It’s Not What You Think
Those of you who know me reasonably well might have seen the title of this post and had a momentary panic attack. Let me put your mind at ease – I am not now, nor have I ever been, an Air Traffic Controller. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the ATC folks and all that they do. I love my LiveATC app and routinely listen to the controllers at ORD, LAX and JFK. The number of airplanes they manage and the calm, efficient way in which they do it never ceases to amaze me. But the idea of me as a controller? Scary thought! Little do you know just how scary! Let’s just say that there’s a very good reason why I never pursued a career in ATC.
I attended a small HS in eastern Pennsylvania. At that time the home computer was just starting to really become commonplace. To make sure we’d be prepared for it, all students were required to complete a “computer class.” This might sound really cutting edge, except that we didn’t learn programming. In fact, we didn’t really learn anything at all. Instead we spent our time playing a variety of computer games and simulations. One of the programs we were required to complete was an ATC simulation.
Before you get too impressed let me remind you that the simulations available on home computers at the time were pretty archaic. Plus we were using the easiest setting on the game. We only had to deal with one type of aircraft. Weather was only marginally a factor – there was no rain, snow, lightning, or any wind beyond a gentle, manageable breeze which would sometimes change directions. There was no speaking – all commands were typed in – and each plane immediately did as commanded. This means there were also no garbled communications, no misunderstandings, no requests for a different runway and no in-flight emergencies.
In the simulation I was set up as a tower controller and was responsible for traffic crossing through the airspace, all planes on the runways, coordinating landings, etc. So I set to work, busily typing in commands and nodding with satisfaction as planes changed altitudes and directions as instructed. After a bit I reached the end of the simulation and I have to admit I was feeling pretty proud of myself. I’d managed to get all the planes where they needed to be, maintaining appropriate levels of separation, no near-collisions or runway incursions, etc.
Just then, a plane sitting near one of the gates appeared to burst into flames. Then another. Then another. The next thing I knew there were planes “on fire” all around the airport. So I did what any reasonable person would do – I started freaking out. The teacher noticed the commotion and came to peer over my shoulder. Then he calmly explained that what I mistook for fire was actually the “out-of-fuel” symbol. Why the “out-of-fuel” symbol should look suspiciously like flames is beyond me. Perhaps it was designed that way to catch players’ attention. It certainly caught mine! As it turned out, the reason there were planes “on fire” all over the airport is that while I’d done a great job of moving planes through the airspace and bringing them in to land… I’d neglected to have even a single plane take off! DOH!!!!!!!
Needless to say, after this experience I crossed Air Traffic Controller off my list of potential occupations. I also nixed “Nuclear Power Plant Technician” after setting a new school record for fastest nuclear meltdown in the power plant simulator. And in case you were wondering, yes there was a flight simulator too. I won’t go into detail about what happened, but let’s just say there are also really good reasons why I’m not an airline pilot!