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.


Ejo #85 – Our Kitchen Rules

In March 2016, right after moving into our new place, David and I realised that our kitchen was in dire need of an overhaul. The woman who lived in the apartment before us was a slovenly wench, who had allowed the place to putresce into filth and disrepair. The kitchen (and bathroom) cabinets were all water-damaged and mouldy on the inside, so it was imperative to replace them as soon as possible.

Hahaha, did I say as soon as possible?? Forthwith, the best laid plans!!







I got busy designing our new kitchen using IKEAs 3D kitchen design programme. It’s basically like baby-CAD, allowing you to enter the dimensions of your room and then play around with inserting different IKEA products and colours. It’s pretty fun to use and I spent hours and hours on it trying to create our perfect kitchen. Or at the very least a better kitchen.

So, the idea was that once we’d figured out the design, we would replace all the yucky brown floor and wall tiles, and then install the sexy, sparkling new kitchen. Since IKEA would do the installation of the new cabinets, we just needed to find a tiler who would also do us the favour of smashing and removing the offending cupboards. Easy, right?  No. The deal is, if you want to get anything other than minor work done in any apartment on Palm Jumeirah, you need to get a permit from the developer, Nakheel. And they only issue permits to companies that have Contractor’s All-Risk Insurance. What is CAR insurance? I have no idea, but I do know that not many companies have it. Because it’s expensive as fuck. I looked it up and it seems the only companies that can afford this crazy insurance are the big ones, the construction firms that build apartment blocks and malls. So, after getting a few quotes, we realised that the tilers we could afford couldn’t afford the insurance. Catch-22. Dead end. Plans on ice.

As we are wont to do, we moved on with our lives and we kind of got used to the shitty brown kitchen. It was gross, yes. It was damaged, yes. But it was functional, so we normalised it. I guess that’s just the brain’s way of dealing with crappy situations, and as a defence mechanism it worked a treat because we continued using the kitchen for the next nine months without too much drama. But still… existential kitchen discontent crept in. Slowly. But surely. Until it became impossible to ignore. We needed to get back on the horse and find a company that could fix our awful kitchen. Oh, and don’t think we didn’t consider the old let’s-renovate-the-kitchen-without-official-approval trick. We thought it through and concluded it just wasn’t worth it. We live in a very strange country and we don’t know the consequences of breaking rules like that, so we wanted to do it all above board.

And then, out of nowhere, we had a stroke of good luck. A colleague of mine mentioned that she was renovating her place, and how impressed she was with the guys that she had hired to renovate her bathrooms. They’d been recommended to her by her previous renovators who had exclaimed that she was “Too fussy, madam!!!!”. I thought, “Eureka, they sound perfect”. And so I reached out to MobiCon to ask them for a quote and to see if they could get all the necessary permits from Nakheel, and lo and behold, it turns out that they could.

But there was a hitch (as if there wouldn’t be a hitch). The permit was issued with the proviso that no floor tiles were allowed to be removed. If we wanted to put new tiles on the floor we had to do it over the top of the existing ones. WTF? Apparently the home owner’s association carries some pretty heavy clout around here, and one of their main priorities is protecting residents from excessive renovation noise. How delightful. But not very convenient for us. We had a representative of Nakheel come to the house to tell us this and to ensure that the contractor was fully aware of the restriction. An Emirati man wearing national dress, Mr B. cut an imposing figure as he loomed in our beige kitchen. But somehow, during his fifteen minute visit, David and I convinced him to approve the removal of floor tiles. Yeah, it shocked the hell out of me too! How’d we do it? The old-fashioned way, of course. We grovelled and pleaded and prostrated ourselves, and promised that there would be NO complaints of noise from ANY of the neighbours. He looked suitably dubious and said that if there were any complaints (even just one) he would shut the whole thing down, regardless of how incomplete the work was. Scary stuff, particularly as people in Dubai seem to be rather fond of dobbing, as opposed to the more civilised option of knocking on your door and having a quiet word.

So, two days before work was to begin David and I went around to the neighbours that were most likely to be affected by the noise. We introduced ourselves, explained what was going on and offered gifts of appeasement – chocolate (the really good stuff of course, this was serious business after all!!!). And it worked. Even though the tile removal was hella noisy, no-one complained, and I consider that to be a minor miracle.


Mmmmmm, Patchi chocolate. 2.4kgs of the stuff!!!  Note the grungy floor tiles (shudder!!). 

The work was supposed to take 10 days but of course it took closer to three weeks. And for three weeks our house looked like the set from Mad Max. Everything was covered in a fine, grey dust. Including us!!! Also, for three weeks we couldn’t cook anything, so we either ate salads for dinner or had take-out (guess which one we did more). And for three weeks, we couldn’t do any laundry, since the washing machine fittings are in the kitchen. Three weeks, friends. I got down to one pair of underpants!! And yes, I suppose I could have hand washed them but that’s just not my stripe. Neither is sending them out to be washed by a stranger. Ew!  (Click on the thumbnails below for a description of each photo)

Anyway, after the tiling was all done it was IKEA’s turn to come and do their thing. They installed the entire kitchen in just one day. At one point there were seven guys working on it. It was impressive to watch. Once the kitchen was in, we had to organise electricians and plumbers to hook everything back up again, as well as getting the gas reconnected. We wheeled and we dealed and somehow we got everything completed by the evening of 24th December. Our first cooked meal in our brand new kitchen was going to be Christmas lunch. Perfect timing. To celebrate, we had beer and pizza for dinner (old habits die hard). (Click on the thumbnails below for a description of each photo)

The next day I started preparing our Christmas feast while David put on a load of washing (one pair of undies, remember!!!). I was about to put the cake in the oven when we noticed water streaming out in tidal waves from under the washing machine. I experienced a sinking feeling (egad! our new kitchen was ruined in less than one day!!!) but there was also a feeling of just getting on with it. Nothing was going to ruin Christmas lunch. We mopped up the water, and I continued prepping the roast while David called the plumbers back. It took them a while to fix the problem (blocked pipes or something like that) but I kept cooking that damn meal around them and their tools. And it turned out wonderful. In fact, it was everything that a first meal in a new kitchen on Christmas day should be.


Ermahgerd, I love this kitchen so much.


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.