Birds eye view: Simulator lets Robins air traffic controllers take virtual spin in the tower

Robert Harvey manipulates a  program on the control tower simulator. He can add extra aircraft or change weather conditions. U. S. Air Force photo by Sue Sapp

Robert Harvey manipulates a program on the control tower simulator. He can add extra aircraft or change weather conditions. (Air Force photo by Sue Sapp)

A1C Noel Foley and SrA Ariel Sauvey communicate with a pilot during a simulation.  U. S. Air  Force photo by Sue Sapp

A1C Noel Foley and SrA Ariel Sauvey communicate with a pilot during a simulation. (Air Force photo by Sue Sapp)

A static board with toy airplanes was used for training before the simulator. U. S. Air Force photo by Sue Sapp

A static board with toy airplanes was used for training before the simulator. (Air Force photo by Sue Sapp)

Robins Air Force Base, Ga. -- A few years ago, air traffic controllers at Robins spent much of their training learning to direct the skies above the airfield with two simple tools - paper and toy planes.

Today air traffic controllers new to Robins train on a simulator programmed to give the controllers the same bird's eye view they would experience in the tower.

The simulator, which arrived here in 2003, allows images to be reproduced on screens that mimic the shape of the windows in the control tower.

"If you look out the window upstairs (in the control room) this is what you see," said Robert Harvey, tower simulator system administrator.

The system not only gives the trainees a virtual experience as close to working in the tower as possible, but it also allows the trainers to step-back and observe, which helps them spot when extra instruction or practice might be needed on specific traffic calls.

"We used to use paper and model airplanes to represent the airfield and the airfield traffic," said Mr. Harvey.

The original method behind training was a static board, which resembled a large oval labeled by a magic marker, and pieces of paper labeled as aircraft and later die-cast model aircraft.

"We were continuously moving the aircraft around to get them to learn and use call signs," Mr. Harvey said.

Trainers and air traffic controller journeymen and apprentices would sit around a table acting out scenarios that occur or could occur on the airfield.

"It was kind of like playing with your kids. It was all role play," said Master Sgt. Wayne Adams, chief controller for the Robins tower. "We would sit here for hours at a time. We would be the airplanes; they would be the controllers."

With the simulator the computer functions as the pilot of the aircraft in the simulation, leaving the trainers free to interact and listen, Sergeant Adams said.

"Down here we can pause the simulator and discuss the situation; upstairs (in the control tower) we don't have that luxury," Mr. Harvey said.

He added he is even able to change weather conditions, add birds in the flight pattern or put deer on the runway just by touching a few buttons.

"The job is all about phraseology. You can say two things that sound the same to the untrained ear, but to a pilot they mean two very different things," Sergeant Adams said.

Though the phraseology is a universal language among air traffic controllers and pilots, no two airfields are the same; they differ in size, composition and serve different types of aircraft.

This is why the Air Force uses front-load training because it sends all new controllers at a base to training immediately after arriving whether they are coming from another base or straight from technical school, Sergeant Adams said.

The front-load training provides them with base specific information about the airfield such as the layout and length of the runways and the characteristics of the aircraft the airfield typically supports, Mr. Harvey said.

Senior Airman Ariel Sauvey, an air traffic control journeyman, said the ability to train on base specifics after a permanent change of station to Robins has been invaluable.

"This gives you a really good idea about how things work here. It has helped me learn the stateside rules, because I was stationed in England before," Airman Sauvey said.

However, the trainers also put a little mischief into the scenarios in the name of fun. One of the traffic calls that is a simulator exclusive is, "You disobeyed orders, now you must suffer the consequences." This call is followed by the immediate combustion of the simulated aircraft. Even though the simulation exercise is just for fun, there can be serious consequences on the runway if a pilot doesn't follow the controller's directions, Sergeant Adams said.

One of the many advantages of the simulator is the opportunity to come and reenact things that happen in the Robins Control Tower to help the controllers become more confident in complex situations or situations where they feel unsure about how to respond.

Airman 1st Class Noel Foley, an air traffic control apprentice, said he is grateful he can bring situations he encounters in the control tower downstairs to the simulator if he needs to practice.

Robins is Airman Noel's first base after completing technical school and he just recently left his training status at Robins and headed to the control tower.

"When you are upstairs you can't pause the situation, you have to remember it. But down here we can pause it, discuss it and start up a minute later and do it over and over," Airman Foley said.

The simulator can help the air traffic controller through more than 90 scenarios starting with basic ones with one or two aircraft and building to ones with four or five aircraft, Mr. Harvey said.

However, he added, if an out-of-the-ordinary event happens that has not already been created in the program, a new simulation scenario has to be built. In these cases the training facility pulls out the static sheet and model planes, so the controllers can see what went right and wrong.