Air Traffic Control

Ejo #154 – ATC 101: Shift Work (aka Fatigue)

I’ve been an air traffic controller for over 22 years.   It’s part of who I am now.  And a big part of being a controller is the crazy shift work hours.  But what exactly is shift work, anyway?  It’s basically anything that requires people to work outside of regular office hours.  Restaurants, hospitals, nightclubs, fast food joints, bodegas and milk bars, call centres, media outlets, retail shops, security and airports all run by the grace of those of us who sacrifice normal lives to work shifts.  We’re a weird bunch, that’s for sure.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I absolutely love shift work, and wouldn’t go back to an office job with office hours in a million years.  I love having time off when everyone else is at work, and I really love being at work on the weekends, when the desk jockeys of the world flock to the beaches, the shops, the cinemas, and all the cafes, bars and restaurants.  Have at it normies!!  Fill your boots. I’ll be eating out next Tuesday!

So yes, I do love shift work, but I don’t want to sugarcoat it.  It’s pretty hard yakka.  Regular people work some variation of nine to five, Monday to Friday, with weekends off, right? We don’t get weekends off. Or public holidays.  What’s Christmas, what’s New Year’s Eve, what’s Easter, what’s Melbourne Cup day?  Also, what’s Saturday, and what the fuck is Sunday?  I do not recognise any of these days.  They are meaningless to me.  For I am shift worker.  Honestly, I never have any idea what day of the week it is.  Occupational hazard, I guess.  Our work week is six and a half days long, and we are rewarded for that toil with three and a half days off.  Your cycle is seven days.  Ours is ten.  And it looks a little something like this.

Rinse and repeat.

The truth, however, is that even though this is the “standard” work cycle for ATCs in Dubai, our rosters are a lot more fluid, and a lot less predictable (we usually find out what shifts we’ve been rostered to work for a given month about half way through the previous one). I very rarely work the prescribed cycle of two mornings, two afternoons and two nights.  I wish I did, I would love that kind of stability.  But unfortunately due to staff shortages, training, annual leave, sick leave and controllers being seconded to the office, the roster is usually all over the place.


On the left, the standard roster template for 2018. On the right, the actual 2018 roster. Oh Mr. Hart, what a mess.

So, how does a typical work cycle actually play out?  Let’s start with morning shifts.  We are required to be at work by 0545 for a 0600 start (I’ll be using 24 hour time in this post, as per aviation convention), but I do like to get to work a little earlier to let the night shift zombies go home.  So, for me to be at work by, say, 0530 I need to leap out of bed at 0400.  I actually like to snooze my alarm for about 45 minutes before I actually get up (yes, I’m a weirdo).  This means that my first (of many) alarms goes off at the ungodly hour of 0315. 

Sleepy beepy!

The philosophy behind the myriad alarms is that my everyday alarm tone is a very soothing harpsichord sound, designed to gently rouse me from my slumber.  At 0315 in the morning, however, this doesn’t always do the trick.  The choice of alarms is progressively more likely to penetrate my repose. To that effect, the duck tone alarm is quite annoying.  The bark tone alarm is extremely irritating.  And the Leanne alarm (the back-up alarm of last resort) is actually my telephone ringtone which is the sound I would hear if I did accidentally sleep in and my watch manager was calling me to see where the fuck I was.  It instils enough fear and panic to wake me up no matter how sleepy I might be.  Committing the cardinal sin of sleeping in for a morning shift is a really horrible feeling.  Not only are you late for work, but there’s someone in the tower who has worked an eight hour night shift waiting for you to come and relieve them so that they can go home.  And they’re not allowed to leave until you actually get there.  I’ve only slept in for a morning shift once, and let me tell you it’s a very discombobulating situation. 

