I am not an air traffic controller. I don't yet have the privilege, but I am working on it. That is to say I should be now, as I write. The difficulty of this endeavour (the job, not the writeup) casts into sharp relief the ease of the ventures I have made so far. I suspect this applies to me more than others, nonetheless I feel a things to consider node is in order. Unfortunately such a node would break my self-imposed...

/me counts

...uh, (cough)43-character node title limit.

So, for some reason, you've decided you want to spend your working life throwing cylinders of pressurised air wrapped in duralumin around the skies, in some semblance of order. You've got an affection for VDU work. I would say darkened rooms, but that doesn't really apply now.

I don't know why you want to do that, and I don't much better know why I do. It seems to be a gut thing. I think that sounds rather arrogant, but sadly it's the best metaphor in my neuronic library. I have never been able to firmly pin down my own drive, but the job has me willingly working harder than I ever have for anything, which tells me something.

Before you go ahead and chase your desire, here are some things you might want to think about. I don't think they would have stopped me going for it, but there are people who started this path at the same time as me who have quit. Maybe they would them. This node is for people thinking of applying to NATS, who are the main provider of air traffic services in the UK. I have no idea about other providers or other countries.

  1. They don't want to pay you to train.

    Seriously. There are people who don't know the job takes a lot of training. Worse, there are people that can't imagine it takes a lot of training. I don't know any of these people, but some of my colleagues do. The training is expensive (it costs over half a million pounds to train a person up to operational standard, over the course of two to three years) and while you're doing it, you're not making the company any money. An unfortunate side effect of the company's PPP status is that this... matters.

    When I first applied for this job in 2001, the training salary was respectable and included a decent maintenance allowance. In the (almost) five years it took me to actually land the job, the training salary halved to about minimum wage level. It's only thanks to the union that we are getting paid anything at all and in some other countries, a person has to actually pay to train for this job.

  2. It takes a long time to apply.

    It is a three-step process that I won't go into too much detail of as I've explained it here. It starts with a paper application, is followed by a day of aptitude and personality tests, followed further by a couple of interviews and a computer-based test. This is all to test your skills at stuff like spatial reasoning, working in teams, mental calculation, following instructions, and also to see what your outlook on the world is. Somewhere in there you get to chat to an operational air traffic controller too, which is quite useful.

    This whole process can take some time; you get the opportunity to book a date and venue for each of these selection days but if you're tardy with booking them, you might have to wait a while because there are only limited slots for each booking. The application that got me the job took almost a year in total.

    If you don't get the job, you can't re-apply for a year. I think this is because the selection tests are recycled. This is part of the reason it took me so long to get in. Finally, you're only allowed to apply to the company three times. Ever.

    I got in on my third attempt.

  3. You will be poor.

    Point number 1 refers. I don't want to use numbers but the training wage is not much above national minimum wage. You would probably make more working a night shift at Asda, so you've got to be prepared to suck it up. I say this because the wage only applies while you're training at the College the company has.

    Whatever your eventual discipline (Airports, Approach Control or Area Control) and provided you don't have to do part of the course again, you will be out of the College and posted to your operational unit in less than a year. The wage then roughly doubles, depending where you're posted, then goes up to full whack when you get your full licence, increasing by a few thousand every year and plateauing after about 15. The amount of time before you get started on full pay varies from one site to another, but is between nine months and two years.

    If you're independently wealthy or you've built up some capital from your previous life (I'm crap at this) you'll be fine - otherwise, it'll be all you can do to get to work and back every day, pay your rent (oh, did I mention the company used to contribute towards your living expenses but doesn't anymore?) and maybe have the odd night out. Like, two or three per month max. Again, suck it up, because when you're a valid controller you'll have more money than you'll know what to do with.

  4. You can't choose where to go or what to do.

    This is important to some people. There are three disciplines in this profession: Aerodrome Control (airports), Approach Control (traffic on approach to airports and in some cases, traffic that has just departed an airport) and Area Control (en-route traffic - overflights, internal flights, international traffic, pretty much everything not covered by the previous two categories).

