By Mike M. Ahlers
All day, almost every day, air traffic controller Chris Boughn talks to pilots.
But despite one pleasantry he frequently hears - "We'll see ya soon" - the high-altitude controller rarely sees a pilot or an aircraft.
It is, he says, like being a chef who has cooked for decades, but never sees his customers or tastes his own food.
All of that changed recently when Boughn boarded a United Airlines B-757 and sat in a jumpseat directly behind the captain and first officer. Any closer and he would have needed wings.
Boughn (pronounced "Bonn") is among the first air traffic controllers to participate in Flight Deck Training - an FAA program that puts controllers in the cockpit to teach them about life "on the other side of the frequency."
The fly-along, Boughn said afterwards, "was like the most valuable training I've ever received from the FAA."
The Federal Aviation Administration is resurrecting the voluntary fly-along program after abruptly halting it on September 11, 2001, when security concerns stopped the program dead in its tracks. At that time, the program was already under attack because of abuses by controllers who viewed the flights as perks and as a free way to travel.
The new program addresses both the security concerns and the abuses by strictly controlling access to flights and by clearly defining the intent of the program.
"It is very valuable training," said Garth Koleszar, the national training representative for National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), who has worked on the new program. "I really can't emphasize enough what it's like to get up there and have a feel for (a pilot's workload.) We're really two sides of a coin - the air controllers and the pilots. And I think it's critical for us to understand that."
Seeing the other side
Controller Boughn said that, aside from a shared love of aviation, his job actually has little in common with the pilots he serves. Boughn works in a modern and very stationary building at a remote site in Virginia horse country. Pilots' offices are small, cramped, winged and mobile.
"There's very few similarities between the two jobs, but they're so dependent on the other's ability to do the job," Boughn said.
For Boughn, the two jobs intersect when a pilot flies into Boughn's airspace - a block of sky some 100 miles wide, and stretching from Raleigh, North Carolina, almost to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That's where Boughn sequences high-altitude air traffic for arrival into three major airports - Reagan National, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International - and a host of smaller ones.
A seasoned, 27-year controller, Boughn said he participated in the FAA's old cockpit training program, and he welcomes the new one.
"I've been telling my trainees for a while, I've said, 'It would be great if you guys could get back up in the cockpit... so you realize that every time you push that microphone button and you give instructions to an airplane, it has repercussions in that cockpit. And you ought to know what those repercussions are.'
"I think they put the program right back where it should be. It should be a training program. It was never designed or meant to b a vacation program or a perk," Boughn said. "My goal right now is to keep it as a valuable learning tool. And I think it is... an incredibly valuable learning tool."
Abused in the past
In 1998, Department of Transportation Inspector General Kenneth Mead called the program - then known as Familiarization Training - "deeply flawed." Controllers used the program as a pretense to get free travel to resorts and vacation destinations. Indeed, the controller's contract declared that eight free round-trip flights per year per controller to be an "entitlement," Mead reported.
And about 4,500 other FAA employees also were eligible to participate in the program, which was condoned, "if not tacitly endorsed," by senior FAA officials, Mead said.
But the program caused friction with the airlines, and violated government-wide ethics rules and departmental laws about accepting gifts, Mead said.
Under the new rules, controllers are on duty during training and must complete pre-approved training objectives, the FAA said. Controllers cannot take flights in conjunction with any leave, the FAA said. Controllers are limited to two training trips a year and will not be allowed to fly to the same airport on consecutive flights.
Controllers must have advance approval to participate and must submit an itinerary, as well as medical and security information. Foreign travel is forbidden.
Air traffic controllers, the NATCA's Koleszar notes, are at the bottom of the list of people eligible to ride in the jumpseat.
"If there's an inspector who needs that jump seat, or a testing pilot or a teaching pilot, we take the bottom of the list as far as being able to get that access. We never bump anybody out of that seat," Koleszar said.
The new program also has received kudos from the National Transportation Safety Board.
"We think it is a good idea," said Tom Haueter, director of the NTSB's Office of Aviation Safety. "The fact is, both pilots and controllers get to see how the other half works, if you will. The controller can see it from the pilot's side and I think it's beneficial. There's some ability for both sides to learn from the other."
NTSB investigators also have jump seat privileges which they use to get to accident scenes, if seats are unavailable, or to acquaint investigators with aircraft.
"There's a lot of benefits we can gain flying up there," Haueter said. "The things that we see are the operations of the aircraft, the procedures, watching what they (pilots) do, how equipment works, how the air traffic control system works."
To date, about 35 controllers have signed up to take Flight Deck Training flights, Koleszar said. The program will be reviewed after a six-month trial period.
"I think there's a lot of enthusiasm," Koleszar said. "That will be tempered by the fact that we have made it more difficult to take the Flight Deck Training, and that was intentional. There was a strong recognition that we had to make this really kind of foolproof. We really had to make sure that we concentrated on the overall goal of the program," he said.