The People in Aviation - The Guardians of the skies
Across the world, there are over 5,000 aircraft in the skies at any given time crisscrossing the skies, bringing millions of passengers to their destination everyday. With so many aircraft in the skies, it's up to a group of elite individuals to facilitate the movement of aircraft, guiding them from gate to gate. As passengers, you will never hear them, you will never see them, but they are always there, like guardian angels to bring you safely home; they are the air traffic controllers.
To laymen, the work of an air traffic controller (ATCO) is somewhat mysterious, as their work is always behind the scenes, and that the only effect you will ever observe is that your flight has arrived safely at the gate. However, ATCOs play a crucial role in the management of aircraft movements on the ground and in the air, ensuring aircraft maintain separation from each other in flight, relaying and guiding aircraft through or around bad weather and guiding traffic through the congested airspaces of airports around the world, amongst many other roles. They operate with some of the industries' highest level of precision and planning, to maintain what controllers call "The Picture", a 3-dimensional image of all the aircraft in their airspace, and their predicted trajectories or flight paths regardless of altitude or airspeed. It is therefore no surprise that this career calls for some of the highest level of analytical and problem solving skills, as well as the ability to work under tremendous pressure.
In this chapter of "The People in Aviation" series, we got the opportunity to meet 3 remarkable controllers across the world (ironically we were not able to secure any interviews with any controllers here in Singapore), to share their experiences working in this hardcore aspect of the aviation industry, and like always, some insights and tips for readers who wish to one day join the ranks of the thousands of controllers across the world.
ABOUT THE CONTROLLERS
A High Flying Star
Songshang/Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan
First up in our ATCO list is Cheryl Chen (@atc_de_tw), a controller based in Taiwan's Taoyuan and Songshan International Airports. Cheryl's journey to become an ATCO was by no means an uninteresting one; she began her working career in academia, as a PhD student majoring in sociology at Cambridge University. Then in 2014, she decided to make a career switch and moved back to Taiwan to become an ATCO, in which she cleared her basic test that same year. After two years of studying and certification, she received her tower control clearance at Songshan Airport, and shortly thereafter at Taoyuan International Airport. For the next few years, Cheryl then alternated between the two major airports. However, in 2020, the COVID pandemic hit, and to minimize potential cross-contamination and scheduling disruptions, Cheryl was permanently assigned to Songshan tower, where she has been working there since.
Cheryl loved working as an ATCO, describing her job as "enjoyable and interesting, as there is never a dull moment in the control tower". And of course, she loved the fact that she never had to bring work back home, something she did not miss from her time in academia. However, Cheryl also shared that there are certain challenges and sacrifices one has to make to become an ATCO, notably, being a 24/7 job, shift work will inevitably disrupt family time. And as a young mother, Cheryl acknowledges this will be a sacrifice one will have to take as shift work does put you away from your child's awake hours from time to time. Nevertheless, Cheryl remarked that working as an ATCO is still a joy to her, as after every day on the job, she felt that there is always "a sense of achievement, as you working together in a time to resolve the dynamic problems the airport faces on a day-to-day basis".
A Controller Living A Spotter’s Dream
Riga International Airport, Latvia
Our second featured controller is Kristīne (IG: limare.atc), hailing from the Baltic nation of Latvia. Despite the country being a small one in contrast to her larger neighbours, Riga International Airport is a major travel hub for the Baltic states, and the home base of airBaltic and their fleet of Airbus A220s.
Kristīne credited her love of aviation to her mother, who worked in the aviation industry herself. And so when graduated from high school, she began searching for a job in the aviation industry, and eventually found a role as an air traffic controller at Riga International Airport. She shared that a big driving factor to take on this role is that she preferred shift based roles, and loved the intricacies and challenges of ad-hoc problem solving. For her, Kristīne remarked that one of her greatest joys on the job is helping pilots, even including expediting their clearances and shortening their journey times. And given her love for speaking English, the requirement for proficient aviation English is an added bonus for her.
Kristīne has a shared passion for plane spotting, and her job has allowed her to work on various medium-wake category aircraft like the Airbus A220s, A320s and Boeing 737s from airlines like Airbaltic and Ryanair. As such, she has had many opportunities to spot from Riga Airport, some of which have found their way into airline publications.
