I'm a control tower operator, or tower controller, which is a type of air traffic controller. My responsibilities include giving clearances and instructions to pilots to allow their aircraft to enter the airspace, take off, and land on runways or heliports. I work with other controllers to ensure that we maintain airspace integrity, keeping aircraft separated from airspace boundaries and other aircraft.
We work rotating 8- to 10-hour shifts. It starts with a self-directed or supervisor- or other controller-provided weather briefing; a briefing on any changes that happened since my last shift, like closures to runways or taxiways; and then I’m assigned a position to work. Those positions might be flight data, clearance delivery, ground control, or local control.
In a typical day, we spend up to 2 hours "on position." That's followed by a 20- to 30-minute break, after which I rotate to another position. We complete this process 3 or 4 times per day.
I also might be assigned to take new or refresher instruction, such as simulation training. To develop and master skills, air traffic controllers must train continually.
What draws people to the work is a love for aviation and the adrenaline rush. When it comes to controlling air traffic, the problems change every day and there are no two days or working sessions that are identical. Air traffic control is a complex, 3D puzzle that we continuously take apart and put together while it's moving.
For a controller to be successful, they must be able to think three-dimensionally: they have aircraft descend and climb through the altitudes while maintaining proper separation, but this all has to be done using a two-dimensional radar display. Communication skills are also important; air traffic controllers need to speak concisely and listen intently. You need rapid problem-solving skills and have to be able to recover from challenging situations. Finally, you must be able to work as part of a team.
Prospective controllers attend the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City for academic and simulation training. Then there's training on the job for specific positions and tasks with an instructor or monitor plugged into the position with you. When you demonstrate mastery of all the tasks of air traffic control while someone is monitoring you, they sign off that you have mastered all those techniques. The training is rigorous, and there's typically a 35- to 40-percent attrition rate.
I joined the Air Force and qualified for several jobs during the enlistment process. Once it was explained to me what air traffic controllers do, the choice became easy because air traffic control fit several of the goals that I had. For example, the teamwork aspect: This is the ultimate team sport. It tapped into the same feelings I had when I was growing up and playing sports. It also requires making decisions rapidly. So, I selected air traffic controller and went through the training.
Civilians have to meet certain work experience or educational requirements in addition to passing FAA testing and medical and background checks. Because I got into it through the military, I had to complete some additional schooling and training when transitioning to civilian air traffic control. I went to the FAA Academy and then to a new airport facility and trained there. Every facility is different, so you have to complete training at each new facility you attend. There are differences in every airspace and airport, aircraft fleet mix, weather phenomena, and so on.
It’s a different mission. A lot of the time in the military, controllers are working training missions with fighter jets, or in-air refueling aircraft that have a different way of being integrated into the airspace than commercial aircraft do.
Rapidly changing weather can be a real challenge. Changing conditions might require us to adjust the airport configuration at a moment’s notice while the airport is still in operation.
Responding to unforeseen or unplanned situations, like recovering from emergencies or when things don’t go right in the flight deck, is the most challenging part of the job but also the most rewarding.
I like the complexity and volume. I like when it's really busy and there’s a constant need to solve problems. Air travel is inherently a competition for space, and we ensure that aircraft are safely separated from one another while getting to their destinations expeditiously.
Most people do not know the choreography of controlling air traffic. An aircraft is under radar surveillance every second of the flight. A pilot is in radio contact with and following instructions from air traffic control throughout an entire flight, from taxiing out for takeoff to taxiing back to the gate after landing. For example, from Los Angeles to New York, a pilot might be in contact with 25 different controllers during the course of the flight.
We’re moving the national airspace along. A sense of pride comes from that. When you step back and think about it, it's extremely rewarding to deliver for the American public. You hear about a few delays or missed connections, but our job ensures that those occurrences are few and far between.
My advice would be to not talk yourself out of it. This occupation has lots of responsibilities, but it's one in which we take pride in passing down knowledge. Pursue this career if you have a passion for aviation or want to be part of a team. It's extremely rewarding and fulfilling on a daily basis.
Ryan Farrell, "Control tower operator," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 2022.