In last month’s episode of Altitude, we sat down with two Air Traffic Controllers to share their whole journeys – from application all the way to becoming a successful air traffic controller.

Due to the sheer number of questions that came in during our time with them, we were unable to answer every single one of them, until now! Air Traffic Controller, Nicky Patterson, took some time to make sure that she answered all of your burning questions for all things Air Traffic Control. Read on to find out more about the learning, career, lifestyle and technology.

Learning and Training

How did you find the training college?
I enjoyed it, it was tough but interesting as everything was so new to me! The instructors were always approachable and willing to talk after class or simulator runs if you wanted extra help or advice. They are all previously valid controllers so have plenty of experience to pass on.

If you could go back to your training is there anything you would’ve done differently?
The learning curve was very steep, and I had to repeat one section as I didn’t pass first time. In hindsight I would have asked for extra help and support earlier to give me the tools I needed to pass, but I naively thought I would be ok!

What aspect of air traffic controlling did you find most fascinating to learn about?
For me it was the actual learning to do the job on the simulators, putting skills in to practice and learning the ATC language.

The Career

What are the development options like once you’ve qualified as an air traffic controller? Where can I go from there?
There are plenty of options, you can take on role of OJTI (On the Job Training Instructor), UCE (Unit Competency Examiner – examining and assessing colleagues) or Deputy and Watch Manager roles (managing the day to day running of the unit).
There are also always projects happening on the airport side which you can offer to get involved in too. Some people choose to literally do their controller role and others want to do much more, so it’s entirely up to you really – development support and training is there if you want to take advantage of it.

What does an average shift look like?
Very varied! A standard controller with no other roles would probably work 1-1.5hrs in a position, have a 30-minute break then move to another position for 1-1.5hrs and repeat throughout their shift. If you have other roles such as training or assessing, then you might be doing those for some or all of the shift.
As a trainer I can go whole shifts without speaking to a plane myself as the trainee I am sat with is doing it all, but it is on my licence, so I am paying complete attention right through the shift. I will also spend time writing up reports or carrying out assessments.

 What is the typical shift pattern for most ATC jobs?
Generally controlling at an airport involves a pattern of 6 shifts on followed by 4 days off. The 6 days working usually consist of two early mornings 6.30 -1.30, two afternoons 1.30 – 9.30 then two night shifts 9.30- 6.30. Our control centres work slightly differently.

What is the most rewarding part of the job?
I think the satisfaction of having controlled a really good session where everything went to plan. For me personally, ground sessions are the most satisfying as you are moving many planes around on the ground both inbound and outbound at the same time and it is quite a skill to do it efficiently.
I also love the challenge of training a new recruit and helping them gain the confidence and knowledge to do the job by themselves.

What’s the worst part of the job?
I don’t really have a worst part as I genuinely really enjoy it, even after 25 years! I guess the only downside is that you rarely get weekends off, so If you play for a sports team or like to do regular weekly meetings for any clubs or societies it can be tricky to make each week.

The Lifestyle

Is NATS a good company to work for?
In one word – yes! Well paid, well looked after, there are medical and dental health schemes you can join and the pension is good. The company genuinely cares for and looks after its employees.

What is the work-life balance like?
I find it really good. We get lots of time off, even between shifts – for example after a second early shift you don’t start work until the following afternoon, so 24 hours off! Four days rest between cycles is perfect for a nice city break.
Many of my friends seem to think I rarely work! But I do point out that I do a lot of my work while they are sleeping.

How is the environment at work?
Generally people are surprised when they visit a control tower as to how relaxed and calm things are. I think they expect chaos and shouting and people working on the edge! Of course when things are busy or there is an emergency situation everyone is concentrating, and absolutely at the top of their game, but when things are quiet there is often time for a chat with your colleagues and there is generally a lot of banter flying around the room.
In the rest room on your breaks there are often a few people about so you can chat or watch TV. Quiz show The Chase is a popular one for the rest room at Manchester! Or football matches on a weekend. If you want some peace and quiet there is always a place you can go for a quick power nap or just to read a book.

What is the working culture like, and is it male-dominated?
Yes it is male dominated (at Manchester we have 6 women out of 43 controllers) but it has never been something that worried or bothers me, we all work well as a team and you are not treated differently as a woman. You will be respected as a good controller regardless of sex, age, race, religion etc. The general culture is pretty relaxed and chilled out.

After a long day of work, how do you feel?
It varies. Some busier shifts can leave you feeling quite tired at the end of them – for example if there is a lot of weather avoiding thunderstorms around then you work harder and definitely feel it more. I often have a nap at home following an early shift.
Shifts in winter are often easier than in summer as there is less traffic. During your initial training at a unit you will find you are very tired by the end of a shift as you are working hard to take in and learn all the local information. Simulator runs at the college are often just 20-30 minutes whereas in real life controlling you could be plugged in for up to 2 hours which can take some getting used to.

How best to prepare for moving away from home to potentially several hours away?
You will find that people at the different units tend to come from all over the country and sometimes abroad – at Manchester we have Norwegian and Spanish controllers. Few people tend to be living at home or near their home so it is just part and parcel of the role.
Because of that, and the shift work, you often find ATCOs socialise on their watches. I certainly go out regularly with some of my colleagues who have become great friends – and with our shift patterns it means you can travel to see friends and family at home easily and often.

The Technology

If human error was to occur, are computer systems set up to rectify this or notify air traffic control staff? How does this work?
There are a lot of systems which can indicate to a controller that there is a problem, so yes they alert you – for example TCAS (Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System) will take over between two aircraft at risk of collision and at that point the controller steps aside and allows TCAS to resolve the situation.
Before that we have tools which flash on the radar to indicate two aircraft at the same level in the same area and there are similar tools for the runway which show if a vehicle (or even an animal) has entered the runway whilst a plane is taking off or landing.

What technology did you find most interesting to use?
Any new technology is always interesting, then the next new tool comes in and that becomes the new thing! It is always changing. There are opportunities to get involved in development and testing of new tech before they go live, so if that interests you then make it known when you get to a unit and get involved.

Do advancements in technology make the job less stressful?
I don’t think of the job as stressful to start with, as the training ensures that you shouldn’t feel this way. Technology definitely helps to make the job slightly easier and changes the amount of traffic a controller can safely handle. There is always new tools and tech coming in and initially it means more training until you are familiar with it but generally they are all aimed at making the job safer and more efficient.

Did you know that NATS has just reopened recruitment for Trainee Air Traffic Controllers? You can find out more about this rewarding career and apply here.


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Peter Pennie

That was a very good insight into the job



Lois Dubber

Great to see you are still enjoying it Nicky, so good to have been able to help you in some small way at the start of your career 😊 Lois Dubber ((Heffer) xx


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