So You Want To Be An Air Traffic Controller?

Excuse me while I take a brief detour from the DBA fare. This is my new DBA blog, and prior to this, all I ran was a personal blog. So I posted all my tech stuff on that personal blog. Now I have a venue for my purely technical scribbles.

On that personal blog, I occasionally answered questions from people who find out that I used to be an Air Traffic Controller (lo!, now, many years ago) about what that job is like. And with the CombatDBA blog, I now have a venue more fitting for such questions, even if it has nothing, really, to do with Database Administration and Programming.  It’s at least about technical issues.

In my particular case, I worked for the United States Air Force, and (to be quite honest) I did not CHOOSE Air Traffic Control. I was chosen for it based upon my test scores. I had absolutely no idea when I enlisted that ATC is what I would end up doing. I ASKED for computer programming. What I GOT was Air Traffic Control.

The most common question that I get is something like “I want to be an air traffic controller. What can I do to prepare?” The answer is, really, nothing. The skills needed to do the job are something that you either have, or do not have. And they are not really skills that you can get training for. If you “have”, good. If not, there’s not a whole lot that you can do to prepare. We’re talking things like “being observant”. Having a good memory.  Being able to “see” and estimate distances and closing speeds accurately.  The ability to keep a picture of something (something that’s moving) in your head.

As an example, one skill that would be really useful to you is to count how many time the letter “e” appears in this article, so far.  No, really, that was actually one of the questions on the one of the tests the Air Force put me through.

As for what the job is like, it can be, like any other job, exciting or dull.  In my case, I’d say I was somewhere in the middle.  If you are working in a very busy, high traffic environment – say, RAPCON or Approach Control at a large, very busy International Airport, then you can expect the job to be busy and exciting… and very, very stressful.  If you are working (as I did) in an enroute center, then you can expect a day to be routine and relatively relaxed.   And if you are working a municiple approach tower, the job might even be boring.

Approach means working in a tower.  This is the “high visibility” aspect of ATC.  When most people think of ATC, they imagine an Airport Control Tower.  It is also the job that requires the highest amount of skill.  There are also Enroute Traffic Control centers who handle aircraft while enroute between airports.  These guys handle “the long stretch” of the route.  Your job is basically to accept aircraft coming into your airspace and monitor verticle and lateral separation of them until they pass out of your airspace, or “radar handoff” them to an approach control center.

 There are other jobs involved in ATC that have nothing to do with “A” at all.  For instance, there are an entire class of controllers who actually only control planes while they are on the ground.  Ground Controllers help assure safety while planes maneuver around the tarmac on their way from the terminal to the runway.  And that can be every bit as busy as “Air” control at a busy airport.

There are “Flight Service” positions where personnel offer in-flight assistance and guidance to aircrews on subjects ranging from weather conditions to emergency procedures to use during a mechanical malfunction.

It’s a very diverse field.  But it remains that all ATC positions require a certain amount of natural skill and all involve a higher than normal amount of daily stress.  This is the reason for the (relatively speaking) young mandatory retirement age, which at my time was 51.

One thing to keep in mind is that the FAA ATC Academy has changed in recent years.  The washout rate in Academy used to be more than half.   The job is “high stress” and has high safety requirements.  The job of the Academy is to weed out people who are not a good fit for the lifestyle or who are, frankly, not cut out for it.  But in recent years, with the “ATC shortage”, the Academy taken a purely (in my opinion) political tact and is passing almost everyone who makes it to the Academy and is instead letting them “washout” in the field on their first duty assignment.

It can be a rewarding job.  In my case, at the critical moment when I left the A.F., while the normal route of us military controllers was to switch over to FAA, I decided instead to switch over to computer software development and database work.  And that’s what I have been doing ever since.


About combatdba

I'm a production DBA at a terabyte-class SQL Server Shop
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2 Responses to So You Want To Be An Air Traffic Controller?

  1. Dee says:

    I came across your article by accident and I’m glad I did so. My son is currently in training at Keesler AFB to become an Air Traffic Controller. His class of 12 was considered large, and they’ve already lost 3 airmen in less than one month. The remaining 9 study together and frantically quiz each other regarding every possible aerial scenario. What I didn’t know was the different types of “controller” jobs there were. I was under the impression that an Air Force ATC had to learn all functions and be able to perform them……at the same time. Is the military different than the civilian ATC? So far my son is doing well, but he won’t be done with the classroom training until August and then I guess the training continues in his first actual job. By the way, why doesn’t the Air Force do “ride-alongs” in the cockpits to allow ATCs to see and hear what it’s like from the pilot’s perspective? OK, I’m finally done. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

    • combatdba says:

      How very interesting! I went to tech school at Keesler too. 3390th Technical Training Squadron it was called, back then.

      To answer your question, there are different varieties of ATC in the military also. In my case, I was a Weapons Controller because, in an extreme case of understatement, the USAF regards an F-15 as a “weapon”.

      If your son is at Keesler for 4 months, I’d almost suspect he’s going in as a WD or WDT. Likely to be assigned to NORAD, like I was. And, perhaps, he will even be sent to Tyndall AFB, in Panama City, FL., just like I was. That will be quite an interesting coincidence.

      Also, the USAF does do “ride alongs”. Or at least they did back when I was in. I flew in both an F-4 (man, does that ever date me), and an F-15. There is nothing in the world like a “buster” climb to Flight Level 450!

      Tell him I said “Good Luck”.

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