    NATS runs about 16 airports in the United Kingdom (including most of the major airports - Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, ..., it goes on) and has a total monopoly on en-route control. Two centres cover the whole country; one for all of the UK up to 55°N and another for the rest. A smaller centre near Manchester looks after a block of airspace in northern England but that will be closing and all the controllers moving up north within a few years.

    Towards the end of your first phase of training at the College, you get asked what discipline you would prefer to do. How much bearing this has on the company's actual decision is debatable, as at the end of the day the company's needs are in the fore. Much later on in the course, you may be asked where you would prefer to work, appropriate to the discipline you are training. Again, this will be taken into account if possible but if the company's needs differ from your request, tough beans.

    In the recruitment phase you sign a form saying you'll go where you're told. Now, this isn't to say that you'll end up in some backwater graveyard making the tea for the Watch Manager (well, not that last bit anyway) but you could end up working at any of NATS' sites in the country.

  5. The training will be pretty much all your life is about.

    Difficulty aside, measuring against the Software Engineering degree I did a few years ago (which I consider a fair measure of degree workload) a degree is piss compared to this.

    I am just finishing the 'Basic' phase of the course, which is a 12-week grounding for the disciplinary training that I will start in about a month's time (Area Control, if you're interested), assuming I pass what remains of the phase I am doing now.

    I have accumulated more paper in handouts and handwritten notes in ten weeks than in three years of university. By week six I had purchased my third lever arch file. This isn't like school, where you wonder why you're being taught this crap and when you're ever going to use it; it all has to be learned and a good portion of it will eventually form part of daily working life. Very little of it is difficult by itself, but you have to learn and understand virtually all of it, and be able to relate the different subjects to each other. I could say that for my degree as well, but it did not cover nearly as many discrete topics.

    The assessment process is continuous (every few weeks there's an exam on something), exhaustive, and because of the aforementioned volume of material you cannot, cannot, cannot get away with cramming. Even if you start cramming a week before any given exam it probably won't work. You need to put in an hour or two of study per weeknight from almost day one just to keep up with the new material.

    Once you get out of the pure theory stage and start working in air traffic simulators (which is so COOL!) you have to spend as much time learning airspace, standing agreements, names of reporting points and navigation aids and phraseology, as you do learning the theory that you'll be examined on. Oh, and more theory will be shovelled on while this is going on too.

    You really won't have a lot of room left in your life for much else. Don't even think about getting a part-time job to supplement your meagre income - you'll be screwed when the exams come around because you won't have studied enough.

  6. An interest in aviation is useful.

    This is a short but useful point: it's probably a good idea to have some understanding and appreciation of different aircraft types, how the different bits work (in general terms) and what they can or can't do. The instructions you give pilots will be predicated, in part, upon this knowledge. You will get taught this anyway as part of your training, but a natural interest will make things much easier since it otherwise constitutes a large chunk of theory to learn from scratch.

  7. You can't do it by yourself.

    This sounds a bit strange, since you and you alone will pass the assessments you need to get that holy grail, the little yellow book with your name in it. You do do the course with anything from thirty to fifty other people though, and there is a good chance you will need the support of others to keep going; certainly at first, with the shock of how much that's required of you, though this will be a bigger shock for some than others.

    Most of this support will not come from your family or friends at home, which is not to devalue that which you do get. It sounds pejorative (and it is) but is true in some senses; because so few people do this job - I'm not trying to be elitist or superior and I'm sorry if it seems that way, but the fact is there are only a couple of thousand air traffic controllers in the country - chances are your family and friends won't understand what it's like. This isn't university. The real understanding and meaningful support is going to come from the people doing it with you, and your instructors who have seen far worse than you (in both senses of the phrase).

