Take the first step towards a career in Air Traffic Control

A career as an Air Traffic Controller can offer challenges and rewards like no other, and with NATS requiring 200 new controllers over the next five years, it’s a great time to find out more. Keeping the huge volume of UK air traffic in control is no simple task, and by following an ATC career, you will be working within a community of highly trained professionals, who are an essential part of a safe aviation industry. Recently featured in a BBC documentary, Skies Above Britain, the team at NATS is made up of hundreds of people at two control centres in Swanwick and Prestwick, Scotland, whose job it is to keep flights safe, 24 hours a day 365 days a year. We’ve spoken to current ATC to find out more about the training and skills involved in the career, but remember that NATS will be at Pilot Careers Live London for the first time on 5 November 2016, so stop by their stand to find out more about this exciting career.

What’s the job like?

ATC are essential to the efficiency of airports and the airline industry. Your days will be varied, and you’ll be responsible for maintaining safety both in the sky and on the ground. With the ever-increasing volume of traffic, managing flights is a complex and sometimes pressurised job, so tasks will vary from liaising with aircraft on approach, to tracking planes between airports.

However, there’s no one fit for someone in ATC; attitude and aptitude is far more important than your specific background.

Dale Reeson, NATS Manager ATC Heathrow, said: “People may perceive air traffic control as stressful, but we’re highly trained to deal with the pressures and challenges of the job. No two days are ever the same working at the air traffic control tower at Heathrow Airport. Everyone who works at NATS and those who go through the training to become a controller are extremely professional. I really enjoy working with my team helping to ensure we get people safely along their journeys.”

NATS has a number of interactive games that are designed to help you decide whether it’s the kind of career that might be right for you. The games test skills such as shape tracking, sequential memory, reactivity – and they’re pretty fun too! More details can be found here.

“It can be pretty pressured at times,” explains Ian Sanders, an Air Traffic Controller at NATS’ Swanwick Centre. “The initial college training is intensive and then, when you get to your unit, the difficulty ramps up again as you learn the local operating procedures. The learning doesn’t stop when you ‘validate’ (become a fully qualified ATCO) either; procedures are changed or updated regularly and you need to have a thorough understanding before you start using them. Due to the intensity of the job and, as part of our regulatory requirements, we take regular breaks away from the operational position. It’s important to relax during these breaks to keep yourself fresh and ready to go again for the next session.”

What qualifications do I need?

Academically, applicants need to be over 18 and have at least five GCSEs or equivalent at Grade C or above, including English and Maths. They also need to be medically fit, needing to meet the basic medical requirements set down by the Civil Aviation Authority for a European Class 3 medical certificate. Full details of these requirements can be found here.

To people considering the career, Ian says, “Have a go at the games on the recruitment section of the NATS website – they’re all good indicators as to whether your brain works in the right way. Have a go at learning some good background knowledge about things like ICAO airport designators, aircraft types and their performance statistics – these will all stand you in good stead for learning other aspects at college. When you get to the college, there’s no denying that it’s hard work but as long as you put in the effort, you’ll really see the benefits! Fully understanding a concept is so important when it comes to interpreting rules and procedures. The most vital thing though is knowing when to take a break, it’s so beneficial to build rest times into your studying to give your brain a chance to soak everything up.”

What’s involved in training?

The basic course lasts around two months, after which point applicants will be told whether they will follow the path of an Area Controller or an Aerodrome/Approach Controller. As a minimum, area students continue for another nine months, Aerodrome students for five months and Aerodrome/Approach students for eight.

ATC applicants need to be flexible; trainees need to relocate to Hampshire for the period of training, and when ready for their first assignment, can find themselves moving anywhere in the UK. So flexibility – both at a practical level and in terms of mental attitude – is very important. The training is an intense process and the learning process is tough. While there’s a good social life and camaraderie with fellow trainees, NATS advises that you shouldn’t underestimate the effort involved and the amount of theory you need to digest.

“I really enjoy the variety that comes with the job. Being on watch, you work a 10-day cycle (six days on, four days off) which means no week is ever the same.”

What are the benefits?

The training package offered by NATS is a very competitive one; applicants are paid while they train. And once qualified, the salaries are impressive. Once Air Traffic Controllers have finished training and are established within the career, taking into account shift pay and salary increments, Heathrow and Swanwick Controllers can potentially earn over £100,000.

What current ATC will tell you:

Ian grew up in the Cotswolds, near RAF Fairford, and he remembers watching the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) from his back garden at a young age, and feeling as though he was always destined for a career in aviation. Ian worked in a few jobs in aviation prior to ATC, including summer work at RIAT, before his stepfather spotted a newspaper advert for ATC jobs at NATS. “I decided to have a look online and see what it was all about,” explains Ian, “and I decided pretty quickly that it sounded like the perfect job for me!”

“I really enjoy the variety that comes with the job,” he says. “Being on watch, you work a 10-day cycle (six days on, four days off) which means no week is ever the same. The shift pattern is usually two morning shifts followed by two afternoon shifts and then two night shifts.

“Because we often work at different times of the day, it means that there is very little in the way of routine. Of course there are the tried and tested methods of solving different traffic scenarios that you learn and develop during the intensive and extensive training that NATS provides (at college and on-the-job), but it’s common that two ATCOs can look at a scenario and both use two completely different plans to get the aircraft from point A to point B. It’s this diversity that also helps you to keep improving at what you do, seeing how others solve a situation and learning from it.”

NATS is currently taking applications, so you can apply at nats.aero/careers/trainee-air-traffic-controllers/how-to-apply/.

Want to know more? NATS will be presenting and exhibiting at Pilot Careers Live London, taking place on 5 November at the Sofitel Hotel, T5 London Heathrow. Tickets are available online here.