I very often get asked how I became an air traffic controller. It certainly hadn’t been a lifelong dream of mine. I’d never even considered it. When I was younger I’d wanted to go into medicine. I was a straight-A student and a total nerd and everyone assumed that because I was bright and motivated, I’d easily fulfill my potential and become a doctor. I thought my high IQ and the simple fact that I wanted it would be enough. Fools, the lot of us! I didn’t become a doctor, thankfully. I don’t think I’m actually equipped to help people in that way. But that’s not what prevented me from fulfilling my dream. Nope. It was good old-fashioned hormones. And boys. (I blame the boys.) Anyway, suffice to say I didn’t get good enough grades to go to medical school. I barely scraped into a Science degree (that I didn’t particularly want to do), and went to university for two and a half years. I didn’t go to many classes, but I did spend a lot of that time playing poker in the community hall. I didn’t finish my degree, but I reckon I’m a pretty good poker player as a result so it wasn’t a complete waste of my time.
Anyway, after it dawned on me that finishing my Science degree WAS going to be a waste of my time, I decided to take time out from studying to earn some cash and try to figure out what I really wanted to do. I spent the first whole year unemployed because I considered myself overqualified to do menial jobs, when in fact I was underqualified to do anything else. Life lesson: learned. Eventually I got a government job at the Department of Defence doing payroll and HR for civilian personnel. Not very thrilling, and certainly not how I’d imagined myself at 22 years of age. Let’s face it, I was a bit of a disappointment. But, I was earning money for the first time in my life, I had a great group of friends and a wonderful boyfriend so I was happy. Every now and again though, the disappointment would seep through to the surface, and I would ask myself the difficult question of where I was going. A deafening silence would usually ensue. I was adrift. I actually started envisaging myself slaving away in a government office for the rest of my life. That was a low point. My colleagues were certainly happy enough with the easy hours, job security and slow but steady climb up the government ladder. I was not. The thought terrified me. I needed to get out but my options were limited.
While most of my workmates saw their jobs as a career, I saw it as just a way to make some dough and enjoy my life. Which is what I did. It was during a weekend trip to a Sandy Point beach house in April 1994* (and I remember this moment like it was yesterday) that I was lounging around reading Cosmopolitan magazine. I flicked the page and there it was. The gauntlet. Thrown.
DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE AN AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER?
I jolted upright, as if a flash of lightning had slammed into me, my hair standing on end. I felt awakened, after years of being asleep. I had never read words that were truer for me before in my life. They struck into my very soul. Did I have what it took to be an air traffic controller? You bet your fucking life I did. I ripped the page out (I still have it to this day) and when I got home, I called the number which would send my life hurtling into a completely different trajectory to the one it had been on before I’d flipped that page.
Australia’s Air Navigation Services Provider (ANSP) at the time was the Civil Aviation Authority, and they had placed that ad in Cosmo, in the hope of recruiting more young women into the very male dominated and aging workforce. It worked. A lot of women responded.
The first step in the selection process was a questionnaire determining people’s suitability for the job. Ten thousand people applied. The next stage was a three hour written exam conducted at the old Crown Casino. I think around 400 people sat the exam. The feeling I’d had when I’d first seen the advertisement – that I was so right for this job – was reinforced as I breezed through the exam. My brain was wired for this stuff. I had, sadly, stopped thinking of myself as being smart over the years because… well, I hadn’t exactly proven myself in that arena. Suddenly the neurons were firing up again. It was magical. The exam consisted of several sections, each testing aptitude. There was a memory test, reflex test, spatial awareness and complex reasoning tests. Some parts required you to do mathematical calculations while being interrupted from time to time to answer a comprehension based question before returning to the first task, testing mental agility. Time was constrained. It was a high pressure exam and I flourished in its embrace. I was in my element.
Of the 400 applicants who did the test, I think 50 got through to the interview stage. There had been a long wait (about a year) between testing and interviewing because, in the interim, the CAA had split into what is now known as CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) and Airservices Australia (ASA). The interviews were conducted on behalf of ASA by a business consulting firm hired to select the best people for the job. I was one of those 50 people. I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited. For the first time in my life I had real focus. I had a real, attainable goal. A future. I couldn’t afford to fuck it up. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I did. The day of the interview, I got up super early and mapped the route to the office where I would be meeting with the consultants. An hour before I left the house I got a phone call saying there had been a change of venue, and I was given directions to a portable office in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere. I got lost. I started panicking. I was going to be late. I eventually found the office and was greeted by three burly men festooned in ill-fitting suits, pointing at their watches.
