10 Feb Same Time, Same Place, Same Level – Chapter 12
Enter the doctors. Inept aptitude tests…
Air traffic controllers, just like flight crew, have to meet vigorous health standards to be allowed to practice their trade. At most places, even before entering the training course, prospective controllers are sent to specialized medical institutions where a careful evaluation is made, not only to check that the candidate has the required number of ears and eyes but also to make sure, via various aptitude tests, that his personality is the kind that can, in theory, be “corrupted” to become that of an air traffic controller.
When these aptitude tests were still fairly new, a lot of people, not only controllers, believed that they were a waste of time. This negative opinion had been partly due to a low level of experience in matters of air traffic control on the part of the shrinks concerned, a situation which tended to produce rather poor results at the end of the selection process. Though there were places where things had turned out better, the first encounter with scientific selection had been a definite disaster in many places.
The psychologists assigned to the job had about as much awareness of flying as a cabbage growing under the final track… The poor dears wanted to set up a grading, a yardstick to which new applicants could eventually be measured, and to this end a bunch of experienced controllers were selected on whom they would run their tests, with the results to be considered as falling into the acceptable level of performance.
On arrival at the institute, first they had to answer a series of questions about the job itself. Now imagine a neurosurgeon explaining a complex brain operation to a gardener and you can picture the situation. They were simply not on the same frequency. I am sure their first impression had been that of dealing with very, very strange individuals…
Next came the gadgets. These mechanical and electrical contraptions, they were told, were in use to test truck drivers, railway engine drivers and the like, with excellent results. All of them nice, aviation types, just like ourselves, they thought. The final test scores probably had to do something with the fact that they just could not take the whole thing seriously. Anyway, the shrinks made up their reports on each of them and these were compared with the empirical assessment produced earlier by management.
Thanks heaven, the whole exercise had been run anonymously, or else some of they guys would have lost their jobs on the spot. Controllers known to be capable of vectoring heaps of airplanes with ease were shown as being on the dumb side of not being very bright and even the highest scoring guy was below your average truck driver… It was quite clear the shrinks were looking for all the wrong qualities.
Following this first disaster, there was silence for several years, at the end of which a new set of shrinks entered the ball game, claiming to have new methods for foolproof selection. Without wanting to appear unduly skeptical of their claims I still feel that, no matter how a controller had been selected for the job, his or her professional aptitude can only be usefully judged after he or she had issued the first few clearances and radar vectors…
Good ears, good listeners
Controllers need good ears. Communication with pilots and other controllers is mainly done using the spoken word, and any problem in hearing can quickly lead to disaster. The situation is complicated by the fact that airports are noisy places and the crackle coming through the controller’s headset is not exactly HI-FI, either. Consequently, controllers’ ears tend to suffer a lot, and next to the eyes, they give rise to most of the concerns. It is only natural that the yearly medicals concentrate a lot on making sure that their hearing is as good as it had been when they started working the airwaves.
The most basic check required that five of them stand in line about 5 meters from the doctor, sideways, so that only one ear is pointed toward him, with the other blocked out by their hand. The doctor would then whisper random numbers which they had to repeat correctly. While standing in line, awaiting their turn, they often wondered, does the old doctor’s hearing measure up to what was required of us? One day a young chap decided to satisfy his curiosity. When his number was whispered by the doctor, I think it had been “fifty-six”, he replied correctly, but in the same low whisper. At first there was no response from the doctor, but then he reacted in the most basic, though very human way. “Eh….??” – well, there was one question answered.
Another test involved a tuning fork. The vibrating instrument was placed on top of the head and the doctor would look at the controller with a questioning eye. Before the very first occasion, experienced colleagues had told the newcomers that the standard reply expected was “I hear the fork on top, in the middle.” They never bothered to check where else the damned thing could possibly be heard, though old timers made sure all new candidates were informed of what they should say. No wonder each and every one of them invariably passed this particular test, even after the good doctor’s suspicions had been mildly aroused when a guy recited the standard reply even before the fork was placed anywhere near his head….