ATC Training - Course Design


The primary goal of air traffic control (ATC) training is to transform a student controller with little knowledge or skill into a licensed controller who is able to safely work air traffic within a complex ATC environment.

If an ATC training facility promotes the ethos of “training for success”, it is essential that they create a professional and positive learning environment and follow a training structure that will lead to the eventual qualification of those ATC students.

The following training course structure should assist training managers, course directors and ATC instructors to construct a robust and objective based ATC training course.

Course Aim

While general separation standards can be taught on a basic ATC course, the number and variety of separation standards is extremely broad.

Each portion of airspace (speciality) may have multiple sectors within it, each having its own unique conflict points and traffic patterns. Depending on aircraft equipment, radar coverage and the availability of ground based navigation aids, many separation standards may never be used within a sector while others may be used very frequently.

In order to achieve the training goal of transforming students into controllers, each speciality needs to identify and list all of the most commonly used separation standards and types of conflicts which are unique to their sector(s) alone.

This will form the basis of the training syllabus and will vary from one speciality to another. The overall concept is to determine what skills and knowledge are required by the student upon the completion of training (objectives) and then create a training course backwards to meet their initial level of knowledge at the beginning of the course.

These training goals need to be realistic, objective, clearly defined, measurable and obtainable. It is essential for instructors and students to understand what these final goals are, what material needs to be taught (and to what level) and what skills will need to be demonstrated to an examiner in order to receive an ATC licence.

The following examples are from a comprehensive training plan for an ATC speciality containing 6 sectors. These objectives are “general” in that they are skills which can be applied across multiple specialities and sectors:

  • Initiate and receive radar hand-offs
  • Clear aircraft out of controlled airspace
  • Issue departure clearances
  • Issue approach clearances
  • Identify aircraft – secondary radar
  • Identify aircraft – primary radar
  • Speed overtake – 120kts
  • Vectoring – radar circuit

This particular training plan contains another 52 general training objectives and 29 sector specific ones, for a total of 89. If a trainee can demonstrate mastery of all 89 skills to an examiner upon completion of their training, they will be issued with an ATC licence.

Course Structure

Once it has been determined to what level students will be required to “know” and demonstrate their abilities at the completion of training, the next task is to ascertain the students' level of knowledge at the beginning of the course.

A well structured training course will allow a transfer of this "missing" knowledge and take the students from a state of the “unknown” to the “known” and from the very general to the very specific.

It is not reasonable to expect ab-initio trainees to master complex tasks if they are not given the opportunity to master them through practice and repetition. While some basic tasks can be learnt quickly, more complex tasks will require additional time and repetition to master.

With time and budgetary restraints it may be difficult to fit training requirements into the time allocated, therefore priority needs to be given to adjust and manipulate the allotted training time to each task so that the mastery of those skills can be achieved within the assigned time.

The following shows progressive learning stages (KUSA) that will guide trainees through this training process:


Facts and figures, numbers, lists, tables, charts, rules and procedures.


Knowing how and when to apply this knowledge to real life situations.

(Example: selecting the correct separation standard for a specific situation.)


Demonstrating mastery of a given skill, either in a classroom environment, an ATC simulator, a part-task trainer or “on-the-job” with live traffic.

(Example: selecting the correct separation standard and applying it in accordance with rules and procedures.)


Applying all knowledge and skills in either a fully functional ATC simulator or in an on-the-job training position with live traffic.

(Example: recognise multiple conflictions, select the most appropriate separation standard for each and applying them in accordance with rules and procedures.)

Course Validation

The greatest measure of a well structured training syllabus is the number of successful qualifications that it produces. Ideally an on-the-job instructor will recommend the student for a final evaluation. This should be conducted by the training supervisor who will make an assessment of the student’s performance against the course objectives. If this is satisfactory then they will recommend a final examination with a qualified examiner.

This process of multiple checks provides a means of quality assurance and validation of the course content as each level of “check” controller is validating the work of the other.

• The instructor is validating the student’s performance.

• The training supervisor is validating the instructors’ performance.

• The examiner is validating the training supervisor’s performance.

• They are all validating the effectiveness of the training course conducted at the training facility and the performance of the instructors who taught it.

Contrasting training standards

Poor Example

North America – One instructor coaches a trainee throughout the entire on-the-job training experience and there is no final assessment conducted by either a training supervisor or examiner. Once the instructor is happy with the students’ performance and feels confident that they can work alone, the student is “signed-off” and is issued with an ATC license. This subjective method of assessment creates nothing more than “clones” and does not measure the student’s performance against any recognised or objective standard, especially if the student/instructor relationship has become more personal than professional.

Good Example

Central Europe – A national licensing authority (e.g. Civil Aviation Authority) determines specific standards and objectives which the ATS provider must then incorporate into its training course. The training department develops a training programme which allows students to reach (or exceed) these standards. As part of the final evaluation the licensing authority provides its own personnel to observe the final evaluations, ensuring that not only are the students performing their duties safely and to the required standards, but that the training objectives of the course have been met and that the examiners are performing the assessments fairly and objectively.


It is imperative that the final training objectives are clearly identified for each individual training speciality.

The training course must be structured to take the students from their existing level of knowledge and skill (unknown) to the levels required to qualify as an air traffic controller (known).

It is extremely important that final assessments are conducted by an outside agency or examiner who has had no personal involvement with a trainee during the training period. This external process allows a measure of quality control as there has been no personal interaction between the student and the examiner prior to the final examination, the examination can be truly objective based.

If training objectives are clearly identified, courses are designed to achieve them and an independent examiner witnesses a trainee demonstrating mastery of each and every one of them, then the primary training goal has been achieved.

Want to know more?

An excellent description of desired attributes for controller selection, human performance, training methods and an ATC cognitive model.

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