Another reason for the plethora of alarms is that it’s virtually impossible to get a good night’s sleep before that first morning shift.  I spend all night tossing and turning, subconsciously worrying that I’ll sleep in, inducing anxiety, which (of course) prevents a good sleep.  It’s a vicious circle.  Plus the only way to get eight hours in bed before my alarm goes off is to retire at 1915 the night before.  Which is impossible.  I always harbour well-meaning intentions of going to bed super early before my morning shifts, but usually turn the lights out sometime between 2100 and 2200 giving me about five or six hours of downtime. Not only do I usually wake up tired for the shift, but the entire cycle is off to a terrible start.  Welcome to shift work world. 

So I get up at 0400 and I get ready for work.  My routine at this time of day is so well rehearsed, it’s as smooth as Swiss clockwork.  Everything is done on autopilot.  David and I dance around each other like a beautifully choreographed ballet.  I don’t rush around like a crazy person, but every minute counts and there isn’t a lot of room for unforeseen variables.  The last couple of years I’ve also had to factor in an extra five minutes sprawled on the couch for the inevitable early morning hot flush episode that has become a stalwart component of my routine.  Menopause is fun! 

I’m usually out the door by 0450 and get to the tower by 0530 to take over position.  Depending on how many controllers are rostered for the morning, I might rotate through two hours in position, followed by a two hour break for the eight hour shift, or I might work two hours in position with a one hour break.  The maximum number of hours I can legally work is two and a half, after which I’m required to have at least a thirty minute rest period.  These rules are set by the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), which is the regulatory body for aviation in the UAE.  And they lay down a lot of other rules regarding shift work in the tower, which I’ll talk more about later.  At the end of my shift, I’ll usually leave the tower some time between 1330 and 1400 and reach home by 1500 at the latest.  Those of you who read my previous ejo know that this is the ideal time for a coffee nap, and I almost always have one after a morning shift. 

Afternoons are my least favourite shifts.  The whole day is kind of fucked for getting anything done.  We usually get up around 0830 which isn’t super late, but it’s still an extra four and a half hours sleep than the previous two days so it feels like a real luxury, and actually plays a large part in our sleep debt recovery.  We have a little over four hours to get shit done before leaving for work.  Shit includes going for a walk followed by a yoga session, showering and washing my hair, reading my emails, playing Wordle, responding to messages, cooking and eating lunch (which is usually a delicious, juicy steak) and then doing the dishes, and also preparing something to snack on at work later that evening.  It can be a bit hectic to be honest.  I normally get to the tower at around 1330, send the morning shift on their merry way, and settle in for the next eight hours.  Maybe it’s because the shift straddles the transition from day to night, but afternoon shifts just seem to drag on and on and on.  They’re boring as hell and by the time I get home at around 2300 it’s way too late to do anything.

Morning shifts used to be my favourite because I’d get the whole afternoon off, but lately I’m starting to really feel the exhaustion of having to wake up so goddamn early.  Let’s not mince words, I’m an old lady now.  My new favourite shifts are night shifts.  Sure it’s tiring having to stay up all night, but when there are only two of us rostered, we work a great schedule that gives each of us a two and a half hour break in the middle, so that we can both have a good rest.  This means that I have the entire tower to myself for a couple of hours at a time while my colleague naps.  It’s me time, baby. I play a little background music, I eat a little midnight snack, I talk to some pilots in my night shift voice, I plan holidays, I water the tower plants, I do some squats and I work on my ejos.  I actually have a really good time.  David doesn’t have it so lucky.  Night shifts at DXB are usually the busiest shift of the day, so while I’m dancing around my tower, David’s working his ass off in his. 

Despite me having it relatively easy on the night shifts, I still have to be awake and alert at an hour when most people are fast asleep.  By the time David and I get home at 7am after a night shift, we are both pretty fucking knackered.  We’ll have a quick shower and go to bed for a few hours, and get up just before midday.  It’s definitely not enough rest, but sleeping into the PM messes with my circadian rhythms too much. Everyone deals with night shifts differently and a lot of the local guys sleep until the late afternoon following a night shift, but there’s no way I could do that. I subscribe to the jet lag school of thought, sticking as close as possible to my regular schedule, even though it’s exhausting, and even though it means I need a little extra time to recover. At least I’m not completely screwing up my sleep/wake routine. David and I tend to take it very easy in between night shifts, rarely scheduling social engagements or appointments that would require us to leave the house.  We lay low and make sure to squeeze in a 20 minute coffee nap sometime during the afternoon.  It ain’t a lot, but it definitely helps.  And later that evening, we lock up the house, get in our cars and set off in opposite directions to our respective airports to do it all again. 