Full-time Controller; Part-time Planespotter
Ubon Ratchathani Airport
Our final featured controller is Kwanchanok (IG: knaviation1000ii) from Thailand, and is a part of a team of tower controllers at Ubon Ratchathani Airport. Kwanchanok shared that her journey to become an air traffic controller was an unexpected one, having majored in English at university. While her father was a flight information officer in the Royal Thai Air Force, she initially had no plans to join the aviation industry until her final year of education. There, she credited one of her professors, who encouraged her to find a career that was able to intersect her "ikigai" intersection. To give a basic introduction to the "ikigai" principle, it is the convergence of:
what you love,
what you're good at,
what the world needs, and
what you can be paid for.
For Kwanchanok, after some thought, she discovered her ikigai intersection was in the aviation industry, and just by chance, there was a job opening for air traffic control positions at Ubon Ratchathani, which happened to be located close to her hometown. And for the past 4 years of working there, Kwanchanok shared that till this day it was a decision that she never regretted, for as an aviation enthusiast, watching the aircraft come and go everyday was a joy. From her vantage point in the control tower, she could also observe vehicles coming and going from the terminal picking up or dropping off loved ones and friends, a constant reminder to her the importance of her job, and also a source of job satisfaction of a successful day at guiding aircraft to and from the airport safely.
Like Kristīne, Kwanchanok is also an avid planespotter, often using her time off work to capture some amazing shots from her home base or across other airports across Thailand. With the airport being a domestic hub and a military base, Kwanchanok shared that spotting at Ubon Ratchathani always gives spotters a good mix of both civilian and military aircraft.
A Glimpse Into The Day-To-Day Life of an ATCO
Whether being a day shift (11 hours) or a night shift (14 hours), Cheryl described her shift work as having a similar pattern each time; after arriving at the control tower and she has to review the list of potential in-bound and out-bound flights for her shift, as well reviewing all air traffic notices, special instructions and weather forecasts. She elaborated that while the shift hours seem long, they work a maximum of 8 hours per shift, with the 3 to 6 hours excess spent on breaks mentally recharging before going back in. Everytime you are at the tower control, she shared that one must always have their certifications at the ready (type rating, English proficiency and medical), as the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will conduct random audits at the ATC centers from time to time. In addition, Cheryl always has with her a cup of coffee to power through her shift, her ATCO's headset, and a special lucky charm she bought from a trip to Japan to bring good luck and safe flights to all departing and arriving traffic.
A unique innuendo she shared is that like most shift jobs (and I can personally relate to it because I used to do shift work in the Air Force), there are certain combinations of personnel, or even a specific person, that tends to make the day unusually busy. Cheryl shared that while these occur through no particular fault on anyone's part, ATCOs often joke that they will have a very busy day when they see certain people of their schedule. Another interesting tradition she shared was that according to superstitious belief, pineapples are taboo in Taiwanese air traffic control centers; in Chinese culture, the pineapple symbolizes prosperity, but in the context of ATC, it means that the ATCOs are going to have an extremely busy day, hence all things related to pineapple are unofficially banned from radar centers and control towers.
For her daily routine, Kwanchanok shared that prior to starting her shift at the tower, she had to go through all the documents detailing all equipment status, NOTAMS (Notice to Airmen) and the day's flight movements. Once she has started her shift, she rotates through different controller positions over the maximum 12 hour duty period, with periodic rest times and meal breaks. Like any good controller, Kwanchanok always makes sure that she has her headset, pens and glasses at the ready prior to each shift, as well as a Thai herbal inhaler (as every working Thai person swears by it).
Like Kwanchanok, Kristīne shared that Riga’s controllers alternate between air and ground positions (i.e. ground/apron controllers and tower control), often within the same day. As such, Kristīne has accumulated a vast expanse of experience in her 10 years of working, and been through numerous challenges on the job, such as difficult weather conditions with a long queues of approaching aircraft.
Size Does Not Matter
Cheryl shared that working between the two airports taught her that airport sizes do not necessarily correlate to difficulty level working in the control tower. At Taoyuan International, the airport handles almost exclusively jets, ranging from the small (Boeing 737s or A320s) to the larger behemoths (Boeing 747s, A380s). Despite the varying sizes, jet aircraft do have a somewhat similar approach and departure speeds, making aircraft flow coordination somewhat more manageable. Conversely, Songshan International handles a much larger variety of aircraft, aside from the assortment of commercial jets, they do handle a range of smaller turboprops like ATRs, general aviation aircraft, helicopters and military jets. With such a large assortment of aircraft, Cheryl remarked that controllers working at Songshang have their work cut out for them as maintaining separation was challenging as general aviation aircraft have a much slower approach/departure speed compared to turboprops, and likewise between turboprops and jets. As a result of the different approach and departure speeds, different aircraft will have different turning radius as well, something which she has to factor in when guiding aircraft into and out of Songshan. Additionally, because Songshan has a military base there, there are military aircraft and special government aircraft that will periodically use the airport, which requires more separation than normal civilian aircraft. On top of these challenges, Songshan International's close proximity to the city center of Taipei means that there are restrictions to altitudes at some areas in order to tackle noise abatement issues. All of these make aircraft coordination at Songshan a very challenging experience for any controller.
