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By Paul Bradley  /  
2012 April 16 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: In Control


 Photo courtesy Broward College
Sophisticated simulators, like this one at Broward College, 
allow college students to train as air traffic controllers
.

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y 

In Control
Air Traffic Control Programs Flourishing
at Community Colleges
By Paul Bradley

It’s due in part to President Ronald Reagan that aviation sciences programs are flying high at community colleges across the country.

On August 5, 1981, the nation’s 40th president fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had defied his order to return to work, cementing his conservative legacy and creating thousands of job vacancies in the federal transportation workforce.

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More than 30 years after the workers were fired, thousands of replacement workers are nearing the Federal Aviation Administration’s mandatory retirement age, creating a workforce void that the FAA and colleges are now scrambling to fill. Over the next eight years, the FAA, which employs more than 90 percent of all air traffic controllers, is expected to hire nearly 6,000 new controllers.

Large numbers of new controllers will begin their training at the two-year colleges which are part of the FAA’s Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI), a program designed to provide qualified applicants to become air traffic controllers.

The associate degree the students will earn is just the beginning of their training. Students with both a degree and a recommendation from their college can bypass the first five weeks of training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, but must train there for two months. They must also train in control towers where they will specialize in monitoring aircraft approaches and departures or en route radar work. Students must successfully complete all required training at the FAA Academy.

“Our students do very well. What we are doing is evaluating their ability to become a controller,” said Carmen Romeo, director of aviation at the Community College of Beaver County near Pittsburgh. “The FAA places them all over the country.”

The CCBC program ranks as one of the country’s top aviation programs. It was one of first colleges enlisted by the FAA to take part in the AT-CTI. As the sole community college in the country with its own student-run control tower, it attracts students from around the country. At CCBC, about 60 percent of the 230 students enrolled in the aviation control program come from outside Pennsylvania, an exceptionally high number for a community college; in the ATC program, the out-of-state figure is 80 percent.

The control tower is located at the Beaver County Airport, a small airport which is devoted almost entirely to training pilots and controllers. It’s a critical part of the CCBC program, Romeo said, giving students in their third and fourth semesters hands-on experience under the supervision of veteran controllers.

“You can’t read this in a book and you can’t learn this is a simulator,” he said.

The aviation program does have an $850,000, state-of-the-art simulator to teach students the basics in the skills needed by both en route and terminal air traffic controllers.

“We have the same equipment that students will see once they are on the job,” he said. “The only difference is we don’t have tin moving through the air.”

The college in recent years has seen a sharp turnaround in its aviation program, Romeo said. In the 1990s, 80 percent of students were training to become pilots with the remainder enrolled in the air traffic controller program. Today, the numbers are reversed; 80 percent of CCBC aviation students are on the air traffic controller path.

Romeo credits the change to the robust job forecast and potential pay for controllers; in addition, controllers can work in any of 400 control towers and 23 en route centers around the country.

CCBC is seeing strong demand. Its air traffic controller cohort is already full for this coming summer and fall.

“There are so many controllers nearing the mandatory retirement age,” Romeo said. “The demand for controllers is on the way up. The FAA will need 1,000 controllers a year for the next six or seven years. That’s a lot of controllers.”

“Air traffic controllers, after four years, can be knocking on the door of $70,000 a year. After eight years, it can be more than $100,000.”

Another characteristic distinguishing the CCBC programs is the fact that all students studying to become air traffic controllers must also hold either a recreational or commercial pilot’s license.

“We believe it makes you a better controller if you have a semblance of what goes on in the cockpit.

Broward College in Florida also has a leading aviation program — it has existed since 1966 — but it does not require air traffic controller students to have a pilot’s license. Jorge Guerra, dean of transportation programs at Broward, said the college calculated that a pilot’s license requirement would be too costly, excluding many potential students.

Broward started its ATC program in 2009 and now enrolls about 300 students. The college recently added a second tower simulator to accommodate the demand.

“It’s really state-of-the-art,” Guerra said. “If a student does not use the proper phraseology, the computer won’t respond. It trains in all phases — approach, en route, and the tower. We like to boast that we have better equipment than the FAA.”

The program has seen early success. Of 50 air traffic control graduates, 44 have received job offers from the FAA, Guerra said.

ATC programs are demanding, and that’s no accident, Guerra said. Controllers have an important job, assuring that 50,000 flights a day land safely. Applicants generally must be well-organized, quick with numeric computations and mathematics and have assertive and firm decision-making skills while remaining calm under pressure. ATC trainees can be no more than 30 years old, and retirement is mandatory at age 56.

Trainees undergo rigorous physical and psychological testing. Air traffic controllers meet strict medical and mental requirements for professions; conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy, heart disease, and many mental disorders, such as a history of drug abuse, typically disqualify people from obtaining certification.

Communication skills are critical. Controllers must use precise language and focus on the exact words spoken by pilots and other controllers because a single misunderstanding about an altitude level or runway number can have tragic consequences. Becoming fully certified as an air traffic controller typically takes three to five years.

The AT-CTI colleges have their own strict standards beyond what the FAA requires.

“It is very rigorous,” Guerra said. “We require all our students to pass each course with an 82 or better. If they don’t, they get course credit, but not our endorsement to the FAA. There is so much responsibility in these jobs. The flying public must have the confidence they will reach their destinations safely. So it is very rigorous.”

Other parts of Broward’s aviation program are flourishing, too, Guerra said. Its airframe power train and technician program has a waiting list of 140 students. In addition, about 90,000 new pilots will be needed over the next 20 years, according to industry trade groups.

“The world aviation community is growing,” Guerra said. “China and India are growing fast, and they are taking large numbers of pilots. It’s creating a vacuum that we need to fill.”

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