Controlling five frequencies, an interview with an Infinite Flight ATC Supervisor

The highest rank you can have on Infinite Flight as a controller is Supervisor. Supervisors oversee the entire Infinite Flight ATC team, they are also granted the ability to control multiple radar frequencies as well as the Tower and Ground frequencies, simultaneously. For me, it’s always amazing to watch and I wanted to get more insight into what it’s like to control all five frequencies at once; ATIS, Ground, Tower, Approach and Departure. Today, I’ll be sharing an interview I had with Tim Beckmann, one of Infinite Flight’s most experienced controllers and a Supervisor, known for opening all 5 frequencies, frequently.

Kyle: When did you become a Supervisor?

Tim: I don’t know exactly. It was still back before Global [2017], that much I know.

Kyle: Which frequency do you like the most, if you had to choose?

Tim: Approach, far and away. I’m a fan of puzzles, and to me, that’s what Approach is. Taking disparate paths and altitudes and speeds and blending them into something cohesive. Being able to anticipate where someone will be in 15 minutes and having it work out exactly as anticipated is extremely satisfying.

Kyle: Do you have any tricks that you use to anticipate conflicts?

Tim: Don’t react to anything. If you’re reacting, you’re already behind. You prevent conflicts by proactively putting people where you want them, not just at that moment, but in 5, 10, 15 minutes hence. Know how they’ll fit into the puzzle with all the other aircraft and prevent conflict in advance of any opportunity for one to arise.

I’m never thinking about now, I’m thinking about where everyone will be 5 minutes from now, and just visualizing how that will look can help to perhaps adjust someone’s path or speed marginally, but enough to avoid any incursions.

I also have a few standards that I enforce, such as preventing a single pilot from throwing a wrench into the whole operation by maintaining 349 KIAS until the last second or waiting until they’re within 15 miles of the field to descend from FL240. Anyone who’s at any significant altitude is topped off at 280 KIAS initially. Honestly, this is in line with the RWA for the most part by that part of the flight, if not even letting them go a little longer above 250 than they do in real life. If I notice someone hovering at 10100 feet for an extended distance, I lock them out below 250 to remove the incentive to not descend. (The most frustrating part of Approach is the same pilots who climb at 1 billion FPM descend at 250 FPM, seemingly unaware of how quickly intercept is approaching.) On downwind, bring everyone to 220 (again, fairly standard), then slow for intercept. I find I have very few missed approaches by doing this

I also just hold anyone at ridiculous altitudes. If you call in at FL310 30 miles out, I’m not wasting my time snaking you around. Prepare better.

The biggest cause of potential conflicts, honestly, is with pilots using flight plans that direct them straight to the tower. Often, this has them heading straight for the upwind of the departing aircraft. It’s a balance between descending them too early while also steering them aside from the upwind and keeping them low enough for departures to climb over them. I just kind of play it by ear based on the most common direction of travel that day, etc. (But it’d be even better if pilots would plan for a downwind.)

Kyle: Does controlling all frequencies slow your response time?

Tim: No, I don’t think so. I mean, obviously, fractions of seconds or a full second here or there can’t be avoided due to the logistics, but in watching replays, I honestly think I respond faster than many of the responses I get as a pilot. Most of that is that I don’t focus only on the frequency I’m currently looking at. I have the whole airspace in my head. As I’m vectoring an aircraft into a downwind, I’m still aware of whether I have time to send another departure out, or if a patternwork guy needs another clearance. When I go through ground, I’ve got an internal clock going on where that guy on base is in relation to intercept, a big part of where standardizing speeds comes in.

I find that the majority of the duplicate requests I get fall into two categories:

One, those pilots that are just going to re-request every 15 seconds no matter what.

Two, and this accounts for the majority, those pilots that aren’t aware of the reason for being held, either at pushback or for takeoff. They don’t see or care that there’s a plane behind them. Or they don’t know why they can’t takeoff when the plane that just landed is still on the runway. Those would exist whether I was covering 2 frequencies or 47. It’s just how some are.

Kyle: What do you do when you become overwhelmed?

Tim: I don’t know that I ever become overwhelmed. It’s just not really something I’ve ever felt. (I have something called Ataraxia. Essentially Greek for “imperturbability.”) Feeling anxious or overwhelmed is not really part of my personality for whatever reason. Obviously, I do get extremely busy at times. EHAM over the weekend was pretty crazy for an hour and a half or so with all open.