The day after our second night shift is called a sleep day, or a rest day, for obvious reasons.  It isn’t actually considered a day off (since we’ve worked the first six hours of it), but it’s not considered a full work day either (since the shift started the previous day).  When I was a younger woman, I secretly did think of sleep days as a day off.  Oh, the impertinence of youth.  These days it truly is a day of rest, and it generally takes me the whole day to recover from having worked the cycle. 

Fatigue caused by shift work is a massive concern in the aviation industry, and there are very strict rules about the hours that air traffic controllers can work.  I already mentioned that we need to take a break every two and a half hours, but there are many other rules governing our rostering principles.  For instance, a controller can only work a maximum of ten hours in a single shift.  And we must have a minimum of ten hours between shifts.  We can’t be rostered to work more than three night shifts in any rolling ten day period.  And if we’re rostered to work seven days in a row, we must have a minimum break of two and a half days (or 60 hours) before coming back to work.  And there are lots of other restrictions that get a little technical, things like “Within 720 consecutive hours (30 days) the aggregate of duty periods and standby duties shall not exceed 300 hours, provided that duty periods do not exceed 200 hours.”  Blah blah blah.  At the end of the day the rules are there to protect us, the controllers.  But they’re also there to protect the unit.  And our employer.  And the airlines.  And the pilots. And the flying public.  Fatigue is no joke. It causes errors in judgement, and that’s something air traffic controllers simply can’t afford.

Working a reverse rotating shift cycle (starting with early mornings and progressing through to night shifts) is supposed to be the least fatiguing roster, and I actually prefer it to the forward rotating cycle that we used to work in Melbourne tower (which started in the evenings and progressed through to morning shifts).  But at the end of the day, fatigue wins.  It always wins, and it’s impossible to avoid. All we can do is mitigate it, but it will always be a huge issue in air traffic control.  As I mentioned earlier, I need to be functional while doing a relatively complex job at a time of night when all my body wants to do is curl up and go to sleep.  And that takes a toll.  Shift workers are notoriously prone to a cornucopia of health problems including heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, reproductive issues, ulcers, diabetes, depression, low testosterone, insomnia and stroke.  In fact working shifts is so bad for your health it even has a disorder named after it.  Yay? 

As a bonus, we are also way more susceptible to death.  In a very large, famous, longitudinal study, The Nurse’s Health Study, researchers followed 74,862 nurses over a period of 22 years and concluded that the nurses who worked rotating shifts for more than 15 years were 38% more likely to die from heart disease, 25% more likely to die from lung cancer and 33% more likely to die from colon cancer than their counterparts who worked day shifts only.  Sobering.  In fact it’s so unhealthy that in 2007 the World Health Organisation declared that shift work was a probable carcinogenic.

So how does shift work wreak such havoc in the body?  It’s all to do with circadian disruption.  Having to be wide awake at 0200 isn’t just a pain in the ass, it also throws a spanner in the body’s finely tuned chemistry, creating hormonal chaos and laying waste to our biological homeostasis.  This is such an interesting and expansive topic that I’ll be writing about it in my next ejo, so keep an eye out for that.  In the meantime, all you need to know is that my highly paid job is almost definitely killing me. 

