6 Terrifying Things You Learn as an Air Traffic Controller
Pilots have just about the coolest job in the world -- mainly because every time they clock in, lots of people are trusting them with their lives. But while being a pilot is sure to make you at least one of the five coolest people at any party, no one thinks about the air traffic controller. And people totally should.
The truth is, if you've ever flown in a plane, or stood in a place over which planes were flying, you have air traffic controllers to thank for not being killed in a biblical cataclysm. We talked to someone who spent six years as an Air Force air traffic controller, and he told us ...
Everyone Is Just One Error Away From Disaster
An air traffic controller's primary job is to keep planes from slamming into each other, or the ground, or objects parked in front of them on said ground. You probably think this is done by a series of computers inside the tower and the planes themselves, all working together to make sure the colored dots on the screens never touch.
"Airports run on reverse Pac-Man machines."
If so, my job would have been only to glance at the screen and tell the plane it is clear to land, using that smooth, calm air traffic controller voice you've heard in movies. Right?
Yeah, let me give you an example of how it really works:
It was early on in my career, while I was still in training. There are two different jobs in the tower -- I was being trained on ground control (basically, in control of the non-runway parts of the airport), and another guy was being trained on local control (the active runways). To make sure things didn't crash into each other and explode, those two people have to talk to each other. So, it was the two of us trainees and the two controllers who were training us.
Despite the dong tower, this isn't a porn setup. Trust me.
A fuel truck called me on the radio, requesting to cross an active runway -- a routine request an air traffic controller gets several times a day. Obviously, my next step was to ask local control if there were any planes coming. At the moment, they were too busy, so I told the fuel truck to hold tight for a moment. A few minutes later I asked again, and it sounded like this:
"Ground, local permission to cross runway 22 with fuel truck," I said.
"Cross 22," they hastily replied.
I started to key my radio to tell the fuel truck to go ahead and cross when someone screamed into my headset, "HOLD SHORT RUNWAY 22!"
"I can't do both! This is a total catch-"
"Don't you dare fucking say it."
The reason he was Pacino-ing into the radio was because there was a Cessna Citation jet about to touch down on that runway. Had I given the fuel truck the go-ahead, it would've collided with the plane and created a Michael Bay Christmas card. The voice in my headset? It wasn't the local controller -- it was the trainee. He just happened to remember the landing plane that his trainer had forgotten.
"But wait," you're hopefully thinking right now, "where was the radar, alarms, and all of the other safety gear intended to save us airline passengers from that kind of explosive human error?" Well ...
It's Shockingly Low-Tech
You might picture an air traffic control tower as full of computer screens and radar blips, thanks to movies such as Die Hard 2 and that seminal volleyball documentary Top Gun. That's actually a radar facility, which tends to be miles (even hundreds of miles) from most of the airfields they service. We had a radar screen in our tower, but by the time a plane descends to a certain altitude, that radar is spectacularly unreliable -- I'm using binoculars to see my aircraft at that point, and then I'm switching to the plain old naked eye once they're a bit closer to my airspace. It's always better to physically put eyes on something than rely on a piece of equipment to tell you where it is. If the opposite were true, airplanes wouldn't even have windows.
When landing, lower your shade and yell helpful instructions to your pilot.
As it turns out, a lot of what keeps you safe during a flight is only that -- a human being who is looking out of a window and figuring things out.
Like the weather. Even though we had a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment sitting in the middle of the airfield, we as controllers were still trained as weather observers because if the machine fails, we can't tell all of the incoming planes, "Sorry, there's no weather right now, come back on Tuesday." We have to be able to look at a windsock and get the direction and estimated speed of the air. And we'd look at the observable distance to specific landmarks -- nearby buildings, water towers, cell towers -- to hammer out a figure for visibility. It doesn't get more low-tech than that, but we still had to know how to do it, in case our slick machines decided to betray us (as they inevitably do).
How do you prevent Skynet? Use sky nets.
You know what else fails? Radios. Yep, literally the most important piece of technology we have will go out at any time without warning, and unfortunately, leaning out the window and shouting at planes is rarely effective. So what do we do when the tower or an aircraft's radios fail? We bust out the light guns.
