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Air Traffic Controller Training – Simulation And Virtual Reality Tools

Our Modern World Is Built On Aviation Travel. It Once Took Months Or Even Years To Reach The Other Side Of The World. Now, Thanks To Modern Technology, We Can Reach The Opposite Side Of The Planet In Less Than A Day’s Flight. Air Travel Continues To Grow In Number, New Airports Are Built And Old Ones Expanded In An Effort To Keep Up With Demand.

Of course no airport can function without an Air Traffic Control (ATC). ATC plays a critical role in aviation. The ground based ATCs prevent air collisions, coordinate the landing and departure of flights, and provide support to pilots. It is a taxing job as ATCs monitor the location of aircraft in their airspace on radar and communicate with multiple pilots via radio. An ATC may be required to communicate with commercial, military, and private aircraft in their work.

ATCs are in increasing demand worldwide in the same way pilots are. The demands of the aviation industry are not easily met. Working in ATC requires a high level of education and competency. The training period is long and several candidates will drop out from training due to the stresses and pressure involved. Unquestionable accuracy is required as well as strict adherence to protocol and procedure. Air travel continues to grow in magnitude and there is a corresponding growth in demand for qualified air traffic controllers.

It is no surprise then that simulation training tools are being increasingly used by the aviation industry to meet the demands for more trained personnel. Both pilots and air traffic controllers complete numerous lessons and assignments in simulators. It has been standard practice for the aviation industry since the 1970s with increasing use of detailed simulations to prepare staff for employment. For pilots it has the advantage of enabling them to cross-skill on a new aircraft before they take charge of one loaded with passengers or cargo. For members of an ATC team, it gives them the chance to become familiar with basic and emergency procedures.

The latter is of particular use to trainees as emergency procedures are something difficult to practice in a real life environment. The use of simulation tools such as VR has become up to 90% of ATC team training with the remaining 10% being conducted on the job (OTJ). It is something that is increasingly embraced by companies such as AATC. Based in the USA, AATC is run by retired air traffic controllers and utilises technology as their main solution to meeting the demand for increased ATC personnel.

AATC (Advanced ATC Inc.) is typical of these young companies that are embracing technology and virtual reality simulations. Formed specifically to meet the challenges of recruitment for the ATC sector, they provide an intensive one year course for applicants. 

Companies such as AATC do not see technology as the end all and be all. They use technology as a tool, to assist with identifying suitable personnel and training them to the professional high standards required by all ATC personnel. This approach has been hugely successful, 100 percent of AATC’s graduates in the company’s first 18 months qualified to receive their FAA CTO certificate, enabling them to pursue employment in the field of ATC. 

Use of simulators and virtual reality is seen as the best way to optimise training for potential candidates. Actual physical time spent in a control tower can then be focused on more essential aspects of the job rather than the basics. The reduction of time spent at physical locations and increase in time on simulators allows for increased numbers of candidates to be brought through ATC training, as it maximises the time available for pupils to learn in a real life environment.

Another advantage of using simulators is that they can simulate training conditions that are difficult to replicate in a real life environment. An air traffic controller will frequently encounter challenging weather conditions, high intensity traffic, and differing runway configurations. Simulators allow students to experience all of these in a variety of challenging scenarios, every one of them different. ATC students will learn to cope with simultaneous arrivals and departures on parallel runways as well as making quick decision making and judging separation distances during high traffic periods.

The ease with which a simulation scenario can be altered ensures that students are continually challenged throughout the process. Trainers can change conditions and scenarios to focus on students’ weaknesses or introduce new aspects of procedure. It helps to accelerate knowledge transfer in an environment that is directly applicable to the job in real life. 

The use of simulator training enables students to demonstrate their skills in a safe environment where errors can be made before transferring to a proper control tower. The simulations are dynamic and engaging, keeping students focused on the task at hand. They are also significantly cheaper to run and help to cut down on overall training costs. 

One of the most popular simulator in use by the ATC community is Tower!3D Pro. The latter has also seen some success as a game, straddling the line between effective training simulation tool and a challenging mental exercise. Tower! Features numerous real world airports with extensively detailed runways, radar screens, day/night cycle, and more.

With products like the above in the marketplace, it is easier to see how simulation and virtual reality tools will come into increasing use in the near future. They provide innumerable advantages to trainers with few shortcomings, serving as a cost effective solution to the current dearth of qualified applicants. They are not an instant fix for the staffing crisis but they are a fantastic aid to the world of ATC. 

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