For International Day of the Air Traffic Controller we’ve spoken to our longest serving air traffic controller, Senga Sinclair, who has just celebrated her 45th year at NATS.
Senga began her career in air traffic control as an assistant at Sumburgh Airport in 1978. She joined the airport, located on the Shetland Islands in Scotland, after completing her Air Traffic Service Assistant training at NATS’ former college in Bournemouth.
She said: “Sumburgh Airport was only about five miles from where I grew up and it was a big part of the local community. A family friend at the time worked there as an assistant and told me about an advert in Flight Magazine about a national recruitment campaign for assistants (I wasn’t reading Flight Magazine at 18!).”
In the late 1970s, when Senga applied for the role, it was a booming time for the oil industry in Shetland, and Sumburgh Airport was very busy with around 30 helicopters based there, all doing three rotations a day to the East Shetland basin.
In 1987, after nine years as an Air Traffic Assistant at Sumburgh and Inverness airports, Senga took the plunge to become an Air Traffic Controller and enrolled at the former College of Air Traffic Control in Hurn, Bournemouth, course number 68. After controller training she was posted to Glasgow Airport – where she’s worked ever since.
Reflecting on her lengthy and eventful career, Senga shares: “Less than a year after I started in aviation, a Dan-Air HS748 crashed off the end of the runway and into the sea at Sumburgh in 1979. I was in the terminal at the time working my second job – 17 people died and it was a stark reminder early on in my career about the seriousness of safety in aviation.”
She has also been on shift for many global aviation events over the years, including 9/11 and the 2010 Icelandic volcanic eruption. She’s also seen through many positive events which have required a significant amount of ATC participation, including the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and more recently COP26 in 2021.
But how much has changed in the aviation industry over the past 45 years? Senga explained: “The environment I first started in is completely unrecognisable to the one we work in today. When I first started as an ATSA we not only had paper strips but they were also handwritten! Each evening we would write out the following day’s strips and record every flight by hand in the logbook.
“When I started controlling in the late 1980s, the radar room was a dark and smoky place, with very basic radar displays. There was no secondary radar, just primary contacts with no labels. Technology has completely changed the job and made things a lot more efficient. The aircraft we deal with have also become much faster, quieter and more reliable than before.”
We’ve recently started recruitment for new ATCOs, what advice would you give to anyone coming into the industry and those who have just completed their training?
My advice would be to work hard and put in the effort at the start, because afterwards you can have a secure and rewarding career for life. I can honestly say after all these years I still enjoy coming to work and more importantly love being an ATCO.
And what about diversity? You joined the industry at a time when it was very male dominated. What was it like when you first started?
Both my ATSA and ATCO courses were male dominated, but I never personally felt that being female made anything more difficult, even back then. As a unit Glasgow, over the past 35 years, has been unusually well gender balanced. Some of the old school OJTIs could be a little fierce and demanding, but that was nothing to do with me being female – all students received the same treatment!
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