For 15 minutes on Wednesday, I stood theoretically in the tower at Los Angeles International Airport and learned a little about how it feels to be an air traffic controller at the nation's third-busiest airport. Had it been for real, I would have been very, very worried.
With about 1,400 commercial takeoffs and landings a day, LAX controllers have one of the most stressful jobs in aviation as they labor to keep a major transportation hub moving while staying at least one step ahead of disaster.
But after taking my turn in a new training tool recently rolled out by the Federal Aviation Administration, I think I would have made FAA chief Randolph Babbitt proud.
Despite having no experience, I safely handled 10 jetliners, clearing them for landings, takeoffs and other movements while inside one of the most sophisticated simulators the FAA uses to help train controllers around the country.
After nine months of testing and preparation, the FAA unveiled the simulator at its regional headquarters in Hawthorne. The agency let news reporters take turns guiding aircraft into and out of an imaginary LAX.
"This is a unique piece of equipment, a state-of-the-art device," said Bill Withycombe, the head of the FAA's Western-Pacific Region.
The simulator, which cost $600,000 to $700,000, has a circular panel of large video screens that display digital reproductions of airports as viewed from their control towers. Trainees stand at a console equipped with radio headsets to communicate with pilots and computer screens that track aircraft in the air and on the ground.
Built by Adacel Systems Inc. in Orlando, Fla., the simulator can be programmed with scenarios such as monitoring taxiing aircraft or re-creating conditions that led to major accidents. For participants who make a serious mistake, the simulations include depictions of fires and explosions.
In addition, the system can be programmed to replicate daytime and nighttime operations as well as weather conditions, such as fog, rain and snow. Though a serious tool, this could rank among the best video games I have seen.
For my run in the simulator, it was a clear day, perfect for flying. I had a script of the operations I would perform and a coach, Steve Barker, a retired air traffic controller who spent 22 years at LAX. I was glad to have him as my wingman.
I handled 10 aircraft, including two Boeing 747s, and oversaw 15 operations in about as many minutes, with only a few prompts from Barker.
Though more women are becoming controllers, today most are men. They generally start in their 20s and retire in their 50s. Many have military experience or come from college-level aviation programs. Veterans can make more than $150,000 year.
Being an air traffic controller is not a job for those who have short attention spans or those who are prone to memory lapses. Though only a few planes were under my control in each sequence, I always had to be aware of where they were. I also had to work at a steady pace and not get behind in the flow of landings, takeoffs and other movements.
I'm sure if the programmer had thrown something unexpected at me, like engine trouble, a bird strike or two planes on a collision course, I would have quickly turned to Barker.
So far, the simulators have been deployed at 13 airports, including LAX, Phoenix, Chicago O'Hare, Boston and New York's John F. Kennedy. By mid-2010, they will be in use at nine other major airports.
FAA officials say they want the system to help train replacements for about 8,000 controllers scheduled to retire by 2017 or more than half of those now employed by the agency. According to a NASA study, training times could be cut by up to 30%.
But Mike Foote, a veteran LAX controller and local representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., questions the time saving, saying he has not noticed any difference among the trainees who have used the LAX simulator. He contends the device might be better used to familiarize trainees with airports or as a screening device to determine a person's aptitude for the job.
After almost two hours of simulations Wednesday, the reporters on hand demonstrated some ability for the work. Only one airliner had to abort a landing. None crashed. As Ian Gregor, the FAA spokesman in Los Angeles, likes to say: "Safety was never compromised."