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Controllers - unsung heroes of aviation

From a seemingly insignificant flight flown by Orville Wright in a place called Kitty Hawk to the first step on the moon by Niel Armstrong, the progress of aviation was phenomenal. The achievement was created by people - the ordinary, the extraordinary and the ultra-ordinary. There were the heroes and the heroines equally matched by the villains and the vagabonds. There were the dreamers and the believers of their dreams. The makers who progressed and the breakers who retarded. They all had one thing in common - they were the fraternity of aviation. Through the years the public that trotted the sky came to know them and herald them. They sang their praises and adored their images. The industry itself ensured the celebrity of its prodigy by lavish advertisement portraying the roles of the pilot, the engineer, the flight attendant down to the reservation clerk who booked their seats. Books were written, movies were made, posters were put up all to glorify and pedestal the individual who contributed to aviation.

Amidst all this patronising and glorifying, certain stalwarts of the field were obviously forgotten, and paramount among them was the Air Traffic Controller - the man who controls the sky. Their poems of praise and credit for progress were written without a mention of the man in the Tower, the man sitting away from everybody in his little pressure cooker who controlled the skies - the man who ensured the safety of so many lives with the accuracy of his thought and the calmness of his voice, a lot more lives than the best of us who fly the machines have ever been responsible for. He was never given the dues he so richly deserved for his services.

Hence, I write these lines - little lines of appreciation from a creature who has been in the sky long enough to know what a tremendous contribution the Air Traffic Controller makes to aviation. May be unsung in glory, may be unknown to the public, yet so much more important to air travel than most of us, as a custodian of the sky and a protector of the safety of air travel.
Who is an Air Traffic Controller and what does he do? The sky is totally managed by the Air Traffic Controller. His basic relationship to the pilot is simple.

He tells the pilot when to start, where to taxi, when to take off, what speed to fly and what height to maintain to ensure adequate separation between aeroplanes - he tells him when to descend, how fast to descend, what the weather at destination is, he clears him to land and tells him how to taxi his aeroplane to the parking slot, so that his passengers can disembark safely at journey’s end.


The intricacies and complications of his exacting profession cannot be penned that simply. I do not possess the wisdom of words to adequately detail what he means to a pilot - the quantum of faith the pilot has to have on the controller is difficult to explain, even more difficult to understand - a kind of faith that may not move mountains but would yet get you home from the storm laden skies when your skills are taxed to the limit, and the relief and solace given by the Controller becomes your solitary source of comfort.

No professional Captain worth his salt would hesitate in expressing his gratitude to the Controller, not for once, but for the many times the Controller guided him and gave him the precise instructions to safely bring his aeroplane home. The daily routine of a Controller is demanding with the many factors of safety he has to maintain. Things get really rough on days the aerodromes are operating on minimum visibility - days that plague the airfields with fog or thunderstorms when the forward vision is limited to just a grey muck created by clouds. The pilots become totally dependent on the controller for radar vectored navigational guidance to bring them in, as well as to ensure adequate separations are maintained from other aircraft.


On the Controllers’ part, a good thirty voices ring in his ears, requesting and requiring instructions while everybody is moving at high speeds through a sky where nobody can be seen - all converging or diverging from the same point and all hoping and praying the Controller will not make a mistake and create a collision - a kind of scenario where I feel that for every 400 lives that I am responsible for as a Captain, the Controller carries 4000 in the simple accurate commands of his voice.

A voice that through the years all pilots have learnt to trust in the worst of circumstances, a voice that merits a lot more recognition and appreciation in aviation than given at present.

Controllers are well trained professionals. Except for a miser’s few who hold Pilot’s Licences, the rest are basically graduates with impressive academic qualifications.

Their training is demanding, an accuracy orientated pressurisation of thought and voice in an environment of laid down procedures. The International Civil Aviation Organisation lays down the standards and ensures their maintenance. Controllers are tested periodically in simulators for their consistency and efficiency - a check that tests their procedural knowledge and reactive ability to situations that are demanding - an exercise as demanding as any and more demanding than most.

A Controller is a quick thinking man who doesn’t have the privilege to stall. He is like a surgeon, composed in knowledge, precise in action yet without the benefit of burying his mistakes. All his instructions to aircraft are recorded continuously on tape and any instructional error is traceable by replay, a tremendous constraint on the individual - a disturbing yet necessary requirement that no other profession entails and no other professional has to contend with.

This makes the Controller a man with a mission of responsibility, scrutinised constantly, functioning to standards of pinpoint accuracy, yet so unrecognised in his own field of aviation, a field where he plays a major role for continued safety - the safety that you as a passenger enjoy and me as a Captain is grateful for.

Silent heroes

In any professional field there are the silent heroes devoid of credit. In aviation the Air Traffic Controller is supreme. In the years gone by he has done more than his share for the advancement of aviation and in the years to come he will continue to give his responsible services.

He will police the sky and maintain its safety. He will ensure the separation of aircraft and temper the regulations with his experienced judgement to give leeway to the strains of the pilot. He will use his intelligence and procedural skill to bring the aeroplanes home through the most adverse conditions - yet he will continue to remain unheralded - the unseen and unsung hero of aviation.


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Sri Lanka

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