Student Controllers and Student Pilots Part 1

Did you ever wonder where and how Student Controllers learn their trade? Well, the process has many parallels to the way most of us learned to fly. That is not surprising considering the same agency oversees both processes.

Controllers and pilots (except Sport Pilots and certain others) are both required to obtain Medical Certificates; all Controllers must hold a Second Class Medical whereas a Student Pilot starts with a Third Class Medical that also becomes the Student Pilot Certificate.

The basic training process is very similar. The Student (either Pilot or Controller) will start with a “Ground School” and then progress to actually operating the flight controls or a control position under the direct supervision of an instructor. After a period of On the Job Training (OJT), the instructor will recommend an evaluation by an examiner. The examiner will conduct a Practical Test according to published performance standards. If the Student performs according to standards, a pilot certificate or controller certification is issued.

First, a word about nomenclature; a Student Controller is called a Developmental Controller until earning the first full facility certification. There are other categories but we will refer to all Controllers in training as Developmentals. A Student Pilot is just that until earning the first pilot certificate.

Some differences in the process are that a Developmental controller is required to pass a certification on each operating position (Ground, Tower, RADAR, etc) whereas a Student pilot will only take one practical test to achieve a Private Pilot license; although advanced ratings will take additional practical tests.

I have trained many Developmentals and Student Pilots. As a Front Line Manager (FLM – formerly known as a Supervisor)), I have also given many Practical Tests to Developmentals. The Front Line Manager acts the same role as a Designated Pilot Examiner does for a Student pilot.

In all of the training and testing, you look for some common things.

During training, you are always asking yourself “How far can I let this person go?” As a CFI flying with a pre-solo Student, I’m always looking for the Student to develop judgment. Is the crosswind picking up? Should we initiate a go-around? Did someone just cut into the traffic pattern? How far can I let the airplane drift before taking over the controls? If I, as the CFI, take over too early, the Student will not develop the experience, judgment and confidence to handle the situation.

The same situation applies to Controller training. As an On-the-Job-Instructor (OJT-I), I am always looking for judgment. Does the Developmental realize the decreasing separation between these two planes? Does he/she catch the incorrect altitude readback? Do they know the correct procedure for this approach clearance?

It also takes a higher level of skill and judgment on the part of the CFI or OJT-I. To watch a situation develop and then have the ability to fix someone else’s bounced landing or botched arrival sequence is much more difficult than fixing your own mess.

The hallmark of a good pilot or controller (or major league pitcher) is the ability to get out of trouble. We all make mistakes. Getting out of them is the key.

Next time, we’ll talk about the actual OJT training with the parallels and differences to Flight and ATC Training.

Fly safe.