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Know Your Pros - Center Air Traffic Controllers (Part 2)

Enroute Console - NATCA NATCA

Aaron Merrick is a Certified Professional Controller (CPC) and the NATCA President at Kansas City Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZKC). In this and our previous article, he gives us a look at the life of a Certified Professional Controller.

In our previous article, Aaron Merrick gives us an inside view of the Kansas City Air Route Traffic Control Center and the first few stages of a center controller's career. In this article, he describes the "R-Side" and gives us a look at the training and role of a radar qualified controller.

Stage 4 - Checking Out On The Radar

When D-Side controllers are selected for radar qualification, they head back to the classroom for Stage 4 training. Here, they'll re-draw maps and review procedures and specs - and then test out. "A lot of it at that point is refresher. You're working every day, so you know your procedures and your letters of agreement. But they want to know you have a good foundation heading into the radar lab," says Merrick.

Next, controllers head to the technical training lab - the "TTL." "It's basically a room in the building with simulation radar sectors, set up exactly as we would be on the [center] floor. You're talking to a ghost pilot and you work simulation problems. They call for altitude changes, vectors for approaches, stuff like that."

Radar Training

While you're in the lab, you have the opportunity to see other areas, gaining experience by flying a ghost pilot position. "There might be four of you in training, one from Gateway, one from Rivers, one from Trails, one from Ozark [areas]," explains Merrick. "If they're running a Gateway problem and a Rivers problem, then the Trails and Ozark developmentals will serve as the ghost pilots. It's a neat thing, because they get to see what other areas do."

"We have some areas that have really intense high altitude sectors and some that have really intense low altitude sectors. It's interesting for someone from the Gateway area, which handles a lot of the in-and-out from St Louis and doesn't have a complex low-altitude sector, to run a problem for Prarie area, which handles Salina, Garden City and Dodge City, and has multiple in-and-outs and practice approaches. They get an eye-opener."

Once a controller's completed all of the lab exercises, they head to the floor for on-the-job training.

ARTCC ZDC Federal Aviation Administration

Like qualification on the D-Side, controllers usually train on two sectors at a time. "You sit down at a position with a certified controller over your shoulder and you work air traffic as a developmental," explains Merrick. After certifying on the first two positions, a controller works those positions to pick up experience. At the same time, they still pull D-Side duty within the area. "Once you achieve something, you don't lose it," says Merrick. After controllers have some radar experience under their belt, they continue to certify on the area's other sectors two to three at a time. After qualifying on all of the area's sectors, they become certified controllers and can work any scope in the area.

Tracker - Extra Eyes on the Sky

Occasionally, during complex traffic or when severe weather impacts a sector, an additional radar certified controller will plug-in to assist at a position. "The tracker position is essentially a second radar controller working the scope," says Merrick. "During times when the R-Side and D-Side may just need an extra set of eyes, or when the required coordination is too overwhelming for the two of them to handle, the tracker can jump in and ensure that everything runs safely."

The Toughest Part

What's the toughest part about working the R-Side? "Talking to the airplane. There's that intimidation. It's different from talking to one of your buddies in the lab. Now you have to sound professional, use the right phraseology, and know what you're doing."

"Then, it's the scenario you don't train for and the things that the average person doesn't think about. Like the Jetstream this time of year - if I turn this guy, he's gonna pick up 50 to 60 knots. If I turn this other guy, he'll slow down 50 to 60 knots, and it's going to be easier for me to vector him behind someone else. You may have an aircraft heading straight into the wind, wired with another aircraft with a tailwind, and realize if I turn the guy with the tailwind, I'll make a bad situation worse."

Throughout our conversation, I can't help but look back at my pilot training - the firehose of information when you train in a new aircraft, learning crew resource management, building rapport with my crew, becoming comfortable on the radio, and visualizing what's happening around me. The milestones in a center controller's life are similar to those of a professional pilot, and it's amazing how much these two positions have in common.

Aleks Udris

Aleks is a Boldmethod co-founder and technical director. He's worked in safety and operations in the airline industry, and was a flight instructor and course manager for the University of North Dakota. You can reach him at

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