ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial

Swanwick’s Herculean Training Program

By George Marsh | August 1, 2001

On Jan. 27, 2002, one of the world’s most ambitious air traffic control (ATC) projects is due to become fully operational. It will have involved the relocation of air traffic management over the United Kingdom, the northwestern portion of Europe’s crowded skies.

But right now, a cathedral-sized control room located in the heart of the Hampshire (England) countryside is, effectively, the largest school ever dedicated to the education of air traffic controllers. The 21,500-square-foot (2,000 m2) operations room of the New En-Route Centre (NERC) at Swanwick–with its more than 200 operational and engineering workstations fed by some 500 telephone lines and 37 miles (60 km) of cabling–is the school’s most imposing physical asset.

On the human side, a NERC training team comprises dozens of instructors and assessors. They are backed by computer-based training programs, CD-ROMS, volumes of documentation, and some very smart scheduling.

The latter was vital in view of the project management challenge. Rob Herron, operations manager for the new center, says that 370 air traffic control officers, plus 195 air traffic assistants and 30 military controllers must be trained in how to operate the extremely advanced ATC tool at Swanwick. They must be prepared for transfer from the present, London Area and Terminal Control Centre (LATCC) at West Drayton, near Heathrow, on "O Day" next January. This represents "the largest conversion training program in the history of air traffic control." Moreover, this project has to be shoe-horned into little over a year.

Ensuring that every trainee receives a nominal 24 days training, in modules of two or three days at a rate of about one module per month, involved rostering some 21,000 individual personnel allocations. Schedulers allowed for extra time required for remedial training (average 5% per person) and sickness (5%).

Squeezing all this into the year requires continuous operation, seven days a week from Jan 2, 2001, to Jan. 20 Jan. 2002, of two training shifts timed from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 2:30 to 10 p.m. each day. In an intensive 12-day period towards the end of the year, personnel already trained will have to take refresher sessions to meet a CAA requirement that they are "current" within 90 days on the equipment they will be operating.

All this makes the Swanwick operational conversion training (OCT) a brute of an organizational task. However, the body responsible, National Air Traffic Services (NATS), the UK Civil Aviation Authority offshoot that is becoming majority controlled by some of its airline clients under a public/private partnership (PPP), has plenty of experience in training for new programs. As Keith Williams, NATS’ director of operations and customer service, points out, new terminal area control at the LATCC a few years ago, plus various new airspace sectors and the radical reorganization of airspace over the Thames Estuary (Clacton sector), all posed significant training challenges. But they were met successfully.

No Reprieve from Work

After a final technical handover last December, when Swanwick officially became an up-and-running system, 50 controllers and 25 assistants who had been on site since 1997, were freed to become instructors. They completed formal training for their new role by February this year. An input of newly recruited trainers gave Rob Herron's team a total of 55 qualified ATC officer (ATCO) instructors and assessors, along with 28 assistants.

Air traffic doesn’t stop to oblige training. As Rob Herron points out, "The pace of our training...accommodates the fact that these are people who have to keep the present LATCC going at West Drayton, even while they are learning to operate the new center.

"We’ve broken the content down into readily assimilable, bite-sized units, spaced well apart, so that participants do not become stressed through overload," Herron adds. "Conversely, we know there will always be some who want to leap ahead, so we ask our ‘eager beavers’ to have patience with us, to observe the pace we recommend, and not to cut corners."

The Instruction

First on the agenda is a session, which introduces the participants to Swanwick and its technology. In particular, they gain an idea of the magnitude of the change they confront, in terms of the technology, the way they will react with it (human-machine interface, or HMI), and in methods of operation (MOP).

To cope with the expected rapid rise in air traffic density, Swanwick embodies a new generation of ATC equipment. Developed and installed by Lockheed Martin ATM, it offers greater use of automation and computer assistance along with better inter-sector coordination. One new functionality, for example, is computer generation of electronic flight strips, backing up the traditional hand-written paper flight progress strips (FPSs). This allows the information to be networked and shared. (Though this system will not initially take the lead in flight progress updating, it will be available in later years should written FPS outlive their usefulness).

