Some of you readers might know that I’m in the middle of a career change. For the last ten years or so I’ve worked in the medical industry, and for the last four or five I’ve hated it. A few years ago, wracked by burnout and unsure what to do with myself, I considered my options and decided to go back to college and escape the hospital.
At first I wanted to go be a commercial pilot, but my flight instructor made a few points that stuck with me. This one especially:
“You really love to fly. But flying because you want to is very different from flying because you have to.”
The point stuck. I’d hate to lose my enthusiasm for flying. Burnout in medicine has been bad; I’d hate to experience burnout in the cockpit. I will probably never be able to go to a hospital without some of the grumbling mental background noise that’s a highlight of my job at the present, and the thought of feeling that way about flying an airplane is unpleasant. So I ruled out airline flying.
Flight instructing or general-aviation commercial flying still seemed a good idea, but I’d be looking at a very substantial pay cut and a lot of market instability.
One day, I was watching the planes come and go at an airport and the idea came to me. What about air traffic?
The perception among the community at large was that ATC was a poor career choice. I can not tell you how many times people said to me, “Gosh, that’s a stressful job.” Or “Hey, I hear they have a really high suicide rate” or “Wow. So you want to be a burned-out nervous alcoholic wreck?”
These very helpful comments usually came from aviation outsiders, so I decided to get advice from the experts: actual controllers.
I met a radar controller who worked at Tampa Approach, and picked his brain a little bit. “Stay away from the bar, study hard, and this is one of the best jobs you’ll ever have,” he told me. I went and talked to some tower controllers at a smaller local airport, and they said the same thing. “It can be stressful and you have to know exactly what you’re doing, but this is an awesome job.” That’s been the refrain from the majority of the controllers I’ve talked to.
I’ve thought long and hard about it. ATC can be very stressful: you have a lot of responsibility to bear, and you can not make a mistake. You can swing from extreme boredom to sheer terror in a matter of minutes, and then back again. You may be the hero of the day, or you may be the last voice another human being ever hears. You might vector a lost student to an airport, or you might accidentally land one plane on top of another. These thoughts all crossed my mind. But at the end of the day, I think it sounds like a job that I will enjoy. It will take hard work and persistence to get there, but I have high hopes.
My ‘dream job’ is to work at a midsize control tower somewhere scenic. Ideally, it would be an airport where you could work a variety of traffic instead of all airliners. Too big of an airport would pull me away from my General Aviation roots which I treasure; too small of an airport and the FAA will dissolve the control tower. I graduate CTI school this coming May, and I’ll have almost exactly two years to get hired before I’m age-ineligible.
Ultimately, success will depend on many things (AT-SAT exam scores, not getting too old*, my ability to perform the tasks of the job competently) and there’s a chance I might not make it. But I’ll never know unless I try! So in that spirit…hi-yo CTI School, Away!
*”As established in DPM 338-18, a maximum age of 30 years is established for entry into civilian air traffic control positions in the Federal Aviation Administration whose duties require that the employees be actively engaged in the separation and control of air traffic.”