What’s it like to be an Air Traffic Controller?

I get this question a lot, so I figured it’d be best to cover in a post that is easily accessible if you ever get curious. First off, I know that this profession is not common, especially for women. Second off, I was hired in 2014. So the hiring process has probably changed a bit since then.

How it all started

I was initially an English major at Arizona State University, mostly because that was the easiest subject for me throughout high school. I had the typical freshman confusion AKA I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life after college. My dad came to visit over winter break, and I remember him asking me tons of questions about what my future would look like, how I planned on applying this degree to a career (I was NOT interested in teaching), would I even enjoy what I do? All of this was a bit overwhelming at first. Until he asked the most basic question, what have you always wanted to do? (assuming money was no object)

To my own surprise, I answered with “Well, I’ve always been interested in aviation”. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, or how it could translate into a career, but I did love to fly! I remember taking family trips as a kid, and collecting the ticket stubs after each flight. I probably had a dozen or so stocked away in my bedroom.


After some research on potential careers in the field, I stumbled upon Air Traffic Control. If I’m being honest, I didn’t know exactly what that meant at first. I sat in on a few classes, and became was instantly hooked. It sounded like a puzzle in the sky, that involves lots of critical decision making, all while using a “secret” language. Sign me up! Fast forward 3 more years, and I had completed my B.S. in Air Traffic Management.


The job search begins

Here comes the tricky part, there’s only 1 employer in the U.S. that hires air traffic controllers, and that’s the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). I unfortunately had graduated at the same time there was a hiring freeze going on. So it was basically a waiting game until I was able to apply/move forward. I was killing time working at a mortgage company for 2 years, when I finally got the call.

Granted, since this position requires a security clearance, the hiring process itself took another 6-8 months. But eventually, I was selected, and invited to attend the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, OK! I had never been more excited to move to a state full of cows and tornadoes. I spent 3 months in Oklahoma, completing several courses and studying endlessly untilI I had officially passed, and given a firm offer letter for a permanent position.

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After selecting my facility in Southern California (honestly, I wanted AZ but there were no openings), it was time to hit the road. I had 5 days to drive from Oklahoma, and get an apartment set up in California. I’d like to say it was all very exciting, but the extreme raise in my cost of living was very, very daunting.

Life after training

It took me about 15 months to complete training at my facility, then I officially became a Certified Professional Controller. This basically means I don’t have to work with a trainer behind my shoulder anymore. Each facility is unique and has their own setup according to their needs. My facility has the following positions:

  • Clearance Delivery
  • Ground Control
  • Local Control

Each of those 3 positions have their own tasks, or areas of jurisdictions to take care of. Simply put:

Clearance Delivery is who the pilots talk to when they’re still at the gate. This controller will advise them on what their route/altitude/other details will be once they become airborne.

Ground Control is who the pilots talk to when they push off of the gate, and make their way to the runway. This controller will tell them which direction to taxi, and make sure they don’t cross intersections that they shouldn’t be crossing.

Local Control is who the pilots talk to when they are arriving, departing, or overflying an airport. This controller will clear aircraft for take off, to land, and to transition overhead.

All of these communications are accomplished over designated frequencies. Remember how you could talk through a walkie talkie by tuning into certain channels? This is the same concept, just at a more complicated level.

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In order to be a Certified Professional Controller, you have to be “checked out”, or certified, on all of these positions. A normal shift for me may look like an hour of working Ground Control, followed by an hour and half of working Local Control, etc. Each shift is different, and each hour is different! We have busier times than others, and my specific airport accommodates not only air carriers, but also a few flight schools.

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard that this is the MOST STRESSFUL JOB EVER?! I’m here to tell you that it can be, at times. But there’s also times where there’s not much going on. The biggest benefit is being able to go home, and never have to bring work with you. As soon as you are off position, that’s it for the day! There’s no meetings to prepare for, or presentations that are asked of you. Although you do need to have a certain personality to deal with the extremes (emergencies, severe weather, unfamiliar pilots, etc.); there are still a lot of rewarding moments in ATC. Also, if you end up in a beautiful place like California, then the office views aren’t too shabby either!