Ejo #81 – ATC 101: Stress

Air traffic control is one of the few things I know well enough to write about with any authority.  Turns out, it’s also one of the more popular topics I write about.  So, being the people pleaser that I am, I’ve decided to start a new series called ATC 101.  It will delve into the basics of the job, as well as my thoughts about various aspects of it.  Obviously I won’t be going into too much detail (coz shit can get technical and -believe it or not- quite boring), and most of what I’ll write about is most definitely going to consist solely of my opinion – meaning that it is in no way a definitive account of the job.  Just my two cents worth.

This month, spurred by a recent incident that occurred at Dubai International Airport, I’m going to write about stress and the air traffic controller.  Whenever I tell someone what I do they always respond with some variation of, “Wow, that’s such a stressful job”.  But is it actually stressful? What exactly is stress?  How is stress defined in this context?  If the question being asked is, “Am I constantly on edge with my heart racing and sweat beading on my forehead, from the time I clock on to the time I go home?” the answer is no.  But for some reason, the flying public’s perception of the job is that it’s super high pressure all the time.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Though if you were to read the ridiculous New York Times article that inspired the ridiculous movie “Pushing Tin” you could be forgiven for thinking that it was.

Taking away the fact that my current job is obviously less taxing than when I was an air traffic controller at an airport with more traffic (i.e. Melbourne), I’m still going to lead with the premise that the job itself, despite its reputation, is actually not stressful.  Yes, over the course of a day we handle billions of dollars worth of aircraft holding the lives of thousands of people.  But we are just one line of defence against an accident occurring.  There are safety systems in place – procedures, equipment, pilots, aircraft maintenance, emergency responders – the list goes on.  Sure, we can’t afford to make mistakes but a whole bunch of mistakes have to be made along the line before an accident happens.

There’s a theory about the cause of accidents put forward by researcher Professor James Reason famously known as the Swiss Cheese model of accident causation.  The theory posits that each line of defence against an accident is basically a piece of Swiss cheese.  Sure, it might have holes in it (and that’s OK, because there is no perfect resistance against errors) but when the holes of successive pieces of cheese line up, an accident occurs.  So I am a piece of cheese, and yes, my actions prevent an unknown number of accidents but that’s my job and that’s what I’m trained to do.  Just as the pilots are trained to do their job, and airport electricians are trained to do theirs etc. and collectively we make it a safe and efficient way to travel.


Reason Model

When the holes line up = bad.


Air traffic control, by its very nature, is a job defined by rules and procedures that MUST be adhered to.  And we all know that when you do the same thing, over and over and over and over again, it becomes monotonous.  So air traffic control can sometimes actually be a really dull job.  Even when you’re dealing with lots of traffic. But no-one ever says, “Ugh, that must be a really boring job!”

In my personal experience, there are three situations which have caused me stress at work.  The first is training. Training is stressful.  Yes, we learn the basics of ATC at the beginning but each new place we work has local instructions in addition to the regular rules.  New routes to learn, new procedures, new phraseology, new traffic patterns.  Training sucks.  Seriously, just ask any air traffic controller.

Something else that sucks is the annual competency check we have to do, to ensure that we are operating to the expected standard.  It consists of a written exam, the questions for which are mined from the reams of paperwork we are expected to memorise in order to do our job.  In addition, there is an oral examination (which is basically the same as the written exam, but just seems SO much harder) and then a two hour assessment in each position that you’re qualified to control in.  You might be the best ATC in the world, it does not matter.  No-one likes having another person sitting over their shoulder watching them work and taking notes.  No-one.  Decisions that you would make every day without blinking an eye suddenly become difficult.  You second-guess yourself.  It’s just awful.  But hey, standards have to be maintained and that’s just the nature of the job.  If you fail a check, you need to get re-trained in the necessary areas.  It’s a way of keeping everyone sharp.  So yeah, every October, when my check is rostered, you could say I find that to be a stressful situation.  And even though I know what I’m doing and feel very confident about my abilities, the relief is enormous every time I pass and it’s over for another year.

