What It’s Like to
Be an Air Traffic Controller


In Short: Loved every minute.

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Read Time: 3 minutes

When you finish the exhausting process of applying for, then testing for, a job as an air traffic controller, there is only one major employer: the federal government (Federal Aviation Administration). One of the first things a new ATC will do is go to Oklahoma City for basic training. They pay you a small stipend so you can rent an apartment, since you will be there for about 16 weeks.

An extremely high-tech looking room with dozens of controller positions.
The Potomac Consolidated TRACON — Terminal Radar Approach CONtrol — in Warrenton, Virginia. PCT is the air traffic control facility in charge of the Washington D.C. airspace and the Washington Special Flight Rules Area. (Photo: Federal Aviation Administration, c2007)

Once you complete the coursework in OKC, you return to the facility you’ve been assigned to for on-the-job training. And the FAA picks the facility where you will start, so be prepared to move at your own expense. Oh, and be prepared to learn a lot of acronyms. The FAA loves them.

You start with a couple of weeks of classroom work (lots of memorization), then proceed to the control room (or tower cab) where a fully certified controller will be plugged in with you and can take over at a moment’s notice. Each position, whether a radar facility or a control tower, has a maximum number of training hours allotted to it. If you exceed that number, you generally are let go, but there can be exceptions made.

After finishing training on all the positions at your facility, you become a CPC (certified professional controller). Here’s where they cut you loose and let you work on your own with only the general supervision of the supervisor on duty. Lots of facilities are 24/7, which means you can have goofy days off, and will work a number of different shifts.

A typical work week for a controller is a 2-2-1 “rattler.” It starts with a 2:00 p.m.–10:00 p.m. evening shift for two days, followed by two day shifts, and the last shift is a midnight shift. Holidays lose their meaning (I had Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday for several years as I built up seniority.) And don’t even think about getting Christmas day off until you have about 15 years under your belt! Thank goodness my family was understanding!

Your best friends become the members of your “crew,” since nobody else has the crazy days off you do. It’s also not unusual to meet and marry your spouse at work. Who else will understand the stuff you want to talk about after a hard day’s work? It’s also not unusual for our kids to become controllers.

The community of air traffic controllers is very small, so everyone knows everyone. It’s not unusual to randomly run into someone who knows someone you know. We have a tendency to hang out together. And the pay is quite good. But these days, many controllers are working 10 hour/6 day weeks. That can be grueling.

One of the first questions I get asked is, “Isn’t that a stressful job?” I always tell them, “Well I don’t have to run into a burning building, and I don’t have anyone shooting at me.” But it’s pretty universal that we love what we do. And we also love talking about it. It’s complex, and fascinating at the same time.

One of the most stressful things I had to do was being a single parent. My daughter was about 8 or nine years old when her father and I divorced. So I made the decision to get out of the shift work, and took a job at FAA Headquarters in Washington D.C. I worked there until she graduated from high school, then went back to a field facility, where I finished out my career as a traffic management coordinator.

Charlotte Boyd spent 34 years working for the FAA as a controller and other staff positions. In 2008 she accepted a position as a contractor, and now advises the FAA on safety issues. She still loves what she does.

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5 thoughts on “Be an Air Traffic Controller”

  1. I am a licensed first class radio engineer (one of the Jack of many trades) with a microwave and radar endorsement, so I thought about being an air traffic controller until I talked to a friend who was one…nope not into that much confusion….

  2. How many controllers end up as famous as Kennedy Steve? A close friend of mine went into ATC and we call him Houston Approach Dave, but that doesn’t have the same ring.

  3. Talk about a mission-critical job.

    Blessings to these folks who literally hold all of our lives in their hands.

    I was working for a company in the mid 80’s that was part of a bid to update the equipment. As part of that, we went to the Seattle regional center for a tour. The thing that struck me was the wear on the equipment. The trackballs looked like they were on old missile command games.

  4. I really enjoyed this. I write air traffic control tools — have you heard of Airspace Technology Demonstration-2 aka ATD-2? It is currently in use in the CLT Tower and the ZTL and ZDC Centers for APREQ negotiation; Pete Slatterey of CLT and Bob Staudenmeier of ZDC were our subject matter experts that helped us develop this tool.


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