Operational changes include a transition to three-person manning of an airspace sector. Each team comprises a tactical controller, an air traffic assistant, and a planner. Any workstation can be allocated to the control of any sector, facilitating flexibility in allocating control resources. These all represent changes that require an accepting mind that appreciates learning.

During this first couple of days at Swanwick, participants stay at a local hotel. There, managers such as Rob Herron and Chris Thomas, head of ATC training, make themselves known, and help trainees to feel at home.

"This is not one of those ‘tree hugging’ management courses, although it does have a ‘getting to know you’ element," Williams explains. "We’re primarily there for reassurance and encouragement."

During the next two days, trainees gain their first hands-on experience of the new workstations. Course participants are trained on an airspace sector to which they are accustomed.

Instructors have to assume zero knowledge–which can be difficult with highly experienced ATCOs. The ratio is one instructor per two students, so regardless the trainee's experience, there is little danger of falling seriously behind.Trainees are assessed throughout the course as part of a rolling program. Thus, modules are signed off for each individual as they are completed successfully. Lack of success signals a need for remedial training.

Added Modules

Core learning takes place on actual workstations, tracking real and simulated aircraft and sometimes ‘shadowing’ what controllers are doing at LATCC. Students are encouraged to spend some of their between-session time, reinforcing what they have learned. To help with this, they have access to a number of computer-based training facilities, interactive CDs that they can use in their own computers, and documentation.

Since HMI and MOPs are the heart of the transition to Swanwick ways, two more modules are provided. The first, providing refresher and consolidation training, lasts three days. A final, three-day HMI/MOPs session again emphasizes consolidation, but introduces additional HMI topics that can help ease the controller’s task. Experience shows that the eight days spent on the workstations, along with the between-sessions reinforcement, are enough to impart a basic working competence with the new equipment and methods.

From then on, training becomes sector-based. Trainees will experience a three-day session and two two-day sessions. Here, operational simulations will be carried out in a Training and Development Unit simulator, and exercise team support staff become ‘pseudo pilots,’ responding to controller instructions and communicating as real pilots would. Each ‘pilot’ can simulate up to 20 aircraft. To build trainee confidence, workload is increased at a manageable rate.

Trainees undertake four sessions of an hour to an hour and a quarter each day and as they practice and learn, they are also being assessed. Any discrepancy between the standard expected and that reached is not regarded as a failure, but as an indication that supplementary training is needed.

A visit to Swanwick’s operational simulation (OpSim) room reveals an atmosphere of intensity redolent of a genuine busy ops room. Trainees monitoring their flights on ‘radar’ instruct their ‘pilots,’ update the flight progress strips, carry out handovers–all like real traffic management. With an instructor ratio of one to two and one assessor to four trainees, plus a number of HMI trainers present to provide support, the room is full of people and the hum of purposeful activity.

Altogether some 120 pseudo pilots have been cleared for OpSim trainer work. This allows for 40 ATCOs on each of three shifts, though in practice, some 32 are on duty at any particular time.

Next focus for trainees is on advanced operations. This entails a two-day session devoted to consolidation, holding and diversions, plus a further two days for consolidation, splitting and combining (bandboxing) sectors, and off-route work. NATS also insists on full fault and emergency training for its controllers, so another two days are spent in briefings, demonstrations, practice and discussion of typical faults and fallbacks, such as major power or radar chain failure.

Finally comes the day of reckoning. Trainees do not have to face a full board or daunting series of interviews, but this is a genuine review that will determine whether an individual has successfully qualified or must be referred for further training. An OCT coordinator and assessor pose technical questions, problems and fallback situations in a searching exercise designed to assess each person’s competence in the Swanwick environment. At the end of the day, the trainee will know whether he or she is cleared and signed off to apply their trade, whether as an ATCO, assistant, watch manager, supervisor or other specialist.