The third situation that I found stressful was actually one that isn’t necessarily associated with the job itself.  A couple of years after I qualified as an ATC, in late 2002, my father got sick with cancer.  He was sick for ten months, and during that time my work was actually a really great distraction from the depressing situation at home.  It was an escape.  But then, in September 2003 my father died and suddenly my world fell apart.  I tried to continue at work but I knew, I just knew, that I couldn’t put on a headset and talk to pilots and still be safe.  I pulled myself from the roster.

One of the definitions of the word “stress” is being in a state of “mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”.  My work has never caused that. But my father’s death was stressful.  And it caused me stress in the workplace.  Perhaps if I had a different kind of job I could have continued working.  But being an ATC, I couldn’t. You have to know your limits  and you have to know yourself. Maybe that constant self-scrutiny also contributes to latent stress. Who knows?

There is something, in my line of work, called CISM.  It stands for critical incident stress management.  And it refers to the education and support provided to air traffic controllers in order to help them deal with stressful situations.  Now, a stressful situation can be something that occurs outside of the workplace, like a loved one’s death.  But more often than not, CISM is provided in response to an incident that happens at work.  Like an accident.  Like earlier this month, when EK521 crashed on landing at Dubai International.  We don’t yet know the reason for the crash.  We don’t know which Swiss cheese holes lined up to cause the accident. We do know that the Airport Fire Service were the piece of cheese with no holes. If it wasn’t for their incredible response, the outcome could have been catastrophic.

The first I heard of the accident was when I arrived at work for an afternoon shift and was told to expect a busy shift because an aircraft had just crashed at Dubai.  My immediate response was to ask, “Oh shit, did everyone get out OK?” which is what most people would ask.  But my second instinct was to ask about the air traffic controller who was in charge of the flight, and ask if they were OK too. And that’s something that most people would not necessarily think about.  They wouldn’t think about the guy or girl who has responsibility for that tin can full of human beings. Or how it must feel to have that tin can impact with the earth – something that’s never supposed to happen.  But I did. Because I’m that guy or girl. And that aeroplane full of people is our responsibility. Even when there’s absolutely nothing we could have done to prevent it.  We are the ones talking to the pilot.  That aircraft was in our jurisdiction.  We had “control” – it’s in the fucking job title.

So I guess, that’s where the most stress lies.  In the possibility that something that happens safely every day thousands and thousands of times (aeroplanes taking off, and aeroplanes landing) might, one day, go wrong.  But here’s the thing.  As air traffic controllers, we simply cannot think about that.  We can’t worry about the holes lining up.  Because if we did, we’d be paralysed.  We just have to get on with the job of trying to keep the holes in our cheese as small and as few in number as possible.

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day.  We studied ATC together, sixteen years ago.  She’s one of the most experienced, and one of the best, controllers I know.  But she’s no longer working traffic.  She is now a manager in the Safety department – an office job.  When I mentioned to her that I was feeling a little under the weather that day for my morning shift she said she was really pleased not to have to deal with the stress of turning up to work every day at 100% capacity. Even though she had no idea I was writing this ejo, she said that she was a lot less stressed now that she was no longer an air traffic controller. She also said that she never would have thought of herself as stressed when she was doing the job. She only realised it after she switched to office work

And therein, I suppose, lies the crux of what we do.  We deal with stress, with stressful situations, all the time.  But we don’t consider it stressful.  We can’t afford to. The stress is there – but we raise our threshold in order to cope with it.  We toughen our skins, and we harden the fuck up. And we pay the price for that. Increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, sterility (yup, sterility), divorce and obesity. And you know what? There’s nothing else we’d rather do. But more than that, we’re the only ones who can do it.


Ejo #80 – You Too Can Save Lives

This ejo is about a few people.  It’s about a wonderful young man called Daniel, and an extraordinary woman called Claudia.  And it’s about you.  Or, at least, it could be.

