Remember that kind lady 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 and your friends crossing the street on your way to and from school? Air traffic controllers (ATCs) are the crossing guards of the friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) skies. They coordinate the movement of air traffic -- including large commercial flights, private jets and military aircraft -- to make certain that helicopters and planes stay a safe distance apart. Some ATCs guide air traffic crisscrossing the country through designated airspaces using radar and satellite technology; others regulate airport arrivals and departures from a control tower by visually directing the aircraft to specific locations, as well as by using radar and satellites. Safety is an air traffic controller's immediate concern, but ATCs also direct planes efficiently to get people where they need to be and to minimize delays.
The majority of ATCs in America -- more than 26,000 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics -- are civil employees who work for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). There are essentially two types of FAA air traffic controllers; one directs takeoffs and landings at airports, and these ATCs usually work out of airport control towers. The other type of ATC helps guide a plane once it has left the airport, and these ATCs work out of 22 "en route" traffic centers that control air traffic between destinations throughout the country [source: FAA].
Many ATCs 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 ATCs 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 the planes that move citizens across the country or military aircraft carrying the country's enlisted men and women, the job of an air traffic controller requires specialized skills that draw on computation ability and require quick decision making. Up next, we'll tell you how to get started in this demanding and rewarding career.