Contract Airline Services

"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

Type rated on A330, B747-400, B747, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Air Traffic Control

A Training Travesty?

Last week I wrote about non-reporting cultures. Hard to believe that we live in a world where safety is sacrificed because of lack of reporting cultures.  Then look what should end up in my inbox. Fear prevails in many companies.  When employee's fear, nothing will be fixed. Below is the letter I received.

Hi Karlene,

I have been following your blog posts last week regarding safety culture and reporting systems. Your posts have encouraged me to come forward about an ongoing safety issue that has the potential to affect a large percentage of the aviation industry.

I am a pilot, but I have a strong interest in air traffic control. I am employed at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center (usually known as the FAA Academy) as a Remote Pilot Operator. An RPO is essentially a “pretend pilot” who simulates radio calls for aircraft and inputs commands into a simulator so that ATC students can train.

Photo from

The Academy is their first stop before these students are sent to various facilities around the country. It is split into three areas of training: Tower, Enroute, and Radar. Students in Radar training are mostly current tower controllers who are learning to work in a TRACON, but students at Tower and Enroute were hired in one of the past two hiring bids, so they are considered “off the street.” A few of them happen to be pilots or students who studied air traffic control in college, but such experience was not required for their selection.

Before these OTS students begin working simulated traffic, they attend a class called Basics, which is essentially a combination of private pilot and instrument ground school. They learn aircraft types, performance characteristics, the pilot’s environment, how an instrument approach works – just about everything from the ground up.

Unfortunately most of these students do not take their training seriously, and largely they do not know anything about aviation before they get here. After an aircraft identification test, I heard one of them admit they had no idea what a C172 was. I continually overhear them saying things such as:

“Why is the time in hundreds and thousands?”

“If it’s 8 o’clock Zulu in Oklahoma, what Zulu time is it in Florida?”

My personal favorite is:

“I don’t know any of this stuff, but my friend told me Oklahoma is just a big party, so I can do that.”

Photo from

Oklahoma? A party? It sounds ridiculous, but it makes more sense when you learn they get paid $98 a day as a per diem. Then they spend all their free time at the bar and the casino instead of with a textbook, and they frequently show up to training hungover. The trouble really comes when they start to do poorly.

Academy training is centered around the students’ success in passing, not necessarily their performance.

Photo from Aviation

They frequently badmouth their instructors and blame their RPOs when they make mistakes. They can pretty much say whatever they want without fear of reprisal.

If the students make an offhand comment to us on the frequency or make a serious error (or several), immediately after the problem ends, we have to go to our supervisor’s office and explain what really happened, in case the instructor comes over to complain that we weren’t doing our jobs. This happens all the time.

Sometimes it can be as serious as
the student letting two planes collide
without even noticing.

They mix up left and right, north and south, and sometimes even vastly different aircraft types like the Cessna 172 and the Citation 750. They will get into situations where they have small VFR aircraft holding over the final approach fix, circling right under heavy jets, and not even realize what’s happening. Much of the time, if this were the real world, the student would be responsible for everything from numerous separation errors to midair collisions. 

Of course, in a training environment, mistakes are to be expected. However, the students do not take their mistakes seriously, and they can do everything short of demanding someone be fired, whether the accusations are well-founded or not.

Photo from

It gets to the point that we joke that we should find out what facility a person works at so we make sure not to fly there, but then the ongoing joke is ...
there’s nowhere in the country
that’s safe.

I am afraid to go public about these issues ...

because I am trying to become an air traffic controller, and I know it would hurt my chances of getting hired when I am already facing slim to impossible odds. The Academy can only accept a maximum of 1400 trainees per year, and 30,000 people applied to the most recent hiring bid. I applaud the CTI students who have been in Congress fighting for the return of our hiring preferences.

I resolve to set a different example if I am ever lucky enough to attend. I am personally aware that most of our air traffic controllers are the best in the world. They do a difficult, important job that only a small fraction of people can do. But with Academy training the way it is, the burden falls mostly on the facilities to wash out the incapable candidates, which costs more time and taxpayer money. I can only hope that Academy training will improve and that the FAA will focus on hiring and generating the world’s most skilled and qualified air traffic controllers.

Best regards and safe travels."
My question to you all is: 

How do we fix problems like this 
if we are afraid to come forward?

Flight For Sanity coming soon....
Catch up on the series so you will be ready!


  1. I find this Disappointing and Frustrating. Air Traffic Control isn't a Video Game. It seems they could do a better job of hiring the people truly interested, and weeding out all of the idiots. I was selected to take the air traffic control exam several years ago, but was cut last minute because there wasn't enough time to go through the hiring process before my 31st Birthday. I'd rather have someone in there 30's, 40's in there than some millennial who thinks everything is a joke!

    1. Cody, I am so sorry that happened to you! Amazing they have a system with an age limit that looks for those less life experienced, and opens the door for the party group.

      I know many fabulous controllers, and to think that the new hiring processes could have enabled the current new hires to be employed, versus them. And then again, if might not be the students, but the lack of discipline and professionalism that the center demands.

