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How Air-Traffic Controllers Sound When They Have to Close the Airport (theatlantic.com)
198 points by maxcan on Mar 6, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 43 comments

I used to be an ATC (in Australia, 7 years), and there is definitely stress there, but its like being in an insane asylum - you don't recognise that you, and everyone else, is mad. There is also significant peer pressure to excel at your job. Not just be good, but to competently handle everything that comes. The regulations state that the purpose of ATC is to provide for the "safe, orderly and expeditious operation of aircraft movements." They apply that religiously, and in that exact order. Mistakes in even the simplest procedure,or even phrasing of comms, are not tolerated. Mistakes are seen as evidence of failure to cope with the stress, and result in operators being swapped out ASAP.

I remember it took about 2-3 months, after I resigned, before I felt free of the stress. I consider knowing how to recognise stress growing within me to be the most valuable thing I took from that part of my career.

As an aside, it is possible there is a similiar mindset, or skillset amongst controllers. I remember very clearly the selection process was very focused on 2 things

- maths and logic

- multitasking

The hardest test in the selection process was a combined map course plotting task, where you had to accurately plot out a course of about 15-20 waypoints, but every 60 seconds the examiner would read out a logic problem "if Jane wears blue on Tuesdays and green on weekends, what would she wear on the day before Monday ?" - stuff like that. You had to focus on plotting, correctly, as many map points as possible, AND correctly answer the puzzles being read out. That was the most directly relevant skill to the actual job of being an ATC, awareness of the task in front of you, and the ability to understand and act on the 'buzz' going on around you. They select for people who can perform accurately for multiple inputs, with time and cognition pressure. JM2CW

Thank for providing these insights! I used to play a neat little terminal game named "atc" in Linux (it's a part of "bsdgames") which I thought simulated air traffic controller's job to a decent level of accuracy. It was fun to start off with but I just couldn't cope up for more than 30 minutes. There were just way too many variables to hold in my working memory. E.g., an incoming plan that could potentially miss landing; a plane which is low on fuel, collisions and what not!

Given the amount of stress levels I'd imagine ATC operators are rotated frequently; say once every hour or so?

More like 2-3 hours, though another dis-similarity is you play the game by yourself, controllers generally work in pairs, or teams. In the tower there is usually 5 people.

1. senior tower controller. 2. approach/dep controller (sorry its been about 25 years since I did the job, I think its a diff title, but basically its his job to say 'clear to land/take off' and really mean it - it really is 'clear'). 3. coord - link man between everyone in the tower and most people on phone 4. ground controller - moves the planes from the apron to the runway. Does not control apron - sometimes that a separate controller (surface movement controller), who lives in the little tower you might see on the terminal itself. 5. flight data - transcribes all the incoming plans into manual 'flight strips' - dull job but essential, if radar etc go away, the accuracy of the flight strips is essential. Most junior operator sits here.

In the ACC (Area Control Centre) there could be 100 controllers, some on shift, some just finished, some on breaks, most in teams of at least 2, a dozen flight data operators, and 5-6 seniors - big boss is the SAC - senior area controller (in Australia). Next boss is the SADC - senior app/dep controller, in charge of the team that generally operates exclusively within 30 miles - could be 15 people doing that all up.

> I used to play a neat little terminal game named "atc" in Linux

there is a pretty cool "train control" game on ipad as well, where you guide trains across a bunch of crisscrossing train-lines. you control the lights at these intersections etc., overall game-play has a let's-solve-this-puzzle kind of feel, using minimal number of stoppages for all the trains etc. pretty nice overall...

Similar Train game called "Rails". It is fun until you get so much going on there are trains crashing into each other everywhere.


I don't suppose you remember the name of that game? It sounds fun...

>The hardest test in the selection process was a combined map course plotting task, where you had to accurately plot out a course of about 15-20 waypoints, but every 60 seconds the examiner would read out a logic problem "if Jane wears blue on Tuesdays and green on weekends, what would she wear on the day before Monday ?" - stuff like that

This reminded me of a typical open office environment for a programmer...

Normally without the deaths of 400 people if you make an error.

Although, software errors can kill or cause harm so it'd be interesting to see if anyone has costed the benefits of open plan vs offices.

