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Become an air traffic controller

Keeping cool on the radar: How do I become an air traffic controller?

Become an air traffic controller

©  DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH 

They direct airplanes and ensure that air traffic is guided in a controlled manner. Air traffic controllers must be able to react quickly and deal well with stress. But how exactly can I become an air traffic controller?


An stressed air traffic controller ruffling through his hair - such a thing only happens in movies. Because the flight controllers real work shouldn't become hectic. Ute Otterbein of Deutsche Flugsicherung says that the most important thing air traffic controllers should bring with them for their job is a certain basic sense of calm. This applies to David Liedtke. The 25-year-old works as a future air traffic controller at DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung in Langen near Frankfurt am Main. He started in 2017 and initially completed a basic training course of about one and a half years there. "The first part of his training was at the academy, for example theory lessons and simulator training," says Liedtke.


The training takes a total of three years. Meanwhile, Liedtke is training "on the job": The 25-year-old is on duty in a center, i.e. a radar control center. Other controllers are specially trained for the tower. They conduct air traffic by radio on the runways and in the immediate vicinity of the airport and usually even have visual contact with the aircrafts.


"I'm working in real traffic now," says Liedtke. The pilot trainee works in practical flight operations under supervision. "I take care of the airspace over Düsseldorf, where we control the approaches," he says. Within a radius of about 50 to 60 kilometres, the approach and departure controllers check and coordinate that the aircraft arrive at the airport in the correct sequence and at the correct distance.


Air traffic controllers give instructions to the pilots via radiotelephone - and always keep an eye on the weather conditions. Because different weather situations require different instructions - "the warmer it is, the poorer the aircraft climb, for example," explains Liedtke. The controllers in the radar control centre guide the departure to a given altitude and the approach until the aircraft is handed over to the tower.


Liedtke works shifts: "Early shifts, late shifts and sometimes on weekends." The earliest shift starts at 5:45 am. The controllers work two hours at a time, then they have a break. Currently, Liedtke receives brief feedback from his instructor after each work block. "Especially at the beginning it is difficult not to fall into a hectic rush. The air traffic in the Ruhr area is very dense and there are many agreements with different sectors all around - so it's good to get some feedback afterwards."


Air traffic controllers have to keep an eye on several aircraft at the same time and react to unexpected situations within seconds. "Keeping a cool head in stressful situations" is therefore one of Liedtke's greatest challenges in his job. "In some cases, you are already pushed to your limits. The controllers also communicate with pilots of the most diverse nationalities, "patience is needed if one is not understood at times".


Speaking, writing and listening at the same time: Multitasking is the order of the day. In addition, the ability to work in a team is required. One team of two air traffic controllers is responsible for each sector - and they communicate with the teams from the other sectors. In order to learn how to deal with stress and strain, the controllers are trained right from the start. Liedtke himself notices "that it is important to exchange ideas with colleagues". This is also supported by DFS.


A hobby can provide the balance. For Liedtke this is music, the 25-year-old plays the guitar in his spare time. He thinks it's good that he can take on responsibility relatively early in his career. "And you know that it makes sense," he adds. "We stand for security - you get the feedback if you have worked well, everything went well."


The prospective controller demonstrated his suitability for the demanding profession in a multi-stage selection process - which only a fraction of the applicants master: In 2018, DFS reported that it had received more than 6,000 applications for the aptitude selection process - 120 young people finally started their training.


In principle, applicants must be at least 18 and not older than 24 years old and bring along the general higher education entrance qualification as well as English knowledge, according to the Federal Employment Agency. Medical aptitude must also be proven, i.e. unrestricted eyesight and hearing. If you meet all the requirements in the pre-selection process, DFS will invite you to Hamburg for the selection procedure. There, spatial perception, concentration and English skills are required. "You have to take a series of computer tests, which you can practice beforehand," says Liedtke. If you are able to convince them, you have to prove yourself in a further step in simulated situations and in an interview with a selection committee. DFS advises against professional test preparations, which are often offered on the Internet. In the application process, applicants should determine for themselves whether their profession suits them, says Otterbein. "We go to a lot of trouble to find the right people," says Otterbein. This means that those who successfully complete their training are usually taken on later.


The remuneration for air traffic controllers is already high during training. Otterbein explains that in the first year, air traffic controllers receive around 1,200 euros per month. At the beginning of the practical training, the pilots receive a gross salary of around 48,000 euros per year, which rises to 71,000 euros depending on the location and progress of the training. Following the training, most of them work as controllers. According to DFS, the starting salary ranges between € 85,000 and € 117,000 gross per year - depending on the location. Thereafter, controllers have the opportunity to become supervisors, i.e. team leaders. In addition, there are development opportunities in controller training or the planning of flight procedures - controller know-how is in demand in many areas of the company. Trainee David Liedtke could imagine working as a trainer himself later on.


 (, dpa)

Jul 29, 2019

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