“Not a very good start is it?” they intoned, haughtily.
I was shaking, nervous and short of breath. Their questions confused me. They belittled me, saying I’d already failed the first part of the interview by getting lost, so we were all essentially wasting our time. And they finished me off when they told me that the creative streak exposed by my psychological evaluation was not a very useful attribute in air traffic control. They destroyed me, and then they sent me trudging through the mud back to my Honda Civic. I sat in my car and cried for the next ten minutes.
Two weeks later, I got a letter in the mail. There it was in black and white. I did not, in fact, have what it took to be an air traffic controller. To say I was devastated doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of my despair. I died a little inside. That part of me is still dead. I allowed grief to engulf me for a suitable period of time. And then, I fought back. I called ASA’s recruitment department in Canberra and asked for a second chance. I called every day. They stopped taking my calls. So I started writing letters. Every week. I offered to make my way to Canberra, on my own dime, for another interview. I begged, I grovelled, I pleaded. My letters were probably passed around the office for a laugh, and I probably made a complete ass of myself, but I didn’t care. This was my LIFE! I knew this was one of those times when you would look back years later and wonder if you had done enough. I had to do everything possible before I could allow myself to give up. After about 18 months they told me to please stop writing. That my best chance would be to re-apply “next time”, though they couldn’t give me any idea of when that would be.
I wouldn’t say that this was the point that I gave up, but my glimmer of hope shrunk to a microscopic dot. I decided to leave it behind me and start living again. I had to, once more, figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life. My job at the Department of Defence was becoming untenable. I had been shown AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL and I found it difficult to give much of myself towards subtracting people’s leave balances and fielding questions about superannuation.
In 1997 I decided I needed a break. I took two months off work and travelled to the US to spend time with a friend. The day I got back, my Dad casually told me that I’d received a phone call from Airservices Australia while I’d been on the plane. I thought he was joking. My microscopic dot of hope throbbed painfully in my chest. Why would they be calling???? Turns out (and this really is a tremendously wonderful part of the story), the consulting firm they’d hired to recruit air traffic controllers had absolutely no fucking idea what they were doing. All the people they’d selected as suitable had failed on the job.
They asked me if I was still interested? I said…. well, we all know what I said.
Because so much time had lapsed between the last selection and this one, I had to do the battery of aptitude tests again. Also because of the time that had lapsed, they were now computer based. I spent two days holed up with 8 other applicants staring at a computer screen, proving that I did indeed have what it takes to be an air traffic controller. Beyond any shadow of a doubt.
Then, the interview. Compared to the seventh circle of hell interview I’d had to endure in the cow shit-ridden fields a couple of years earlier, this one was conducted at the airport (what a brilliant idea) and was a cakewalk . The interviewers were air traffic controllers (another genius decision) and asked me relevant questions that I was able to answer with ease, thanks to my painstaking preparation and research. I got through to the final stage of selection, which was somewhat of a social experiment. Airservices Australia thought it would be a good idea to gather the “chosen ones” for dinner at a restaurant, ply us with alcohol and take notes about our behaviour. I got drunk, and promptly went to the top of the class. 😉
The next letter I got from ASA advised me that I was one of 16 people who had been accepted into the ATC training course (which is a whole other ejo). It was the letter I’d been dreaming of for five long years. I was so proud of myself for achieving my goal. I still am, really, and I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. During those many years of waiting, I would sometimes boastfully pretend to strangers that I actually was an air traffic controller. Now, that I am one, I hate telling people what I do because I worry that my pride will come across and that it’ll seem like I’m bragging. But I’m not. If I wasn’t an air traffic controller, I have a feeling I wouldn’t be very much at all. I just love my job, and I’m grateful every day for the chance to do it.
* This all happened a while ago, so some of the dates and numbers might be approximate. I’ve done my very best to remember it as accurately as possible, but I can’t guarantee it 100%.