So You Want My Job: Air Traffic Controller

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 23, 2010 · 16 comments

in So You Want My Job

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Last time we heard from the guy who flies the planes. This week we talk to the man who lands them. Chris Solomon is an air traffic controller and gives us his take on a job that would make some men quite happy and others break out in a cold sweat.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, ect).

My name is Chris Solomon. I’m 33 years old, originally from Purvis, Mississippi. I joined the Air Force in 1996 as an F-15E mechanic and changed jobs after 3 years to become an Air Traffic Controller. I have been controlling planes for the military for 11 years now.

2. Why did you want to become an air traffic controller? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I wanted to do a job that mentally challenged me that would provide a good living for a family, even though I wasn’t married when I changed jobs. I also wanted something that would be useful after I transitioned to civilian life after my military time was complete. I never really thought about doing ATC, thinking it was one of those “unachievable” jobs that you have to train for years and years to get. I was surprised that that wasn’t the case.

3. If a man wants to become an air traffic controller, how should he prepare? Are there schools that train air traffic controllers? Or do they teach you on the job?

There are essentially 3 ways to become a controller. The first is through the military. The second is through an affiliate college that offers an ATC program. There are currently about 30 schools across the US that offer FAA approved programs in ATC. While these don’t guarantee you an ATC job, it paves the way. The third way is to get hired directly through the FAA and attend their ATC Academy in Oklahoma City.

4. As I understand it, there are many different types of air traffic controllers, each with different responsibilities. Tell us about that.

Just as an assembly line is broken down into individual jobs, so is the nation’s air traffic system. There are controllers in the towers, approaches, and centers, and in each of those facilities, they have different positions. It’s easiest to lay it out in an example. The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within 5 or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then becomes under the control of the approach controllers. The approach controllers usually control the aircraft below 18,000’ within about 60 miles of an airport. After going above 18,000’, the aircraft is then in the center controller’s airspace and is taken across the higher altitudes to the plane’s destination. Upon getting near its destination, the whole process steps back down from center, to approach, to the tower and to a gate. Like I said though, each facility has its own unique positions to get each facet of the job done as safely and as orderly as possible.

5. How competitive is it to get a job as an air traffic controller? What sets a candidate apart from others when he’s applying for a job?

It’s highly competitive right now. The controller strike that took place back in the 80’s had the job outlook pretty nice for awhile, but now there are a lot of newer controllers in the facilities, and the spots are fewer and farther between, so we do what we can to make ourselves competitive. The military experience helps a lot; the college programs that are offered through the FAA approved schools are also pretty helpful from what I understand.

6. What qualities does a man need to be a successful air traffic controller?

If I was building a controller, I’d say the top 5 things I’d put in would be being able to think on your feet in stressful situations, the ability to make sound decisions, ability to take criticism, systematic thinking, and the ability to have fun while you’re working. It’s not a physically demanding job, but sometimes you go home and are mentally exhausted.

7. What is the best part of your job?

Lots of things. The knowledge that what I do literally saves thousands of lives in a single day, the people that you work with, the feeling you get when you get through a particularly busy traffic period. Those things really get me. My wife likes the looks on people’s faces when she tells them I’m a controller. She says they get this kind of dumbstruck look and then ask the most common question, “Man, is that stressful?”

8. What is the worst part of your job?

The constant knowing that you have to be above average 100% of the time or else you will kill a bunch of people.

9. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

The hours aren’t great. There are a lot of times when I have spent more time with my co-workers than with my family due to working shift work, but then there are decent periods where it seems like I am never at work. You learn to make it work.

10. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

I am NOT the guy on the ground with the flashlights telling your pilot where to park at the airport. I don’t think it’s as stressful as people make it out to be, but then again, people handle stress differently. Lastly, the money isn’t as good as it’s made out to be anymore. There is still the chance to get that 6 figure salary, but those slots aren’t as abundant anymore.

11. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

It’s a great job! It’s tough at times, but when the traffic slows down and you can hang out with the people that do this job, man, I’m still blown away by some of the folks you get to meet!

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tony June 23, 2010 at 9:59 pm

ATC is also consistently at the top (or is it bottom?) of the list for stress and low job satisfaction.

2 Ian June 23, 2010 at 11:21 pm

If you go through one of the college programs you still need you attend the FAA Academy. But you do bypass a five week orientation.

