What It Takes To Be A Crazy Air Traffic Controller

I spent thirty-eight years in public service as an Federal Employee.  The first four in  personnel, now called human resources, for the Air Force Reserves.  The last thirty-four as an air traffic controller.
Almost twenty of those were active air traffic control in en route and terminal radar as well as a tower environment.  The last fourteen years I served in a combination of international air traffic liaison, accident investigations and safety management systems work.
I went through the famous 1981 air traffic strike, some awkward moments in the Clinton administration when I had to leave a multinational meeting being held in Paris because the US Government “shut down” and of course, the devastation of 911.  So how does a girl from a small town in Kansas end up telling pilots where to go?

From Kansas To Air Traffic Controller

There are a lot of ways to answer that question.  Most of the answers involve long stories that include decisions, relationships both good and broken, desires, hopes and some would say chance, but I prefer to call God’s providence.
The way I will answer that question today is:  I was made to do this job.  How I got connected to the opportunity is for another time.

A Defining Decision

The moment I realized I really wanted this career, came after the application and the entrance, aptitude and physiological testing.  It came after the interviews and the medical exam.  It was even after orientation at Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center, packing up my apartment and moving to Oklahoma City, and passing the academic portion of training.
I was sitting with my instructor during non-radar labs with a 101 fever, having just failed a critical graded problem, when I realized how badly I wanted this privilege.  There were no provisions for sick leave or other excused absence.  You either showed up and passed or you were out the door looking for a job.
The next morning I had to take and pass the next problem  or I was gone.  I looked at my instructor and said something to the effect “I know I can do this, I know I can make it.  I will see you in the morning.”  With that, I:
  • went back to my apartment
  • took a hot shower and two aspirin
  • laid out my clothes for the next day,
  • wrapped up in my warmest nightclothes
  • prayed and went to bed.
I woke up the next morning much improved, dressed, drank a lot of water, drove to the academy and passed my last problem.  I had won.  Not over the system, or the odds, but over me.  I won over:
  • The voices, both external and internal that said “you will not make it”
  • My body screaming bloody murder and simply wanted to go to bed
  • Fears of failure, humiliation and defeat
I had won.

Air Traffic Controller Attributes

As things progressed, those twenty-four hours were re-lived multiple times.  Yet, it was that first victory which fueled future wins. It also exercised latent aptitudes that are, in my view, vital to work in air traffic.  For instance,
  • The ability to make decisions.  There is no place for passive indecisiveness in air traffic control.  Accurate decisions must occur with information at hand and in some cases, with odds against you.
  • The ability to read and apply information rapidly and continually.  I am sad to say I saw some talented people who tested well for aptitude, but lacked reading skills to absorb critical academic aspects of the trade.  Literacy is not a luxury in this work.
  • Seeing three and four dimensional traffic picture in your head.  Air Traffic works in a real time application of physics:  Time, distance, altitude, vectors and speed are its infrastructure. Yes, there are tools, radar displays, automation and tech of all kinds to help, but those are simply information sources.  Ultimately that information must converge in your mind as an ever-changing picture of the airspace and moving planes within your charge.
  • The capacity to adjust plans and decisions continually as the “picture” changes.  This includes knowing when to stick to a plan and see it through.  There is a delicate dance between adjusting plans and staying the course.
  • Confidence is absolute even when you do not feel confident.
  • The ability to stand aside from one’s emotions, at least when on position.  As a passenger is is not reassuring to know the controller in charge of your flight had a melt down!  I can honestly say I have not seen that happen, but have seen it happen off position.  A sort of short term PTSD.
  • Tough skin becomes a part of one’s dress code.  It’s not that we are not nice people, we are.  It’s just a way to do the job.
  • A sense of humor is crucial.  A good belly laugh goes a long way after a tense session.  One of God’s gifts to reset the psyche.

Air Traffic Controllers Worldwide

Having worked internationally, I have observed these same attributes in air traffic controllers across the board.  It is a sort of secret society of those who have spent more than a few hours telling pilots what to do and where to go.
If you want to test the waters in this area, now is the time.  Air Traffic Controllers are reaching mandatory retirement age.  Here is a link to check out.
Do you think you have what it takes to be an air traffic controller?  Post in the comments below.
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I am a former air traffic controller, pilot, Aircoupe owner, married 42 years to a great guy. We live in a 125+ year old historic Victorian, enjoy cats, vintage anything, precious friends. My passion is Giving Lost Stories A Voice – Giving Found Materials Fresh Form and Purpose!

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