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You're in Good Hands —
With Air Traffic Controllers on the Job

Air traffic controllersMost passengers riding on airplanes think that the pilot is the one responsible for getting them in the air and back on the ground again safely.

What they don't know is that there are men and women sitting in rooms packed with electronic equipment, guiding the pilot and making sure that there are no accidents.

These people are the air traffic controllers. They are expected to control the actions of every pilot in their area – on the ground and in the air.

On any given day, more than 87,000 flights are in the skies in the United States. The air traffic controller's job is to take care of every person on every plane from the minute that the engines turn on until they are turned off again. Controllers work quietly in the background.

If you aren't a pilot, you may not even know that they exist. That's the way they like it. You only hear about air traffic controllers when something goes wrong.

On September 11th, they were in the news. They were the ones who notified the government about the planes that were off course...on the way to attack the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. When the President canceled all fights and ordered all planes to land, air traffic controllers got busy clearing the sky and making sure that all of the aircraft landed safely.

Screens of Lines & Dots
There are more than 15,200 air traffic controllers who spend their days in front of computer screens filled with lines and dots. Each dot is an airplane. Some of the smaller private jets may be carrying just a few people but bigger planes are loaded with hundreds of lives. The men and women at the monitoring stations stare at the screens for hours at a time to make sure that none of those dots get too close to each other. If air traffic controllers notice a plane straying from the route, they call the pilot and get it back in place -- long before anyone suspects that there was a problem.

Some controllers work at airports. You may have seen the towers where they work. They not only watch the screens to keep the planes in the air a safe distance apart, they also watch the planes taking off and landing. It's the job of the controllers to make sure every pilot is doing exactly what they should to avoid any chance of accidents. Pilots and crews give the credit to controllers for keeping air travel safe for everyone.

Other air traffic controllers work in Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities (TRACON). Getting assigned to work in a TRACON takes years of experience. Only the top controllers have the personality and skills to handle these positions. Each TRACON is responsible for the air traffic in many airports as well as in the skies between them. Men and women who sit for hours watching the screens in these facilities are the reason that flying is as safe as it is.

Stress Is The Price
Air traffic controllers know that one small mistake, a few seconds of not paying attention during a long shift, can mean that two of those dots might collide and hundreds of innocent people could be hurt. The work of managing planes flying with hundreds of passengers takes steady nerves. It demands attention to the tiniest details, the ability to talk to more than one pilot at a time and split second reaction times. Because of this, air traffic controllers must stop working when they reach the age of 56. The pilots who fly the planes can work until they are 60 before they are forced to retire.

Pride & Satisfaction Are The Rewards
Why would anyone want to take a job so demanding that they are forced to stop working years before most other people? Sitting for hours staring at a computer screen, safeguarding thousands of lives might seem like a very strange way to earn a living, but the people who choose this line of work love what they do. They are willing to work shifts around the clock and on weekends and holidays.

Air traffic controllers may not be home for Thanksgiving dinner or to celebrate New Year's Eve with their families, but they do get to go home after every shift knowing that they spent their work hours protecting thousands of people. Families were reunited, business deals were made and honeymooners are cuddling safely, because air traffic controllers did their job.

A Calm Voice In An Emergency
One of the few times that air traffic controllers become visible to the public is when someone has an emergency in the air. All of the news stories about inexperienced pilots getting "talked" through landing safely are about air traffic controllers stepping up when they are needed. The voice that provides a lifeline on the other end of the radio is an experienced air traffic controller calmly dealing with another emergency situation. They don't need awards.

The satisfaction of another disaster avoided, another life saved, is what keeps them going. If you ask them, they'll tell you that it's just part of the job and what they get paid for doing.

About the Author... Editorial Staff

More about air traffic controllers around the Web:

How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

Air Traffic Control Association

Air traffic controller - Wikipedia

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