Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Cops in the air
Usha Albuquerque

Recently, two aircraft almost had a collision while one was landing and the other departing from Delhi airport. While we yet do not know the cause of the near mishap, it did highlight the highly critical role played by the traffic policeman of the skies - the air traffic controllers.

The volume and complexity of today's air traffic has put pressure on all services - airline services, runway space, technical services, and many others. But by far the most critical is that of the air traffic controller. Monitoring all ground movements of aircraft, take-offs and landings, handling approach control monitors for approaching and departing traffic, and en route control requires skillful control by highly trained staff. Today, despite the increase in the numbers of aircraft landing and taking off from all airports, there is a shortfall of around 1000 ATC officers in India, and an immediate need for new recruits.

Work profile

Air traffic Controllers are well-trained professionals who are responsible for the management of safe, orderly and expeditious air traffic on the ground as well as in the air. As traffic policemen handle the flow of traffic on our city roads, ATCs design the sequencing of air traffic in the air space and along pre-determined routes of arrival and departure to and from airports around the world. They are also responsible for providing advice and information useful for the safe and efficient conduct of any flight, and for alerting appropriate organisations with regard to aircraft in need of assistance, search and rescue.

Every pilot depends heavily on the Air Traffic Controller (ATC), as the limited field of view from the cockpit restricts the pilotís ability to view any other air traffic around the aircraft during the course of the flight as well as on the ground. He/She is, therefore, dependent on the Air Traffic Controller for directing him in his flight and on the ground for all manoeuvres right till the end of his journey. The ATC tells the pilot when to start, where to taxi, when to take off, what speed to fly and what height to maintain to ensure adequate separation between aeroplanes. The controller is in constant communication with pilots and his job is of paramount importance in preventing collisions and ensuring an organised flow of air traffic. He also tells him when to descend, how fast to descend, what the weather at destination is, he clears him to land and tells him how to taxi his aeroplane to the parking slot, so that his passengers can disembark safely at journey's end.

While there are internationally agreed standards and procedures to be followed to accommodate the aircraft movements in a safe and orderly manner, on the ground and sometimes within spilit seconds, ATCs have to visualise quickly and solve in real time problems involving calculating differential speeds and rates of climb and descent of aircraft and issuing of clearances to provide safe separation between aircraft at any given time.. A large number of details have to be remembered and factored into every decision. A simple oversight or miscalculation or a single moment of inattention - can lead to a catastrophe. In heavy traffic situations the responsibility shouldered is awesome, as the margin for error is zero. Few jobs involve the unremitting effort, focus and concentration required of a controller.

As there are air traffic services round the clock, the work of ATCs is divided into shifts manned by established and stable teams. Although the Air Traffic Controller is essentially alone when he takes decisions, he is part of a large team which coordinates with other sectors and other control centres. While mapping the future course of various aircraft which may converge or diverge over the navigational aid, ATCs have to talk and understand aircraft transmissions and issue appropriate instructions, and coordinate instructions with other adjacent Air Traffic Services (ATS) units. All instructions to aircraft are recorded continuously on tape and any instructional error is traceable by replay, a tremendous constraint on the individual.

Skill set

You therefore need to have a good clear diction, which can be easily understood by pilots of all nationalities, and Air traffic units across the world. As English is the expected language for radio communications in most parts of the world, proficiency in the English language and its pronunciation is a great advantage.

In addition, you require to have good eyesight, hearing and a good, logical and mathematical mind. You must also have a a strong sense of responsibility, the ability to stay alert, work under constant pressure, and - of paramount importance, the ability to stay cool and calm, and inspire confidence when speaking to air crews even though you may not feel at all calm or confident at the time.

Runway to success

Air Traffic Controllers need to have the right qualification and training. As all the jobs for ATCs are with the Airports Authority of India, selection is made on the basis of the ATC entrance exam , a medical examination and an aptitude test.

You can apply for the entrance test after a degree in engineering, Electronics/ Telecommunication/ Radio Engg/ Electrical/ or a Masterís Degree in Electronics. Preference is sometimes given to CPL holders/candidates with basic knowledge of computers, keeping in view the technological changes that are taking place in the field of Air Traffic Management.

The written examination comprises of 4 papers in Elective Paper from Concerned Engineering Branch, General English, General Knowledge, and a Numerical/Logic based test. Candidates also have to pass a Voice test, and go through the medicall fitness test and a person al interview.

Those selected are sent to the Civil Aviation Training College, Allahabad, for a year long ab-initio training in subjects like Air Traffic Services, Aerodromes and Ground Aids, Air Legislation, Meteorology and so on. Once recruited, all the costs for training are borne by the Airports Authority of India.

While the Airports Authority of India (AAI) is the main employer of civilian ATCs, in India, there are some jobs with companies such as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, and some small private airports. The Indian Air Force also recruits Air Traffic Control Officers who responsible for providing control and advisory services to Pilots of Military and Civil Aircrafts.

So, as the demand increases, if you love living on the edge, then there are certainly many opening for you as an Air traffic Controller.

The writer is a noted career expert