Likewise, while not as large as other international airports in comparison, Ubon Ratchathani Airport is a joint-use airport, meaning its facilities are shared by commercial , general aviation and military aircraft. Ubon Ratchathani also happens to be the home of the last Thai F-5 Super Tiger squadron. Alongside the frequent Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s that operate from Malaysia, Indonesia and other parts of Thailand, these make airside operations at this airport a challenging one to manage, as Kwanchanok has to manage all the different speeds of jet aircraft, turboprops and propeller driven aircraft. She commented, with such an array of aircraft operating in and out of the airport, it is vital that every controller has to maintain “The Picture", and therefore, every ATCO has to maintain a sense of vigilance and alertness, as (as history has already shown countless of times) one small mistake can escalate into disaster. Hence, she shared, every controller has to be a master of their own emotions, and able to work under pressure. Bad weather is one such instance that Kwanchanok finds significant challenge, as higher levels of coordination is required, and to always have contingencies in mind and updated with the latest available information.
The Process of Becoming an ATCO
"Managing air traffic is a never ending and ever changing environment, but it is also incredibly rewarding when you see aircraft safely touching down or departing from the airport." This is what Cheryl summarized during our discussion on why she became an ATCO. Becoming an air traffic controller is by no means an easy process; it comprises multiple tests and exams, loads of studying and months of on-the-job training.
Being one of the more junior ATCOs we have interviewed, Kwanchanok is still in the process of undergoing further certifications for additional roles. However, she has shared that to become an ATCO in Thailand is a grueling 22 month long process, as she had to take an 11 months basic course followed by a 3 months intensive course. She then committed another 6 more months for the aerodrome control license, which includes roughly 3 months of on-job training period, followed by an internal checkout test, a theoretical test, another practical test and then a final test for aerodrome ratings by the Civil Aviation Authority. Kwanchanok shared this as a piece of advice for those interested to become an ATCO:
"I think it’s crucial that you are somewhat fluent in English as this job requires a certain level of English proficiency and most of the related documents (and you’ll need to read a lot of them) are written in English. Taking tests constantly is also what you need to prepare yourself for. Honestly, I didn’t know it would take so much effort and mental energy to overcome each ratings checkout process, but with strong perseverance and lots of discipline and revision, I managed to clear them all! So for those of you who are keen to join our community, just be prepared to go through a lot of courses and training because they will become extremely handy once you are out on the frequency."
Kristīne stressed that to become an air traffic controller, the requirements in Europe are very vigorous and intense, as one must first clear the European ATC selection test (FEAST), and must be able to complement it with proficient English. After that, the training to be fully qualified for an air traffic controller will take approximately 2 years, depending on your progress in training. Kristīne has this to share:
"To work in ATC, you must have a strong passion for the job. I have heard some expressions like “I would like to work in Tower, as the view up there is so pretty”, but it’s not about the view; this profession bears high consequences if you don't take it seriously. So be prepared for a lot of responsibility. However, if you love aviation - follow your passion, it really is truly a unique place to be. No matter the amount of knowledge you have gained over the years, it is still a magical and a surreal moment when I see aircraft fly."
Challenging Moments - Expecting the Unexpected
Like any live operational job, one has to always anticipate and be prepared for unexpected situations where one has to make snap decisions. In occupations like ATCOs, one has to be decisive and not look at the decision once the call is made. During our conversation, we also got a chance to hear from Cheryl about one such example that happened to her while on the job during her early days as a controller: that day, Cheryl was clearing an aircraft to takeoff while an inbound traffic was approaching to land. Due to the prevailing tail wind, the inbound aircraft had failed to sufficiently reduce its speed and was approaching the 2-mile marker before the runway threshold. This was already inside the minimum 1 runway separation required between aircraft taking off and landing, meaning that the inbound aircraft was rapidly losing lateral and vertical separation with the aircraft that was departing on the runway. With seconds to spare, Cheryl radioed the aircraft taking off as it approached decision speed (V1) to cancel their takeoff clearance, and to the inbound traffic to go-around.
