Fake Smoke, Real Stress

At Joint Operational Incidents Training, air traffic controllers and pilots receive joint training in emergency scenarios, and come impressively close to reality in the process. Christopher Belz at DFS reports.
Christian Klawitter is in deep trouble. Thick smoke pours out of the instrument panel of the Boeing 747-400 from above his head and out of the instruments themselves. The pilot straps his oxygen mask on his head; his co-pilot does the same. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. We have smoke in the cockpit,” Klawitter informs air navigation services of his emergency. “Request direct to Stuttgart.”
In the meantime, the smoke has become so thick that he cannot even see as far as the cockpit window – let alone the instruments. Klawitter tries to decipher the displays using a flashlight while his co-pilot notifies air traffic control of the number of passengers onboard. A few minutes later, the plane lands on the runway. After some bumping and jerking, the plane comes to a stop. The two pilots take off their masks. “Should we go again?” asks Klawitter with a grin.
The man can afford to laugh: the Boeing 747 through which the last wisps of smoke are wafting was on the ground the whole time – at Lufthansa Flight Training (LFT) at Frankfurt Airport.
In reality, fire on board has been responsible for serious accidents time and time again. In the simulator, harmless disco smoke is used to make the smoke effect. Real smoke, however, is toxic – especially when plastics are burning. Moreover, a fire on board can render technology ineffective. As in September 1998, when the pilots of a Swissair flight on its way from New York to Geneva noticed a strange smell, which they initially attributed to the air conditioning system.
When they finally realized that a short circuit behind the upper cockpit paneling had set fire to the insulation, it was too late: important instruments failed one by one until the pilots lost their orientation in the darkness and their MD-11 dropped to the ocean. This illustrates the importance of providing regular training for emergency situations such as smoke in the cockpit, pressure loss or engine failure – not only for pilots, but also for air traffic controllers. “And this as realistically as possible,” says Holger Vierkant, Supervisor at Langen Control Centre.
For this reason, at Frankfurt Airport, pilots and air traffic controllers participate in joint exercises on how to deal with emergency situations: Joint Operational Incidents Training or ‘Joint’ in short is a joint project initiated by DFS and Lufthansa Flight Training (LFT) 15 years ago: the pilots in the simulator who were just combatting smoke in the cockpit are joined via radio communications to real air traffic controllers at the other end of the building. “It is not done like this anywhere else in the world,” says Volker Oblong, who is responsible for the project at LFT.
The way such simulations are usually conducted is as follows: the pilot in the flight simulator receives instructions from the instructor sitting at the back of the simulator who directs the exercise. And the air traffic controller in the radar simulator speaks with simulator pilots who only enter their actions in a computer. “This is sufficient, but not optimal,” says Vierkant, who is responsible for the joint simulations at Langen Control Centre. “If one combines the two exercises together, more effective learning results at both ends,” adds Lufthansa Captain Axel Strassburger, one of the co-founders of Joint.
Information Event
There are therefore enough reasons to engage in some advertising for the joint emergency exercises. For this purpose, the representatives from Lufthansa, LFT and DFS in charge of Joint organised an information event at Frankfurt Airport at the beginning of November, at which the participants could experience the different scenarios from the perspective of the pilots and the air traffic controllers.
The idea for a joint emergency training program arose over an after-work beer among colleagues. “To make the Joint prototype, we attached a telephone receiver to a modem using masking tape,” as Strassburger recalls the first design. Using this data line, a DESIM training simulator was connected to a Boeing 737 simulator. 15 years later, the do-it-yourself project has become an established institution. Desim has been replaced by Newsim, the new generation of simulators, and now five Full Flight Simulators for aircraft types A321, A320, B737 and B747 are linked up. “We have radio connections with two frequencies,” Christian Müller (TE/IC), who is responsible at DFS for the technical side of the project, explains. “This way, we can also simulate transferring a pilot from one sector to another.”
The air traffic controllers at Langen ACC now rehearse emergency situations exclusively with the aid of Joint. Twenty-four joint training programmes take place every year. Joint representatives would like to muster up even more demand. A possibility would be a considerable increase in Joint runs – even if it is not necessarily easy to coordinate the schedules of air traffic controllers and pilots for the training sessions.
Attractive Option
External marketing is also conceivable. “We have already received requests from other airlines,” Oblong states. However, due to the tight staffing situation at Langen ACC, the number of available air traffic controllers is limited. “But the joint training of pilots and air traffic controllers would certainly be attractive for other control centres. This involves additional expenses, but it is worth it,” Vierkant adds. Joint namely offers many advantages for both sides.
Pilots learn how to filter out information they need from radio communications. They are also forced to describe their situation exactly, after all, the air traffic controller does not know what kind of emergency the pilot is facing. In addition, they need to know what kind of support they can expect to receive from ATC.
On the other hand, air traffic controllers experience the stress prevailing in the cockpit. They must deal with pilots who are under so much pressure that they may fail to react in the right way or even at all. And they are forced to experience for themselves how they can provide pilots with the best possible assistance.
The part of the Joint programme with the most effect does not happen during the training exercises themselves, but afterwards during the debriefing session – that is, when pilots and air traffic controllers share their experiences about what happened in the simulation, for example, about the initial stage of uncertainty when pilots and air traffic controllers alike are still unaware of what is wrong with the plane. “Time flies for the pilot. He has his hands full with working through his checklists,” Vierkant explains. “For the air traffic controller, however, time seems to pass by incredibly slowly. It is pretty crazy how two people can experience the same situation in completely different ways.”