3 Justin June 24, 2010 at 6:58 am

Nice write up. I went to college on a path to be ARTCC, but ended up snagging a job quickly after college to pay off my student loans and kinda got sidetracked. Wonder how hard it is to get into the civilian route now…..

4 John June 24, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Good write-up. Isn’t “literally save thousands of lives everyday” a bit of an exaggeration though?

5 enliteneer June 24, 2010 at 9:11 pm

It would be interesting to hear his opinion on atc simulators..

With the power of computing, I imagine a realistic game model could simulate every possible scenario that an air traffic controller would ever experience!

For aspiring Air Traffic Controllers, what do the pro’s recommend for best simulator?

http://www.atcsimulator.com/
http://www.atc-sim.com/
http://www.vatsim.net/atc/atcclients/
http://www.simulatedsky.aero/main.htm?home.htm~mainf
etc…

6 Chris June 25, 2010 at 10:29 am

Actually, we do use a couple different simulators. The radar simulators a pretty good. The tower simulators, not so much. Radar, in my opinion, is “canned”. You tell the pilots pretty much the same thing. It’s seems very static, usually with plenty of time to fix issues that arise. (I admit I have limited radar experience though!). In the tower, you are dealing with less airspace, so you have less time to correct issues. Alot of times, you just have to tell pilots what to do & where to go in plain language as opposed to the phraseology that is printed in our ATC regulations. The simulators don’t allow for that. Not to mention the tower simulator is a voice recognition based system. If the computer interprets what you say as the wrong thing, which it does quite frequently, the whole simulation is pretty much messed up since you probably turned a plane directly at another one. It’s a little harder to write out than what I was thinking it would be! Lol. They have made great strides in the ATC sim sector, but it’s by no means a replacemen for seeing the planes out our windows.

7 Chris June 25, 2010 at 10:34 am

Sorry, missed the question. As for what sim for the aspirIig controller, I really can’t answer that… I haven’t messed around with the commercial sims. I can say, no matter what sim you decide to mess around with, without knowing the basic ATC rule from FAAO 7110.65, you’d just be teaching yourself bad practices that if you do land a slot at an ATC school, you’d have to un-learn. No saying don’t mess with the sims, but if you are serious about a path in ATC, reading the regulations is the way to go.

8 Paramjit June 28, 2010 at 3:22 am

Thats an interesting look at an air controller’s working life. Interesting how the control is passed from 1 tower to another as how he described it above. Also it never struck me until he mentioned it but he has to be alert and present 100% of the time or it could turn into a disaster.

9 billy boy August 11, 2010 at 7:41 am

ive herd a few examples of what i need to learn like flight paths, codes etc can anybody help me furthur?, much apreciated! IM gonna try one of the simulators on this page maybee the first one? atcsimulator.com

10 cliff November 11, 2012 at 7:48 pm

Hello my name is cliff hopefully someone will get back to me. I have always wanted to be a jet pilot for the airforce. Im pretty sure I have whats it takes to be a pilot. My only problem is that I didnt have good grades in school and im 22 now so I think its to late. So my next option is to be and ATC in the airforce but is it too late for me to sign up for the airforce to be air traffic control? I really think im qualified for this job metally and phisically. My question? Is there still a chance I can become an air traffic controller? Thank you

11 Jose Chavez December 13, 2012 at 3:14 pm

What advice would you give to a young person who is interested in this type of career ?

12 jeff March 30, 2013 at 1:04 am

Join the Navy and try to get in ATC on a aircraft carrier. That is the ultimate in military ATC.

13 Asg July 26, 2013 at 7:26 pm

hello. iam nigerian. I’ve applied for the Air force:ATC job iam especting an interview. what do you think I should know?

14 Oscar Hernandez July 29, 2013 at 1:04 pm

@Asg as far as I know, psychological interviews are the most difficult part of making it; but it is not like one can nor should change answers the way they naturally would be: what it is important the most is just to show how relaxed you are through stressful situations (like the interview itself), how you are capable of saying no when needed and how you can think and take decisions by yourself

15 Gohar April 21, 2014 at 8:35 am

I am a military Air Traffic Controller from the Air Force with more than 22 years of experience. I agree to Chris answer to Q: 6. However, I want to add that an ATCO must have a fast working and highly stable brain and S/HE MUST BE AHEAD OF TRAFFIC AT ALL TIMES once on controls.

16 Jake April 22, 2014 at 8:18 am

Anyone with army atc(15q) experience? I’m considering it but alot of people online say it’s a bad idea.

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