August 15, 2012

Let 'em go

About a month ago, right before my vacation, I was feeling a little worn down and a tad uninspired about this whole ATC thing.  I was spending the busiest nights of the week (namely Thursday and Friday) plugged into my least favorite sectors with my trainee all night long. Together, we experienced every momentary peak of accomplishment along with every trough of soul-searching, aggravating, "you-can-do-better", "I-can't-take-it-anymore" frustration that comes with realizing that we need to do better next time.

For the last two years, I've been plugged into the override headset jack with my trainee.  We're friends outside of work and we put up with each others' crap on sector, usually with a smile.  But I was growing impatient.  I wanted to get TQ checked out so I could go and work on my own again.  I miss talking to the airplanes.  But he wasn't ready.  And maybe it was my fault, being the lead instructor, and all.  So, we discussed it like the true professionals that we pretend to be, and decided that I needed a week off from training.  At the time, it felt a little selfish.  But TQ could use some other perspectives, and I needed the currency/proficiency.

 Like I said, I had spent all of the busiest traffic periods just standing behind my trainee watching, ever vigilant, and managing my own plan of action side-by-side with my trainee's plan and constantly evaluating whether or not the next move could prove too overwhelming for me to recover should my trainee suddenly loose the flick.   It is one thing to sit there and watch and then yell at your trainee in hindsight.  It's another to actually work it.  I was loosing touch with what my trainee was actually experiencing.

****I'm sure there has been LOTS to blog about, but I spend much of every day talking ATC with my trainee, and I really have no desire to go home and recap it yet again.  Sorry if you've missed me. 

So, I enjoyed my week on my own.  I got to spend time at other sectors.  I got reacquainted with the adrenaline rush that comes from simultaneously typing, talking, thinking, and listening as fast as you can all at once.  Oh, yah, this isn't as easy as I it looks.  Working radar is all about the scan your eyes make around the screen.  And the scan you make is much easier from further away (aka, where I stand as an instructor) as opposed to sitting right up there front and center in the chair with a mouse and keyboard demanding entries.  (The farther away from the scope you stand, the smaller the screen appears to your perspective, and the shorter distance your eyes have to move across the scope) But, I only had to worry about one plan:  Mine. So, instructing isn't a cakewalk, but it is different, and I'm glad I got time away from it.  I like balance.

The next week, all hell broke loose.  I relegated myself back to the position behind TQ's chair, but this time with much more patience and confidence in my own ability.  This allowed me to let TQ execute his own plan all the way to end.  I knew I wasn't at my recovery override limit yet.  We stayed right on the edge of madness for a while, but at the point I normally would have taken over, TQ really hit his stride.  He was in full control of the whole sector and was directing orders to the two other controllers working with us as D-side and Tracker.  It was a revelation!

It was truly a sight to behold- both my trainee kicking ass and the sheer number of planes happening.  I can't really say we were "pushing tin" since we were holding LGA and JFK traffic over Watertown, but the fact that everything over northern upstate NY was under control during those few hours was very reassuring that progress was being made and that my trainee could thrive within chaos.  So, we checked him out at those two sectors and I took a vacation.  All was well.

The only remaining sector is considered the easiest in the area:  Rockdale.  This is not to say it should be taken lightly.  Many controllers start here and then move on to the more complicated sectors later.  While this may be an ideal situation, TQ started on the hardest sectors and now has worked backwards towards the "easy" sectors.  The issue now is that Rockdale is the fastest sector.  It's a high altitude eastbound sector.  It has less complexity and less confliction points, but it has a higher volume of traffic.  TQ is used to planes behaving in a certain way.  He's developed habits that work well in low sectors were the wind isn't as strong and many of the planes are slower, if not just because many of them are prop planes.  The last high sector he just finished is a westbound sector, where everyone has a big headwind;  they move nice and slow across the scope. 

As a procrastinator myself, I know how difficult it is to break your mental habits that are used to waiting a minute or two to figure out the best plan of action.  At Rockdale, you don't have the time to hesitate or procrastinate.  Planes need a descent clearance, pronto.  Often, you'll need to start another plane down first.  If there's a plane in the way, turn 'um out quick and then go down and around.  There are lots of vertical layers.   Most planes aren't in conflict at Rockdale, but almost every plane needs something done to them before the next sector gets them.  If you don't finish your task in time, then you've made life at that next sector very difficult.  You can easily screw over four of five sectors around you in no time flat.  The key is to keep everyone around you happy so that they take your handoffs.  Once TQ can do that on a consistent basis, then I'll be ready to let 'em go on his own.

Maybe they'll let me work traffic on my own for a week or two before I get a new trainee......

Till next time....



Wayne Conrad said...

DM, I'm not a controller, but you make it easy to imagine what it's like being one. Nice to hear from you again, and great story.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I love your writing.