Blair Lewis is an air traffic controller, but you might be surprised to learn that he doesn’t work at the airport.
“I’m not the guy on the runway holding those orange flashlights,” says Blair. “And, I’m not in the tower at the airport – but I am part of a large system of controllers that look after aircraft as they move from one place to another.”
Blair is an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) controller, which means that he works many miles from the Vancouver Airport, at one of the seven Area Control Centres that dot the country. He and the other controllers at the Vancouver Area Control Centre ensure the safe and efficient flow of traffic in a large section of airspace above the Pacific Ocean, stretching to the Alberta border and north to Alaska.
His counterparts, who work in the airport control towers – there are 41 across Canada – are known as Visual Flight Rules (VFR) controllers, and are responsible for aircraft and vehicle movements on the runways and taxiways as well as aircraft flying within the immediate vicinity of the airport.
While each type of controller has a different set of responsibilities, all air traffic controllers must undergo a rigorous training process. Blair freely admits that it takes hard work and commitment to become a licensed controller, but NAV CANADA invests time and resources to help you be successful.
The basic training program is four months in length, and teaches everything from how to “talk to aircraft” to understanding “separation standards,” which keep aircraft at a safe distance from each other. Basic training is followed by specialty training, and varies in length depending on the airspace that the controller will ultimately monitor.
“You have to learn the specific rules and procedures related to your airspace, including both classroom and computer simulation,” says Blair. “Where I work, specialty training is six weeks in the classroom, and four months of simulation, followed by seven to 14 months of on-the-job training.”
On-the-job training means working with live aircraft under the close supervision of a licensed controller. And the entire training process is supplemented with written exams and simulation evaluations.
If the training sounds intense, that’s because it is. “There’s an enormous amount of information to absorb,” says Blair, who cautions that becoming an air traffic controller is not a commitment to be taken lightly. “If you have a family, you need to be sure they are supportive, otherwise the pressure of balancing training and personal life could be difficult,” he says.
“You are trained by real controllers, with years of on-the-job experience, using advanced technology.”
“I enjoy my job, so I wouldn’t call it stressful, and I feel very prepared,” explains Blair. “At times, things can get very busy, but I know I have the skills to handle it”
Dealing with rare emergencies isn’t easy, but in these instances controllers work as a team, striving for a safe outcome. As such, being team-oriented is essential. Attributes like a calm disposition, being a logical thinker and having good spatial reasoning are also important.
“Being able to multitask, follow orders and procedures, and being flexible enough to work shifts are also good traits to have,” says Blair. “We work day, swing, evening and midnight shifts, with day shifts beginning at 6 am.”
From the moment they arrive at work, controllers are kept busy. They must review briefings, weather patterns and equipment issues. “All that before even talking to an airplane!” says Blair.
Once up to speed, controllers are occupied moving aircraft safely from point A to B. “We’re handling requests from pilots, tower controllers and flight service specialists,” says Blair. “And the nice thing about our job is that we don’t bring our work home at the end of the day.”
After ten years of working as a controller, Blair became a supervisor. The next step would be a management position, such as a shift manager. But in addition to a career with upward mobility, air traffic controllers also enjoy geographic mobility.
“Many controllers begin their careers in one city, and wind up somewhere completely different,” explains Blair, who is well-placed to offer advice to those thinking of entering this dynamic line of work.
“If you are interested, do your homework,” suggests Blair. “Find out about tower controllers, enroute controllers, terminal controllers, and technicians.”
Blair also advises visiting the NAV CANADA website where there is plenty of detailed information pertaining to everything from the application and interview process, to training and fees.
“Contact our recruitment coordinators on Facebook, ask for a tour of your local tower or area control centre, talk to controllers, and find out all you can,” advises Blair. “Being part of a large system that keeps millions of people moving is pretty amazing.”