A Day in the Life of an Air Traffic Controller

April 16, 2009

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Air route traffic controllers at work at the W...

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This is the first in the “A day in the Life” series. The series will pop up periodically on Thursdays. Most of the articles will be shorter than this. However, I did not feel that I can edit very much out of this tale without losing value for the reader.

Walrus served as an air traffic controller in Chicago from 1971 – 1981. Today, he shares a slice of that life with us.

A night day in the life of Air Traffic Control Specialist (ATCS), Chicago’s Enroute Control Center, Iowa City and Joliet High Sectors.

The ATCS responsibilities: Safe, orderly and Expeditious flow of air traffic into and out of controlled airspace.

Your day begins again Sunday at 9 pm; you prepare for work, eat breakfast, kiss the wife and kids good-bye and drive to your day job. This is the second time you’ve been to work today, as you worked the Sunday day shift, and as you pass through the lighted guard gate you realize that it’s only been 8 hours since your last shift ended. But, then this is the last day in your normal workweek.

The job has its pros and cons. Pros – the cafeteria’s open 7x24x365 so there’s always hot food and beverages. There’s a Marine at the gate so no one can repossess the Corvette and the local cops can’t chase you in to the compound. When you fly the ARTCC clubs plane, your brothers provide the best radar traffic service money can buy. Cons- well the night cooks don’t get 5 stars. The accommodations look and feel real old at night, like the inside of a Denny’s restaurant at midnight on their 20th anniversary. And most controller smoke like chimneys.

This is a real 7x24x365 job, and your work week’s normally 2 swing shifts, 2 day shifts and a midnight shift with your day off rotating every week. These rotating days make it difficult to have a social life outside the Air Traffic community. Most normal folks work M-F and have their nights and weekends off, that’s all of your family and most pre-ATC friends.

You’ll sync up with your real life about 4 times a year. 2 weekends, back to back, every 8 weeks and you Never Never Never answer the home phone on your scheduled weekends off. The guy with the most influence in your life is the supervisor who manages the work schedule. Thank god, that’s your boss because he gets your team most of the national holidays off. How – black magic, bribery, blackmail, murder? I don’t know, but I love that man.

The shift starts at 11 pm, normally Sunday midnights are easy work unless weather makes it a fright, the biggest concern will be that Monday morning rush starts before the end of this shift when the team will be the most tired. The flying public likes to get a jump on the workweek, and O’Hare, Midway, Milwaukee and a host of small airports will all start having departures around 5am. Fortunately most of the arrivals that support those departing flights come in before 3 am. Maybe we’ll do some On The Job training and let the Aside try his hand on that rush.

Proper etiquette requires you to relieve the position your assigned before the 11 pm shift start. You grab your first cup of coffee, get the Flight Service weather briefing and head to the boards. An ATC specialist cannot leave his position until relieved and if manning a position that doesn’t have relief, OT is mandatory and someone stays until you have 10 operational hours logged, your relief arrives or someone takes over your sector. Whiners go to the watch commander, who’ll remind them that OT is mandatory and he’ll tell you when your 10 hours are up. Being reliable and on time is the key to keeping your work partners happy, that’s the team that you always relieve. The team relieving you is never the team that you always relieve.

The team doesn’t like working with strangers (non-team members) and I don’t either, so while at the briefing desk, you find out who’s on the shift with you and pray it’s mostly your teammates. My alias is Walrus (aka GI) and tonight I’m working with Hotrod and Flipper, I see EZ’s here and so is White Ryno, Whiffer and FanMan. Popeye’s got the con and the watch commander is, well let’s hope it doesn’t matter.

There are 13 ARTCC centers spanning the entire US. Toronto, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Denver surround Chicago center. Chicago ARTCC controls air traffic from Canada to Tennessee from Detroit, Michigan to Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s divided geographically East and West and stratified Hi-Alt and Low Alt. (@ 24,000 feet), with a specialized sector (Chicago Terminal) feeding inbound traffic to Chicago O’Hare.

