Dear New Hire Air Traffic Controller - ATC - Aviation Information

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Dear New Hire Air Traffic Controller

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Dear New Hire,

Welcome to the exhausting, exhilarating, heartbreaking, demanding, awe-inspiring world of Air Traffic Control. We’re glad you’re here and, although this job is not for everyone, we’ll try our best to get you through. It will excite you, it will defeat you, it will raise you up to the highest heights and then send you crashing back down to the lowest of lows. It is not for the faint hearted. We hold the lives of thousands of people in our hands every single day and so we demand that you give your best… every single day. We cannot accept mediocre, because when things go wrong mediocre gets people killed.

​This will be the most demanding job you have ever done. If you don’t do it because you love it, you won’t survive. You will miss holidays and special events with friends and family because you couldn’t get time off the schedule. You will drag yourself in to work, exhausted, because you had the quick turn. You will make mistakes because you are human, but hopefully every time you do, you will rededicate yourself to being even better the next time you plug in. Sometimes you will work your brain harder than its ever been worked, and rarely will anyone ever tell you, “good job.” Excellence is expected, day in and day out. But if you understand some things at the outset, it will make it easier to survive.

​First, you now work for the Federal Government, arguably the largest bureaucracy in the world. Working for the government is infuriating on a daily basis. Rarely are decisions made because they are fair or just or even because they make sense. Decisions are generally made based on what is going to cause the least work for the person in charge, or because it is expedient, or because it is cheaper. The only thing you have protecting you from the vagaries of the bureaucracy is your union and federal unions have the odds stacked against them right from the start, because the laws are designed to give the most power to those in charge, while giving minimal power to workers. (This is not opinion-it’s based on facts learned in Employment Law and Labor Law courses in law school and everyday life as a twenty year federal employee.) That being said, NATCA is one of the most successful federal unions and you are lucky to have them protecting you. They are not perfect and there are sometimes people in the NATCA hierarchy who do things to benefit themselves rather than the ones they represent. However, this is a fact in any organization, and in NATCA these instances are few and far between. Get involved and you’ll have a say in righting any wrongs. The NATCA I know is the one where at a NATCA Convention I’ve seen the hat passed for a brother or sister in trouble and, in 10 minutes, they have raised $5000 just from people reaching into their pockets and giving with their hearts.

Second, respect your elders. Not because they are older than you, maybe they’re not, but because if they’ve managed to survive being an air traffic controller for the federal government for any length of time they damn well deserve it. This job will eat you up and spit you out over a lifetime. So that crotchety, crusty, witchy person that makes you crazy when you coordinate with them has probably saved several people’s lives over his or her career. And usually he or she has done it with very little fanfare and then quietly finished his or her time on position and then gone on break to read a book until it’s their time in the saddle again. The saves you see at the Archie League Awards are just the most spectacular ones. There are hundreds and hundreds that get minor notice or none at all every single month. Those “old-timers” have already missed all the holidays with their families and it may have cost them their marriages or a good relationship with their kids. They make so many quick, sometimes life or death decisions all day long that the last thing they want to do when they get home is have to answer a question let alone make any decisions at all. They probably have some stress-induced illness like, TMJ or IBS, or hypertension from the constant adrenaline rush every time two airplanes try to play chicken with each other. But they also have years of experience and some day when you want to kill them the most is the day they will save your ass. Not necessarily because they like you, but because they care about doing their best job each and every day. It’s not about you, it’s about the people in the airplanes who trust us to keep them safe. The bonus if they like you is they might actually give you a nudge in the right direction before they have to save your ass.

Third, training as an Air Traffic Controller in the FAA sucks. It is 100 times better than it was twenty years ago, but it still sucks, and it always will. There is no such thing as “good enough for government work” in this job. We aim for perfection every day and some days we get pretty damn close. The rest of the time we hope that the person next to us has our back. What you may think of as a trainer being mean is really just them demanding perfection, because that is what is expected of every controller. All of us have horror stories about the academy, (In my class 57% failed), or training at a new facility (I remember trying to keep the tears from escaping as two controllers and a Supervisor stood behind me laughing and criticizing every move I made while I worked some of the busiest traffic I had ever worked, but I didn’t stop working). When I went to the academy if you failed you were fired…same as its always been. If you washed out of your first facility, chances are you were fired unless you were lucky enough to have a lower level facility that needed people. Just understand that there is a difference between demanding excellence and being mean.

