Observations from the tower: trainee controllers and student pilots

Note: I am not an air traffic controller. I do not represent the FAA. I am not a flight instructor. Everything I say here is personal opinion based solely on observation. 

As part of my CTI education, I have been given the privilege of interning at a local control tower. I get to go sit in the tower cab, mic in, and observe air traffic control from the front lines. It is a really great opportunity to get face time with controllers and to see the things I’ve learned about applied in real operations.

Today there were trainee controllers in the tower cab. Watching professional controllers is cool, but watching developmental controllers is almost cooler simply because they tend to be less good. I can learn from their mistakes.

To be perfectly clear, developmentals are always miked in with a fully certified controller who is not shy about jumping in to fix a rookie mistake. “Cessna 35A, disregard that instruction and do this instead.”

But the trainers will let the developmentals operate in such a way as to be able to show them their mistakes. “If you did this instead, see how much nicer this would be?” “Look at what you did. Now fix it.”

Interestingly, I observed that trainee controllers and student pilots make the same sort of mistakes. Here are two specific examples.

Stay ahead of the game.

When I was first learning to fly, I was often overwhelmed. Managing an airplane, especially during maneuvering flight and landing, was a huge challenge. There were many steps to remember and many things to consider. It was easy to fall behind the airplane.

Similarly, controllers need to stay ahead of the airport. One of the biggest differences between the experienced controllers and the trainees was that the experienced controllers were very proactive. They actively controlled traffic and were constantly analyzing and planning ahead. It was second nature to them. Trainees, like student pilots, seemed to let the airport get ahead of them.

Look out the window.

Especially in modern planes with fancy displays, it is easy to get sucked into the panel and never look outside. Colorful moving maps, terrain, XM weather, and other fancy things have moved our focus from the view out the window to the view on the panel. VFR flight by definition entails looking outside of the airplane but it seems we’ve replaced real vision with synthetic vision.

In the tower, there is a radar display centered on the tower’s airspace. It shows the runways and any traffic within about a 15-mile range of the field. I found myself transfixed by the radar until the controller in charge mentioned to the trainee that “They put huge windows in the tower for a reason.” It’s easy to get fixated on the radar, but just like instruments, it serves to enhance your situational awareness, not to be your situational awareness.




6 thoughts on “Observations from the tower: trainee controllers and student pilots

  1. One dark moonless night at Pittsburg International a ground controller trainee let us taxi in the path of a “heavy” just getting ready to touch down. We told the controller we were unfamiliar with the field, night doesn’t make it any easier. It was very dark and we seemed to taxi for a long time. Fortunately the real controller called out our N-number followed by the phrase “STOP NOW” averting the disaster. I was with a new private pilot who just wanted to bore holes in the sky and choose Pittsburg as a destination. I have not since and never will go to a big “busy” airport unless I have a real good reason to go there.

  2. Scary stuff! I try to avoid airports where I’ll have to tangle with a lot of heavier traffic, but sometimes – especially here in Chicago – it’s unavoidable.

  3. I recall during my Private Pilot post-solo training days that I was on final cleared for the landing after doing some practice out in the training area. As I am about 1/2 mile out I hear the controller clear another plane to take the active runway that I was on short final. Shortly after giving clearance to the other aircraft and as it started rolling onto the runway I hear the controller call to the other aircraft to hold short.

    I decided at this point to abort the landing including cleaning up the configuration (raise flaps, put back in power and such) and then declare to the tower that I was going to do a go-around. I probably had about 25 hours under my belt by this time and it was certainly a learning experience.

    I should also add this was not a busy Class B or C airport but a rather quiet D. So it can easily happen at a quiet or busy airport.

    • Even at a Class D airport controllers will try to ‘shoot the gap’ and get airplanes moved in and out as expeditiously as possible. Sometimes, especially during training, things don’t go as planned…good for you for being vigilant and taking control. ALWAYS better to go around than to land unsafely!

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