Normally there’s a supervisor in each of these 5 areas but on mid’s usually only 1 supervisor is staffed and one (HMFIC) watch commander is on duty. Each of the areas is broken into sectors of airspace, usually with an inbound or outbound specialty.

There are 4 staffed positions to a sector (about 100,000 sq miles of airspace). The primary position is the Radar controller, he owns the responsibility for one sector (normally) and its operations, The second is the boom Coordinator, always another journeyman position who works between the adjacent Radar sectors and controllers doing handoffs and helping to maintain order during heavy traffic periods. This is a Sunday midnight so the boom position will not be manned until the day shift starts at 6am. The sector second in command is the manual controller; this often is not a journeyman controller and he may not be certified on radar. Its better when he is, because he’s your break relief. The lowliest position on the team is your Aside (assistant controller). This is always a trainee and they can be as helpful as a spilled cup of coffee. Under some conditions (i.e. computer is down) they’re far more useful. But they’re energetic and trusting as a new puppy and they miraculously stay awake all night. You are responsible for their actions and are their OJT instructor for this shift. But Never Never Never trust an Aside.

Back to this shift change and control take-over, if there’s a new face you do introductions and establish their abilities and capabilities because you’re taking responsibility for them, too. If you are not sure, you relieve them first. This is an insult but then they have no recourse. You look over the adjacent sectors to see who you are working with tonight. If you see something out of order you point it out, if it isn’t resolved to your liking you get the watch commander. Then you do as he orders PERIOD, you’re now riding on his responsibility, one does this rarely and a trainee who does this is unlikely to get certified.

The current radar controller provides a briefing on the live traffic already in the sector; any traffic scheduled is loaded in plastic strips and stacked in the manual man’s bays (the next 30 minutes). He points out any known conflicts that he’s approved (i.e. Descending / crossing traffic), aircraft assigned the same altitude, special military traffic or radar vectors being given to targets. He gives you heads up on any mechanical issues with the gear, radio, radar, known issues with local weather, airports etc. He’ll advise if the manual man or the Aside are/were competent (especially if you’ve just insulted his teammates) and also lets you know if some condition(s) will impact you in the next few hours (i.e. weather).

You look over his situation determine that there are no air traffic conflicts or emergencies, and you accept responsibility for control and then take his seat. This is expressed verbally and you don’t make any wisecracks knowing that every word is being recorded. The relieved controller watches your boards for the next 5 minutes, making sure you have the picture before he leaves. The hotshots make wise cracks about breathing down their necks and that’s a cue to leave immediately!

However, when stating you’ve got it, it becomes your ticket and your ass on the line. You make sure you can contact all aircraft under your control. (i.e. UA282_Chicago_ Radio Check/ Chicago_ UA282_Read U 5by5) A stuck mike or mis-tuned frequency can ruin a perfectly good day. You punch on the communications access lines (row of instant communication buttons overhead) and announce the change in controller on this sector. You communicate with the sectors on both sides and above or below you. You also do the same thing with the adjacent center(s) that feeds you traffic or whose traffic you feed and any major TRACONs (Airport Approach Controls) . Remember you don’t like working with strangers and that means voices and operating initials you don’t recognize.

You read, check and recheck all the strips on the board, check weather at the airports serviced by your sector. Make sure the radar, radio and the con-rack are all functional. You’ve checked all the communications line and by now you’ve also checked the computer system. You say the controller’s prayer (Serenity) under your breath and hope the computer stays up all shift.

So now you have the radar scope and you worry through the manual controller and his relief and the Assistant controller and his relief. Once that completes and all the shrimp boats are made (little plastic boats used to track targets), all the strips are stacked and prioritized, with all conflicts identified you’ll find the first half hour has flown by.

You now settle into your normal routine, it’s about 11:15 pm, the first coffee is depleted and you send the midnight Aside for more coffee and maybe something to snack on. (Testing his ingenuity, you never offer money) Then you and the manual man work out a break rotation and someone starts that rotation. To heck with the Aside he makes his own breaks and had better never leave your sector unmanned. The unspoken code, rudeness is for Asides and respect to all Radar-men.

