On the use of simulators during unit training (4 and a 1/2 years later)

Four and a half years ago, I had written an article on this blog about the use of simulators during pre-ojt. Recently, I started pondering again about this, and, having forgotten that I had written that article, I now see that on the fundamentals my opinion has not changed, however it has evolved in a substantial manner.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="351" caption="Tower Simulator Picture embedded from: http://www.airport-technology.com/"][/caption] To put it in a nutshell, I still believe that there is a clear benefit of using (hi fidelity) simulators during unit training, but whereas then I linked the use to solely pre-OJT, that is preparation for the on the job training, I now see that simulators have the potential to add value in terms of better and more efficient training, not only before OJT but also during this final phase of unit training. I will explain more a bit later but before I just want to note that I have the impression that since I wrote the first article back in 2007, not only the use of simulators in unit training has not increased, but the very term of pre-ojt (and therefore the only link that has existed so far between unit training and simulators) has been disappearing from the radar screen.  A proof of this is that neither the EC directive 2006/23/EC nor the more recent EU regulation 805/11 mention pre-ojt or the use of simulators in unit training any more, whereas Eurocontrol's licensing manual used to. I find this a real pity, especially because with time passing and with technology and automation supposedly (and in many ways is) becoming more accessible, in terms of training we seem to be going in the opposite direction. Unit training. The EU regulation defines unit training as the phase composed of transitional training preparing the student for on the job training and the on the job training itself.  It could almost call unit training `On the job training and anything needed to prepare you for it` Unit training, in my opinion should be better defined as phase of training before the validation of a ratings and rating endorsements and or new unit endorsements which consists of:
  • Learning and practicing local procedures and interaction with the system* in use at the unit
  • Consolidation and more practice time of the skills acquired during the initial phase of training
* by system I mean to refer to procedures, technology and other humans involved Unit training should consist of a number of performance objectives that the student or trainee controller (who I'll call the candidate) need to demonstrate aptitude in before getting the appropriate endorsements on their ATC licence. Based on these performance objectives, the unit training should list training objectives of how the candidate will achieve the performance required. These objectives will be a mixture of time based (e.g. needs a minimum of 100 hours on the position) to practice based (e.g. needs to practice heavy traffic - at 90%-100% of the sector threshold, or needs to practice holdings).  Mostly they should be a mix of both practice and time, that is, it is not enough to say that unit training should last 100 hours, but that the plan should be broken-down into specific items that should be qualified and quantified. For example, the candidate needs to experience a minimum of 10 hours of weekend configuration in busy traffic (needs to be quantified too), or a minimum of 10 hours of busy traffic in thunderstorm conditions. To be honest I am not sure to what extent the above is done. I have the impression (hopefully I am wrong) that whereas some do their plan in this way, others simply limit their work to defining a minimum number of hours at the end of which the candidate is safely handling traffic. The use of simulators in all this. Pre-OJT and In-OJT Let us start by saying that Unit training is very expensive. The longer the candidate spends training and the more expensive it becomes. Let us continue by saying that at the end of unit training the candidate needs to handle safely and on their own licence traffic at the unit, meaning that the preparation needs to be well made and no corners should be cut. Having said this, before we also used to say that simulators could be used in the case of busy units, so that the candidate is prepared to the heavy traffic in the simulator. A sort of bridge the gap between the initial training traffic and complexity levels and real life. Indeed, simulators can be used in this manner during pre-OJT. But what about less busy environments?  And, is the use of simulators during unit training only limited to pre-OJT? In my opinion we should stop seeing a strictly linear start-finish-start relationship between transitional (theoretical) pre-OJT (simulator) and OJT phases of training and see more unit training as a phase where theory, simulation and life traffic are trained on as needed. (Of course it is understandable that it is logical that one starts with theory and is also assumed that the end objective is to work on live traffic, so the emphasis is on the job) Trained as needed means that nothing should prevent a unit training plan to have parts of on the job training followed by theory and or simulation in any sequence. Nothing prevents, for example, that the candidate is asked to study unit specificity of unusual and emergency procedures at a later stage, after having already started on the job. In the particular case of simulations, my idea is that this should not be limited to pre-OJT and to busy units, but should be used as pre and in-OJT in busy and non busy environments. In busy environments, surely for the reason stated above describing pre-OJT and in both busy and non busy environments because life traffic situations cannot be managed to always efficiently fulfil training objectives. In non busy environments some relatively complex situations which do not happen often which may take months to appear in real life, and may even appear when the candidate is off duty.  In busy environments, the high and complex traffic levels are not a guarantee that the mix of situations cover all the objectives described in the unit training plan will occur. For example, heavy summer traffic in an airport, whilst the candidate is training, does not mean that the candidate will experience the low visibility or snow conditions typical of late autumn and winter. So what would be the option if the candidate started training at the tower in March: wait until January of the following year so that they experience snow? Get them ready for check-out anyhow in September once they accomplish their training hours? or during the OJT phase take them off real life for a week, put them in a hi fidelity simulator, provide them with a true replica of the tower, in winter conditions and with  a traffic sample of a number of complex days recorded in previous seasons?  In the name of safety (to cover all objectives) and efficiency (not to let a resource wait to be used operationally for 6 months) I would use In-OJT simulator if it were available. And we have not covered the use of simulators to train candidates specifically to unusual and emergency procedures applied to their unit, where for me it is evident that a replica simulator SHOULD be used. Conclusion In my opinion many of us in unit training are missing the opportunity of making things more efficient and possibly increasing safety by further using simulators. With every year that passes, simulators gain in performance and lose in cost, yet we are not using them more. On top of this, regulation, at least in Europe, is not helping us as not only is not maturing their possible use, but has in the past 5 years even reduced their visibility within the documents available. We should use simulators well, to the benefit of safety and efficiency. Mainly, we should simulators more.