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Meet Ryan Kelly
Against the Wind
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Research: Inside Story
About Air Traffic Control
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ATC Urban Legends
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Inside the World
of Air Traffic Control
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     Who was the first air traffic controller? Archie League. In the 1920s, he worked “on position” under the protective cover of an umbrella at Lambert Field in Saint Louis. No radios then: League waved flags to communicate with pilots. Click here for an insightful overview of ATC history, complete with photos.
     The front line: For controllers, the radarscope is their desktop. Once upon a time, controllers monitored aircraft using miniature “shrimp boats” and an aeronautical chart. Technology has changed the industry considerably. We’ve posted several images of the ATC environment for you here, including a radarscope from Chicago TRACON, flight strips used for oceanic traffic, and others.
     Air traffic control job opportunities are strong through the next decade. The national controllers’ union estimates that half of the civilian controllers in the United States will retire by 2010. The Federal Aviation Administration provides background information on training and eligibility requirements, as well as a listing of FAA-approved training programs.
     Eavesdrop in real time. Listen to live transmissions between pilots and controllers. For security reasons, Chicago's O'Hare TRACON is no longer accessible online. But, you can listen and view live audio and video feeds at the Atlanta enroute Center. Look for other links at
     In 1981, President Reagan fired more than 11,000 controllers for walking off the job. What went wrong? The Federal Aviation Administration has long been a proponent of using technology to improve air safety and diminish the role of controllers in managing air traffic. History has demonstrated, however, that a balance of the two—the lightning speed, yet literal logic of the computer and the deductive reasoning capabilities of controllers—combine to create the safest environment for air travel.
      Some of the issues that form the theme behind
TRACON are the same issues that were at the core of the 1981 PATCO strike, many of which still exist today. They are also the subject of an illuminating treatise by University of Virginia graduate student Rebecca Pels Lust. Firing the controllers didn’t solve the labor issues. Two short years after PATCO was dissolved, the new generation of controllers began an organization drive and eventually formed the National Air Traffic Controllers Association—the subject of Against the Wind.


There are roads and traffic signals on the ground.
How do controllers direct planes in the air?

     The Federal Aviation Administration and National Aeronautics and Space Administration released a jointly produced educational CD-ROM, Gate to Gate, which offers a unique trip through the nation’s busy air traffic control system.
     “With this software, you can take an amazing virtual flight,” former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey says. “From pre-flight planning to arrival, you will see how the air traffic control system handles your flight as you fly through it. You meet some of the people who help ensure the safety of your flight and get a unique behind-the-scenes look at the tools used to manage today’s busy air traffic control system. You can even see a few of the new technologies being deployed to handle the projected growth in the future.”

     Gate to Gate includes separate learning modules on the pre-flight, takeoff, departure, en route, descent, approach, and landing phases of a flight to explain how the air traffic control system works.
     This self-paced software uses lively animations, QuickTime Virtual Reality video clips and a host of interactive learning activities. It can be used on most Macintosh and IBM-compatible personal computers.
     View the “Student Activity Guide” (study guide) online at
How Stuff and an online version of the video. While you’re there, don’t miss's own presentation about the inner workings of the air traffic control system.

Help for Pilots
     Controller, union safety technology rep and AVweb columnist Don Brown frequently reaches out to the aviation community to help pilots and others better understand air traffic control issues. Topics in his Say Again column have ranged from flight data processing, “the GPS Mess” to the need for concise transmissions to instrument approaches. Search online for Don Brown articles at
     A controller’s view of emergencies: A senior controller from New York TRACON talks about what emergencies look like from his side of the radarscope. This article by Victor Starr originally appeared in IFR Magazine and is now posted on AVweb.
     The delicate art of negotiating with ATC: If you don’t like the clearance that ATC gave you, ask the controller for better ... and keep asking until you get what you need. This article by Mike Busch originally appeared in IFR Magazine and is now posted on AVweb.
     Outsmarting the *!#@% ATC computer: Tired of getting circuitous IFR routes that bear no resemblance to what you filed? You can probably wangle the IFR route you want ... provided you’re willing to resort to deviousness and skulduggery. This article by Mike Busch originally appeared in IFR Magazine and is now posted on AVweb.