This decision inevitably caused a major delay for the departing aircraft as it had to taxi back to the parking area for the brakes to cool-off before it could attempt to take off again. Despite the massive delay it caused, her superiors commended her on her prudent measure to cancel both the takeoff and landing clearances for both aircraft, as had she opted to let either aircraft continue, it would have undoubtedly resulted in a runway incursion event. This experience also greatly reminded Cheryl on the importance of decisiveness and quick-thinking, as you have no time to ponder if one has made the right call or not, even if you had made a bad call.
Staying Cool Under Pressure
As an air traffic controller, Kristīne stressed how important it is to have a clear and collected head on the job, sharing that "...you should not bring your personal life to work, because it can disturb your decision making. If you had a bad day - you leave it all behind when you come to work." She also remarked that because of the dynamic environment across different sectors, where hand-offs are occurring between different controllers and planes pass through from one sector to the next, it is important to keep vigilant every time one is on duty. With aircraft whizzing through the skies at 300 miles per hour or higher, decision making windows can be very narrow and "...you need to make the best decision in a split second and sometimes you need to rethink your decision and change it, so you always analyze not only your surroundings, but adjacent sector’s or unit’s surroundings too." She shared that therefore, one must be able to compartmentalize your emotions, no matter how bad a day you are having, for having a clear and sound head to perform your role is tantamount to the safety of all under your sector.
The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Association
In addition to her job as an ATCO, Cheryl joined the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Association (IFATCA), which is an organization that provides international administrative, welfare and technical advice and support for ATCOs across the world. Cheryl first came to know about the organization while attending a regional meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 2018. In 2019, she joined IFATCA as their regional vice-president of IFATCA's ASP (Asia Pacific) regional branch, and in 2021, she become the executive vice-president of the ASP branch of IFATCA. Cheryl shared that her role as executive vice-president has allowed her to travel across the Asia-Pacific region to discuss aviation safety and air traffic control management with communities of ATCOs and other stakeholders in the aviation industry, an experience which she found to be extremely enriching. In fact just recently, in March 2023, Cheryl was in Singapore to discuss how the air traffic control system will adapt moving forward from the pandemic and about how to elevate support for the different agencies that support the air traffic control framework. After 4 years serving a vice-president role, Cheryl felt that her biggest takeaway from her experience was
"...helping each other and sharing information is the only way to help industry to continue progressing forward. The air traffic control network, and the aviation industry in general, is cross functional and cross-borders. By building such a vast network of people across different nationals, there is an ever growing archive and platform to share best practices, knowledge and tools - all of which are important to help the community and industry to continue to have safer skies for the people that fly."
Following her maternity leave in 2020, the airport assigned her to a safety officer position in 2021, which reduced her time in operations, but gave her more free space to dedicate herself to her role as IFATCA APAC executive vice-president. Cheryl credited this move to her company's culture of giving its employees more exposure on the international stage, and to be updated with the latest developments in aviation. In addition, her official role as a safety officer in the air traffic control team allowed her to act as an active liaison between the company and IFATCA. However, Cheryl remarked that she does miss working in the control tower, and is currently awaiting a transfer back to an operational role, as well as her radar control license, so that she can perform radar approach/departure roles as well.
Always there, watching over you
These 3 air traffic controllers we interviewed are just three of the thousands of ATCOs working across the world at any given moment. As one can discern from their experiences on the entry process, becoming an ATCO is by no means an easy process, and it takes a lot of perseverance and determination. In addition, as they all shared, working as an ATCO is a dynamic ad challenging job, with the heavy responsibility to ensure that all flights under their care arrives or departs safely. However, many controllers do derive loads of job satisfaction after a long day at work, with every successful takeoff and landing something to celebrate. As Cheryl puts it:
"Managing air traffic is a never ending and ever changing environment, but it is also incredibly rewarding when you see aircraft safely touching down or departing from the airport."
Therefore, on this Labour Day, let us give our thanks to the thousands of ATCOs in service, for being our guardians in the skies. Their sacrifice of their time being away from their families and friends plays a critical part in aviation safety. For that, we salute your dedication and determination to keep air travel safe on behalf of the millions of passengers you have safely brought back home.
In her closing statement during our interview, Cheryl had a piece of encouragement for her fellow ATCOs: "...and for those who are already air traffic controllers but are having some self-doubt about the meaning of this job, never forget that we are not just controlling aircrafts, we are taking care of the hundreds of thousands of lives and families traveling around the world. Or if you find your daily routine not challenging enough, come join IFATCA!"
This article marks our 3rd installment of our “People In Aviation” Series. If you would like to be interviewed, be it a pilot, flight attendant, ATCO, ground crew or support staff, feel free to drop us an email or contact us at Instagram at @a.planes.portrait or myself at @springleaf_aviator!