But I do not want your sympathy.  Absolutely not.  Fuck that noise.  I’ve made a choice to stick to this beautiful career, and despite its pitfalls I feel absolutely #blessed.  If you go back and have another look at that 2018 roster, zoom in and check out all those greyed out dates.  Those are holidays, bitches.  In January we went to one of our favourite destinations, Japan, spending time in the ski fields of Nagano, as well as drinking our body weight in sake in bustling downtown Tokyo.  In February we took a short four day trip to Sri Lanka during our days off for David’s birthday.  In mid-April we travelled back home to Australia to see family and friends.  And five days later we jetted off to France for a couple of weeks, attending a close friend’s wedding in the French countryside.  In June/July we spent two and a half glorious weeks in Amsterdam, introducing my youngest sister, Pieta, to our favourite city.  And in mid-August we were lucky enough to be able to travel to America for six days to go to the wedding of another close friend.  When we got home we had enough time to do some laundry before heading straight back out again three days later, visiting Sicily for the very first time.  We obviously loved it because we went back in October, this time with my sister Mary in tow.  So yeah, while my job is basically murdering me, at least I’m having fun with the time I’ve got left.

So now you know what it’s like to be a shift worker.  Or rather, now you have an inkling of what it’s like to be a shift worker.  If you dare, I challenge you to simulate just one of my night shifts and see how it really feels.  One Saturday morning, just get up at your normal time and go about your day.  Remember to have a coffee nap (or maybe an even better idea might be to have a proper, long nap), and then at 2050, get in your car and drive around for 45 minutes.  Come back into the house and start working on something.  Maybe you have some office work to do, maybe a hobby.  But you’re not allowed to watch TV or use your phone (coz we’re not allowed to either).  At 2330 you’re on a break for two and a half hours.  I suggest trying to sleep.  But don’t forget to set an alarm (or four) to make sure you are up and ready to take over again at 0200.  This is the tough part.  It’s usually quiet on the night shifts, but sometimes you wake up from your nap and you have to hit the ground running.  You can’t afford to give in to your sleep urges.  Feel free to have a coffee if you think it’ll help.  I no longer drink coffee on the night shifts (in fact I only have it for coffee naps), but I’ll often have a little snack right around this time for some energy.  A boiled egg or a few strips of bacon.  But you do whatever you need to do to stay awake.  And don’t forget to work.  You’re in position until 0430.  You can’t slack off. And you can’t fall asleep.  So keep working.  Naps on the job will get you fired.  Or, worst case scenario, kill people.  At 0430 your imaginary partner takes over and you can chill for a while, but you can’t go home yet.  Not until the morning crew arrives to relieve you from your duties.  You can have another little nap while you wait, but at 0600 you need to get up, get in your car and drive around for another 45 minutes.  When you finally get home on Sunday morning, you’re done.  Congratulations, you’re an honorary shift worker.  How do you feel?  Now do it again.  And repeat every ten days for the next twenty years.  Bet you can’t.

So, think of us… next time you have a late night pizza delivered, next time you need to go to the hospital in the wee hours of the morning, or have to call an Uber to take you home after a big night out. Think of us when you need to call a locksmith, or have to catch an obscenely early flight.  Think of us, the weirdos, the shift workers.  While you’re sleeping, we keep the world turning. It’s tough work, but someone’s got to do it.

Ejo #150 – Boeing 747: Queen Of The Skies

I have been an air traffic controller for nearly 22 years, and I’m lucky enough to be able to say that I still absolutely love my job.  A fun fact about me is that I’m actually trained to work in both tower and approach environments, but I’ve always been grateful that my entire career has been spent working exclusively in air traffic control towers.  There’s a funny, self-aggrandising hierarchy amongst approach controllers in which they believe that they’re the top guns of ATC, and that the tower is where air traffic controllers go to die (we don’t call them figjam for nothing).  I’m not going to get into that debate here, but I will say that every single day I go to work I’m thankful that I get to look out the window and see the aeroplanes I’m controlling, rather than being stuck in a cheerless radar room with row upon row of radar screens and no windows or natural light.

Queen of my domain.
A generic factory floor, oops, I mean radar room. 😉

Truly, one of the joys of my job is just being able to watch the aircraft fly.  In 22 years I reckon I’ve seen over a million takeoffs and landings, so you’d be forgiven for assuming I might be a bit jaded by it all.  But no, I still totally get off on it.  I definitely wouldn’t call myself an aerosexual, but there is one particular aircraft’s takeoff which absolutely fills me with awe and wonder every time I see it, and that aircraft is the Boeing 747.  For something that has a maximum takeoff weight of 442,252 kilograms, the Jumbo jet veritably glides off the runway with such elegance and grace, it still takes my breath away.  

