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The Real Poop

Ever wonder how the skies got so friendly? Air traffic controllers direct planes on both the ground and in the air to prevent collisions (and the nefarious near-misses and to optimize speeds and distances between take-offs and destinations). The ATC (Air Traffic Control) likes to refer to preventing air collisions as "separating" planes to keep them from coming too close to each other. Sounds like a video game. It ain't. Actually, the responsibility it takes to ensure that thousands of passengers safely leave and meet their gate is one of the more stressful jobs on the planet. There is glory for the upside; and hideous ignomy on the downside if you just happen to be the cause of two planes with 300 loved ones colliding. Air traffic controllers stare at green dots on a screen and are busy every minute of the day. People who tend to stare into space and daydream need not apply. Ahem. Are you listening?

The goal of an air traffic controller is to help planes taxi from the terminal to the runway or vice versa, keep planes three to five miles apart in the air (and separate them vertically 1,000 feet or more when in the air), determine the routes that planes should fly, give pilots weather advice and assist pilots during emergencies. Air traffic controller jobs are not something that you can moonlight at while you’re waiting for your band to make it. Most air traffic controllers are employed and salaried by the federal government (specifically, by the Federal Aviation Administration). However, there are a number of controllers who work for the private air traffic control companies that serve non-FAA towers or the military. You can't exactly waltz in one day and start directing air traffic. In fact, waltzing is pretty much frowned upon, period. All controllers must go through training to receive an FAA-issued Air Traffic Control Certificate. If you want to work in the tower, you need a Control Tower Operator Certificate. It would also be good if you've conquered your vertigo.

Certification shows that you know the ins and outs of basic air traffic control, meteorology, and procedures. Hope you think Oklahoma is okay, because your training will take place in Oklahoma City. That's if you make it into the 12-week training course. Air training courses are only available to those who pass a security screening, drug test, and medical examination. Furthermore, you must be under the age of 31 to apply. The FAA wants someone who has a four-year degree or three years of work experience. You must also score 70 or higher on their FAA pre-employment test. Fail the test the first time and you have to wait a year to be retested. Get the testing jitters the second round and you may not be able to retake the test if you score under 70. Sounds stressful. Welcome to the life of an air traffic controller.

One major perk is that you may get a coveted position at an awesome tropical location. Break out the sun tan lotion. The FAA employs controllers in Hawaii, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa. (Where they make the Girl Scout cookies.) Also, air traffic controllers may contact a region that tickles their fancy to find employment. If you’ve always dreamed of living next to a salmon farm in Alaska, you are in luck. Air traffic controllers have mobility once they have gained experience.

Working at some exotic locale has its perks; however, air traffic controllers will get fired for coming in under the influence of alcohol. Say goodbye to your palm trees. To keep controllers from folding under the stress of a regular workday, they are given a break every two hours. The name of the game when controlling air traffic is remaining fresh and alert throughout the day. So get your 10 hours of beauty rest.

If you want badly to be around airplanes, but would rather not be in them (maybe you have a fear of flying, or maybe you just tried and failed to obtain your pilot's license a zillion times), you may want to consider air traffic control. It takes intense, constant focus, and a passion for saving/preserving human life is a nice bonus. You will be able to take great pride in what you do, as you will be performing an undeniably vital function. Yeah, the stress is on the high end, but what's life without a few heart palpitations, eh?