Originally Published: November 14, 2010 9:56 p.m.
Tucked away in the middle of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campus is the air traffic management lab. Students and instructors refer to the ATM lab and the pilot training simulators as ERAU Virtual Air Space.
It is here that students such as Jerrold Wu are learning to control the aircraft that fill the skies.
Wu will graduate next month with a degree in aeronautical science. While he is working on a pilot's rating, he said he is also drawn to air traffic management.
"When I was home in Hawaii, I could listen to controllers. Since I also fly, I thought it would be interesting," We explained.
ERAU is a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved air traffic control collegiate training institute (CTI).
College of Aviation Assistant Professor Brent Spencer said that when students finish the air traffic control program they are qualified to apply to the FAA academy in Oklahoma City. Before that, however, students have to start at the beginning and that is as basic as "this is a screen," Spencer noted.
Once students learn the items in a control tower, they learn how to use the equipment.
ERAU began offering its air traffic management program in 2009.
"The students could be working on another degree and have air traffic control as a minor," Spencer said.
The FAA has specific requirements that students must learn. These include basic aviation history, basic navigations, phraseology and aircraft recognition. Students take basic radar classes and basic control tower classes. They also learn about an airport environment.
"Previously, students entered the FAA academy through the military, or from the general public. Today, the FAA does not accept people from the general public," Spencer stated. "Ninety percent of students accepted to the FAA academy come from a CTI program. There are about 30 CTI programs in the country."
Patrick Ganpath, who graduated from ERAU this past year with a degree in aeronautics, has applied to the FAA academy. He originally wanted to be a commercial pilot, "but my financing tanked so I had to look at different options."
He took his first air traffic management class in 2009 and graduated with a minor in ATM.
"I fell in love with it during a basic class. I received a one-year internship at the local control tower (Prescott Airport) and that is what really sealed the deal." Ganpath said. "I have had people tell me I am a natural."
He admits that people think air traffic control is one of the "most stressful jobs. But, if you enjoy what you are doing and know what you are doing, I don't think it is stressful."
ERAU is unique in that it has its own virtual air space.
Embry-Riddle Dean of the College of Aviation Dr. Gary Northam described the virtual air space as a "system of computer simulators that allows students to fly aircraft and be around other planes."
While inside the ATM lab, students rotate between the controller's desk and the cockpit of a plane.
Wu said students fly "multiple aircraft and the controller must keep them apart. You definitely have to be able to multi-task."
Wu thinks it is interesting that the simulators provide a real-world environment. He reported the skills needed to be a controller include math, the ability to work with people, the ability to communicate and learn aviation terminology.
Controllers must be able to keep planes separated.
"It is hard predicting when planes are coming in and knowing how to sequence them," Wu noted.
Ganpath explained that the simulators in the ATM lab allow students to "go to any airport in the country. We use the Prescott airport because our students fly there."
Students working in the lab as pilots open a flight simulator and connect to the virtual air space. This allows them to be visible and show up on the radar screen. The controller can then communicate with the pilot through a headset.
Spencer said students do not train at the Prescott tower, but do tour the Prescott tower.
"They are not allowed to actually talk to airplanes," the professor stated.
The ERAU virtual air space is providing students the next best thing to actually working at an airport.
Spencer mentioned that in December, the ATM classes would partner with the pilot training classes for an exercise. The student pilots will file flight plans through the simulators and the controller students will guide them on their journeys.
ATM students leaving ERAU are qualified to apply to the FAA academy, but there is no guarantee the academy will accept them. According to Ganpath, the acceptance process could take one to one and a half years.
"Graduating from a CTI is no guarantee you will be hired by the FAA, but it will look at your application," Ganpath noted.
Graduating from a CTI school is just the first step. Students must earn a passing grade on the air traffic controller standard aptitude test.
"Then you are able to apply to the FAA academy," Ganpath said.
Spencer explained that students accepted at the academy are FAA employees. Students spend about three months at the academy and then are assigned to airports throughout the United States for on-the-job training.
"Air traffic controller is one of the few jobs where you are paid as you learn," Spencer stated.