How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

By: Chris Opfer  | 
U.S. Army soldiers work on a mobile tactical air traffic control tower over a landing area where the Army's Marine Division 1st Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment, were refueling and rearming for a training exercise.
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Remember the person with the orange vest and white gloves who, with a smile, a flurry of waving gestures and a few toots of a whistle, would demand that cars make way for you on your way to and from school?

Air traffic control specialists (ATCS), known colloquially as air traffic controllers, are the crossing guards of the friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) skies. Read on to learn how to become an air traffic controller.


What Do Air Traffic Control Specialists Do?

Air Traffic Control Specialists coordinate the movement of air traffic — from large commercial flights to private jets and military aircraft — to make certain that helicopters and planes stay a safe distance apart.

One type of ATCS guides air traffic crisscrossing the country through designated airspaces using radar and satellite technology; another regulates airport arrivals and departures from a control tower by visually directing the aircraft to specific locations. Safety is an air traffic control specialist's immediate concern, but an ATCS will also direct planes efficiently to get people where they need to be and to minimize delays.


The majority of the 22,900 air traffic control specialists in the United States are civil employees who work for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Most air traffic controllers fall under one of two categories. The first directs takeoffs and landings at airports, and these ATCs usually work out of airport control towers. The second type of ATC helps guide a plane once it has left the airport, and these ATCs work out of 22 Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC) that control air traffic between destinations throughout the country.

Many ATCSs also serve in the various branches of the military, including the U.S. Army, which, in exchange for service, provides the training necessary for a career in air traffic control both in and out of the military. These ATCSs are soldiers first and foremost, serving their country by tracking planes and giving landing and takeoff instructions at air traffic control facilities around the world.

Whether guiding planes that move citizens across the country or military aircraft carrying the country's enlisted forces, the job of an air traffic controller requires specialized skills that draw on computation ability and require quick decision-making.


How to Become a Civilian Air Traffic Control Specialist

Every day, FAA air traffic control specialists direct the flow of the 45,000 flights that enter the United States' National Airspace System. These air traffic controllers work at airports and control centers around the country and are employed by the federal government. The job requires strong computational skills, poise under pressure and quick decision-making ability.

In addition to hiring professionally experienced ATCSs such as military veterans, the FAA also recruits people with no prior air traffic control experience, as well as graduates of the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative Program (AT-CTI Program), through which the FAA partners with colleges and universities teaching basic courses in air traffic control.


Generally, prospective air traffic controllers without professional air traffic control experience must be younger than age 31 and pass a basic medical examination, background check and an FAA pre-employment test called Air Traffic Selection and Training (AT-SAT). The AT-SAT is an eight-hour, computer-based exam that tests skills such as reasoning, numeric ability and movement detection [source: FAA].

How to Become an Army Air Traffic Control Operator

Army air traffic control operators, on the other hand, direct air traffic at military facilities around the world. ATC operator opportunities are available to both active duty and Army reserve soldiers. While Army ATCs undergo on-the-job training necessary for civilian air traffic control, they're also trained in military-specific skills such as setting up and operating tactical air traffic control facilities.

To become an Army ATC operator, a person must first enlist in the Army or Army Reserve; to enlist, a person must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident between the ages of 17 and 35 (34 to become an ATC Operator), meet a minimum ASVAB score requirement and have a high school diploma or GED. The person must also be generally healthy, in good physical condition and in "good moral standing."


After enlisting, a soldier who wants to become an ATC operator must pass a technical aptitude test and meet the "moderate" level of physical demand according to the Army's Occupational Physical Assessment Test (OPAT).

Because Army air traffic controllers are soldiers above all else, basic combat training, including marching, occurs before any specialized training.
Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army

Civilian army traffic control specialists applicants who do not have professional air traffic control training experience undergo paid training (if offered employment by the FAA) at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, Okla. The Academy offers training in both terminal operation — managing the takeoff and landing of planes at airports — and en route air traffic control. Training includes classroom instruction and simulated exercises. Academy training takes several months, followed by one to three years on-the-job training.

Army ATC Operators first go through 10 weeks of basic training, the rigorous soldier training program that Uncle Sam says "transforms civilians into soldiers" and which all Army recruits must complete. The program includes physical fitness and team-building exercises, tactical and engagement skills development and weapons training [source: U.S. Army].