Let me tell you a story.  On Wednesday, 4th May 2016 Daniel and Claudia were playing a league soccer game in Los Angeles.  Whilst running around the field, Daniel 26, fell to the ground and didn’t get back up again.  He had suffered a full cardiac arrest, and his heart just stopped beating.  He was technically dead for three to four minutes.  Despite dying on the soccer pitch that Wednesday afternoon, Daniel cheated death and is (amazingly) alive today.  And the reason he’s alive is thanks to his team mate, Claudia.

A medical student, Claudia jumped into action, using cardio-pulmonary resuscitation to keep his heart beating and air circulating in his lungs for a full 20 minutes, until the ambulance arrived (why the ambulance took so long is another story, luckily).  When the paramedics finally did get there, they administered electric shocks to get his heart pumping on its own again and when he arrived at Emergency they immediately placed him into an ice bath for 24 hours, inducing hypothermia in order to prevent further neurological damage.  He was in a coma, and his family didn’t know if he was ever going to wake up.

Just to change the topic for a second, David and I are having our bathroom re-tiled.  It’s been quite the arduous process, but that’s fodder for a whole other ejo.  This morning one of the workers and I had a chat over coffee and he asked me why we don’t have any kids.  Unlike some women, I am never offended when someone asks me this, particularly because I live in a culture where having children is just expected.  I explained why David and I decided not to have kids, and the worker very sweetly said something along the lines of, “Oh, what a shame.  Having children gives you pure love.”  I wanted to tell him that I knew exactly what he meant.  But we’d finished our espressos, and he had tiles to grout.

So, how could I possibly know the love that children bring?  I don’t have any of my own and  I’m not even an auntie (not an actual one, anyway).  But I can categorically say that the compartment of my heart reserved for the love I would feel for my own children – that unconditional, overwhelming, I’d-do-anything-for-them kind of love – was unseamed about 18 years ago when I embarked on an adventure that changed me as a person.

In August 1998, I went to the US to work as an au pair for a year.  I was responsible for looking after two beautiful children – an eight year old boy and a five year old girl.  I was 27 years old and I’d been attentively listening to the tick of my biological clock becoming louder and louder.  I figured that looking after a couple of kids for a year would be good “practise” for when I actually became a mother myself.  Little did I realise that 12 months of being involved in these little people’s lives on an intimate, daily basis would not just be great practise for motherhood, it would actually end up usurping any desire to have offspring of my own.  Over the course of that year, those children became my kids.  No, not biologically.  And not legally.  But emotionally…. I might as well have given birth to them.  I wasn’t their mother – they already had an amazing one.  But they were still, somehow, my babies.  I’m not sure it makes sense, and it doesn’t really need to.  I never had children of my own for a myriad of reasons, but one of the major ones is that those two youngsters unlocked my heart and gave me the gift of pure and unconditional love.

That entire family is still in my life, 18 years later.  And those kids grew up and became my friends.  I went from dressing them for school and making them brush their teeth, to having dinner and cocktails with them, talking and laughing til the wee hours of the morning.  I consider myself incredibly lucky.

Which is why when his father emailed me to tell me that Daniel had suffered a heart attack I felt eviscerated.  Like someone had taken my guts and pulled them away from my body.  I felt something I’ve never experienced before.  A tangible, and physical, connection drawing me to another human being.  Pulling me towards Daniel.  I figured it was anxiety, as it was accompanied by an intense and pressing urge to be with him (which was, of course, understandable).  I tried to ignore it but it only got worse. I tried to reason with myself that I couldn’t do anything to help him, but that didn’t diminish the feeling.  When I did make the decision to go and be with him, the relief was enormous.  It was absolutely the right thing to do.  It was the only thing to do.  I was able to get seven days off work, though the 16 hour flights meant I could only spend five days in LA.  But it was better than nothing, and so I jumped on the next plane.