Taxiing for departure at Al Maktoum International Airport. ♥

The first B747 flight took place from Everett, Washington in the United States in 1969, with the model entering service a year later.  Years in the making, the “Dream Team” of over 50,000 employees that worked on the aircraft, produced a remarkable feat of aviation engineering which revolutionised air travel by making it cheaper and easier for people to fly. The Boeing 747, which is capable of carrying 660 passengers (in a single, cattle-class, configuration), is commonly referred to as the Queen Of The Skies and is beloved and revered by aviation enthusiasts all over the world, including me.  It’s no surprise that the 747, with its unique and classic shape is one of the most iconic, popular, and most recognisable aircraft in aviation history. 

The very first B747. Isn’t she lovely, isn’t she wonderful.
The difference between the B747 and it’s predecessor, the B707, is vast. Which is how the Jumbo jet transformed air travel.

How much do I love the B747?  Let me tell you the ways.  I own a clock, a truly magnificent work of art, made from an actual Boeing 747 passenger window.  I love the fact that I have a little piece of flying history up on my wall.  I love that instead of rusting away in some desolate scrapyard heap, part of this remarkable aircraft was salvaged and lovingly handcrafted into a beautiful timepiece.  For over two decades, the window that my clock is made from travelled thousands of miles, at altitudes exceeding 40,000 feet.  Its history no doubt contains tales of severe turbulence, strong winds, rain, freezing temperatures and possibly even lightning strikes.  My B747 has traversed the globe countless times, crossing oceans and deserts, and possibly even poles.  Her ports of call have included New York City, Miami, Cape Town, Singapore, San Francisco, Johannesburg and São Paulo (special shout out to all the aerosexuals out there who keep track of this sort of stuff).

That’s my girl.

Who knows how many passengers gazed out of my window, on their way to a holiday, a business conference or to start a brand new life.  How many people looked through my window with wonder, how many with terror or sadness or with joy.  How many of them had a little too much to drink out of too many miniature bottles of booze?  Who was the youngest person to ever sit in my window seat?  Who was the oldest?  Oh, what stories my window could tell.  How many hard landings did she have to endure, and how many landings did the pilot absolutely glue to the runway?  Did my British Airways 747 ever experience a near miss?  How many times did she have to divert due to a sick passenger, or an unruly one?  How much drama and intrigue unfolded in the galley, long after the cabin lights had been dimmed?  And exactly how many people were initiated into the mile high club?  These are things I’ll never know, but it sure is fun to wonder.  The things I do know about my window is that the registration of the aircraft it belonged to was GCIVM (that’s Golf Charlie India Victor Mike to the uninitiated).  Her maiden flight was on Tuesday, 27th May 1997 and her final scheduled flight was 23 years later, with wheels touching down on Sunday, 15th March 2020. 

Air France’s moving, farewell tribute to their last B747. I’m not crying, you’re crying!!

Sadly, in July 2020 British Airways retired their entire fleet of 31 passenger Boeing 747s due to the sharp downturn in air travel hastened by covid.  I received my clock seven months after my B747 was put out to pasture, thanks to two brothers in England who have combined their love of furniture-making and their passion for aviation to form a business called Plane Industries, repurposing old aircraft parts. 

KLM B747 arriving at St. Maarten’s. Pure aviation pornography (oh shit, maybe I am an aerosexual after all)!!

British Airways isn’t the only airline to stop flying the fuel guzzling, four-engine wide-body aircraft.  Demand for the Queen Of The Skies has dwindled in recent years and two years ago Boeing regretfully announced that they planned to stop making the aircraft in October 2022.  It will be a very sad day in aviation when the last Jumbo jet rolls off the production line, but I do feel some consolation that the B747s currently being used as freighters will remain in service, roaming the skies long after I ride the tower elevator down to the ground floor for the very last time. 

