FAM trips – Bring them back!

Photo by Viault

Many years ago when I first started with the FAA, one of the benefits that I had heard from the older Controllers was the legendary FAM Trip. For those of you not familiar with the term, this FAA program allowed Controllers to ride in the cockpit jump seat on airliners. The program was conceived as training to enable Controllers and Pilots to “Familiarize” themselves with each other’s work. Considered training, it was conducted on Official Time – i.e. a paid training day.

I can still very clearly remember my first FAM trip. As a brand new hire (and 600 hour Private Pilot), I could not believe that I was going to be able to ride in the cockpit of a B727 all the way to Denver. Not only was it free but I was going to be paid for it. The fact that I brought along my ski gear had nothing to do with it.

My first impression was that the venerable Boeing cockpit was unbelievably cramped with tiny windows. It was also a beehive of activity while still parked at the gate. The Captain was talking to the ground crew on the interphone. The First Officer was getting the clearance. The Flight Engineer (yes, they still had Second Officers) was doing all sorts of switch flipping and reading checklists while ordering meals for all four of us. Yes, they still had meals.

There was so much “stuff” going on and we had not even left the ground! Once airborne, at least for the first few minutes, it was much the same. Checklists, radio calls to dispatch, ATC instructions all competed for the crew’s attention.  Before this, I thought I was cool flying single pilot IFR in my C172 but this was an amazing workload.  Now, I could see why my ATC instructions sometimes got the response “Was that for us?”

This, of course, was the whole purpose of the program.  It enabled Controllers to experience a “day in the life” of an airline crew.  It was a great opportunity to ask questions of each other and see both sides of flying in the system.

I also was able to see many different circumstances that helped me with my job as a Controller.  It was a real revelation the first time I rode through a Cat III Approach with a full Autoland in blowing snow; or having trouble spotting an airport at night with bright city lights around it.  It also gave the crews an opportunity to discuss operational issues with certain aircraft.  You could see firsthand the difficulty in slowing and descending while trying to keep engines powered up during icing conditions.  I used those experiences to improve my operation and to teach to new Controllers.

Unfortunately, the program came to an abrupt halt on 9/11.  Understandably, so, the flying public got very nervous about so many people going in and out of airliner cockpits.  The “Bar of Doom” pretty much sealed out Controllers for a while.

I would like to see the FAA reinstate this program.  There is a large body of corporate knowledge that is lost on Controllers who have never had the opportunity to see the other side of the microphone.

We can do something as pilots.  That is, to invite a Controller to go for a ride with you in a GA airplane. The next time you are planning to do some practice approaches or go for a $100 hamburger, call the local ATC facility and see if any Controllers are interested in going for a ride.  I bet most of them have never seen their own airspace from the air.