'Air traffic control is like a giant 3D puzzle': A day in the life of an air traffic controller at Stansted Airport
PUBLISHED: 08:34 25 January 2019 | UPDATED: 13:46 04 February 2019
Being an air traffic controller at the country’s third busiest airport is like solving a giant puzzle – but despite the rumours, it’s not as stressful as you might think.
Andy Yeomans, who has worked for NATS at Stansted Airport for the last 12 years, insists the job isn’t stressful, but it does come with its challenges and complexities.
“But that’s the great thing about the job – no two days are the same,” he said. “You do have to cope well under pressure though – we thrive off the pressure.
“The reason it’s not stressful is because you’re trained to do this job and you’re trained for unexpected events,” Andy explains.
Training takes place at NATS College in Fareham, Hampshire – controllers usually spend six months in college before being placed in an airport control tower to continue training on the job. The length of time depends on where you are – it will take less time to train at Aberdeen Airport than it would at Heathrow Airport.
But it’s not a job suited to everyone. It’s a job where mistakes can’t be made, and if that worries you, it’s game over.
“I think you either have an aptitude for the job or you don’t,” Andy said. “From my cohort, 3,000 people applied, 30 people got through and now there are about eight of us qualified.
“This is a job you can’t make mistakes in and if you can’t deal with that, it’s not the job for you. You have to get on with it.
“You have to keep a huge amount of information in your head and always think in 3D. You might be controlling 20 aircraft at once but you know where each of them is at all times. You don’t think about the fact it’s a plane with 200 people on board, you just think of it as an aircraft.”
The main problems Andy faces are bad weather and strike action in Europe – events which are out of his control.
He said: “Our restrictions and challenges are purely down to unforeseen circumstances, such as bad weather and industrial action in Europe.
“But you never know what you’re going to get. We could have 30 aircraft movements in one hour and everything will be straight forward. Or we could have just 10 aircraft movements in one hour and it could be hideously complex. It’s like one giant 3D puzzle and our job is to keep everyone safe.”
When bad weather is forecast, pilots often request to change their pre-determined route, which can mean adjusting the movements of other aircraft and delays on the ground.
“But it’s easier to sort things out on the ground - it’s a different job when they are airborne. It’s like a highway in the sky. Aircraft have to be 1,000ft apart vertically and three nautical miles apart laterally.
“Things stay on course because there are lots of people watching all the time and everything is mapped out. Even on night shifts, there are three of us working here.”
On each shift, controllers work for 90 minutes at a time and then take a 30 minute break.
“Also, one of the great things about this job is that you leave your job at the door,” Andy explains. “You unplug and that’s it – it’s not like you can take the runway and window home with you.”
But what about the threat of drones entering the airspace at Stansted Airport?
Andy explains: “I’ve never had any experience of problems with drones, but we do get a lot of requests for permission to use drones – they have to ask us for permission if they are flying them within one kilometre of the airport.
“But if someone is intent on flying a drone over the airport without permission, there really isn’t anything to stop them, so we really need increased regulation. They are becoming more popular and the law needs to change with changing technology.”
Along with changing technology, Stansted Airport has also changed since Andy first started working in the tower – and he says the busier the controllers are, the better.
“Ever since Manchester Airports Group took over, it’s been getting busier and busier and that’s great for us. We thrive on being busy and under pressure.”