Fill her up, buttercup. I bet you didn’t know that this is how they load cargo onto B747 freighters.

How much do I love the B747?  At the beginning of May, I got my very first tattoo in Amsterdam, at the ripe old age of fifty.  The image is an outline of a Boeing 747 taking off, on the inside of my left wrist.  Though it is beautiful, the aircraft doesn’t just appeal to me aesthetically.  It also represents my work, which I love.  It represents the job that totally changed my life and allowed me to pursue and indulge in my other passion, travel.  It represents my wanderlust, and my desire to soar, and to keep seeking new experiences in far-flung places.  It represents hope, and anticipation and joy. 

My B747 isn’t quite anatomically correct (a lesson in being super precise in telling the tattooist what you want). But I still love her.

You want to know how much I love the B747? My very first business class flight was in a Jumbo jet.  I was travelling home from a trip to San Francisco in 2006 and the plane stopped over for about an hour in Sydney.  When we re-boarded to fly the final leg to Melbourne I decided to shoot my shot and boldly asked if I could sit in business class, playing the old “I’m an air traffic controller” card. Don’t ask me how, but it actually worked!!  The lovely cabin crew escorted me up that glorious stairway to heaven, also known as the upper-deck, business-class section, where for the next hour they plied me with champagne and treated me like a queen.  Queen of the goddamn skies. 

Business, bitchzzzz!!

Ejo #95 – ATC 101: Air Shows

Contrary to popular belief, I actually have an extraordinarily dull job. I am 100% governed by rules, regulations, procedures, instructions and agreements which prescribe every little thing air traffic controllers do, every single day. These nuts and bolts are set in stone and we absolutely cannot deviate from them. And that’s cool, coz it keeps the skies safe.

The over-riding big-cheese of all our commandments is the International Civil Aviation Organisation, also known as ICAO (pronounced eye-KAY-oh). Following the airborne mayhem of World War II, a bunch of governments realised they needed to get their shit together and regulate air safety.  ICAO was born in 1947, after 52 countries put aside their differences and signed the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation.  I’m pretty sure they cracked a bottle of champagne afterwards.

ICAO regulates the entire global air navigation system, and oversees its massive growth. It’s a big job and they’ve published a veritable encyclopaedia of compliance documents and annexes. For instance, one of their fascinating tomes which dictates how I do my job is ICAO Doc 4444 PANS-ATM (Procedures for Navigation Services – Air Traffic Management). This 466 page beauty talks about all sorts of interesting things pertaining to ATC and, as an ATC Examiner, I refer to this document at least once a week. I look up things like the reporting of operational and meteorological information to pilots, wake turbulence categories, separation standards, runway selection, flight priorities, surveillance system capabilities, flight information and alerting services, coordination between agencies and units, standard phraseologies and how to deal with certain emergency situations. They cover a lot of topics, but ICAO actually paint in very broad brushstrokes. They don’t want to have to deal with the minutiae of every single situation, so they leave more specific instructions up to each state’s regulator.

To that end, in Australia you guys have the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), the USA has the FAA, and in the UAE we have the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA). Each of these bodies follows the general rules that ICAO have set up and then, in addition to that, impose their own, more particular, local legislations known as Civil Aviation Regulations (CARs). The GCAA CARs mandate how all the ATC units in the UAE operate, including personnel requirements, training, contingency plans, coordination requirements, accident reporting, incident reporting and occurrence reporting, radio and telephone procedures, Safety Management System (SMS) requirements, management of fatigue related safety risks, licensing and currency requirements, low visibility operations and English language proficiency. It also delves deeper into the nitty gritty of separation standards and emergency handling.

Next, in the hierarchy of documents, we have the Manual of Air Traffic Services (MATS). This is a unit specific document detailing the finer points of how I do my job, day-to-day. My tower’s MATS is 270 pages long and I know it by heart. I kinda have to. That’s my job.

