A different kind of dedication

Ars Technica has a nice article up about the technology and science behind Air Traffic Control:


One of my friends actually is an air-traffic-controller. She works in one of the Area Control Centers mentioned in the article.

What the article doesn't go into at all is the human side of ATC work. These are people who are responsible for not killing people. Their training regimen is ridiculously stressful and includes hazing, for a very good reason. Failures result in death. Big failures result in mass death. Stress is reasonable. Much as we joke about SysAdmin devotion to duty:

We merely hold a candle to the sense of duty of ATC controllers. Failures of any kind are incidents that require investigation. The control channel (radio) is recorded and is a public record subject to FOIA and subpoena, so the whole world can hear you say the wrong thing before a plane did something destructive involving loss of life. The only way to survive stress like that is to have a sense of duty beyond all otherwise reasonable extents (or, less optimally, a god-like ego).

Some trivia I've picked up over the years:

  • If an airport is not inside a TRACON but has a tower, the ACC handles approach and tower handles landing.
  • If an airport is not inside a TRACON and also doesn't have a tower (middle of nowhere kind of airport), ACC handles both approach and landing. This becomes a major headache during Pheasant season in the Dakotas, when private aircraft from everywhere want to land at any available airstrip they can.
  • Pilots not doing what they are told are a source of major on-the-job stress for controllers.
  • ACCs also monitor and guide Military flights to a point.
  • ACCs have Military liaisons for national security reasons.
  • There are two major classes of aircraft flight rules, which involve vastly different routing rules: Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), and Visual Flight Rules (VFR). IFR planes are full members of the ATC system and have transponders, the right kind of radios, and the whole shtick. VFR planes are general aviation craft that ATC has only limited interaction with.
  • ATC on our southern border is a lot more exiting than our northern border, thanks to drug-runners. I've heard rumors of them using UAV's for drug-drops, for instance. The F16's get more work down there.
  • During thunderstorm season when you can have a solid front of thunderstorms from Bismark, ND to Tulsa, OK, this delays aircraft due to the need to not fly planes through thunderstorms. North Dakota will get a LOT more traffic that way, as planes divert north of the storm systems.
  • Volcanic events in Alaska can mess up ATC in the northern US due to ash concentrations. Ash, pulverized rock, chews up jet engines and kills planes.

If you're a pilot you probably know all this. But many of us don't. ATC: I don't want that job, but I'm glad other people can and do.