formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

May 17, 2016 Spotlight on Careers: Air Traffic Control

The Liberty Gazette
May 17, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Faces glow with the reflection from large computer screens as they watch pulsating blips moving in different directions and speeds across the screen. One of the watchers calmly speaks through a microphone as she issues instructions to one of the blips. She is organizing them. The guy sitting beside her is pushing buttons and speaking to others controllers via special phone lines. The scene is repeated around the dimly lit room. This is an Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). 

Following a pivotal accident in 1956 where a United Airlines DC-7 and a TWA Super Constellation collided in the clouds over the Grand Canyon, the modern air traffic control system  came out of the ashes. The United States operates the largest and busiest air traffic control system in the world, handling tens of thousands of flights each day. 

There are 22 of these Centers in the United States. Houston Center near Bush Intercontinental is not the largest but it controls a 28,000 square mile area, extending into much of the Gulf of Mexico. 

Besides AARTCs, there are smaller facilities controlling local approaches and departures like the Houston Terminal Radar Control (TRACON) and the many Air Traffic Control Towers at airports around the country. 

In Virginia is the highly sophisticated FAA Command Center which looks like NASA’s control center, or the war room inside Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs that monitors missiles - ours and “theirs”. The FAA Command Center integrates and synchronizes air traffic across the country and into many other parts of the world. When weather causes delays, Command Center controllers work to keep traffic flowing. 

Many controllers are pilots but there are many who are not. It takes a special type of person to work this highly stressful job. Prospective controllers take aptitude tests. Going to a school that specializes in training controllers is one option. In Texas there are two schools that offer this training, Texas State Technical College in Waco and Le Tourneau University in Longview. After graduation accepted applicants enter into training at the FAA’s Academy in Oklahoma City - and must begin before their 31st birthday (yes, the federal government, who makes it illegal and will fine private companies for the doing so, does practice age discrimination). Mandatory retirement is age 57. 

After completion at the academy, on-the-job training begins. Controllers must be certified for every position they may occupy but they usually start out at an air traffic control tower. Having enjoyed the lofty view from Houston’s Intercontinental tower, I find it both a surreal and enlightening experience from a pilot’s perspective to watch controllers at work. 

With the upcoming introduction of the much touted NexGen air traffic control system these jobs will present many new challenges to the next generation of controllers.

Interested in air traffic control as a career, or know someone who is? The jobs are always posted on www.usajobs.gov. Openings come and go quickly, so check regularly. Or, you might discover something else that tickles your fancy in this fascinating world of aviation.

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