Sadly, they're not the kind of light guns you play Lethal Enforcers with -- they're essentially spotlights with green and red retractable shades. If an aircraft is within my airspace and they've gone NORDO ("no radio"), I simply aim the light gun at the cockpit from the tower and show the pilot a steady green light, which lets them know they're cleared to land. If something wanders out onto the runway, I change the signal to a flashing red light, so they'll know the airport is unsafe. Again, the only way this could be more low-tech is if we sent Bruce Willis out onto the runway to frantically wave a pair of flares.
Alternating red and green means "reindeer in the sky."
In theory, there could be computer programs in existence right now that would do the work of an air traffic controller, but as I've spent the last several paragraphs illustrating, computers and equipment will fail without warning at any given time. You need a fleshy sack of person sitting in the driver's seat to make sure the job is getting done, even if we have to resort to flashing lights and binoculars.
It's a Juggling Act of Delays Versus Danger
The mission statement of air traffic control reads: " ... to provide a safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic." This probably sounds about as exciting as the mission statement of the post office. But for air traffic controllers, the key word there is "expeditious," or as it appears to air traffic controllers, "fast," written in neon letters and a Doritos Extreme font. Every operator takes it as a personal challenge to bring planes in as fast as possible, even when multimillion-dollar aircraft and human lives would rather err on the side of safety than speed.
Your personal preference may differ.
The military calls this "Airshow Syndrome," and it pushes air traffic controllers to show off rather than do the job as carefully as possible. If I had multiple aircraft on converging courses, I would know rationally that I'd need to space them out to avoid a separation bust (violating the 3-mile cushion we're supposed to keep between aircraft) or, worse, a mid-air collision. But that wouldn't stop me from instinctively trying to run the pattern as tight as I possibly could because, deep down, everyone wants to buzz the tower like Maverick (there will be lots of Top Gun here today, so buckle up -- I use that as a comparison since I'm guessing none of you have seen the one movie made about this job, Pushing Tin).
Now, even though too much space between planes creates more work for us and a chorus of unhappy passengers (spacing issues cause delays), the main reason Airshow Syndrome pushes controllers to speed things up is a matter of ego. In tech school, our lead instructor went around the room and asked three other instructors, "Who is the best air traffic controller in the Air Force?" Each of them, with total sincerity, responded, "I am." We all laughed, but those guys weren't joking -- every single person in this field believes he or she is the best.
We stopped laughing when they dueled. None survived.
If that makes us sound like those cocky pilots you see in movies, well, maybe it's a side effect of working with planes. That's what is so ironic about that famous scene in Top Gun I keep referencing: it portrays an air traffic control tower as a sleepy office full of limp noodles sipping on coffee and talking on the phone, waiting for their moment to become the comic relief.
In reality, when the traffic pattern is full like the controller in the film claims, the tower's hands are fucking full. That hand mic would be a hindrance -- the guy should have his headset on with a thumb on his transmit button to talk to the many, many other aircraft on frequency. His other hand should have a pen to mark his flight progress strips as he sequences and issues spacing maneuvers at a lightning pace. You have a sky full of airplanes traveling hundreds of miles per hour, and they're all depending on you to tell them where to go so they don't crash into each other like a fireball from Valhalla. The Navy actually grabbed new recruits using Top Gun, so you'd think the movie wouldn't make some naval jobs look less exciting than they really are.
Speaking of which ...
You Don't Need a Degree, but You Do Need a Certain Personality Type
If air traffic control operators have to constantly pit their noggins against their equipment while thousands of lives hang in the balance, you might assume that the Federal Aviation Administration or the military would hunt down people with some sort of advanced degree in rescue mathematics, which is a field of study I just invented. Actually, you don't need a college degree at all (or even any prior experience, if you get in via the military, like I did). That's not necessarily a bad thing -- from what I saw, the people with higher education were the ones who would most often struggle and even flunk out of training. With them, the creative part of their brain is bogged down by the analytical part, which wants a black-and-white solution to every problem.
"It's not all black and white! Seriously, colorblindness is a deal breaker."
Being an air traffic controller requires you to take all of the information you've absorbed during training and use it to make gut decisions when traffic is busy, which is another way of saying you need to be creative with your thinking.
Not only are a lot of controllers college dropouts when they enter training, but a whole bunch of us were solid C students in school. I've found most of us have incredibly similar personalities, in that we learn by doing things hands-on, which doesn't always gel with studying and test-taking. So it's easy to weed out the trainees who don't want the job bad enough to adjust study habits and their personal lives. As a matter of fact, we usually know in the first few minutes of meeting a trainee fresh out of school whether or not they're going to make it (and we're rarely wrong).
