ATC Generation Gap?

September 11, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

IMG_0121PSsmLast week we discussed whether a new generation of pilots should learn basic stick-and-rudder skills before being entwined by glass and seductions of automation (83 percent of you agree—proving only that unscientific web polls are just that).

The DOT’s Office of Inspector General just released a report saying that the FAA is going to have a hard time filling the more than 11,700 ATC slots needed in the next eight years. In the interest of streamlining to get the new controllers fully certified that old staple—the ASR (or airport surveillance radar) approach—is starting to slip away.  Is that a “stick-and-rudder skill” for controllers? Fewer and fewer facilities have controllers capable of providing guidance to the ground. It’s not something that is needed very often, thankfully, but it seems like a good thing to have in the ATC tool kit for pilots who may have a short circuit in the avionics or in the headset.

I’ve had one occasion to use an ASR approach, when a newly-replaced vacuum pump fried itself. Seems the technician didn’t clean out the vacuum lines of the previously failed pump debris leading to an early failure (25 hours) at a most inopportune time. The METAR was “1 sm OVC 04”—or translated, lousy. A widespread tropical system moving up from the Gulf had blanketed the Midwest with the nearest VFR more than an hour away. Better to take a shot at a nearby approach. It was uneventful and I backed it up with an ILS although my tracking without the ASR would have likely included more “bracketing” than usual.

I’ve been honored over the last several years to be a judge for the National Air Traffic Controllers Archie League Medal of Safety Award, which provides recognition for the best in-flight saves during the year. Not surprisingly, many of those recipients were pilots and in several cases it involved providing an ASR approach to a VFR pilot who was way over his head or to an IFR flight with an equipment malfunction. Because of that skill, lives were certainly saved—but we’ve got this expense problem. Does it make sense to have one controller on shift who’s ASR qualified, even if the others aren’t?

So, should we take the extra time to train ASR-qualified controllers, or at least some, or just let it go and y’all be careful out there?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Rafael Sierra

    Bruce, this is a significant ASR ATC training problem – you are correct and with a clear understanding. The experienced “radar certified” controllers are ending their careers and what is left needs real ASR on-the-job training not just an introduction on the simulator. Thanks …

  • Tango Kilo

    As a seasoned controller, I wholeheartedly agree there is a new breed of controller being produced. Budgets have forced us to try to be more efficient, which is a good thing, but when it means MINIMUM exposure or experience, it can really be a detriment.

    Many controllers will disagree with me but I think a PPL should be required to become a controller. Flight deck training for familiarization is one thing, but actually serving as PIC and making those decisions on your own is quite another. Hopefully there are enough experienced controllers still in existence to teach and guide those freshly minted certified controllers. The learning is just beginning once they certify much like a private pilot.

  • Ron Schwier

    I have only had a need for an ASR approach once in my 14 years of flying. It was because of equipment failure during an IFR flight. The conditions were very close to the 400 & 1 (just lousy) that Bruce experienced. Words can not describe the gratitude that I had for the guy on the other end of the radio that got me down through the soup very quickly.

  • Louie

    The FAA is going to have a hard time staffing controllers? Is that with keeping their silly age discrimination on the books? Speaking of Pilot Certification and controlling… you can become a pilot at pretty much any age… why not a controller?

  • Rafael Sierra

    My wife is a Pvt. Pilot and Radar certified ATC having worked SOCAL TRACON for over 20 years. She is about to leave the tension for the pension with concerns about the NextGen of contollers. I am a flight instructor with a small flight school. We, as a family, are all about aviation and have worked the system cooperating with the FAA Safety programs for many years. Therefore, we understand the Pilot and Controller strengths and weaknesses in effect. The next generation of Controllers need better and more comprehensive training, this includes ASR.

  • http://AOPA Jim Borger

    As a helicopter pilot I fly a lot of IFR in a non-radar environment. You can really tell the difference in controllers. Some aren’t used to working aircraft they can’t see and seem too afraid to let me get up and going. Others, who started out working in parts of the country where they didn’t have a lot of radar, don’t have a problem.

  • Gregory Kordes

    ASR is the IFR pilots safety net. Throwing that away to save dollars shows how much the Feds care for the average pilot. Their actions speak more than their words.