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Training the next generation of Air Traffic Controllers

  • Published
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

From organizing and expediting ground to air traffic, to issuing instructions and monitoring aircraft in air space over the ocean off the continental United States, the U.S. Air Force’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower and Radar Approach Control (RAPCON) Airmen are trained to the highest of standards using highly-sophisticated simulators.

The Shaw Air Force Base RAPCON and tower work in tandem to direct and manage aircraft on the ground and in the air, but their roles differ in numerous ways. The tower communicates with aircraft within visual range and a 5-mile radius, whereas the RAPCON reaches further and monitors aircraft outside the visible range of Shaw.

The simulators, or sims, reflect the differences in the two ATC areas, mimicking real-life situations controllers face.

The tower sim imitates the view of Shaw’s flightline from the tower with all the equipment needed by controllers when directing aircraft in the local area. This differs from the previous training method that used a static board. This older method of training, where Airmen would move miniature planes for trainees to practice their technical skill, did not simulate air traffic control contingencies as realistically or effectively as the simulator.

“When I first got here, everyone would be using the static board to train and I never felt like I could talk at the pace required and my confidence just wasn't there,” said Airman 1st Class Lisa-Marie McKinney, 20th Operations Support Squadron (OSS) ATC tower specialist. “I started doing sims more frequently later on in my local training, and that definitely helped; I got comfortable talking at the correct pace and it really built my confidence.”

The RAPCON sim contains radar scopes and equipment that mimic those used in the Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) room where trainees work once they complete their training.

“Once Airmen start transitioning into the final block of training, they are completing simulated scenarios that are a lot more difficult than what we usually see ,” said Airman 1st Class Hayley Cummings, 20th OSS ATC radar apprentice . “I think it's wonderful because I can go from talking to 25 planes at one time in the sim and then I go to the IFR room and only be talking to five planes.”

The simulator is primarily used by junior Airmen to get to grips with the fast-paced environment of being a controller, but it also allows for Airmen to develop as leaders and become more familiar with the job through teaching their peers.

“It's really nice to use the simulator instead of a static board because with the static board, it's the human moving the miniature planes like in a chess game. The simulator allows us to train with as close to the real thing as we can get it,” said Jacob Rigby, 20th OSS ATC tower specialist and trainer.

A trainer, usually a junior-enlisted airman who has completed their upgrade training, establishes the scenarios and alters them to suit the skill level of their trainee, before providing feedback to the Airmen on what they did well and what they need to improve on.

“When you go to the trainer course, the instructors go over what you should do as a trainer and how you should develop a training plan,” said Rigby. “They really stress to you that just because it works for one trainee, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for all of them.”

As the Air Force moves toward a maneuverable and adaptable force, the simulator is vital in ensuring the readiness of Shaw’s Airmen and civilians. Honing their craft provides the opportunity for controllers to perform Multi-Capable Airman functions, and allows base operations to continue in ever-changing, contested environments across the globe.