That person who is training you is putting his or her ticket on the line every time he or she plugs in with you. That person doesn’t want to hear, “I was about to do that.” Because if you haven’t done it by the time they tell you, you are behind. If they take over in the middle of the session, it is not because they are trying to make you feel bad, it is because you are so far behind that you are never going to catch up unless they catch up for you. Those trainers have to let you go far enough to help you learn, but not so far that they can’t bring it back from the edge. I have seen many trainers have their first deals in a 15-20 year career while training a new person who thought they knew better.

​In the last several years there have been so many trainees that CPCs spend almost all their time training. They start to lose their proficiency because they spend all their time listening and watching someone else rather than doing it themselves. So, sometimes if they don’t want to train you it is because they just need to remind themselves why they love the job by doing it themselves. When they do train, they are spending most of their breaks debriefing you and trying to help you learn. Sure it’s frustrating to do the same thing your trainer told you to do yesterday, only today it’s not the right thing to do. Every situation is different and you need to make the right choice in every situation or know how to fix it quickly. And I’m sure that there are many times when you know you’re ready for a check ride but you feel like the trainer is holding you back. But when that trainer signs off on you and says you are ready for certification, they are saying that they have taught you everything you need to know to work on your own and you are not a danger to the flying public. Their integrity as a trainer will be forever woven into your abilities as a controller. And when you do get certified, you’re still the newbie. Don’t ignore the person who is trying to save your ass because you think you know it all. There is little worse than having a deal or worse because you were too proud to take help. In fifteen to twenty years you will still remember the things your first trainer told you.

​Are there people who failed the training program because the trainer didn’t like them or just because the trainer wanted to prove a point? Undoubtedly. Some people make lousy trainers and some people have ego problems that make them want to belittle others. Those people shouldn’t train because they just make it difficult on everyone and it’s just plain wrong. But I have seen other controllers take it upon themselves to make sure that the bad trainers don’t get assigned to a training team. Have we fixed it all? Absolutely not. There are good people and bad people in every organization and ours is no different. But eventually the community takes care of the problem, one way or another.

Fourth, we really do want you to succeed. If you went to a high level facility right out of the academy you can bet that there are people who resent you. There are lots of people who have been moldering in low level facilities for a long time who deserve the chance to move up. However, it is cheaper to just put a new person in the high level facility because then the agency doesn’t have to pay for a move, or the FAA let the staffing situation get so bad that they can’t afford to wait to move people from other facilities. In the long run, it is also a detriment to you to start at a higher level facility. Controllers learn the very basics of air traffic control at lower level facilities. Working a busy VFR pattern with traffic popping up all over the place is a good way to burn the rules into your brain. It gives you a solid basis to build on as you move into higher level facilities. In my experience, the people who work busy VFR traffic are more adept at reaching quick, creative solutions to problems. (I have never worked at a Center so this doesn’t necessarily apply there, however Centers also have a three year training program that teaches the trainee everything from the ground up.) Some people were destined to be tower controllers and some were destined to be radar controllers. We need them both and at one time or another they both work their asses off. But, if you do start at a higher level facility…a little humility goes a long way. You should be forever grateful that you were lucky enough to get into a higher level facility right off the bat while others who have paid their dues and with much more experience are stuck in lower level facilities at lower pay. It will mean hundreds of thousands more in income over your career and through your retirement.

​Finally, although I may seem like a hard ass, I am a person who treats people with respect and dignity. I go the extra mile for my trainees. I do not believe humiliation has any place in training or in the working environment. The reality of the situation is, however, people are hard on you because that is what this job demands. Perfection was demanded of them, and they, in turn, will demand it of you. If it is too much for you in training it is not going to get any better in the real world. Yes, things relax a bit once you are certified because you no longer have to worry about a person breathing down your neck watching everything you do…but you also no longer have the saving grace of being a “trainee” and there is not anyone there to correct your screw-ups unless the person working next to you happens to see it in time.

Government air traffic controllers are less than 3 thousandths of a percent of the population of the US. But we bear the responsibility of, at one time or another, keeping all of those 307, 000, 000 people safe. You have already been invited into a very exclusive club. We are a family, but you don’t get born into it. You work your butt off to be worthy of entry. We are going to work you hard. We are going to make you crazy. We are going to make you rue the day you signed up for this job. But if you work hard enough, and you were meant to do this job, some day you will get that same little jolt of pride when someone looks at you with awe and says, “Wow, you’re an Air Traffic Controller? That is so cool.” And yes…it is very cool.

Isabel A. M. Cole
Seattle ATCT (Retired)
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