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Fri, Jul 25, 2008

Controlled Chaos: Those Who Handle Traffic At AirVenture

Former Controller Shares Insights Into Selection, Duties

by ANN Correspondent Dave Slosson

As a former AirVenture controller, I’d like to share how the controllers are selected, assigned to teams, trained, and work AirVenture.

A bid for volunteers goes out to every terminal facility in the Central Terminal Service Area in early December. The Central Terminal Service Area is the states in the center of the country, from Minnesota to Texas and Ohio to New Mexico. Controllers from these facilities bid to work this special event, and their bid must be sent by the end of December.

Selection is announced in late January based on AirVenture experience level, the staffing of the releasing facility during prime vacation time, seniority, and managerial recommendation. This year, 172 volunteers were trimmed to 78 selectees: 63 controllers plus one Sun ‘n Fun controller, 12 front line managers, and 2 operations managers. Additional personnel, not selected from bids, are the Oshkosh tower controllers, a Quality Assurance specialist, an administrative support person, and the tower manager.

  • A list of personnel and their facilities for this year’s AirVenture is available here.

Once the personnel are selected, the 16 teams are assigned. The team leaders are selected based on previous year’s observations by the management team and their recommendations on leadership ability. The rest of the team is chosen based on their years of service at Oshkosh, whether they volunteered to work credit hours during the show and previous year’s groupings. Team leaders have to have at least 3 years of prior experience at AirVenture, and there is one other veteran on the team (also 3 years experience or more), one limited (1 or 2 years experience) and one rookie. These teams work together for the entire week, rotating where they work each day.

The other 51 weeks of the year, Oshkosh tower is not staffed by FAA controllers, but contract controllers. During AirVenture, these contract controllers take weather observations, work ground control and flight data/clearance delivery positions. They are valuable resources to the FAA teams during AirVenture for equipment operation help and local knowledge.

The positions the FAA controllers fill at Oshkosh are: north local, in charge of Runway 9/27 arrivals; south local, in charge of Runway 18/36 arrivals; Runway 9/27 MOOCOW (MObile Operating and COmmunications Workstation) in charge of departures; and Runway 18/36 MOOCOW in charge of departures on the associated runway(s).

Away from Oshkosh, the FAA controllers operate Fisk, the VFR arrival point, and the Fond du Lac temporary tower. Front line managers oversee the team’s operations and coordinate IFR arrivals with north and south local, and IFR departures with the two MOOCOWs. The operations managers are in charge of coordination with the various EAA and FAA entities throughout the area, as well as law enforcement and emergency services, if needed.

Training for AirVenture is quite different than a regular tower. At most towers, a new controller spends a week or two learning the area via maps, studying the approach procedures, and having each position’s operation explained to them by a staff specialist or assigned trainer. Each piece of equipment is demonstrated and the trainee gets some hands-on time until they feel comfortable. All the basics of operating each position have been taught by going through the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center training in Oklahoma City, so once at the facility, on-the-job training is conducted by a trainer who is also plugged into each position and has immediate override capability. As training hours build up, a controller feels much more at ease working each position until they are able to go solo, so to speak. It is not unusual to spend many weeks, or even months, learning to work each position until proficient.

At AirVenture, however, all the controllers are already experienced tower controllers... so the basics of operating equipment and working positions such as local control are understood. The differences are explained for all to learn. A training manual is mailed out in May, which spells out the procedures in and around Oshkosh, Fond du Lac procedures, terminology unique to AirVenture, coordination with other entities in the area, and emergency notification information. There is also online training to help with aircraft recognition and learning the NOTAM. The front line managers and operations managers arrive Wednesday and the controllers arrive on Thursday. They all undergo a full day of training on Friday in the museum theater, explaining the training materials in more depth with specific examples. At the end of the day, all have to pass a written test to be certified Control Tower Operators at Oshkosh.

Starting Saturday, the team leaders and the front line managers help train the limiteds and rookies on the nuances of each position using show-and-tell methods. All team members on each local position monitor the radio transmissions so all are part of the operation of the position. One person talks on the radio while the others spot the arrivals and give instructions that the talker repeats. On the MOOCOWs, one person talks to the pilots and the coordinator both hears the radio transmissions and coordinates with the other two team members and the tower. At Fisk, one crew member talks and the others help spot the approaching aircraft and call out color and type. The training process gets even the rookies up to speed quickly and efficiently. The teams quickly learn to trust each other and gel into coherent and efficient aircraft-moving machines.

Take it from one who worked AirVenture for five years... this is NOTHING like a standard tower operation, not with two teams controlling each runway simultaneously. A dedicated team of controllers uses visual methods, not radar, to feed the runway arrival streams. It’s also quite different than any other tower because the pilots rarely talk. There is no time to get radio acknowledgement with this volume of traffic, so the controllers talk and the pilots listen and acknowledge by rocking their wings.

Oh, and about those gaudy fluorescent pink shirts? The bright color the controllers wear serve two purposes. Mostly, they’re for visibility and safety when they’re working in and around the MOOCOWs in close proximity to operating aircraft. The other reason is to help the managers spot the teams on the field from the tower so they know where their teams are at all times.

So now that you know about the bidding process, team assignments, and the training differences, I hope you can really appreciate the dedication and professionalism of the controllers working at EAA AirVenture. For one week, they move more traffic than either Atlanta or Chicago O’Hare, in much closer quarters and with a lot less training. So when you hear the pink-shirted folk accidentally identify themselves from their home airport, smile and know they’re on temporary duty at Oshkosh because they volunteered to work the most unique, high-volume aviation event in the country, EAA AirVenture.

Our thanks to Susan Parson, Flight Standards Division, and Wanda Adelman, Milwaukee tower manager and Oshkosh tower manager during AirVenture, for contributing to this article.



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