Simulator streamlines air traffic controller training

Richard N. Velotta

Instructor Doug Douglas of Raytheon creates a rare Las Vegas snowstorm on the simulator.


Instructors Laurah Rhodes of Adacel, Paul Wells of Raytheon and Doug Douglas of Raytheon turn day into night on the Las Vegas simulator. Launch slideshow »

For most people, the weather at McCarran International Airport was a blazing hot 105 degrees today.

But a couple of dozen journalists saw it rain. And snow. There was even a threat of a sandstorm. From their perch in McCarran’s air traffic control center, they saw the glow of the Strip lights by night. Then, moments later, it was bathed in sunshine again.

All of those conditions are programmed into a $900,000 simulator where the Federal Aviation Administration trains air traffic controllers in a replica of the tower overseeing the McCarran field. The hardware cost $500,000 but the software and additional classroom amenities including installation and upkeep cost an extra $400,000.

The simulator, on the second floor of a building surrounded by warehouses about three miles east of McCarran, opened May 31. Ten controllers are being trained and another four are expected to begin using the facility by the end of the year.

Three trainees can use the simulator at once. Instructors play the role of pilots, and a computer enables them to respond to the controllers’ commands. A playback feature enables instructors to review and evaluate a student’s performance after a session. Instructors can also pause the action to discuss a controller’s response to a simulated event.

“Before we had this simulator, our controllers learned on the job,” said Jim Burgan, McCarran air traffic control tower manager.

He compared the old style of training to high school drivers’ ed, where an instructor overseeing a student could step in and take control of the car in a crisis.

“But with this, we have the ability to stop things, learn from it, replay and re-create the experience,” Burgan said.

And that includes programming different weather scenarios, high volumes of traffic and other surprises that make air traffic control one of the world’s most stressful careers, worthy of the six-figure salaries controllers make.

One of McCarran’s unusual features is that it has a pair of parallel runways that cross at the southwest end of the field. Controllers have to keep a close watch on those intersections.

The simulator environment is realistic in nearly every detail. The view from the tower includes all the buildings along the airport’s periphery, and the likeness of Strip is the one seen in postcards. Maybe the only flaw is the paint job on Southwest Airlines’ Boeing 737s parked at the B and C gates. They have the old-school orange and rust colors instead of the updated canyon blue design.

But every other detail is nearly perfect.

Burgan said the simulator cuts in half the time it takes for a controller to be field ready. It also gives veteran controllers refresher courses or enables them to handle unusual circumstances, such as temporary runway and taxiway closures.

New controllers first train at the FAA’s academy in Oklahoma City, which has 14 simulators. Once they complete classroom and basic instruction, they’re stationed across the country. Simulators are in Los Angeles, Ontario and Oakland, Calif.; Phoenix; Chicago; Atlanta; Dallas-Fort Worth; San Antonio; Denver; Miami; Honolulu; Minneapolis; Charlotte, N.C.; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Memphis, Tenn.; Orlando, Fla.; and Washington’s Reagan National Airport, as well as Las Vegas.

Simulators will be installed this year in Seattle, Detroit, Houston and the New York area.

Each simulator has the view of the primary airport and nearby satellite airports. McCarran’s simulator can also display tower views of North Las Vegas, Reno, the Grand Canyon and two California airports. The simulator has a program displaying the view from McCarran’s new 352-foot control tower that broke ground in May and will be open in 2015.

The Las Vegas airport, the eighth busiest in the U.S. in 2010, had an estimated 505,000 takeoffs and landings that year.

After the demonstration, FAA officials allowed journalists to control simulated traffic at the airport.

Pilots radioed in, and after giving them instructions, I watched the planes taxi to the runway and await my command to allow them to take off.

With the guidance of an instructor, I purposely addressed one pilot with the wrong flight number to see what would happen. A Mexicana Airlines flight wanted to cross a runway and asked my permission. I replied with the wrong number. And on the screen, the plane waited at the intersection.

About a minute later, the pilot again asked for permission to cross. This time, I addressed the right flight number and dozens of imaginary passengers were relieved that they were finally on their way to their gate.

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