Yesterday, we had an AMA “Ask Me Anything” with Michael Schoelen, where the members in our community got a chance to ask him questions.
Michael has been a real world air traffic controller for 13 years. Worked at ZLA (LA Center) and LAX Tower. He is the current union representitive for his area at ZLA, and the facility training representative.
What inspired you to become an air traffic controller?
My dad is a controller, and he took me to work as an extremely young child. I can remember plenty of days where he took me to work. Two of my most memorable days where when I went to work with him in the tower, and he along with his co-workers would hand me strips to throw down the tube down to the approach controllers. The second was when he let me work aircraft when he was a radar controller. One of the pilots asked “is your mom or dad there?” Years later there was an open hiring that I applied for, and lucky enough to be accepted, and score fairly high on the ASVAB test. Now I’m here.
How difficult was it on you first day on your job? what did you do to get through it?
There were many first days, but I guess once I made it through the academy, I went to ZLA and my first day there was fairly easy. They do a tour of the center, and let you monitor. But there was lots of work ahead of me. There is a TON of studying you have to do.
Do you like center more or tower at LAX and why?
I like center, but I would have to say the tower. I loved the tower, but I hated the traffic to get there. Being able to see airplanes, being 24stories high when there isn’t a single building that can match you within a half mile, the views and sunrise/sunsets are amazing!
Do you ever get very tired at work that you just want to go off work?
Well not from working. I actually truly enjoy my job. Maybe because my kids didn’t let me sleep very well the previous night
What is your favorite and least favorite part about controlling Tower?
Most favorite. Being able to see the airplanes, and the smell of jet fuel when you go out on the catwalk. Least fav. When the elevator is out of order on your break without notice, and you have to run up 24 flights of stairs or you will be considered late.
What is your favorite and least favorite part about controlling center?
Favorite, getting a real good flown going for approach when it’s busy. Least – Not being able to see the airplanes physically.
What is your favorite and least favorite airline to control and why?
I don’t have any for either. They all have their ups and downs.
Have you ever handled an emergency? If so, what was it like?
Many Many emergencies. Sometimes you barely have time to get anything done, you are just trying to help out the pilots. I have had emergencies that have made the news, and it’s funny to watch the news later to see what they got wrong about the story.
What’s the worst thing that happened while controlling?
I’ve had a few. I’ve had aircraft lose power to their engines, bomb threats, and passengers that were sick that made the aircraft an emergency, then the aircraft was no longer an emergency because the passenger passed away. I’m sure there were more as well, I can’t remember at the moment.
In your opinion what has been the most stressful situation you’ve experienced while controlling and how did you pivot to make it work?
LAX was landing east, I had an AMX that said he lost his engine and needed the closest and longest runway, He was FL410 about 60-80miles from LAX and I started him down, but he was right in the face of the departure corridor, So I had to move about 6-8 aircraft out of his way, and make a ton of coordination. It was a lot of work.
What was the funniest thing that someone said to you on frequency?
A female captain told me she was on frequency with a bunch of old geezers.
How does it feel whole you control in Infinite Flight while being a real-world center controller?
It actually feels horrible. Not in a bad way for IF, but because I have certain things I am looking for (things to say) and I don’t always have them available I end up getting behind on work. You actually have to change your mindset to go from one to the other.
What is your favorite part of controlling at LAX?
I love talking to the pilots and being able to see the airplanes as you are talking. I also LOVE the views.
How long did it take for you to get to where you are now?
I have been controlling for over 13years, but it generally takes 2-5 years to train for the center. The times are shorter for the tower. And that includes the academy time in Oklahoma City, OK.
Have you ever encountered a pilot that doesn’t know how to speak English very well and how would you deal with the situation?
We deal with foreign carriers ALL DAY LONG. We work almost every plane that goes from LAX out to ASIA, AUS, and the ones the transition back and forth from MEX. But I will say that they know most of the basic phrases that we use. There is also one pilot that is more familiar with the English language, even if English isn’t their first language. That pilot usually allows the less current one to speak, so he/she gets more familiar. And then they will take over if the first pilot doesn’t understand what I am saying. I love all of the foreign carriers, they speak the English language better than I could ever speak theirs.
What’s the most amount of aircraft you have controlled at once?
It’s probably about 40-50, and that was on a mid shift (overnight).
Any advice on becoming a controller in the real world?
Play video games that help you mulittask. Work on your math (closure rates, climb rates etc). If you are in the USA, get your work experience (3 years progressive work experience) and or 2 years post high school schooling.
In the real world working center, how quickly do pilots normally respond to commands, is there ever times where there is a sizable delay for them to respond?
Usually right away if you are busy they can tell and they are usually right on the money. Pilots delay their response all of the time. Usually they are just talking in the cockpit and missed their callsign.
Working Center in the real world, how much communication do you have with the controllers at the various facilities or airports within your sector, while actively controlling?
We talk to every single controller that butts up against our airspace. and sometimes further down the line.
What is your favorite position to control in?
When I was at LAX I really like ground control. But Maybe the North Ground (Ground 2), it doesn’t crush your soul like the south ground does.
Have you ever had to give a pilot a number for the tower to call (whether they asked or you asked)?
Yes I did. (unfortunately) That’s not really my thing.
Have you ever had a NORDO aircraft and if yes, what happens?
Yes, it happens often enough that we have procedures for that. Usually have to try to get them on guard, through company, through a previous frequency, and sometimes they end up finally checking in once they are waaayyyy too high to descend on the arrival. You might have to give them a spin to get down
Is there anything you would like to see in future in Infinite Flight ATC?
There are things I would like to see, I keep in touch with Tyler all of the time. I always try to conpare IF to IRL and help them out with things that are closer to real life.
Can you describe your job in one adjective?
What disadvantage (if there is) could you tell about your job?
You have to retire on the last day of your birth month when you turn 56.
I am seriously considering to become a controller as a 2nd option, can you please list advice you’d have for someone like myself, and the process that each controller goes through to actually become a controller?
I will give you what we do in the US, and then hopefully in some version to where you are located.
Over here, there were schools specific to ATC, but they are kind of irrelevant now. Now you can get hired via an open hiring process that the FAA puts out. If you are chosen, you get to take the ASVAB test which tests how quickly you can learn. Then Candidates are hired based on their score. You then go to our Academy in Oklahoma City, OK. If you pass that, you go to your assigned facility, and start the training process there. The total process from start to total finish is 2-5years. (and less if you go to a tower/approach control)
The training at the academy and at your facility is paid for by the FAA. And depending on what level facility you go to, yes, you can make good money.
How do you stay calm while controlling?
I am a clam person by nature. So I think this job is best suited for people that are similar to that. If you can usually stay clam under pressure then you are in the right place.
What is one thing that stresses you while controlling?
Maybe a really busy session, but it kind of makes it fun. I look forward to being busy.
Is there any places you in world you would really wanna control?
I want to go back to LAX. Maybe when the self flying uber planes can take me from home to work I will transfer again, but the traffic out here is horrendous. I wouldn’t mind going to ATL. I love a good challenge. I think more than a place I want to control would be a place I want to live, and then I would just find a facility close by to go to.
What is the most effective method you use to maintain spacing between arrivals as Approach or Center?
We always do Vectors to get the spacing, speeds to keep them. So if you have 5 tied, all you do is vector them, get them far enough apart fo separation, get them at the same alt, assign the same speeds, and you should have AND keep your spacing.
How do you communicate with your colleagues when actively controlling with them?
We have 2 different versions of a “phone type device”. One of them is a “green light” you click the button and your are instantly talking to the controller you called. The other one is a ring line that they have to physically click to answer.