JACKSON — The job of an air traffic controller is to essentially take responsibility for separating flights from other flights and obstructions; the air traffic role of the Federal Aviation Administration is merely that.
And while the job description may sound easy, as many air traffic controllers will tell you, it takes a special person to be able to do the job. The difficulty level is evident in that the success rate of an air traffic controller lasting through training and finally making his way up the ranks to work on his own as a controller is only around 50% to 60% in Jackson, close to the national average.
Air traffic controllers have three basic functions they use to separate flights from other flights and obstructions. One is air traffic control in the terminal environment, meaning at a landing destination or a departure point. The second is the en-route function, or long-range radar between cities. The third and final function is called flight service, which provides informational services to the pilots and to the system as a whole about things such as weather, runway problems, etc.
In those three facilities there are air traffic controllers.
In Jackson, air traffic controllers control the arrival, the departure and the movement of all flights at Jackson International Airport (JIA) using a radar room and a control tower.
Oscar Branch is the air traffic manager at JIA, and has been an air traffic controller for 33 years, spending four years in the Air Force as a controller before finishing up his last year at the University of Southern Mississippi with a degree in economics. After graduation he took the FAA test to be a controller and was selected to go to Chattanooga where he worked for three years. He later went to Mobile, then to Atlanta, back to Mobile in supervision, to Meridian in management and finally to Jackson, where he has been for the last nine years.
“The nature of the job is there can be a lot of routine after you’ve learned and conquered the career, which takes about three years,” he said. “But there are also times when it can be very, very hectic and you have to hold your wits together in some very challenging situations. And those moments come on you sometimes without a lot of warning.”
Imagine, for example, separating as many as 12 or 13 airplanes in a certain period. That sometimes happens to controllers during certain times.
“They’re what we call the peaks of the period, and you can have a large number of airplanes on your radio depending on you to separate them,” Branch said. “Most of the time we try to keep routine traffic in a way that the controllers work five to seven to eight (flights) but those peak periods come on us and we still have to deal with it. We don’t stop traffic to accommodate us, let me put it that way.”
Throughout his career, Branch has been through scary situations that he said are situations that happen suddenly.
“Primarily our job is not only to separate airplanes but to be aware and to prevent things like that from developing,” he said. “Not only are we separating airplanes and dealing with busy situations, but we’re keeping it in a manner that scary things don’t develop.”
But, he admitted, emergencies do occur. Some result from equipment problems with airplanes and those airplanes sometimes have to make unscheduled landings.
“That means we have to regroup our thoughts, get the other airplanes out of the way, get this airplane in first and get the fire equipment in and ready,” Branch said. “Every controller with any type of experience has dealt with that.”
Air traffic controllers also keep a lookout for pilots, helping them not to get into compromising situations.
“Our job is to see the whole sky,” Branch explained.
There are several requirements that have to be met before proceeding onto training as an air traffic controller, although a degree is not one of them.
“We have teachers, we have psychologists, we have chemical engineers, two-year technical college in electronics, the whole litany of things I can list for you,” Branch said. “There is no magic in their education. There is no standard that you can look at and say these people were more successful because they had engineering.”
Instead of schooling and degrees, air traffic controllers take a test that is interspersed with such subjects as spatial relationships and the calculation of numbers. The test also contains a personality factor.
“In this office sometimes I may say to our secretary that I’m going to take a 10-minute walk because I’m just tired of this stuff,” Branch said. “You don’t do that upstairs. Upstairs it’s kind of knocking you around and you hang in there. That’s the kind of personality factor that you have to have to stay in that room and do your job.”
Shifts for air traffic controllers are eight hours a day with 40-hour workweeks. Jobs are rotated and controllers spend no more than two hours at a time controlling. Controllers may work in the radar room for an hour and a half, take a coffee break and then go up to the tower for an hour and a half. Seasoned controllers may go back and train new controllers for an hour and a half.
While this may not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, and it certainly is not, the average starting salary of $28,000 may be enough to convince some people to at least give the job a shot.
“This job is kind of like a mixture of some experience and innate ability, a lot of self-confidence and some good raw talent, and a willingness to work,” Branch said.
And although the controller success rate is not altogether lofty, Branch said there is a good track record at JIA of controllers being promoted to busier airports.
Air traffic controllers who do their jobs and do them well contribute to the economy, Branch said.
“We contribute enormously to the economy when we get airplanes here on time,” he said. “We feel we contribute to the economy of the country and to the city as well by providing an efficient service here.”
Branch called the JIA controllers “well-trained” and “well focused.” He said their focus is on improving their skills and making them the best they can be.
Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1042.