I’m an air traffic controller! Here’s a brief FAQ:
Is it really stressful? Mostly, no. Training to be a controller is stressful. It’s two-to-three years of hell. The hours I work are stressful. My sleep and meal schedules have been shot for the last ten years. But the work is usually not that stressful. Eighty percent boredom, seventeen percent engaged but not difficult, two percent challenging, and one percent oh-shit.
When do you work? I work Friday night, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and Monday and Tuesday mornings. Except once a month when I work the early morning shift on Monday, and then come back Monday night to work the overnight shift into Tuesday morning. (I’m doing that today, as a matter of fact.) That’s the mid shift, or the day-mid. I work more or less the same hours every week, but we can swap among ourselves on the shift. So if I need to work a little earlier, I can trade with a controller on an earlier shift. We’re interchangeable parts; it’s pretty convenient.
What airport do you work at? I don’t work at an airport. I work at one of the En Route Centers. At Minneapolis Center, we control the airspace over Minnesota, North Dakota, and parts of South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and a bit off Kansas. We control all the airspace not controlled by a major airport. Once you get above 23,000 feet, or thirty miles away from a major airport, you’re talking to a center.
Wait, how does that work? Air traffic control is like zone defense in sports. Each controller has a chunk of airspace that they watch. Planes in that sector are my problem; planes outside of it are someone else’s problem. I hand aircraft to the next sector, electronically. When you accept it, I ship the plane to your radio frequency. In this manner a plane from Minneapolis to Grand Forks talks to M98 clearance delivery, M98 ground, M98 departure, MSP departure, ZMP 10, ZMP 11, ZMP 24, GFK arrival, GFK tower, GFK ground. (I may be a little wrong on who they talk to at Minneapolis airport; I don’t work there.) I’m certified on seven sectors covering northern Minnesota and the Dakotas.
So, do you sit in front of a scope all day? Nope. When I get to work I check who’s been working a sector the longest and I get them out. They explain to me what’s going on, what all the planes are doing in the sector, and any special considerations. Then I sit down and assume responsibility for the sector and they go on break. I work for a while, as people on break come back and ask each of us if we want to go, usually between an hour and two hours of sector time. Then I go on break for a bit.
Who flies in North Dakota? Actually, a lot of people. The northern U.S. is full of private general aviation aircraft doing a variety of things, in no small part because towns are so far apart. In addition there are a number of Air National Guard and Air Force bases; their planes Do Stuff. We see a lot of traffic from Europe to the U.S. West Coast — the great circle routes from Germany to California fly right over North Dakota. Ditto FedEx planes from Tennessee to Alaska and the Pacific Rim. And there’s all the flights to and from places in Canada. We also handle aircraft from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago and the East Coast. Plus all the local Minneapolis traffic and feeder flights. It’s pretty seasonal, though — summers are crazy-busy, winters are pretty quiet.