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Royal Aeronautical Society


Air Traffic Controller

Over 5000 aircraft fly through UK airspace every day. Air Traffic Controllers (ATCOs) are responsible for managing the safe and efficient flow of air traffic. This involves assisting pilots to make a safe approach, landing, take-off and taxiing of aircraft. This is achieved by using visual contact, radar and radio communication systems and other highly sophisticated electronic equipment.

In all weather conditions and 24 hours a day, Air Traffic Controllers are on hand. They can be found working:

  • At one of the major Area Control Centre (ACCs) in West Drayton (for airspace in England and Wales), Prestwick (for Scottish airspace) and Swanwick (near Southampton), or at the sub-centre in Manchester. The Swanwick centre is one of the biggest and most advanced air traffic control centre in the world.
  • Air Traffic Controllers carry out a variety of area conttrol activities. This includes regulating the flow of air traffic and ensuring aircraft keep a safe distance from each other. This is achieved by using highly sophisticated radar screens, displaying information on aircraft departing and arriving, as well as on weather conditions.
  • At airports, Air Traffic Controllers perform approach and aerodrome control functions, using information from radar. Approach controllers are responsible for guiding and planning the most efficient order for aircraft to take off or land. They usually give the pilot initial clearance to approach the airport.
  • Aerodrome controllers then take over from the the top of a control tower. This enables them to have good all round vision of the aerodrome. They instruct aircraft to take-off or land safely and oversee aircraft taxiing during landing and departure. At major airports the work of aerodrome controllers is divided into Air Controllers, who watch over teh aircraft during landing and Ground Movement Controllers, who take over once the aircraft has touched the ground.

Personal Qualities/Skills

  • Ability to work well under pressure and remain calm in emergency situations.
  • Able to calculate distances and angles accurately.
  • High levels of concentration.
  • Ability to work well in a team.
  • Good eyesight and normal colour vision.
  • A clear speaking voice.
  • A high standard of health and fitness.


Most Air Traffic Controllers are employed by the National Air Traffic Service (NATS), although there are opportunities to be an Air Traffic Controller with the Royal Air Force (RAF). Minimum entry requirements for (NATS) training are:

  • 5 GCSEs at grades A-C, including English Language and Mathematics + 2 A-Levels or equivalent.
  • Minimum age for training entry is 18 and the upper age limit 30 years.
  • Applicants must be eligible to work in the UK and must pass a security clearance.

Selection and Training

Selection for training places is rigorous, as successful candidates needs to posses the right combination of skills and aptitudes required to be an Air Traffic Controller. The selection process includes:

  • An initial one day selection test which is designed to assess candidates ability to check information quickly and accurately, spatial visualisation, diagramming and numeracy.
  • The final stage of selection involves both a computer assessment test and an interview.
  • Training to become an Air Traffic Controller usually last 18 months and combines both theoretical and practical training at the College of Air Traffic Control, next to Bournemouth International Airport. Upon successful completion of training new recruits are posted to operational units to work as trainee air traffic controllers. This is later followed by further on the job training.

For more information about careers with the National Air Traffic Service:

For more information about careers with the Royal Air Force:

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