Okay, so what is this boondoggle? (Part 2)

So anyway.

The trainees need non-radar problems to work through. And these problems need to increase in difficulty slowly while containing set items. The first problem must include IFR clearances, interphone communication, and other items. There are checklists and formulas. The problem is, the non-radar scenarios are not consistent. From one area to the next they are not consistent, and from one scenario to the next. Also, there are too few of them.

So what I’m doing it going through the existing problems and scoring them against the metrics. What are there point values? Do they contain the required items? If they do not, I build that item in. If they have other items not required, I consider the complexity. If the problem is low-point-value, I will leave a complexity factor in place. I may move it, though, either placing the event at a different time or location in the problem. If the problem is too complex, I remove items.

In addition, I will have to build five new problems. Right now we have eleven, we need sixteen. Building the new ones will be a lot of work.

So far today I have evaluated five problems, tweaking four of them. The fifth I recommended be changed from an instructional, or graded, problem, to a familiarization problem. The scenario in question had two emergencies, a hijacking, and two military special flights. A trainee does need to learn to handle all of these things. But not, perhaps, all at the same time while being graded on performance.

Okay, so, what is this boondoggle? (Part 1)

So what am I doing, exactly, at work today?

Okay. Let me explain. (No, take too long. Lemme sum up.)

When trainees walk in the door to Minneapolis Center (aka ZMP) they have completed a training program at one of a handful of places in the country. They ought to arrive knowing how to talk on the radio, they ought to know the basic characteristics of different aircraft, they ought to know the components of air traffic control. The first thing they do once here is a classroom section where they study the 7110.65, the federal order governing ATC. They also memorize the map of the airspace to which they are assigned. They memorize the locations of airports, navaids, airways, jet routes, outer markers, IR routes, VR routes, air refueling tracks, MOAs, restricted and prohibited areas, final approach courses, sector boundaries, the minimum IFR altitudes, minimum vectoring altitudes, frequencies, adjacent facility frequencies, altitude limits and shelfs, and other things I’m not recalling at this moment. This takse about three weeks of spending all one’s living free time in memorization. The test, at the end, is a large outline of your area. Blank. You fill it in. All of it.

The next section of training is Non-Radar. You see, significant portions of the country do not have radar coverage at lower altitudes. For instance, at the airports. (Refresher: Radar sites are located on the ground and broadcast a cone-shaped signal up and out. We do not yet use satellite i.d. to track airplanes, not legally.) So when one plane wants to take off of Bemidji airport, and another is trying to land, what do you do?

Well, there are rules for this. Rules. The 5-Minute Arrival-Departure Rule, the 44-Knot Rule, the Degree-Divergence Rule — these are all real rules covering different situations. Trainees memorize the rules. Then they are sent to the non-radar lab to work simulated problems. The non-radar lab is a room with big racks (doghouses) for holding flight progress strips, aka tickets. The tickets are put in stripholders and racked in the doghouses. Each plane has a speed, an altitude, a route of flight along airways, and an initial location in the sector. From this, the trainee computes where each aircraft is supposed to be at any given point. At points where the routes of flight cross or overlap, the trainee examines the times and altitudes of the aircraft involved and makes sure they are in accordance with the rules of separation. The clock is started, and “aircraft” — another student, typically — begin to call asking for things. Departures out of airports. Clearances to land. Altitude changes. You know, stuff.

It’s the job of the trainee to hold all of this in their head, to give the aircraft what they want, and to not fall behind. To, in the parlance of my job, keep the flick.


The word “boondoggle” came into widespread use during the first year of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. Those who denigrated his federal work programs referred to the jobs as boondoggles. The universal symbol of the boondoggler was a man leaning, thoughtfully, on a shovel. Doing nothing.

In a fine tradition of contempt for people who don’t do “real” work, the controllers at my job tend to refer to all office-type details in the facility as boondoggles. Anything, in short, that takes you away from actually talking to pilots is considered useless make-work, and a dodging of traffic. Well, I’m on a boondoggle today, and I see the point.

I’m going over the non-radar lab problems, checking their difficulty levels and adding five new problems. This is work that needs doing. It needs to be done to continue our training department’s move towards actually, you know, teaching air traffic control to people. Instead of trying to “gotcha” them into failure. It’s real work, and it needs doing.

But I’ve been here since 6:00 and have gotten almost nothing accomplished. I have walked around the building and left messages for people, I have met with a supervisor for a half-hour, and I have asked to have things printed out for me. Now I am blogging while waiting for the printouts. I am considered to be “working” right now. This isn’t work. This is boondoggling.