I keep wanting to write about the challenges and rewards of my career as an Air Traffic Controller but the political climate and stupid things happening has always forced me to put it on hold and address the current issues. This week I'm going to ignore most of what's driving the news and try to describe to those who read my column the Air Traffic Control system and how it works. I's complex and will take a couple of weeks.

The U.S. Air Traffic Control system is made up of Control Towers, Approach and Departures Control Facilities, and Air Route Traffic Centers. The Towers decision making is derived from what they see out the window and in some cases local radar systems. Their airspace is normally a 3 mi circle around the airport with extensions to cover the arriving and departing aircraft. Their airspace extends from the surface to about 3,000 feet with some exceptions.

Approach/Departure Radar facilities have miles of airspace from the top of the Towers space up to 10,000 or even 14,000 feet. These facilities use radar information displayed on their scope to keep the aircraft apart. The Air Route Traffic Center has the airspace above these facilities. In areas without an airport the En-route Center sometimes has the airspace to the surface when the other two facilities don't exist.

A normal scenario for an aircraft flying on instruments would be to Ask the Tower for taxi and takeoff clearance, once airborne, be transferred to Departure Control, after reaching a certain altitude and distance from the airport be transferred to the En-route Center. The aircraft might be transferred to several Centers if the fight is long. Once they're about 60 miles from the destination the process is reversed. They're descended to a lower altitude, given to Approach Control who sequences the aircraft with others and hands them to the tower about 5 miles from the airport. Aircraft that fly by Visual Flight Rules usually use the Tower and stay out of controlled airspace or call for what's called “Flight Following.” They use different rules and are mostly responsible for separation from other aircraft.

When I graduated from high school in 1962 the Nations Air Traffic Control system was in its infancy. Control Towers had no radar and little or no communications with other towers and some radar facilities. The system has improved vastly over the years and many changes were made to improve safety and make the controllers and pilots job less stressful.

A few days after graduating I went the the United States Air Force recruiting office in El Monte, Calif., with a friend who was signing up. I had no intention of enlisting. The crafty uniformed fellow asked me what I wanted to do. I replied I wanted a to be in law enforcement, but was too small (5-3, 120 pounds) and no law enforcement agency would look at you if you weren't more than 6 feet tall so I would probably attend one of the local junior colleges and weigh my options.

He told me the Air Force had no height requirement for the Air Police Option. I spent some time reading some regulations he provided and went home to talk it over with my grandmother who raised me. On July 9, 1962, I enlisted and was sent to San Antonio for basic training.

For those who don't already know the Air Force is a cake walk compared to the other branches of the service. We did not have to march or go through the gas chamber because it was too hot!! After a few weeks of learning basic military drills, rules, protocol, we were sent to a building called the “Green Monster.” This is where a fellow with a few test scores, a dart board, and a warped sense of humor decides what you will do for the next four years.

He noted I had requested Air Police and marked No. 3 on a form which I couldn't see. He then asked what my second choice would be and I replied “Medic.” Good choice he mused and marked that down No. 2. He finally asked if I would like to be an Air Traffic Controller. I hate to admit my stupidity, but I had no clue what an Air Traffic Controller was. I though that was the airman standing at the gate controlling the traffic in and out of the base. Traffic Control !! That's the first step to law enforcement, yeah put me down for that!!!. The next thing I know I'm at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Miss., studying Navigational Aids, Weather, Air Traffic Procedures, etc.

I did embarrass myself by asking the instructor what this had to do with Air Police. He explained my ignorance and told me to thank my lucky stars because I had the premier job assignment in the Air Force. He also said I better study my butt off, because I had no clue.

Continued next week

Bill White is a Retired Air Traffic Controller/Commercial Pilot who lives in Springville.

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