Tonight’s weather at ORD 20000 O/20/220/10/30.10 so there’s a 20,000 foot ceiling with visual operational conditions at the airport, 20 miles visibility light winds out of the southwest favoring Runway 22, the normal primary at O’Hare, and the barometric pressure indicates high pressure and it’s rising. You see that the Asides are being humorous, having entered the current weather in Nebraska as “Lincoln is Dead”.

What looks like an easy night, now gets complicated. They’re shorthanded because every Sunday is sick leave Sunday. So you’ll get the opportunity to operate a combined sector (200,000 sq miles) and have two additional staff. Great, I’ve another manual man and Aside to babysit. Now everyone has rotational relieve but me , the only radar man. Shit, it’s going to be a long night. !@#$%^&*()_

Hey, Aside get me a coffee with cream and sugar right Now! United262 squawk 3200 and ident. , say altitude, then turn right heading 270 climb and maintain FL230 report leaving FL220. NorthCentral412 cleared to Chicago O’Hare via V10 Vains direct descend and maintain 10,000 reduce speed to 350 knots, your traffic is 3 o’clock 28 miles opposite direction at FL220 report leaving FL 200. Learjet 10EC say your altitude, is the governor on board tonight? Hey Denver; who’s that traffic at on my boundary head on with United 262? I need a handoff ASAP otherwise you hold him, let me know if he’s descending /GI! Speedbird 312 Ident., hey, Chicago Approach over Vains direct O’Hare at 15 descending to 10 that’s Speedbird 312 slowed to 320 knots/ GI. Ok Denver I see UA1412@FL410, Branif308@FL390, Northwest686@FL330 all inbound to O’Hare, send them over to me/GI. Naval Airstation Glenview Tower instruct Marine Sledge & Flight cleared to NAS Miramar via 29 Palms direct Iowa City direct Tuba City direct, climb and maintain FL450 report out of FL200 ASAP, combat climb approved, and launch him immediately/GI! Denver did you say you saw United262, Ok here he comes/GI. United262 contact Denver center 185.25 goodnight. Hey Flipper (Aside) ask Denver about that flight of F16’s just off Glenview direct Tuba City at FL450. And do you have a strips for a departure off Dubuque to Midway? So did you like controlling air traffic for a while, Flipper?

Gotta love this adrenaline.

Aside, why is my coffee cold?

Monday morning you’d planned to work your ass off when the rush started at 5am, but your team leader shows up an hour early for his day shift and relives you as the flight plans build in the departure bays. So by 5:45 am you head to the cafeteria and have dinner. The rest of the team gathers one at a time over the next hour and at 7am it’s agreed to go to Chicago to breakfast club. That’s just 7 am beers after work. Whew what a week and now you have the next two days off. Heck the wife won’t be home from work until 5 pm tonight, bartender I’ll buy that next round.

So today was another great 16 hour day in the life of an ATCS, no hits, no errors and no one left on base, but it could be worse. At least tonight international tensions didn’t trigger a DEFCON5, locking the blast doors and cutting everyone off the coffee supply. Tomorrow you could be assigned a crash scene and be knee deep in the mess of an accident investigation. The cause, some circumstance within the scope of your Air Traffic Control Center. Or maybe you’ll have to transcribe recoding tapes for a team member who’s had a Near Mid Air. It could cost him his job, and you’ll provide the expert testimony at his hearing. He’s likely one of your best friends. Never tell them you want to be a watch commander when you grow up someday?

Yes, tonight today was a good day.

For your viewing pleasure I’d suggest the movie Pushing Tin. It was pretty accurate ATCS representation through about 1981. However, that was when Mr. Reagan and PATCO disagreed on the matter of my financial compensation and we parted ways. I understand they’ve made several improvements since I last put on a headset.

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One Comment (+add yours?)

  1. hernan
    Oct 01, 2012 @ 08:50:34

    this is cool i wish one day i could be a air traffic controller cause i love people being safe


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