Here is a little something I wrote regarding air traffic control and trading some time back. This was made in the larger context of Dr. Steenbarger’s study on Implicit Learning as applied to trading performance; the meeting point being a purposed ‘change in tempo’ (ie. an intended screen blank-out of air control elements), leading to a ‘mini-crisis’ demanding an immediate resolution from the air traffic controller. [Dr. Steenbarger’s study and references may be relevant to your thoughts above]

I have no special insight into being an ATC, and look forward to hearing the experience of others with practical knowledge in the field.

“Don said…

The moving dots test sounds a lot like part of the multi-layered testing and interview process used in air-traffic-controller recruitment: watching dots move across the screen, a sudden blank-out, then tasked to place the current dot position after an unexpected time interval; given a set of rules (eg. aircraft velocity, wind speed, altitude, angle of approach etc), to sort different scenarios and to sequence aircraft landing accurately; and others.

I learned later that ATC testing were carried out to measure important skills like time pressure reactions, attention diversion, time monitoring & estimation, pattern recognition, coordination/prioritization abilities.

While I eventually did not take up the ATC job (confession: I applied in a lark, having always been intrigued after watching the amazing Billy Bob and John Cusack in Pushing Tin), it was a revelation in a later interview for a trading position. The similarities in the skill- and mind-sets required as an ATC or as a trader was personally insightful.

While I may have missed out on pushing tons of tin across the skies as an air-traffic jockey, I’m still watching colorful blips and lines on multiple screens. And the biggest upside is that the worst that can happen is I lose money for my firm and/or for myself. Almost no lives are on the line when I do make trading mistakes.

And well, the money is better.” 

I have always been fascinated by this subject, having spent many enjoyable days and nights (even now as an adult) watching and mapping the landing/takeoff corridors used by the local airport; as well as timing and counting the interval cadence of the successive planes.

On some busy nights, you can see the rush of approaching planes from various directions: from the western hemisphere, east from across the Pacific, north from Asia, from Down Under – all gracefully playing under the baton of the ATC and eventually melding from their diverse orthogonal vectors of directions, velocities, altitudes into a beautiful straight downward line approaching the airport (sometimes stretching as many as five planes into the horizon).

It is a delight to watch such technical artistry at work, painted against the ever-changing canvas of the skies and a privilege to be able to get into the head of the ATC-artist, if only for a moment.





Speak your mind

3 Comments so far

  1. jeff watson on March 11, 2009 6:21 pm

    When Reagan fired all of the ATC’s in the 80’s, one of them ended up at my exchange. After a couple of weeks in the pit, his comment was that trading in the pit is much more stressful than running a section of air space.


  2. ld on March 13, 2009 11:24 am

    Don - The test you mention is similar to this test I mentioned in a comment to a prior post

  3. Christopher B Tucker on March 15, 2009 2:18 am

    I am an Air Traffic Controller in New York at the NYARTCC (New York Air Route Traffic Control Center) and have been doing it for just over twenty years. I am a speculator as well and find the challenges of speculation far more abundant, subtle and difficult to meet than those of ATC. I can say that I love my job as it provides satisfaction on multiple levels. It is very rewarding from a problem/solution point of view, as complex scenarios in ATC can be solved with simple, sometimes truly elegant solutions. The more elegant the more rewarding somehow.
    The initial challenges in learning ATC involve acquiring knowledge of different aircraft types and their performance characteristics. For instance certain types of Cessna Citations are very, very slow but can climb to very high altitudes so a typical strategy for dealing with them might be to climb them and let following traffic run past underneath. But the absolute fastest civilian aircraft out there is also a Cessna Citation so it is crucial that you know which kind you are dealing with. Heavy jets tend to be fast, Boeing aircraft tend to outclimb Airbus aircraft by a large factor (which is why all controllers prefer Boeing as they can get out of the way faster), newer aircraft with highly efficient wings cannot descend quickly while going slow so that has to be taken into account when setting up an intrail operation where arrivals must be descended as well as slowed down. It is important to teach trainees to get rid of their expectations and just see the data. Getting used to capturing the data from the screen is difficult, for instance a controller might notice two aircraft in trail on the same airway and not notice a severe overtake especially if he expects the front aircraft to be faster. A saying we have at our facility is “The faster aircraft will always overtake the slower aircraft regardless of type”. Once controllers learn to “see traffic” (meaning conflicts) they have to learn how to solve the conflicts, preferrably in the simplest, most advantageous manner. It can be as simple as stopping someones climb/descent to pass below/above converging traffic or issuing speed assignments to insure constant spacing. But busy sectors with complex traffic require more. Being able to work a heavy, complex traffic requires many things: the ability to communicate effectively with pilots and other controllers, ambiguity must be eliminated. Timing is important, prioritizing (arrivals must come down, departures can tolerate a delayed climb), an ability to run through possible solutions and quickly choose the best one is a skill that requires good training and lots of practice (I like to ask trainees on occasion to come up with five solutions to a problem whose best solution is obvious), being able to make a bad situation work after having made a poor decision is a necessary skill, that having been said, the ability to plan ahead is probably the most important skill in ATC (as in trading, plan the trade, trade the plan). A good plan will usually prevent boneheaded moves and their ensuing madness. The ability to maintain some semblance of calm during busy stressful periods is also important in ATC as in trading. I try to teach trainess to talk painfully slowly when busy as this tends to slow their breathing and calm them down with the additional and important benefit of making sure they are heard correctly the first time, preventing the need to repeat themselves. I am constantly finding parallels between working traffic and speculating, but ATC is easy for me now and I fear speculating will never be. That won’t stop me though!
    For those with an abiding curiosity about the somewhat mystical world of Air Traffic Control, I can recommend where you can look for ATC radio frequencies near you and listen in on controllers and pilots in real time. The “Top 30 Live ATC Feeds” is a good place to start. Also of interest, for those who have the stomach for it, is a fascinating documentary of the events of 9/11 called “Chasing Planes” which is a special feature on the two disc limited edition of the film “Untited 93″.


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