As an air traffic controller, you’ll manage an aircraft through all aspects of its flight, taking responsibility for the aircraft’s safety and ensuring that it lands and takes off on time.
You’ll use highly sophisticated radar and radio communication equipment to communicate advice, information and instructions to pilots.
Types of air traffic controller
Air traffic controllers are well known for working in control towers at airports, but the majority actually works in area control centres. They’re responsible for the aircraft as it travels, using radar to track its exact position, keep it safe in the airspace and provide the most efficient journey route.
Approach controllers deal with instrument landing systems, which allow some planes to make automatic landings, and ensure that planes are placed in holding patterns when airports are busy. They take over from the area controllers as the aircraft is approaching the airport and give initial clearance for the aircraft to approach the airport, putting all approaching aircraft into a sequence to create the most efficient order for landing.
At the last stage aerodrome controllers take over, who guide pilots to make a safe landing from the top of control towers. The towers enable them to have good all-round viewing of the aerodrome. Aerodrome controllers ensure that the aircraft gets to its parking stand safely and that those leaving the stands reach the runway safely. In some busy airports, the aerodrome controllers are divided into air control and ground control.
In addition to carrying out the same take-off and landing procedures as civilian air traffic controllers, air traffic controllers in the RAF also make sure that air bases are maintained and prepared for emergencies. They communicate with civilian air authorities to ensure civilian aircraft can pass safely through their airspace.
Your tasks may vary depending on whether you’re working as an area, approach or aerodrome controller, but they’ll include:
•keeping radio and radar contact with aircraft
•directing the movement of aircraft en route or at an airport
•instructing aircraft to climb or descend and allocating final cruising level
•providing information to aircraft about weather conditions
•making sure that minimum distances are maintained between planes
•handling unexpected events, emergencies and unscheduled traffic.
Duties specific for approach and aerodrome controllers include:
•controlling movements on and off runways
•handling the ground movement of planes around the terminals
•handling the ground movement of vehicles around the airport.
What to expect
•Air traffic controllers are typically required to stay at their desk or station for two hours before taking a break. The busy work and amount of concentration required to deal with high levels of pressure can lead to tiredness. The office environment is normally made comfortable so it aids the controllers in their critical work.
•Jobs are available at the NATS control centres located in Swanwick and Prestwick, as well as in airports across the UK in control towers. Some are managed by NATS, while others are run by private companies or individual airports.
•NATS employees may be required to move to different locations depending on company needs. This is often written into contracts.
•Self-employment or freelance work is virtually impossible.
•Air traffic controllers are subject to the Rail and Transport Safety Act. This act sets strict limits on blood-alcohol levels (well below the drink/drive levels) and drugs are forbidden. Random testing can take place.
•Overseas work or travel is uncommon but it’s possible to move with overseas employers, notably in North America and the Middle East.
A degree or HND is not a necessary requirement for entry into the role of air traffic controller. Due to the nature of the role, however, a degree that provides a high level of numeracy or technical knowledge may be beneficial.
Trainers and employers of air traffic controllers look for aptitude and this is often viewed as being more important than qualifications.
However, you’ll be required to have at least five GCSEs (or equivalent) at grade C or above, including English and Maths. You must also be over the age of 18 when applying and legally eligible to work in the UK.
In addition to the Trainee Air Traffic Controller opportunity, NATS also offers three early careers structured development programmes for:
•college leavers who have studied at BTEC ND/HNC/HND level
•university students on a sandwich year
The majority of candidates train through the NATS, which has its own set of entry requirements. According to NATS, you will need to show:
•conscientiousness and rule adherence
•decisiveness and confidence
•information processing capability
•open to learning and development
•planning, decision making and problem solving
•the ability to work as part of a team.
Candidates must also meet certain medical requirements, which include passing a European Class 3 medical certificate. A summary of the eligibility criteria for medical conditions can be found at NATS Careers.
It’s possible that you may pass the Class 3 medical but still not meet all of the requirements of NATS. In this instance, it may be possible to complete training with another air traffic services provider and then apply for air traffic controller jobs after that. As well as the above criteria, you will need to show:
•the capability to concentrate and think logically over long periods of time
•an ability to respond quickly in emergency situations
•good oral communication skills
•confidence with technology.
Pre-entry experience is not required as full training is given for the role. However, a background in office-based work, customer service or communication-based roles may be an advantage.
NATS is the main employer of air traffic controllers. It’s a public-private partnership between:
•the government, which owns 49%
•the Airline Group, a group consisting of six major UK airlines, USS Sherwood Limited and the Pension Protection fund, that owns 42%
•LHR Airports Limited, which owns 4%
•the staff, who own the remaining 5%.
NATS is the sole employer of area controllers who work on en route services, who work in the area control centres in Swanwick and Prestwick.
NATS also employs approach and aerodrome controllers at airports in the UK. They have to tender for the contracts with the airport operator and currently provide services for around 14 of the major airports in the UK, plus one in Gibraltar.
Some airports, in particular the regional ones, employ controllers directly or use privately owned air traffic control service companies such as Safeskys Ltd.
The application and selection process for NATS is a rigorous one consisting of online and paper tests, assessment days, group exercises and an interview. The selection processes with other training providers may vary slightly but will usually be along the same lines and test similar competencies.
NATS have developed a series of mini-games on their website, testing cognitive skills such as shape tracking, sequential memory and reactivity. They measure how you approach problems, handle pressure and adapt to changing situations and may help you decide whether air traffic control is a suitable career for you.
Look for job vacancies at:
•Serco – for international vacancies.
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