Here at yourHeathrow we’ve gone behind the scenes with Steph Kelly in her job as a NATS Air Traffic Controller(ATCO) to look at what it’s really like to be in the tower hotseat and how to become an ATCO.
A family friend whose son is an ATCO suggested that I should give it a try as he loved the job, so I signed up and started training at the NATS College of Air Traffic in June 2007. By September 2008 I was posted to Heathrow for on the job training, before fully qualifying as an ATCO in February 2010.
I love the buzz at Heathrow and how it’s always busy and the pressure is on. The favourite part of my job is definitely getting stuck into a busy session where I know I have to be on top of my game to keep the traffic flowing. Knowing there are literally hundreds of people depending on you is a great responsibility and thrill, but I also love the fact that at the end of the day I can’t take my work home with me, all I have to do is unplug and go!
I arrive at the Heathrow control tower approximately 20 minutes before my shift to get briefed, check the weather, update myself on any new procedures, work in progress on the airfield and anything else that may affect the planes. From there, I head upstairs to take over from a colleague in one of six positions in the tower. There’s three positions on ground movement control (e.g. taxiing to and from the gate and runway), as well as one each on planning ground movements (airways clearance, start approval), arrivals (clearing planes to land), and departures.
Due to the extreme amount of concentration need when plugged in to manage literally dozens of aircraft at any one time, I must have a break at least every 90 minutes to ensure I’m not mentally fatigued. For example, after the first session on ground movement, I’ll have a break for 30 minutes then go back upstairs to do a different position.We’re in constant radio contact with all aircraft in and around Heathrow, directing pilots where to go, resolving conflicts and getting planes to their destination as safely and smoothly as possible.
For me it’s the 5am wake up alarm! The thrill and adrenalin of each shift makes it all worthwhile though. Normally we do shift patterns of two mornings (7am-2.30pm), two afternoons (2.30pm-10pm) and two nights (10pm-7pm) which can be tiring, but we’ll then have four days off which is pretty cool.