Basic training is followed by 15 weeks of specialized air traffic control training, one of the longest occupational training courses the Army offers, at Fort Rucker in Dothan, Alabama. The program combines classroom instruction and fieldwork under simulated combat conditions to develop skills such as takeoff, landing and ground control procedures, aircraft recognition and radar operation.

A recently developed program allows Army officers to also earn FAA Control Tower Operators Certification by working in a civilian air traffic control tower for six to eight months while on active duty [source: U.S. Army, American Forces Press Service].

While Army ATC Operators are charged with managing the flow of air traffic, they nevertheless remain soldiers at all times. Many ATC Operators work in the theater of war, and they are trained to perform their duties under combat conditions.

If you're a college student considering a career as an Army air traffic control operator, ROTC can be very beneficial to you.
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

The U.S. Army's air traffic control operator program gives people the opportunity to serve in the military while developing the skills and experience necessary to become an ATC specialist both in uniform and as civilian. It's no surprise the program is competitive, so here are a few tips for becoming an Army air traffic controller.

  1. Stay in school. The Army requires that a person has earned a high school diploma or General Equivalency Diploma (GED) to enlist. A soldier must pass an aptitude test to qualify for ATC training and again to serve as an air traffic controller.
  2. Get in shape. In addition to the Army's basic physical and medical enlistment requirements, aspiring air traffic controllers must be able to handle a "moderate" amount of physical demand, as defined by the Occupational Physical Assessment Test (OPAT). According to a U.S. Army press release, "the recruit or Soldier would need to achieve a minimum of 3 feet, 11 inches in the standing long jump; 11 feet, 6 inches for the seated power throw; 120 pounds for the strength deadlift; and a 10:27 minute mile over the course of 36 shuttles."
  3. Consider ROTC. College students considering a career as an Army ATC operator can take basic and advanced ROTC courses while in school. Those who enroll in the advanced program are eligible for scholarships and are required to serve in the Army following graduation. Graduates of the ROTC program are commissioned as Second Lieutenants — a rank higher than the Warrant Officers who enter the Army without a ROTC background — and begin specialized training in their field immediately following basic training.

Not all soldiers become air traffic controllers, but for those who do, the opportunity comes with great responsibility. ATC operators are tasked with keeping the skies safe for both military personnel and the hundreds of thousands of people who fly each day.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • American Forces Press Service. "Face of Defense: Air Traffic Controller Fulfills Long-Term Plans." Sept. 5, 2008. (April 13, 2011)
  • Federal Aviation Administration. "Air Route Traffic Control Centers." April 28, 2010 (April 14, 2011)
  • Federal Aviation Administration. "Controller Workforce-A Plan for the Future." June 29, 2009. (April 14, 2011)
  • Federal Aviation Administration. "How to Become an Air Traffic Control Specialist." March 27, 2008. (April 14, 2011)
  • Federal Aviation Administration. "Keeping America's Skies Safe." Sept. 21, 2009. (April 14, 2011)
  • Federal Aviation Administration. "Pay, Benefits, & Training." Jan. 13, 2010. (April 14, 2011)
  • Federal Aviation Administration."Pre-Employment Testing." March 14, 2008 (April 14, 2011)
  • The Fort Campbell Courier. "Air traffic controllers: penguins of the Army." Nov. 11, 2010. (April 14, 2011)
  • U.S. Army. "Basic Combat Training." (April 14, 2011)
  • U.S. Army. "Careers & Jobs: Air Traffic Control (ATC) Operator (15Q)." (April 13, 2011)
  • U.S. Army. "For Parents." (April 14, 2011)
  • U.S. Army. "MOS 15Q: Air Traffic Control Operator." (April 13, 2011)
  • U.S. Army Info. "Joining the Army." (April 21, 2011)
  • U.S. Army Reserve Public Affairs Office. "U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers Train to Earn FAA Certification." (April 13, 2011)
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition." (April 13, 2011)
  • United States Diplomatic Clearance and Landing Authorization Procedures. "Army Regulation 95-2: Air Traffic Control, Airspace, Airfields, Flight Activities, and Navigational Aid." (April 13, 2011)