Much Has Been Learned

Lessons learned at Swanwick will be applied to implementing the UK’s second major new en-route center, at Prestwick, Scotland. When the Scottish New En-Route Centre becomes operational in about 2009, NATS will have achieved its objective of incorporating all UK airspace management into two major centers.

This dual-center approach provides redundancy. In the event of a major problem, either center will be able to provide the core services needed to manage all UK en-route airspace. Both centers will be upgraded frequently, in leap-frog fashion, to meet anticipated traffic requirements over the next 40 years.

Prime contractor Lockheed Martin ATM hopes to use the lessons it learns from equipping both UK centers–perhaps in the United States, where traffic growth may oblige the Federal Aviation Administration to dust off its own "big center" plans, which it discontinued in 1995 when technical difficulties looked insurmountable except at very high cost.

The FAA fears were well founded, judging by the final price tag for Swanwick of �600 million ($935 million). Some �183million ($285 million) of that fee was to rectify software deficiencies and the repeated postponement of O-Day from the 1996 date first intended.

Big Steps to Swanwick

This year is very much a training year for Swanwick, but training is just one among several major steps essential to the center’s full operation. For example:

The new ATC system’s handover was on Dec. 19, 2000. For this achievement, NATS’ deputy chairman and former chief executive Bill Semple gave prime contractor Lockheed Martin full credit for resolving technical obstacles, the success of which was confirmed in an independent audit carried out by the UK’s Defence, Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA).

In March 2001 came the first period of closely coupled parallel operation (CCPO), during which the Swanwick center shadowed the London ATC center in West Drayton. For two days, trained staff came together for the first time with the full operating equipment: radar data processing, flight data processing, support information system, and voice communication system.

Also included was an operational readiness demonstration. Two further two-day CCPO periods, scheduled for August and November/December, will see software issues NO4 and NO5 implemented, the latter being the standard at which the center will commence operations. These will add the final functionalities required by the system.

On Jan.20, 2002, operational conversion training, including bringing everyone to the current-within-90-days standard required by the CAA's safety regulation group will end. Swanwick will then run under CCPO until late on O-Day, Saturday, Jan. 26.

In the early hours of Sunday, Jan. 27, Swanwick will begin controlling air traffic. The transfer will be outwardly seamless. As a precaution, duty shifts will be maintained at West Drayton until the Monday, and back-up plans exist in case of more prolonged difficulties.

Initially, only one of the three major control rooms at the London Area Traffic Control Centre in West Drayton, will be transferred. London Terminal Control will move to Swanwick within a few years, and finally the military control center is expected to transfer. By about 2009, West Drayton should be vacant.

When Swanwick–easily Europe's largest ATC center–finally opens for business in January, it will be capable of handling the two million aircraft movements annually forecast for next year.

The Training Team

The UK’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS) took great care when organizing the training program. Course scheduling and content was subject to audit by the Civil Aviation Authority’s Safety Regulation Group. The fully qualified training staff includes the following:

  • The NERC Training Team (NTT), the main body of the training corps, along with trained Swanwick ATC staff. Team instructors, who have experience with the Swanwick system and have completed an instructors’ course, provide HMI/MOPs training on workstations and other training throughout the program.

  • NTT assessors, experienced air traffic specialists who have completed Operational Conversion Training (OCT) and an assessor course. Backed by the instructors, they run assessments made during the sector-based and advanced training modules.

  • The verifiers, training staff who have completed both assessor and verifier courses. They verify that assessments are meeting the required standards of rigor and consistency.

  • OCT coordinators, who have examiners ratings and ensure that all courses are correctly staffed and that contingency training is arranged where necessary.

  • Course managers and deputy managers, assigned to some courses.

The head of ATC training at Swanwick is Chris Thomas, who reports to operations manager Rob Herron.

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