Simulators address ATCO training challenges during COVID – and beyond

By the spring of 2020, most passenger flights were grounded as the pandemic restrictions took hold.

Consequently, Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs) saw traffic levels drop dramatically. With so few movements, Air Navigation Services Providers (ANSPs) across the world faced a major new problem: how to maintain proficiency and carry out training for their ATCOs.

With the skies empty, extended use of simulators for training quickly emerged as the perfect solution.

Why? Simulator training ensures that the trainee can be presented with the right level and mix of traffic for the respective stage of their training at any given time. This ensures that trainee ATCOs can gain more confidence before entering the next stage of live traffic training, or during low traffic periods. This was an especially valuable asset during lockdown; however, simulator training isn’t just helpful during a global pandemic.

Before the pandemic, a special programme was put in place by ANSL, the ANSP for Gatwick Airport (LGW) and Edinburgh Airport (EDI), for the newly reopened Carlisle Lake District Airport (CAX). The programme allowed its ATCOs to train using the simulator at EDI, alongside delivering a greenfield training and validation course.

Cambridge City Airport (CBG) recently reached out to ANSL to resolve an ongoing training issue as they tried to work toward a more resilient operational requirement. CBG also needed to extend the number of ATCOs to move from a five- to seven-day operation. They asked ANSL for help to accelerate the ATCOs’ learning to achieve this.

After an assessment, ANSL recommended placing a simulator on site and worked with CBG’s owner, Marshall Aerospace, to set up a comprehensive training facility.  Simulator training will allow ATCOs to align with, and provide, the resilient operation needed to accommodate a stable five-day programme successfully, and move onto a seven day programme.

ANSL complements the simulator with well qualified staff who are provided on a flexible basis, dependent on requirements. This enables the team on site to use the simulator without relying on a local resource to develop, instruct and operate.

By outsourcing the training to ANSL, CBG avoided substantial investment at the outset, and quickly received a simulator. ANSL also provided extra staff to develop and implement a training programme. This gained the airport a consistent level of service, and removed the need to employ an expensive in-house, full-time coach.

The equipment requires an investment that some ATC units consider worth making, but often units do not have the capacity to prepare, maintain and operate. Having recognised this challenge, the training solution ANSL provides comes tailored to the needs of each unit and includes the necessary staff.

As part of this extended service, ANSL developed a series of exercises, each 20 to 40 minutes long, that can be adapted according to the qualification level of the ATCO. A skilled simulator operator, or ‘pseudo-pilot’ is provided, as well as a Synthetic Training Device Instructor.

The simulator is now being used to train ATCOs in a variety of scenarios. Initially, work was carried out to achieve regulatory approval of the simulator and its Cambridge environment. This enables the team to incorporate the simulator in the Unit Training Plan and to use the simulator to improve an ATCO’s skills informally, and to deliver training that brings the trainee closer to validation.

The option to commence a Unit Validity Course, which delivers an entire phase or phases of the unit training in the simulator, remains. This route would enhance the training programme further, once the initial validations free up enough instructors with local experience to deliver this course efficiently.

The simulator’s real value is that it introduces a step-change in the delivery of training and unit ATCO validations. Dependencies on live traffic are reduced substantially, and effectiveness of all training carried out in the simulator can be optimised. This efficiency is critical, especially in an environment where operational and training resource is limited.

On top of the standard tower and radar training, which forms the core of ANSL’s provision for Marshall Aerospace, this simulator can support emergency and abnormal situation training. It can also be used for skill and practice exercises, to form the core of any future ATCO recruitment activities, or as a platform for high-fidelity assessments of potential new staff.

ANSL’s ability to provide CBG with an ATC Simulator tailored to the Cambridge environment in a swift and flexible manner was key in the programme’s successful implementation. ANSL worked with UFA Inc., their simulator partner, in the preparation and implementation of the simulation environment at CBG.

UFA has a long-standing relationship with ANSL having previously supplied ANSL’s simulators at LGW and EDI. These simulators have been adapted for regular ATCO training, to assess concepts, test systems, and validate assumptions for development work on a variety of projects that ANSL has delivered for its customers. ANSL  set up a fully functional simulator at CBG in a very short time frame using its experience in adapting and deploying new and alternative simulation environments with UFA.

Although the simulator took a few months to finalise, its impact on the quality and level of additional training has been widely recognised. The additional levels of training that can now be provided in the winter months, when air traffic movements are far lower, are invaluable, and the ability to train and assess future ATCOs consistently and reliably is vital. The flexibility to tailor and adapt to local circumstances and needs is the key to the success of each solution. Not only does it avoid unnecessary costs, but most importantly, this is how any simulator can perform to its best ability, enabling the ATCOs on site to do the same.

ANSL’s wider capabilities further enhance the simulation. Lucy Kirkland, ANSL’s ATC Operations Specialist and Human Factors Expert, is working with the team at CBG to assess how simulator training can fit into the wider training programme for an ATCO.

Vicky Bhogal-Hunt is seconded by ANSL into the role of Manager Air Traffic Services (MATS) at Cambridge City Airport.

The compliance and regulations team of ANSL supports Marshall Aerospace as the designated ANSP with the regulatory engagement required to achieve approvals for this enhanced training programme and wider compliance matters. The management of the ATC Unit at CBG also benefits from the wider ANSP capabilities of ANSL. The current Manager Air Traffic Services, Vicky Bhogal-Hunt, is seconded in from ANSL to free up capacity in the unit and support delivery of the ATCO validations.

That is how ANSL is helping to transform the delivery of ATM at CBG. ANSL hopes to continue to extend its bespoke offering to anyone in need of flexible ATM solutions, with the aim to change the ATM industry and drive simplicity and flexibility that benefits all.


Source: Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA), written by Air Navigation Solutions.

Link to original publication: ATCA Bulletin No. 6 2022.

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