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  • Paul Hooper is an experienced NATS Air Traffic Controller who features on Britain’s Busiest Airport – Heathrow. Paul has shared with us what it’s like being an ATC, how it all works, and what makes him tick.

    Behind the scenes Q&A:

    Paul: Just watched Peter Kay’s car share and thought that was brilliant. Like House of Cards as well.

    I go around the house turning off all the lights my kids have left on. Cycle a lot. Pub quiz most Thursday nights (when not at work). Drive the kids here and there (Dad taxi) and take the dog for a walk.

    Paul Hooper is an experienced NATS Air Traffic Controller who features on Britain’s Busiest Airport – Heathrow. Paul has shared with us what it’s like being an ATC, how it all works, and what makes him tick.

    There are multiple aspects that all add up to make the job great. I have to constantly solve problems on the go, having a plan and then adapting that plan if things change. I must constantly come up with solutions that are safe but also efficient.

    We all get a buzz from really busy sessions when literally thousands of people are relying on us to perform in order to make their journey better. I have an ‘office window’ with one of the best views in the country and I get to work with a great team of people.

    An airport ATCO is a bit like a conductor of a huge aviation orchestra. We are in constant radio communications with all the aircraft in and around the airport, directing the pilots where to go in a way that is safe, orderly and expeditious.

     

    An ATCO must constantly evaluate information from different sources and use that to come up with a plan on how to resolve any potential conflictions between aircraft.

     

    Inbound aircraft to Heathrow are lined up on final approach by our colleagues at the NATS centre near Southampton. At around 8-10 miles out they will be transferred to the arrivals controller based in the tower at Heathrow.

     

    The arrivals controller will ensure, by monitoring his radar screen, the spacing between the landing aircraft is maintained in accordance with strict rules that vary for different aircraft types and sizes. At Heathrow, as soon as one aircraft has landed and vacates the runway there will be another one waiting to land.

    When an aircraft has landed and vacates the runway the ground controller will take over and instruct the pilots on how to get to its stand. As we are a mainly international airport, many of the crews that fly here do not come here very often and will therefore not be too familiar with the layout of the airport.

    The ground controller will issue simple instructions that all can understand. We have to recognise that, although all our instructions are in English, this may be the second or even third language of many of the crews that come here. There are up to three ground controllers at Heathrow.

    When an aircraft is departing, the ground controller will instruct it to push back and then will issue taxi instructions to direct the aircraft to the departing runway. The aircraft will then be transferred to the departure controller. The departure controller will order all the aircraft that he has into the most efficient sequence for departure. This will depend on aircraft route, type, size and any en-route restrictions that may be in place. In a busy hour there can be almost one departure every minute.

    Once the aircraft are airborne and flying away from Heathrow the departure controller will transfer it to our colleagues at the centre again.

     

    An airport ATCO is a bit like a conductor of a huge aviation orchestra.

    Paul Hooper , NATS ATCO

    Every day is a challenge and every day is different. One of the most demanding times is when there is bad weather around the airfield, especially thunderstorms. Aircraft do not like to fly through thunderstorms and there are occasions when a departing aircraft will not wish to take off as there is a build-up of Cumulonimbus (thunder cloud) on his route.

    The departure controller will become even busier than normal trying to arrange a different route or having to re-arrange the order for departure.

    It is a brilliant career choice for people who like to work as part of a team but also are able to work alone. People who don’t mind a lot of responsibility, shift work and have the ability to perform under constant pressure for a period of time where every performance is a ‘live’ one.

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