it.

"I feel like it is really helping me to keep skilled enough to complete my duty," Oliver said.