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Low Standards, High Tech Could Endanger Air Safety

Low Standards, High Tech Could Endanger Air Safety
(Jaromír Chalabala/Dreamstime)

Monday, 11 June 2018 10:19 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Recent news reports inform us that the Obama Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) eliminated its policy of prioritizing selections of air traffic control candidates from top graduates of aviation-related Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) colleges or those with military aviation-related experience. FAA also dropped a requirement that eligible program applicants first pass an eight-hour Air Traffic Selection and Training (AT-SAT) exam designed to assess their numeric ability, tolerance for high-intensity work, problem-solving abilities and other important performance qualities.

FAA’s previous air traffic control training program selection prerequisite criteria was quietly preempted in 2013 by a racial and ethnic "diversity" screening process that instead favored applicants who scored well on a "biographical questionnaire," or BQ, which emphasized family upbringing and hardship backgrounds. Candidates who didn’t score well enough on BQ assessments were deemed ineligible, regardless how well they had performed on cognitive skills.

As a former air traffic controller, albeit many years ago, any compromise of highest possible merit-based qualification standards truly worries me.

It was a matter of real pride back in the late 1950s when I was selected for training, and again later when certified, as an air traffic controller with the U.S. Air Force. Top-tier overall scores on post-enlistment aptitude tests had catapulted me, then a fresh-out-of-high school 18-year-old, into challenging new experiences of awesome responsibility.

My initial six-months of training as a ground control approach (GCA) operator began at Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, Mississippi. GCA, which entailed "talking in" aircraft using precision radar under low visibility conditions, was somewhat like flying multiple aircraft at once, whereby all relied upon your guidance as they flew around the "airport pattern" in preparation for landing.

Then, on the "final approach," you constantly communicated precise glide path, runway alignment and other instructions to each individual piloted craft until their wheels touched down on the runway.

Those pilots depended on us to respond quickly and appropriately to all sorts of routine and contingency circumstances.

Our confident voices and error-intolerant instructions were products of expansive training and testing. We learned comprehensive air traffic control and airfield rules; technical details about the radar systems; how to regularly check and recalibrate scope accuracy adjustments in the dark using small screwdrivers; and how to continuously servo radar antennas towards incoming aircraft with foot pedals while simultaneously manipulating display and communication controls with our hands, while all the time issuing pilot guidance.

We practiced memorizing and keeping track of multiple individual aircraft call sign identities, each correlated with types, altitudes, approximate airspeeds, and headings, which appeared only as undifferentiated moving "blips" on our scopes. This training involved endless trial runs vectoring diverse mixes of live aircraft, including fast fighter jets, lumbering cargo carriers and prankster-prone helicopters.

Our instructors and co-conspiratorial pilots concocted a fiendish variety of faux emergency situations to challenge our problem-solving skills and composure under pressure. The final test was a doozy: a master sergeant yelling in my ear that I was doing everything wrong as I talked in a jet pilot claiming to have a landing emergency with a lost engine and erratic control under strong fluctuating crosswinds.

Deciding that I couldn’t allow the loud harangue behind me to distract full forward concentration on the challenge at hand, I tuned it out in my mind. As I later learned, that was exactly what I was supposed to do. It was considered to be the most crucial aspect of my ultimately successful assessment.

The ensuing years as an air traffic controller were among the most satisfying, if also most demanding, professional responsibilities I have ever known. It was enormously gratifying to open the radar unit door, see the foggy ghost of a large aircraft on the nearby runway, and hear the grateful voice of its pilot on your headset say, "Thank you GCA — Great job!"

My tour of military duty tour concluded with a fourth and final year-long posting at Sondrestromfjord, Greenland, a small isolated base with a single one-way in and out landing-takeoff strip closely flanked by two tall mountains and terminated by another. Inclement weather was frequent, and the mountains blocked radio and radar contact with aircraft that strayed off course.

Yes, I acknowledge that I’m waxing nostalgic about those often fabled "good old days" before superior automated computer-based systems replaced antiquated technologies of my "back in the day" relic generation. Yet I can’t help but doubt that these marvelous new contrivances have made the urgency of keen human judgment obsolete as well.

I continue to believe that vetting of the very finest candidates still really matters. Among these, my former Chanute Air Force Base air traffic control team mate, life role model, professional mentor and close friend Staff Sgt. Curd, a black man from Alabama, was a personal all-time favorite.

Charlie, if you’re still out there somewhere, thank you for your personal guidance GCA — Great job!

Larry Bell is an endowed professor of space architecture at the University of Houston where he founded the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) and the graduate program in space architecture. He is the author of "Scared Witless: Prophets and Profits of Climate Doom" (2015) and "Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax" (2012). He is currently working on a new book with Buzz Aldrin, "Beyond Footprints and Flagpoles." Read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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FAA’s previous air traffic control training program selection prerequisite criteria was quietly preempted in 2013. As a former air traffic controller, albeit many years ago, any compromise of highest possible merit-based qualification standards truly worries me.
air force, at sat, bq, faa, gca
Monday, 11 June 2018 10:19 AM
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