There is a fundamental nature to aviation which I experience as a pilot, but is also very true for controllers. Planes can't just stop. If you decide you're in a bad situation, or overloaded, or just can't cope, there is no reset button. You have to get the planes onto the ground, one by one, over the minutes or hours it takes. This need breeds a sort of trance-like calm in successful controllers, even in the most stressful conditions.

Every time my stress has gotten really bad over any number of things (certainly none as critical as a plane's safe landing of course), at a certain point it does seem like a mental defense to just semi-accept that BEING stressed isn't going to help and things turn into a very calming feeling of "ok break this down as reasonably as possible and start fixing the problem"

If I am by myself I find it fairly simple to "turn off" my stress and focus on the task at hand, employing the same rationale that you mention: being stressed isn't helping anything so let's focus our energies on fixing this problem.

One of the biggest obstacles I find in a working environment, however, is other people's stress. If someone is relying on me to fix a problem and they are very clearly stressed out about it, I find that their stress can impact me greatly. There is also the aspect that if I am able to be calm and focused during the stressful situation, while they are clearly stressed, it can be perceived as me lacking concern or having a blasé attitude toward the problem at hand, in comparison.

I would find this in a previous stressful job. My mental state would change from "I NEED TO DEFEAT THIS!" to "This is impossible to win, so I'll just focus on doing my best", and the subsequent stress would subside.

Similar recording of the BA crash at Heathrow. I am always impressed how professional they do things: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCK62U6Fob0

Another one of an engine failure at Manchester - the response of the ATC within 1 second of the mayday call is plain amazing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KhZwsYtNDE

Slightly better audio of the Heathrow incident at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcGA3vRwzuE

I had an opportunity to visit the Chicago regional center a few years ago to meet some of the controllers and learn how their systems work. Everything about the space is meant to keep these guys calm and focused on their job. It literally feels like being in a bit of a cocoon. Dark lighting, very large screens at each workstation, some physical controllers to quickly modify their on screen views. Their training also focuses quite a bit on constant recall of what they're looking at (in the event their systems suddenly die, they need to always know what planes are in their sequence and where generally they are) and of course stress management.

I'm glad The Atlantic has highlighted ATC in this instance. They are definitely an under-appreciated workforce.

If you're interested in getting a similar experience to Adam check out the FAA seminar "Operation Rain Check". These scheduled events occur around the country and typically include a tour of ARTCC, TRACON, and/or tower facilities. You need to be a pilot or a guest of one but it's a tremendously interesting experience if you can swing it.

Here's a description of a seminar from a couple of years ago in NY: http://www.faasafety.gov/SPANS/event_details.aspx?eid=43755

Sadly, the FAA doesn't have a great way to find out about these things unless you're signed up for email notifications but if this is the sort of thing you're interested in you're probably industrious enough to figure it out.

>Their training also focuses quite a bit on constant recall of what they're looking at (in the event their systems suddenly die, they need to always know what planes are in their sequence and where generally they are) ...

That seems brutal. Wonder why they don't do something like a continuous print instead.

Many ATC facilities do use backup printers for the good old flight progress strips. Basically a continuous roll of strips coming from the printer that usually goes directly into a garbage bin.

If the systems suddenly die, they don't have time to consult a printout, they need to KNOW which planes to shuffle off or else there will be accidents; reading the information off a printout is way too slow. If the system RAM dies, the humans are the effective backup RAM.

Being able to deal with a stressful situation calmly is a mark of solid training and a work culture that emphasizes level headedness.

In addition to training though I wonder if those working in ATC all share similar personality types.

I think what is impressive is not just their ability to maintain their composure but how readily they enter "emergency mode" from what was most likely a boring, normal day. Their ability to context switch AND maintain a level-head through it and afterwards is commendable.

Well, there are multiple levels here.

One very important one is the ability, when the tower is told "runway 13 is closed" with just very bare-bones information, to just accept that and start doing what needs to be done to close it down. The human tendency is to want to know more about what's happening, what needs to be done down on the ground, the condition of the aircraft and the passengers and crew, etc., but the trained-in response is to automatically trust that someone else is taking care of that, so stop thinking about it and do your job.

