This week, I returned to work as an air traffic controller. I had been retired from this type of work for over a year. Last month, I got a phone call, asking if I’d be interested in returning to work at a small control tower, working as a part time employee for a contractor. I agreed and after completing the required medical and security checks, I began training.
I began my week with administrative processing, filling out forms for payroll, insurance and signing off on my job expectations. Next, I began studying the training material, beginning with 3 days of weather observer information that I will be tested on. I also began studying the local airport information, including airport layout, frequencies, equipment and aircraft separation standards.
I plugged in to monitor one of the controllers working traffic. As I watched him work, I became aware of something that I often took for granted while I was working full time. I watched him coordinate on landlines, scan the radar, mark flight progress strips, sequence airplanes and made speed assignments. I was reminded of the mountain of information stored in our heads and the hours of training we’ve had to learn to scan, listen, think, process what is happening, plan, make computer entries, write, hit the foot pedals and multi-task all of that at the same time.
As controllers, we also have our own vocabulary. It takes years to learn all of this, but again, there are lots of things we take for granted, like the language of aviation. We use unique and pre-defined words, and we all know what our language means. Words that nobody else knows. Try these, for example: ILS, D-BRITE, STARS, IAH, SGR, HIRL, PAPI’s, TRK DROP, FDIO, Host, or LR60/A. They all have meaning and we know exactly what they mean.
And equally surprising, is how much of it I immediately recalled, including local frequencies, TRACON frequencies, computer entry format, and how I intuitively scan the runway, the radar and the sky around the tower. I even found myself wanting to call up another controller to help out. I guess it’s in my nature now. It’s automatic. I trained for years to do it. It all came back, just like that.
We are amazing creatures alright.