New simulators improve training for air traffic controllers

August 4, 2011 (CHICAGO)

Congress has reached a bipartisan agreement to extend the FAA's operating authority through mid-September.

Air traffic controllers have remained on the job during the shutdown.

ABC7's got a behind-the-scenes look at O'Hare's Air Traffic Control Tower and the updated flight simulator that's improving training for controllers.

Veteran controllers Joan Warfield and Mark Karpegian work in front of a big screen that gives them a computer-generated, very realistic, 315-degree view of O'Hare. Its' simulation and the pilots they are talking to are colleagues a few feet away.

"We have the opportunity here now to teach all the basic techniques, and know the words to say, know the routes and the gates," said Paul Litke, FAA, operations manager O'Hare.

But it's not just learning the layout of an airport as complex as O'Hare. It's also about perfecting the words, the cadence, the tone that pilots come to depend on from an experienced controller.

No matter how skilled a new controller may be, this is not an easy tower to work.

The simulator - which sits on a floor below the tower cab - helps make it easier by presenting dozens of training scenarios. Want to go from day to night? You got it. Snow squall? There you go. Rain? We've had lots of late. No problem.

The wind changes arrival and departure configurations, and controllers may need a refresher when the wind changes again.

"With the simulator, we can go downstairs and evaluate them in scenarios to see how they would react to certain configurations," said Dan Carrico, Air traffic Controllers Union representative.

The simulator has helped speed up training time for an agency still dealing with a large number of controller retirements. For veterans who might develop an occasional hiccup in their work, the computer helps retrain.

"We can bring you down into the simulator and recreate any issue we're having upstairs and we can run it over and over until you conquer that particular piece," said Carrico.

The continued improvements in technology will continue to make simulations more realistic. Quite a change from the days when controllers would spend time training with model planes and an airfield laid out on a big piece of plywood.

"When I was in the air force, I held a plane up and said, 'global one high key, and worked them to another position. We're very much improved over that," said Jon Bremseth, FAA O'Hare.

Bremseth has been at it for a long time and develops the training scenarios. He can change the view, weather and airport. His office is behind the simulator screen, so he's sort of the wizard behind the curtain. And what he and others do, the controllers pay attention to the use of simulators has helped the FAA cut its controller training time by about 40 percent, and at the same time, as Litke says, it has improved safety.

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