in: Career, Career & Wealth

• Last updated: May 30, 2021

So You Want My Job: Air Traffic Controller

Chris Solomon air traffic controller standing in tower at dusk dawn.

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!

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