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Air Traffic Controller

Air Traffic Controllers are individuals who expedite and maintain a safe and orderly flow of air traffic and to prevent collisions.

Air Traffic Controllers, by their nature, have an inherent spatial perception[?] which is differently ordered (and/or more finely honed) from the rest of the population. At initial selection, this magic ingredient is sought out. It's presence will be finely honed in training. Almost universally, trainee controllers are in their early twenties. It is rare if not impossible for a trainee to present for initial training and subsequently succeed, above the age of twenty five. Most training focuses on honing the spatial perception so as to best visualise, in time and space, the position of each aircraft under control. This methodology has not much changed since the concept of ATC evolved in the early forties.

Air Traffic Controllers apply separation rules to keep each aircraft apart from the others in their area of responsibility and move all aircraft efficiently through 'their' airspace and on to the next. Without an inbuilt mental position and space for each aircraft as it relates to all others, a Controller could not function. Within the profession, it is termed 'having the picture'.

At any one moment only one person can 'have the picture' in a given situation: a concept which is incomprehensible outside air traffic control. The best analogy we can give is that at the moment a footballer is in a position to score, every spectator knows how best to make that score and they are always wrong. No other sportsman in the arena knows how the score might be made except the one with the ball. Subsequent events show whether the attempt succeeds or not. In football, the success rate is about 10%. For Air Traffic Controllers each attempt is successful, ie. the success rate is statistically 100%.

Much money has been spent, and considerably more wasted, on creating computer software designed to 'help' Air Traffic Controllers work better, but with a singular lack of success. Little thought has ever been given to the concept of uniquely human and non-programmable spatial perception mentioned above.

In theory, it is easy to computerise air traffic control. All one needs is a program which can play chess in 'three' dimensions. The program would address the facts that

  • pieces have different speed characteristics
  • no one piece can alter speed very much, except when it leaves or is leaving it's 'Board'
  • while in play pieces must never be expect to stop, pause change direction suddenly or turn up unexpectedly in a far corner of which-ever board it happens to be on.

In practice, computer programmers have only recently managed to write programs that can handle chess on a flat board. In reality, they will never get a computer to play 'quidditch' which is what controllers do all day every day and without (almost ever) making an error that kills people.

Nor has it been properly understood outside the profession that air traffic controllers themselves ensure that aircraft are neither delayed nor compromised in either the busiest or the quietest of situations. In real life many controllers may alternate between frantic activity and utter boredom throughout their shifts.

Frantic activity can be sustained by some controllers for many hours when necessary and often day after day by the very best. 'Brain fade[?]' is almost never the reason for needing a break: simple body conditions like a full bladder or an empty stomach determine durability in the 'best' Controllers.

To correct some fallacies and mistaken ideas held by the public and media reporters, it is necessary to realise that there are good and bad controllers. There are excellent and appalling controllers. But, there are no dangerous controllers, as in None At All.

Within Air Traffic Control there is an extraordinary cameraderie which surpasses self preservation. There is a collective sense of responsibility for fellow Controllers and their frailties. Each person knows what he can handle or someone close by knows. Loads will not be allowed to build up to danger levels.

Enlightened monitoring is the order of the day and this is often in spite of, rather than as a result of the overall system. This protectiveness transcends personal feelings and personal animosities. Every controller in the world has a primal instinct to protect the lives of those entrusted to the care of the service he works for.

Air Traffic Controllers record raw data for each flight on a strip of paper, using methodology developed in the late 1940's and which remains unchanged. Laymen sometimes look with disbelief on what seems to be an 'out of the ark' methodology when they see the sophisticated equipment which backs up such fundamentals. Indeed, at the highest levels of planning and implementation of advanced procedures for Air Traffic Control, little thought seems to be given to the idea that the key to successful Air Traffic Control is a human brain working extra ordinarily well in all the circumstances.

In almost sixty years, the number of collisions where a mistake on the part of an Air Traffic Controller has been the major or only reason for lives being lost can still be counted on the fingers of two hands. In a small number of cases people have died as a result of an inappropriate order being transmitted by a controller and obeyed to the letter by a pilot. In each case the wider issue of lack of support of the system by the authorities has been a factor.

An excellent source of information on the inner workings of the minds of Air Traffic Controllers is to be found in a fictional work Airport by Arthur Hailey, 1968. The book has a rather far-fetched main plot but the character profiling of airport staff is chilling in it's accuracy. No self respecting airline pilot or Air Traffic Controller would admit to not having read it.

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