OK, so far I’ve talked a lot about documents and not a lot about air shows. What gives? I will explain, but first have a squiz at these amazing photos taken at recent air shows.


The F-16 Thunderbirds doing some remarkable shit at Kogalniceanu airport, near Bucharest, Romania in 2011. The Thunderbirds are the air demonstration squadron of the US Air Force.


Airshow 2

Not to be outdone, the USA Navy have their own pretty snazzy air demonstration team called the Blue Angels, flying pretty darn impressive F/A-18s in very close proximity.


So, way back at the turn of the century I spent twelve months studying how to be an air traffic controller. This was followed by intense on-the-job, local training at each facility I’ve worked at since. The end-goal of all this training? To keep ‘em separated, people!!! The aircraft in the photos above are NOT separated. Not by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not by any internationally recognised separation standard, of which there are many. They are not longitudinally separated, laterally separated, vertically separated, deemed separated, or geographically separated. At all!!!!! Some people might argue that they are visually separated, but I’d argue back that they are not. And I would win that argument.

What I’m saying is that over the years I’ve honed a very precise set of skills designed to prevent aircraft from doing shit like this, whether it’s deliberate or not. And I simply cannot switch that off.

In reality, the aerobatic portion of air shows is just a small part of why they exist. They’re mostly about displaying cool new aircraft to businesses, airlines, governments and obscenely rich individuals who want to buy them. And I’ve got absolutely nothing against that. The flying display, however, is really just the grandstanding part of that – hey, check out the size of my….. fighter jet. Look how quickly I can make it go up. And yes, even I get sucked into how cool it is when an A350 banks into a split-ass 90º turn straight off the runway.

It’s absolutely impressive. But if an aircraft did that on a normal day at work, I’d be pushing the crash alarm button and getting the airport fire service out there lickety-split. Because that bitch’d be about to crash. Because that’s not what passenger aircraft are designed to do. They are designed to take-off, climb, cruise, turn, descend and land within very tight parameters. And I am designed to keep it that way.

But hey, you might ask, what about the F/A-18s and F-16s? These planes are kinda designed to fly upside down. And sideways. And in crazy vertical spirals. Shut up, I don’t care. Yes, it’s extremely fucking cool, I cannot deny that. But I still don’t like it. My brain has been conditioned to freak out at these antics and I kinda feel like everyone in aviation should feel the same way. But as it turns out, I’m actually an anomaly in my industry. Most ATCs love this stuff. Go figure. Look, I honestly do admire the hell out of the rockstar pilots that do these crazy manoeuvres, and I’m not ashamed to admit to fawning over the Australian Air Force Roulettes team when they landed at Albury airport while I was training there, back in the day. And OK, I do get a thrill when Al Fursan, the UAE’s air demonstration team, buzz the tower when I clear them to transit my control zone. But air show displays? I don’t like the risk involved. And it is risky.

My first exposure to an air show was in 1988 when Air France Flight 296 crashed at the Habsheim air show in France. I was 17 and it would be another nine years before I even got the twitch to be an air traffic controller. But I will never forget watching this A320, full of passengers, fly what seemed like a totally controlled trajectory right into a forest, before crashing into flames. It shocked me, and it actually still traumatises me to watch that video.

There was a whole debate afterwards about what caused the crash but what struck me most was how unnecessary it was. Miraculously just three of the 136 people on board died, but sadly two of them were children who had won their tickets in a raffle. Jackpot??  I don’t think so.

Since becoming an air traffic controller I’ve learned that the A320 air show accident was not an isolated incident. Even though air shows are touted as “mostly” safe, accidents and crashes do happen. Ever since the Wright brothers’ revolutionary first flight in 1903, there have been 684 aircraft accidents at air shows, sometimes involving multiple aircraft and sometimes actually killing spectators. And the statistics are not going down. There have been 79 accidents in the last ten years alone. So why are we still having aerobatic displays at air shows? Why do we pressure our very best pilots to push the limits of aircraft? For a quick sale? I’m sorry, but that’s simply not good enough for me.

Clearance denied.