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Air Traffic Management Magazine: Feature on Every Day is a Training Day

(Published in December 2019)

Training saved hundreds of lives in the skies near Chicago-O’Hare International Airport (ORD) on March 1, 2019.

Just after noon local time, ORD certified professional air traffic controller Ryan Schile was working local control and departing aircraft off of Runway 10-Left. Schile issued a departure clearance to an Envoy Air twin-jet ERJ-145, with an initial heading of 100. This heading paralleled the departure runways and the arrival runways so there would be no conflict. The pilot of the ERJ-145 read back the correct heading and began takeoff roll.

Once airborne, for an unknown reason, the ERJ-145 began a hard-left turn, placing that aircraft in a collision course with an American Airlines Boeing 737-800, which was departing Runway 9-Right. Schile quickly recognized the potential for a collision and instructed the ERJ-145 to stop his climb immediately. Subsequently, Schile issued an immediate turn to the right to a heading of 140.

Working on the other side of the airport was fellow ORD CPC Andrew Rice, who was working the American 737. He also observed the impending collision and issued the aircraft an immediate left-hand turn and a 070 heading. Seeing that was not enough, he instructed the aircraft to continue its left-hand turn on a 360 heading to pull these aircraft apart.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) measured the closest proximity of the two aircraft at .23 nautical miles and 100 feet.

“And that is only because these two controllers acted so quickly to pull these airplanes apart,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said. “Their actions on that day saved hundreds of lives.”

Schile, upon receiving the President’s Award with Rice at the Sept. 18, 2019, Archie League Medal of Safety Awards banquet at NATCA’s annual Communicating For Safety event, reflected on the training theme that was introduced and emphasized throughout the safety conference that week. An on-the-job trainer himself of new controllers, Schile realized that this incident was the type of hypothetical situation often posed to trainees to discuss, but it was also one he had never experienced before in real life.

“That day, I pulled something out of my trainee’s toolbag that I put in there, to save my (rear end),” Schile said. “It just goes to show you, you can learn from yourself, from your co-workers, from anybody. Every day, really, truly, is a training day.”

With renewed focus and passion, NATCA has developed a new initiative to confront and defeat the status quo and emphasize the importance of training. It’s called “Every Day is a Training Day,” and reflects the ongoing effort to change the way the workforce perceives training.

“Every Day is a Training Day” is built upon the goals of working to challenge the NATCA membership to pursue professional development throughout their aviation career and embracing a willingness to learn daily.

NATCA has spent the last few months emphasizing the necessity of a commitment to effective, regular training in pursuit of excellence. Attendees to Communicating For Safety saw this emphasis during the conference but the work now continues in earnest at NATCA members’ home facilities.

“As the professionals that we are, controllers have to break the cycle of complacency,” Rinaldi said. “Training is a badge of honor. We have to want to be the best. We need to make sure that we have given everything that we can to NATCA’s safety efforts and to the next generation that’s going to be able to accomplish all this work for our profession.

“Pilots embrace training on a daily basis, and we as aviation safety professionals need to do the same. We have to combat complacency to continue to be 100 percent, 100 percent of the time.”

Tom Adcock has served as NATCA’s national training representative for the past several years. On Dec. 1, he will take over as the organization’s director of safety and technology. Veteran Las Vegas Tower (LAS) air traffic controller Jamaal Haltom will be the new NATCA national training representative.

Adcock said the purpose behind Every Day is a Training Day is to help NATCA members understand that training is something that continues throughout their entire career.

“Whether it is new procedures, new equipment, or new rules, training is a part of a continuous self-improvement process, from the time we start as a developmental controller, to the time we retire,” Adcock said. “We should always be looking for ways to improve our performance as a controller workforce to make sure we are always operating at peak levels whenever we plug in.”

NATCA National Safety Committee Chairman Steve Hansen, who has overseen the development and launch of Every Day is a Training Day, noted that training had been viewed negatively based on previous FAA administrations’ use of training in a punitive manner. Even though those days are over, and have been over for years, the perception for many still exists.

“Professional athletes train in order to be the best they can be at their chosen profession. Controllers should strive to do the same, taking every opportunity to be the best at our chosen profession,” Hansen said. “One simple way is by learning from mistakes that are made and safety trends in the system. This is a foundational approach to ensure the U.S. maintains its position as the safest aviation system in the world.”

Rinaldi, during his remarks at Communicating For Safety, also said training was perceived as a negative in the past. Years ago, when controllers had an error, they were pulled off the boards and given remedial training. It was a way to shame someone in front of their colleagues. Training was used as a weapon. But that all changed in 2009, when NATCA and the FAA worked together to shift the ATC work environment to a safety culture, starting with the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP). ATSAP helps resolve safety issues, while simultaneously protecting employees from punitive or disciplinary actions, as a result of reporting errors that could impact safety, provided those errors are not the result of gross negligence or illegal activity. 

Until recently, there has been a one-size-fits-all mentality for training. But as NATCA has discovered, people learn differently. NATCA, with the FAA, is working on ways to adapt training to the members in each facility. It has begun to incorporate technology with the use of iPads, and micro-learning modules that refresh core critical tasks that members rarely have the opportunity to use in a normal workday. These modules take just a couple of minutes to complete but allow members to be refreshed more frequently on seldom-used tasks.

Additionally, instructor-led and web-based recurrent training will have modules that focus on “Why Training Matters.” There will also be the implementation of the new national training order which changes the focus on how training is conducted at the facility level and ensures NATCA’s involvement in improving the training processes at the facility level.

“We should be looking at training as the need for continual improvement in our profession,” Adcock said. “It is a process that should not stop throughout our careers. From the time we start training in our first facility, to the time we hang up their headsets, training should be looked at as a way to ensure we are at the top of our game whenever we work traffic.”

Risk Management Expert and NATCA 2018 Sentinel of Safety Award recipient Gordon Graham, a frequent speaker at Communicating For Safety and, now, NATCA’s leading consultant on training issues, says, “Absent experience, all you have to rely on is training.”

In a recent series of videos in which he speaks directly to NATCA members, Graham makes several important observations:

  • “Please don’t get complacent. Having a piece of paper saying you went to a training day, having logged in to an online course to say that you completed it, that’s not the answer. You need to take it seriously folks. A lot of people are dependent on you being excellent all the time.”
  • “Excellence has got to be the norm, not the deviation. Excellence has got to permeate everything we do.”
  • “Your job is so filled with risk. We have got to make sure that everyone understands what their role is, regardless of what you do in your facility. Excellence has got to be the norm, not the deviation. We do things right and we treat people right. Not some of the time, not most of the time, but all of the time.”

Controllers are working to make every day a training day, to avoid skill decay (reversing it with recurrent training), training to maximize their performance, and to never stop learning. As Rinaldi told the audience at Communicating For Safety, “We are not trained just to get it right; we are trained to never get it wrong.”