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Familiarization Flights

The FAA recently announced that they will put air traffic controllers back in the skies as part of a familiarization program to view life “on the other side of the frequency” after an almost decade-long suspension. I’ve experienced a few of these, but what are the benefits of such programs?

The FAA recently announced that they will put air traffic controllers back in the skies to view life “on the other side of the frequency” almost a decade after it was killed by Sept. 11 security measures.

This action, of course, is welcomed news for all air traffic controllers who want to be the best at their craft. There is perhaps no better way to experience the service that you provide than from the users point of view.

Familiarization flights, or fam flights, involve having controllers fly in the cockpit “jump seats” of commercial jets so they can become acquainted with the pilots’ workloads and responsibilities, and ultimately become better at their own.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, a former airline pilot himself, says the program benefits both controllers and pilots. I cannot agree with him more. Between the years 1992 and 2001, I have had that privilege of embarking on many such flights.

In a recent helicopter flight around the island where I work, I was given the task of communication with the control tower while the pilot monitored the transmissions. The flight lasted only 30 minutes, but the experience was invaluable since the two-way dialogue helps both parties understand the work environment that the other is operating in.

I’m not sure if the program is alive and well in other parts of the world, but fam flights became a casualty of September 11, 2001 in the USA when terrorists stormed the cockpits of four jetliners.

Derek Bittman, a controller at an FAA facility in Atlanta said “I think it’s an outstanding idea” adding that “we tell the airplanes what to do, and they make it work. And if controllers got back in the cockpit, we would understand what it takes to make that request work.”

To the airlines that facilitate such flights, the cost of so doing is minimal since the controllers utilize “non-revenue” seats behind the pilots.

When I participated in that program several years ago, there was a tri-party agreement between the local airline (Guyana Airways), the air traffic controllers association and the Civil Aviation Department. The flights were once per annum on either the Miami, New York or Toronto route.

Given all the negative press that controllers got in recent weeks in the USA, I’m personally happy to see this new development which is expected to begin in a few weeks.

From all indication, the Transportation Security Administration has approved the program, even saying “from a security standpoint, it makes sense to ensure that air traffic controllers have a clear understanding of what happens inside the cockpit.”

I’d love to hear from you: How, if at all, were fam flights affected in your neck of the woods since Septembet 11, 2001 and how is it beneficial?

10 Responses

What happens if you haven’t got a national airline operating in your country…as it is in goyana’s case?


Well Vader, you need to strike deals with all the wanna-be national carriers. That should be easy.


Great news for you guys 🙂 That’s the way it should be. And the other side, not to forget: Have those pilots enter the control rooms to see that end of the line …. 🙂 Mutual understanding and exchanging ideas is of utmost importance 🙂


Thanks Bob. The invitations to pilots have always been open, so they can respond when they so choose. The other way around was problematic after 9/11.


Nostalgia. Great news that the FAA no less has recognised the need and is making effort to resuscitate what was once considered a staple in ATC. Following up on this with regional airlines and international airlines should be easy. ATCOs will now have to make firm arrangements to visit other ATC facilities on the fam flights to maximise on the benifits.


I’ve been on numerous Fam flights from 92-01 and firmly believe in their merit. Some of the benefits:
1. – Appreciating the challenge of observing traffic from a moving cockpit as opposed to a stationary tower.
2. – Better appreciation of the varying quality of radio transmissions and the challenges of understanding transmissions in a noisy cockpit (particularly in piston a/c)
3. – Appreciation for the different types of workload that a pilot encounters (i.e. a controller is primarily engaged in information exchange whereas a pilot has to fly the plane first.)
4. – Appreciation of the challenges of clear understanding of a transmission when you aren’t always engaged in the communication (i.e. every transmission on the frequency is pertinent to the controller whereas only transmissions for his/her particular a/c are of primary interest to the pilot {OK, situational awareness is important to everyone but not of primary importance to the pilot).
5. – Encouraging the possibility of exchange of ideas to improve the NAS from a grassroots perspective of the users.
6. – Increasing awareness of the “humanity” of the folks on the other side of the frequency, including their strengths & weaknesses.
I’m sure that others can add to this list of benefits.


The benefits listed are all valid, and I’d like to add one more…. controllers get to see exactly how the pilots respond to the information and instructions that are issued. This has allowed me to adjust how and when I issue these, bearing in mind that some maneuvering of the aircraft are done by the FMS rather than manual.


As an enroute controller since 1989 I was able to use the former FAM program to better my skills. Even though I had about a 1000 hours as PIC I still need to know how things change in the cockpit. I am glad to see the program return so we can get the newer controllers in the cockpit so they can begin to understand what the pilots are doing when we give instructions.
It is a great idea to get the pilots back int he control facilities also, so they can see just how we as controllers put together the puzzle of aircraft. Once we all know what the other is doing things go much smoother for everyone.
The changes from old “steam gauges” to the new “glass cockpits” are things that the older controllers need to understand.
As David said, if we can provide all the information a pilot needs, when he needs it, he can be left to fly the plane and not have to pull information from the controller. This is the way to keep flying the safest way to travel.


The objective of familiarization flights is to provide an opportunity for controllers, supervisors and ATS management personnel to observe, at first hand, the working environment of pilots of large commercial aircraft and the method and procedures used in the departure, enroute and arrival phase, including navigational techniques used. Familiarization flights also provide the opportunity to listen to air-ground communications and to assess how they affect a pilot’s workload as well as the opportunity to monitor how well ATS units are performing.
Where famiarization flights are considered an operational requirement, they should be carried out in duty hours as part of on-the-job training. Their frequency should be dictated by operational considerations.


Here in Puerto Rico, the Raytheon training staff, in conjunction with local VATSIM and airline pilots, have developed “Virtual Fam Flights”. Using FlightSim aircraft being “flown” by actual airline pilots, we’ve created demo flights into all of our local airports. Having spent many productive hours in airliner jump-seats, I believe this program is the next-best-thing to the actual Fam Flights.

About Wayne Farley

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