"'Fear of heights and planes' isn't helping your case either."
Speaking of training: to the outside observer, the trainee/trainer relationship can look a lot like a fog of perpetual rage. That's because a controller has to have very thick skin, and we need to make sure that trainees can handle the elevated stress levels of the job. They're going to be juggling a dozen different airplanes at any given moment -- if they're the type of people who shut down when stress levels get too high, we need to figure that out before they are on the job in the tower, or else people are literally going to die.
We Have Our Own Language (and Accent)
English is the official language of aviation worldwide -- a pilot in Russia must be proficient in English simply to get a pilot's license, even if he or she never leaves the country. But the phraseology of aviation is more or less another language in and of itself. Go over to LiveATC.net, and listen to some operators at various airports worldwide. They'll technically be speaking English, but if you don't speak air traffic controller, you might as well be a World War II veteran listening to the play-by-play commentary of a Pokemon tournament.
"Speedbird Concorde, one heavy turn left. It's super effective!"
We have a manual (with the catchy title "FAA JO 7110.65") that is our bible. In that bible is all of the authorized phraseology. If it's not in that book, you can't say it. Unauthorized language is also known as "cowboy phraseology," and while that sounds cool as hell, it can get you in a lot of trouble. If an aircraft crashes and they were on your frequency at some point during the flight, the FAA will review the tapes of your conversation (yes, all of our communication is recorded -- even between controllers standing right next to each other). If you said anything that could have been taken as an unclear or ambiguous control instruction (that is, if you used any cowboy phraseology), nice work, cowboy. You are now considered a contributing factor.
During training, we were encouraged to practice using phraseology whenever we had idle time, getting us used to the fragmented sentences we'd bark out on a daily basis. I had two different roommates who both said I gave audible landing clearances and traffic calls in my sleep, and that's considered normal.
Falling asleep in the middle of traffic calls is only slightly less normal.
And then, there's the voice. You have to practice that, too. In everyday life, I'm from the South and speak softly with an accent and a little bit of a slur. But this would disappear when I would talk to pilots on frequency, sort of like how a newscaster's voice changes when they're on camera. It's a conscious affectation, but it is completely necessary -- it is absolutely imperative that the stuff you say over the radio is clear and easy to understand. You can't be on the mic talking like Jesse Camp in the middle of a pie-eating contest.
I once met a student pilot shortly after talking to her on the radio. She was having trouble understanding phraseology, and her instructor sent her to the tower so we could teach her. At one point, she asked, "So who was I talking to a minute ago?" She refused to believe that the short, skinny, 19-year-old kid in front of her was the man she'd heard on the radio. From my voice, she'd thought I was "7 feet tall and two buildings wide." I'm still not sure if that was intended as a compliment.
"I thought you were a talking Cessna Skywagon ... "
Oh, and before I go, there's a question I know certain readers are asking. Yes ...
Sometimes, You See UFOs
Once, we were having a slow night. There was great clear weather for flying, but it was late, and there was probably something good on TV, so nobody was up in the air. I had no aircraft calling on frequency, and approach control hadn't called in any inbounds. The sky was empty, and there was nothing around me but silence.
Again, I promise: not a porno.
That's when I saw it -- a blinking light floating over the runway at an undetermined altitude. I called approach and asked who the hell he'd sent into my airspace, but the guy on the other end was clueless. We listened for an engine, but, again, it was totally silent. There was merely that light, hanging in the air. It passed eerily over our runway and disappeared over the hills to the east.
Since our sole responsibility was to make sure that this ghost plane was sufficiently distant from any other aircraft, we didn't notify anyone or follow up on it with the FBI or anything. There was nothing else in the sky, so whatever that light was, it presented no threat to aviation safety, which is where my job ends.
Laser-blasting the White House: technically not an aviation concern.
If I had to guess, I'd say that what we saw was a privately owned ultralight aircraft, even though private ultralight aircraft don't have any business or history of flying that close to that patch of airspace (a great way to get into a huge amount of trouble). However, if it was a bona fide flying saucer, it was piloted by aliens with a basic understanding of aviation safety. So at the very least, those aliens had seen Pushing Tin.
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Ways You See the World Differently When You Can Hear Color and 6 Bizarre Things Nobody Tells You About Weight Loss Surgery.
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