    There is always going to be stuff you don't understand and stuff your colleagues don't understand. The group's collective knowledge is usually sufficient to fill any personal voids, which is why it's important to keep ties with the people you work with; a loner certainly won't have an easy time of it and if you see anyone behaving that way, you should try to get them in the fold. There isn't competition between trainees: if everyone makes the grade then everyone gets to stay.

  8. You will hit the wall at some point.

    Again, this keys into some of the previous points. You will get to a point where you're staring at a page of aviation law or meteorology theory or jet propulsion diagrams. Nothing is going in. You wonder if this is really for you. You wonder if you can go on, whether you are really cut out for this job. After a simulator run where all of the words came out wrong, you couldn't get the picture or figure out a plan to get everything safely through, you'll wonder what's wrong with you.

    You should try to remember that the company believes that you have it in you to do this. On day one, you're sitting in a room full of people beginning the course with you, plastic name tags, most as jittery and nervous as you if not more so. You wonder if all these people are smarter than you. How you could possibly have got there.

    Then you're told what an achievement it is just to have got there. That your group is a few tens whittled down from thousands; a collective investment of tens of millions of pounds. A senior Air Traffic Controller will tell you, with surprising lucidity, about the day two or three years down the line, the day after you pass your validation board and are controlling live traffic all by yourself for the first time, how there's nothing else like it.

    This helps me, anyway. When I'm feeling rather gloomy about the outlook (which to be honest, I haven't recently) I remember this, the only genuinely inspiring speaking I've heard. So yeah, just remember the company has some experience at picking out people who are right for the job; considering the investment risk the company is taking, you should put stock in its opinion.

  9. You have got to want it.

    This kind of goes in hand with the previous few points. There's a lot of crap you've got to get through to get 'there', and if you don't really want it, it will probably be more than you are willing to take. People have quit the course that have been doing really well, but just weren't 'feeling it'. I don't blame them - I don't know if I'd put myself through this for something I wasn't sure I wanted.

    There's going to be times when you wonder whether this is for you. Going back to the simulators for a moment, I'll just quote a part of a recent email of mine to a friend:

    Controlling air traffic is very cool when do it right, it makes it all sooooooooo worth it; when you don't, it's a fucking mental meltdown and the world is shit. You have bad days and good days. The good simulator runs totally make up for the bad though - you rock, basically.

    The bad days can be really, really bad. I've seen people get up from their sim in tears. I've almost left in tears before. Conversely the good days make you feel on top of the world and want to shout about how awesome you are. Things are going okay for me right now, but there are times you will have to dig deep and try to remind yourself what you're shooting for.

    To repeat the point, your life will be about this and very little else while you're training. You need to be prepared to work hard consistently. When you do make some time to do something else you will probably spend at least some of it feeling guilty that you're not studying. I suppose I should add a bit of reason here and say that, of course, you have to give yourself a break at some point or your work will be rubbish. I usually do a few hours' work every weeknight, have Saturdays off and go over some stuff on Sundays unless there's an assessment coming up in which case I usually happily give up my weekend.

    On the other hand, when you're validated (you're posted and have passed training at that unit, and can work unsupervised) work stays at work and you can forget about it when you unplug your headset. You get more time off than most professions: if you work out cumulative hours, an ATCO spends less than half the year actually working. So it ain't all bad, sunshine.

So, you have some idea what you could be getting into. The training for this lasts anywhere from two to four years and I haven't even started the meat of it yet. The first - and shortest - part of my training is almost over but I can still fail. I don't know if I'm going to pass, but I know my recruiters had confidence I would and based on my reports so far I know I can. It's like all those posters with achievement slogans - no-one's going to do it for you and all that jazz. I absolutely love it.

Interested? I'll be over in the corner, nose in my Manual of Air Traffic Services.

Updates on my progress have been moved to the bottom of this node.

I should probably also say here that this writeup is solely my opinions, isn't authorised or endorsed by NATS Ltd and does not reflect its own positions on anything.

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