In the time it took me to get to LA, Daniel had progressed (slightly) from being in a coma to being in a minimally responsive state.  He was no longer vegetative and unresponsive.  He had moments of consciousness, though they were intermittent and inconsistent.  But he was awake.

When I arrived at the hospital he was asleep, engulfed by machines monitoring his vital signs.  A few hours later when he woke up he looked at me, his eyes widening in childlike recognition.  With a delighted smile he asked, “What are you doing here?” and my heart melted.  Tears welled up in my eyes, but I fought them back.  I longed to gather him in my arms and reassure him that everything was going to be OK, as I would have done when he was eight years old.  Instead, I told him I was just paying him a visit, as though it was the most natural thing in the world.  Over the next five days there were times when he showed improvement, but there were also days when I saw him get markedly worse.  On the most awful day, he never even woke up.  He just kept kicking his arms and legs uncontrollably.  My mind couldn’t help but go to very dark places.  Places in which he would never recover.  But then, the next day, he would be sitting up and chatting with the nurses.  It was a hellish rollercoaster and one that I would never wish on any parent.  The anguish I experienced was indescribable.  I can’t imagine the despair that his parents and sister must have felt.

Leaving him on my final day to go the airport was hard.  He was awake but not really aware that I was there, so saying goodbye was painful and felt incomplete.  But there was no longer any reason for me to be there.  He was going to make it.  His family was by his side and he was under the care of top medical professionals.  I cried into his sister’s shoulder, and she comforted me.  I found it hard to let her go.

Two months have passed since then and Daniel’s progress has been good.  He is walking, going to the bathroom and eating on his own.  His cognitive function has taken a beating, but he is in therapy and rehab to help him get better.

I keep wanting to say the word “miracle” to describe Dan’s experience.  But that’s definitely not the right word.  Daniel is alive, and recovering, solely because a girl called Claudia knew how to do CPR.  It’s as simple as that.  And really, this ejo is dedicated to her.  Because she saved Dan’s life.  And that is a monumental thing to have done.  Thank you, Claudia.

You don’t have to be a doctor in training to learn the techniques that saved Daniel’s life, and the lives of so many others.  All you have to do is enroll in a first aid course to learn how to do CPR.  That is all.  And to show my eternal gratitude to Claudia, someone I’ve never met and probably never will, I am pledging to sponsor anyone who wants to do a CPR course.  That’s my way of paying forward the gift that she gave me.  The gift of a world in which Daniel is still here.


My two boys, in happier times.

So if you’ve ever thought about doing it, now’s the time.  Do a basic first aid course, email me a copy of the (dated) certificate and I’ll reimburse you the full cost of the course.  This pledge is good for perpetuity (or until I go broke, whichever comes first).  David and I are enrolling to do a course here in Dubai, and it’s my wish that as many people as possible learn how to do CPR.  Because we never know when a friend is going to drop dead in front of us.  And wouldn’t it be great to know how to bring them back to life?

Ejo #79 – Perspective: A Dubai Ramadan Story

Earlier this month my Spotify music account was hacked.  The offending asshole* changed the primary email and password of my account, locking me out of it (how rude!).  The team at Spotify were awesome and managed to give me back control of my music but the bastard had deleted all my playlists.  Now, it’s one thing to steal someone’s music.  But to delete my playlists was just a dirty thing to do and I was furious.  Especially because one of those playlists included more than seven hours of music for a very special party we’re having in Melbourne when we visit in September.  Shit just got personal.  And I was all set to write an entire ejo devoted to cussing this guy out, and giving him what for.

So, what happened?  Well, perspective, I guess.  As you know, it’s that Ramadan time of year. A time when Muslims around the world show their devotion to god by fasting – refraining from eating food and drinking water during daylight hours.  Doing this must be difficult at the best of times – but when you add abject poverty, housing that is unfit to live in, zero social standing and a lack of even the most basic of human rights to the mix, it becomes downright intolerable.