So the controller goes immediately from talking to the car that reported the crash, to issuing go-around orders, not knowing how bad the crash is, how long it's going to take to clear up, just trusting that "OK, I handle the planes that are still in the air, they'll handle the one on the ground".

Those of you who have english as your first language, do you clearly understand everything they say? Goddammit, I was barely able to understand the number 1999 for the first flight mentioned in the article...

Even native English speakers have trouble understanding ATC comms. The sound quality is poor and it's a very specialized vocabulary. But with practice it becomes much eaier because there is a very limited repertoire of things that the controller is likely to say, and once you know what those are it becomes a lot easier to decipher.

Native English speaker here.

I barely understood the first time listening.

I just listened to the audio of US Airways 1549 today. Sullenberger reports both engines out like he just told his wife they're out of milk. I guess the training works. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/US_Airways_Flight_1549

Very cool article and job well done by liveatc. Cool service that works well especially in these types of situations. Inspiring to be able to hear these professionals keep their cool under duress.

I flew into LaGuardia from Knoxville last Sunday. A plane ahead of us landed safely but reported that the runway was slick. They closed the airport to take care of it while we were in a holding pattern for 20 min or so (in clouds/fog). Then we approached LaGuardia again only to be put into a holding pattern again.

Although circling in zero vis was unsettling (I was a passenger on a UsAir/American flight- I am not a pilot), the calls very well may have saved my life.

TDIL: Air controllers would probably make great consultants for many startups.

there is a detailed report of the accident on the excellent http://avherald.com/h?article=482b659f&opt=0


An air traffic controller being calm under pressure is about as surprising as an anti-social nerd making fun of people for not being interested in the exact same things he is.

Pedantic alert: ATCs don't close the airport. They can take a runway out of service, but they can't close the airport, that's the airport authority's job.

Less pedantically, I thought it was interesting that the call to close the airport came directly from "Car 100" aka the ground crew. No stopping to report the incident to superiors or waiting for confirmation about what to do. The guy on the scene just says "OK, airport's closed now" and ATC immediately makes it happen.

That's pretty impressive in its own right, from an organizational point of view.

1) There may be additional communications we don't hear; all we're getting is what the tower hears, which is not necessarily everything.

2) Aviation is, in large part by necessity, built around the concept of knowing who has authority to do what, and listening when the person with the authority gives an instruction. When the tower hears "airport is closed" from someone with the authority to say it, then the airport is closed, full stop. Arguing about "well, why is it closed" or "I'll close it when I check with my supervisor" eats time that can cost lives, so organizationally it's set up to avoid having that happen.

It has the feel of procedures adopted after a "lesson learned." Guy at the scene knows what's going on, take action on that and save lives and seconds. Let's make that policy.

If they had to go up and down a chain of authority, that following flight 1999 would have landed into the emergency.

I thought the same exact thing. I wonder if maybe it's a trick of the audio (someone else actually came on the line), or if that was actually what happened. It was pretty surreal if so, just like you said.

It sounds similar to manufacturing's authorisation for anybody to stop the line in the case of defects - its better to delay things for a short while and make sure everything is ok than it is to compound the problem by letting things continue. I imagine in the case of an airport with a plane stuck on the active runway this is even more the case, since the problem can quickly escalate into hundreds of people dying.

My glider club just had our annual safety meeting, and one of the things we repeat every year is that it doesn't matter how new or inexperienced you are, if you see something that looks unsafe, call it out or put a stop to things if you think it's necessary. Doesn't matter if it's your first day at the airport, speak up.

I imagine the same thing would be true here. If you think the airport needs to be closed, then close the airport. Doesn't matter if you just got hired five minutes ago for the lowest position in the whole place, if you think the airport is no longer safe then shut it down.

Car 100 could very well have been a Port Authority of NY/NJ officer. They likely do have the authority to enact a temporary closure of an airport under their jurisdiction.

I think saying that ATC's close the airport is accurate, in the sense that they're doing the work of rerouting all the planes away and so on.

I can't help but be reminded of Die Hard 2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die_Hard_2

More like Pushing Tin, a movie about ATC http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120797/

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