The biggest thing to do in these situations is not change a thing. And also remember that you control the airspace, the airspace doesn’t control you. I know when it’s busy there are going to be delays and pilots that don’t get there as quickly as they want, but I don’t let them bother me. Someone has to be the caboose. First come, first served. The ones that seem to get the most upset are the ones that cause their own delays, typically, and I’m perfectly okay with that. Back to responsible altitudes. If you just flew in from EGLL, 200 nm away at most and are still at FL330, it doesn’t make me nervous at all to just stick you in a hold. I’m not going to let the fact that it’s busy affect my plan of attack. You’re welcome to Approach more responsibly next time, but I’m not anxious over the length of your hold if you’re the one at excessive altitude.

I prefer approaches that are as direct as possible. Whenever possible, an angled approach to downwind, downwind, bass final. I don’t do snaking patterns and loops. I find that just strings out your line further and further every minute. No matter how busy, I still maintain everything I was doing before, and I don’t ever think “it’s busy, it’s busy.” That just works you up. If you have a plan that works, it should work no matter the traffic volume.

Never let the airspace control you.

Kyle: What is your workflow like while controlling all frequencies, do you switch between each frequency every few seconds or just react to certain events?

Tim: I take everything real-time. Whatever needs to be done at that moment. I don’t cycle through or anything. That would be unfair to, say, guys on the ground if I said “well, I’m only going to issue pushbacks every 5 minutes.” And you have to keep departures moving, of course. The biggest part of making that work, by far, is having the proper plan of attack on Approach. If I can make my approaches predictable, which I do, I don’t have to observe them every step of the way. I know where a-bouts a guy 20 nm out is going to need to turn downwind, for example, and I just keep that internal clock in my head. I guess in a way I’m still moving the pieces for the frequency I’m not active on in my head while I attend to other frequencies.

That said, there are priorities. Pushback is the lowest. Sorry, but that’s the only thing that makes sense. You’re at a gate, you can’t collide. If I need to watch a potential go-around, waiting an extra 10 seconds for pushback won’t kill anyone. That said, that very rarely happens (except when they don’t know why they’re being held and I’ve actually responded to them). Muscle memory allows me to clear out the tags on a frequency in a couple seconds. (I also find it much much faster to click on the planes rather than the flight strips. Then I know I’m getting the right one and I don’t waste time searching for a bouncing flight strip among the many on the right.)

I also know ahead of time what I’m expecting to do as soon as I jump to a frequency. I know if I pushed that guy back last time, or if that’s the guy that just exited the runway, so before I even open him up, I know exactly what I’m gonna do. It sounds weird to say this, but a lot of times I’m not even paying attention to what they say. Obviously I am, to a degree, but I don’t need to process the full sentence to know that the guy I just pushed back a minute ago next to 24L at KLAX is now going to to want to taxi to 24L. I don’t need to hear the entire sentence to know that, so I can just quickly do it. (One thing I do to make sure I catch the right thing is avoid the quick tags if there’s a toss-up on where someone might want to taxi. If, say they’re equidistant and I gave them one side but they might want the other, I go through the taxi menu and if the other runway is at the top of the list, I know he requested it specifically. That way I don’t have to fully listen but I still get the request right.)

In a way, it’s actually much simpler when I’m my own approach as tower. I don’t have to look to see where a pilot is supposed to be, or figure out his sequence, or know if he needs pattern entry or any of that. I already know all of that before I hand him off… to myself, so the clearance process is lightning fast. Honestly, the longest time I spend on Tower is when someone needs a pattern entry before clearance and I have to wait for that acknowledgement before sending the clearance, but that would be the same no matter what.

As for the last clause in the question, I definitely don’t react to events. Reacting is being behind. I’m always anticipating what needs to be done next, what likely to be the next thing in need of an intervention and anticipating it as best I can. I certainly don’t wait for something to happen before going to a frequency, because I’d already be too late.

Kyle: What is your favorite part of being IFATC?

Tim: Puzzle solving, as mentioned previously. It’s a Rubik’s cube of sorts, I guess, and I like to fit the pieces together, align them from a jumble, whatever you wanna call it. It’s very satisfying to have a plan for where six pilots should be in 20 minutes and have it work out almost perfectly.

Plus I get to ghost random people for spite, and that’s a power you just don’t get anywhere else. (This was sarcasm… just in case someone actually takes that seriously.) I don’t enjoy reporting people, but I also don’t enjoyed being toyed with, so I have no problem controlling my airspace. I won’t let it control me.

I’m not big on labels. I’ve never put any tags on my display name or anything. I’m part of IFATC because I enjoy controlling, and I enjoy controlling on a server where people tend to listen for the most part. I never saw it as something to tack onto my name or anything. I just enjoy solving the riddles, and it seems even after four years, pilots find a way to come up with something new and weird every session, so that’s fun.

The insight you can take from this is very overwhelming, lot of knowledge to be gained. I’ll definitely be applying some things I learned from this into my controlling, and I hope you do to.

June 6, 2019 by Kyle Boas