      A shift there could kick out the incompetent before they start. Perhaps an aviation aptitude test first?

      My concern is NextGen and our old school pilots retiring, meets the new generation controllers.

    2. Completely agreed! I'm trying to get in too. I really don't want to be 31 and still not have a career because of waiting on this. So many of my friends have aged out already.

    3. Christine, I am sorry about that! Age 31 is so archaic, and to eliminate experts because of that is a problem. Okay... one more thing to work on!

  2. Not my experience going through the academy. Everyone took this extremely serious. And yes I was one of the OTS hires that didnt know any aviation befoe getting hired, yet in my short 8 year career I've trained many new and direct hires, taught classroom portions of our facility instruction, am regularly assigned controller in charge of the facility, been involved on local safety teams, etc. So of course there are people that dont take it seriously, but rest assured, those people will not have a successful or long career in the agency.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! This is great to hear that this is not the standard, and you had a different experience.

      I appreciate you sharing this with us, as we rely on this system and knowing your experience was not the same is good news!

      I'm curious on the part you mentioned with those who do not take it serious, do not have a successful or long career. Do they have a career at all? Are they allowed to proceed? Or are they washed out before their career begins?

      I really appreciate your comment, and looking forward to hearing more how the system works.

      Thank you!

  3. I'm a current ATCS and was hired on an OTS bid. While yes, many mistakes are made at the academy and not everybody takes it 100% serious all the time, what is left out is the fact that once these people go to their respective facilities they are undergoing another 1-3 years of training on average which is much more extensive. That also includes current certified controllers training them over the shoulder and plugged in with them at all times. If they don't cut it, they wash them out. You can't just look at one facet of the training we receive and think that that is all we do.

    1. Thank you so much for the comment and the added information. I would suppose that this would be like a pilot who goofs off in the ground school and simulator portion of training and they get washed out on OE... operating Experience. But for pilots, we never see the real world for additional training. There are steps along the way that if the pilot is not successful in the ground portion...they don't make it to simulators. If they aren't successful in simulators, they don't make it to the plane.

      Thank you so much for letting us know this is not the final training, however.

      Also... congratulations on your job and your success! I can tell from your comment, you were a focused individual. I hope to talk to you on arrival sometime!

  4. As previous posts have indicated, Oklahoma City is only the beginning. Once a trainee arrives at their facility, they are put through a rigorous training program and only then will they become fully certified to work Air Traffic on their own.

    I was in Oklahoma City twice. Once for tower class, and a second time for the radar portion. I am now a fully certified controller at the "world's busiest" tower in Chicago. That per diem is spent on housing and food, there is no "extra" money left over after those expenses. People uproot their lives to attend the FAA Academy, and most, don't know where in this country they will end up when/if they graduate. It is a huge sacrifice. In my experience, most students take the job very seriously. And those who do not, will not make it past the Academy.

    I am proud to be a part of the busiest and more importantly, safest, airspace system in the world.

    1. David, thank you so much for your comment. And congratulations for a job well done. I actually spoke to the author of this report and he said that "Yes, there were many good classes" and explained more details. The concern was only from the groups that came through with the wrong attitude, that they should be washed out there, not passed on. I think another email is coming for another post soon.

      You have your work cut out for you for sure, in Chicago. And thank you so much for the job you do. We appreciate you so very much! And, I have some very good friends in the tower, and I know the challenges are many.

      Basically we depend upon each other and I am sure you have stories with the pilots too.

      Thank you again for your comment!!

    2. David is absolutely correct. The per diem (for those who get it) is all gone toward housing and living expenses. (Hope you're doing well David!)

    3. Thank you so much for your comment. I appreciate the added information so much.

  5. This letter startled me, I think writing this letter took a lot of courage.
    This is a big problem with young students these days, they need to learn to go for their goal and not for the money.
    ATC is a very responsable job and it's their task to keep airspace safe.
    It's about dedication to the job they're taking on and studying has to be serious business.
    I'm not in aviation but if I fly I want my life to be in capable hands so I get there safe and sound!

    1. An, Thank you so much for your comment. As you and I know there are good and bad with each group for every job.

      I think what I hear most often is that kids of today feel more entitled and aren't as apt to work as hard as they did years ago. But that does not mean everyone is like that.

      But we should have training facilities that set high standards, and those who are not living up to those standards should be washed out sooner than later.

      All the good people who take this serious and do exceptional in this program, deserve to be proud of their accomplishments.

      This is a serious job. You are right... sending that email and allowing me to post it took a lot of courage!

  6. I'm a 13 year ATC and say that this is not a norm. Those who don't take it serious get washed out, and what may happen in a simulated environment doesn't happen at an actual facility.

    1. Thank you so much. I am glad to hear this is not the norm. As most things are not, just one point of time in view. The person who sent this said there were many "good" classes that actually studied. The concern was for the group that didn't and were passed on. I appreciate your comments. And mostly the great job you do out there for the pilots. Thank you!


Thank you for your comment! If your comment doesn't appear immediately, it will after I land. Enjoy the journey!