So, I had the choice of fretting over some random dick depriving me of my music for 24 hours, or I could get off my ass and organise an Iftar handout for a few men.  I chose the latter.  For the uninitiated, Iftar is the meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast when the sun goes down.  It’s a big deal in Dubai, with every restaurant in the city offering huge buffet feasts for the privileged amongst us.  A recent article in a local newspaper highlighted the incalculable waste produced by these buffets.  The amount of food that gets thrown away is simply mindboggling.  Especially when you think about the masses of less fortunate, unseen people, hidden away in the industrial desert areas of the city.  The men who work exhausting hours, struggling to scrape together the equivalent of AUD290 a month (working six days a week, fourteen hours a day), most of which they send back home to their families.

I posted my intentions on Facebook and within a couple of days we had raised enough money to feed 470 men.  Four hundred and seventy men!!!!!!  I want to thank each and every person who donated money for this worthy cause.  Unfortunately, none of you could join us for the fun part of actually giving out the meals, so I thought that on this occasion I would put a face to your donations in the hope that it personalises your contribution.  Check out the photos below to find out who you bought a meal for.

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The guys at Two Seasons Restaurant who prepared the 470 meals with love and care – and even helped us load the boxes into the cars.


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Michelle H., your empathy directly impacted on this guy.


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Nicole C., thanks to your generosity, this guy had a nice Iftar meal to break his fast.  He was just one of many that you helped. 


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Mari S., this guy ate a delicious dinner because of your thoughtful donation.


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Simon K., this man was so grateful for the meal he received from you.


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Beth, Tim, Charley and Xavier – this is one of the guys you made very happy on Tuesday.


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Craig A., this dude said a heartfelt thank you to David – but it was meant for you. 


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Pieta S., this man’s smile and gratitude are thanks to you.


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Adrian R., this man got to eat well on Tuesday because of your contribution.


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Sam A., your compassion meant that this man had a tasty hot meal for Iftar.


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Melinda N., this guy was very shy when taking his meal, but also so very grateful – to you.


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Zimmy K., this man’s smile is one of so many – thanks to your incredibly generous donation.


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Guy S., you totally made this guy’s day!


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Matthew T., this man doesn’t know you but he directly experienced your kindness.


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Nancy L., this young man was surprised at the offer of free food, and so thankful for the meal you bought for him.


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Cindy C., your substantial donation made this man (and many others) very happy.


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Nic M., your deep generosity meant that this man didn’t have to worry about where his dinner was coming from on Tuesday.


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Svet M., we moved some money around and made sure that your donation was given to this man – and several others during the handout.


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Vicki D., the look on this man’s face is so heartwarming.  He is smiling because of you.


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Sam H., your substantial contribution gave joy to many men. This is one of them.


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Karien M., you are the reason this man is smiling.


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Yani, for me this guy says it all. He just couldn’t stop smiling while waiting in line for his meal – and then his smile got even bigger when David handed it to him. Your helping hand is the reason for his happiness.

For those of you who would like to contribute to our next handout, I’ve got a rippa idea!  I’m super keen to organise an ice-cream truck handout. Yes, of course it’s wonderful (truly wonderful) to do a food handout but how amazing would it be to gift ice-creams!!!  Think back to when you were a kid and you heard the ice-cream truck melody floating down the street on a hot summer evening, announcing the imminent arrival of  THE ICE-CREAM MAN!!!!  Don’t we all share the unadulterated joy associated with that?  Wouldn’t that be an incredible thing to give these men, whose lives are so bereft of the simple pleasures we take for granted.  So, I’m planning on doing this in a couple of months – around October.  I won’t announce it anywhere else except Facebook so if you are interested and aren’t my Facebook friend (boohoo for you) shoot me an email/message through the comments section of this post.

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Seriously, I love this guy!!!!


* OK, I can’t help myself.  The email address of the pond-scum who hacked my Spotify account is joesalisbury_13@outlook.com.  Feel free to bombard this mofo with spam, random subscriptions and stern emails about respecting other people’s privacy.