Aviation In Canada

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Is ATC Stressful?

Someone asked me this recently, as they were considering a career change. Here's what I can say about this:

There are some people who just can't handle stress. Regardless of where it comes from. There are some who can handle stress aimed at themselves, but can't deal with a situation where they are required to help someone else who won't help themselves. There are some who thrive on it in almost any form. Stress can be good, since it does help make some people more alert than usual, but then too much stress often causes an individual to drop out of useful consciousness and go NORDO. Consider these points with what I say below.

ATC has been described varyingly as "90% boredom with 10% terror". This can be quite true, regardless of the unit you're operating in. A low density unit (one with little regular traffic) demonstrates this as a controller shows a calm demeanor when things are quiet and freaks out with a voice whose pitch is two octaves higher when it's busy. In a high density unit, the controllers get very well practiced at the regular flows, but when the thunderstorms roll in, or some dufus does something completely unexpected, it can really throw a huge wrench into your day and the days of hundreds of other people. You have to be able to deal with it. Also, like a doctor who has to deal with the death of a patient, and the family afterwards, consider how you would feel to know you were the last person to talk to someone who just crashed. And what it if it was something that you said that contributed to the fatal impact? How about watching two airplanes narrowly avoid hitting because you reacted too slowly or incorrectly? Or simply doing everything right but having a pilot up there in your sky ignore all the warnings and information you gave him and still proceed to do himself in?

The normal workings of ATC are stressful, but for most people who are successful in the training, this is seen as something to learn from, grow from, even brag about. "Look how I fit this guy in the line!" This is the kind of stress that a controller can often enjoy or hate while it's happening, but easily forget about later when he gets home. It's when things go wrong that the real stress can come about. This can be the lasting stress that they say can take time off your life. But then, some people can even enjoy that kind of pressure, too, since they can draw from the experiences, spread the knowledge to other individuals (controllers, pilots or aviation afficionados) and move on.

ATC isn't for everyone. And so far, I haven't been able to identify a "type" of personality it's good for. Some people are book smart, but action stupid. Some the other way around. I watched one trainee who could hardly cite a passage out of a rule book, but who could make a plan for traffic flow and smoothly make it work (even if his plans weren't the best early on, he still made them work). Many people don't have much background in aviation, and this is something I'd like to see change, but if they possess the skills and mental abilities to perform the tasks assigned, understand the issues and deal with them, and take the day to day pressures and continue on, then so be it. You'll only really know if you try.