Kelley - Roadmap to Air Traffic Control
What do you do for a living?
I’m an Air Traffic Controller. It’s been my dream job since I was 3 years old. I grew up around aviation, my dad has an airport in Michigan and my brothers are pilots.
What does a day at your job look like?
I work in the ARTCC (air route traffic control center) assigned to a specific area northeast of Chicago so my job is to line up aircrafts in an organized way so they’re perfectly spaced out for arrivals/departures at O’Hare, Detroit, Milwaukee and all the smaller airports in the Midwest. O’Hare itself has 114 landings and 100 departures per hour. The first thing I get when I start a shift is a weather briefing for a 500-mile radius up to 60,000 feet and a relief briefing from the person on the previous shift about turbulence, equipment issues, or anything else I need to know to take over. Then I sit on position. We’re in a big dark room full of radar equipment and about 10-12 other people. It’s staffed 24 hours/day with strict staffing guidelines. We work 8 hour shifts, but can work up to 10 hours if needed. No more then 10 hours per shift due to fatigue stress rules. We’re on radar position for an hour (2 hours max) and then are required to take a 45 minute break. Shifts are staggered so there’s always appropriate coverage. No more than 6 consecutive days of working in a row, and there has to be 8-9 hours off between shifts. When I’m on position I’m communicating with pilots to maintain or change altitude so they can line up where they need to be while keeping everybody safe. Safety is always first. I rely on all the information I have memorized for this job to guide my judgement in making split second decisions to maintain safety. Flight routes may need to be changed due to unexpected circumstances, so I’ll give instructions to the pilots and then update other air traffic controllers of changes that may affect what they’re doing. Knowing the phraseology allows me to communicate effectively in an instant. Then, when my time is up, I brief my relief person and go take a break.
What path did you take to get here?
Got my pilot's license at 16, before I got my drivers license —>
Graduated high school —>
Got a Bachelors in Finance at Cornerstone University in Michigan as a backup in case I didn’t get my dream job —>
Got my CTI degree (a required two year aviation degree) in Pennsylvania —>
I applied for the air traffic controller position six times before I got it —>
I went away for training for several months at an Air Force base location. You learn everything in training, you can start with zero knowledge. It’s definitely set up to be challenging so they can see if you’re up for the job. My class had 18 people at the start - 4 made it, I was the only female. Once you pass, they place you in one of 22 locations in the United States for ARTCC, you don’t get to choose where you work —>
I have been doing it for 2 years now and I love it
What are the Challenges of your job?
Weather. It can’t be controlled, it’s unknown and because we can’t see it in the ARTCC we have to go off what our pilots and our weather person is telling us. It’s unpredictable but we have to be able to change plans immediately for weather.
What are the blessings of your job?
1. I love my job because I love aviation.
2. It’s financially rewarding once you have experience.
What 3 characteristics do you have to possess or develop to do your job well?
1. Perseverance is huge. It can be stressful having so much going on and you may get overwhelmed but you can’t give up. There are a thousand ways to handle any situation.
2. Thick skin. You’re sitting in a dark room with people around you who you may or may not like. Mindset has to get you through the day. I’m often the only female and some of my co-workers have no filter. Everybody thinks their way is the best, so you have to learn how to take negative feedback. You can’t need a lot of reassurance.
3. Confidence. You have to be sure of yourself with the pilots and the other controllers. They don’t let you work on your own until you display confidence.
What are 3 concrete things you’d tell someone on their journey to doing your job?
1. Tour a facility and figure out what area of air traffic control you want to work in: Tower, Approach or ARTCC
2. Research the different aspects of the job - responsibilities and pay scale are different per area
3. Apply at USAjobs.gov when the hiring window is open