Career Profile: Navy Air Traffic Controller
Air traffic control is a tough career field to break into, and for good reasons: Aviation and Aerospace Sarina Houston, in her article "The National Airspace System Explained," reminds us that "[t]here are around 7,000 aircraft in the sky above America at once." Even forgetting for a moment that monitoring our airspace is a vital component of preventing another major terrorist attack on the US, it's quite a task just to keep so many aircraft from smashing into each other on a good day.
Add to that the challenge of overseeing flights destined for vital combat and transport missions both at home, abroad, and in the middle of the ocean, and you've got Navy Air Traffic Controllers (AC). It's no breeze to secure an enlistment contract as an AC, but in addition to a rewarding military career, it sure can't hurt your chances of cutting the line for those civilian positions a bit.
Duties and Responsibilities
Navy ACs man control towers at a variety of naval aviation facilities, including US stations, expeditionary airfields in war zones, and those magnificent floating cities, aircraft carriers. In each case, the AC "safely and effectively direct[s] aircraft . . . control[s] the movement of aircraft and vehicles on airfield taxiways and issue[s] flight instructions to pilots by radio," according to Navy Credentialing Opportunities On-Line (COOL).
In addition to scanning the skies with friend-or-foe identification radar, Navy Air Traffic Controllers help pilots plot their flight plans and carefully map and track aircraft routes to avoid any collisions. They also act as pilots' eyes on the ground, managing takeoffs, holding patterns, and landings with clear guidance by radio -- especially crucial in carrier landings, when one false move means you're in the drink.
Hopefuls must be high school graduates over the age of 18 and take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) achieving a total score of 210 from scores in general science, arithmetic reasoning, and a doubled mathematics knowledge score. A flight physical, normal hearing, and normal color vision correctable to 20/20 are also necessary.
Two very important qualifications for all Navy Air Traffic Controllers are clear verbal communication and trustworthiness. Like many high-profile jobs in the military, ACs must qualify for a secret security clearance. And since there's no time during a hot landing for a few rounds of "Sorry, could you say that again?" all ACs must pass a read-aloud test to confirm the ability to speak English loud and clear.
Due to the training and investment involved, first-term air traffic controllers must be enlisted for at least five years.
The Air Traffic Controller Course for the Navy and Marine Corps, conducted at Pensacola's Naval Air Technical Training Center, consists of about five months of intensive academic instruction and simulation that gets students up to speed on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) controller standards as well as military-specific skills.
Following a hard-earned graduation from "A" school, Navy COOL warns that sailors can still look forward to a further year or two of on-the-job training at their first assignment "consist[ing] of additional lab, lecture, and individual training." Although the time frame may vary, this is par for the course for all air traffic controllers, who must be certified specifically for the facility where they work to ensure they understand nuances like standard operating procedure and equipment that may vary from place to place.
Certifications and Career Outlook
Upon application, ACs may receive Navy funding to pay for certification with the FAA as air traffic control tower operators and aircraft dispatchers. The GI Bill may also be used to receive certifications from the American Board for Certification in Homeland Security and the American Association of Airport Executives.
If you plan on staying in the military for the long haul, Navy COOL's AC rating info card (revised October 2012) estimates about 70% of a 20-year career may be spent at shore assignments (versus the fleet) though "many of the shore stations may be located overseas." In the private sector, Keith Laing of TheHill.com reports that "private controllers handle about 28 percent of the aviation traffic in the United States," with some politicians pushing for more to cut costs, while the lion's share is still handled directly by FAA employees.
In either scenario, ACs have distinct advantages. All controllers must be FAA certified whether they're Federal employees or private, and further, as veterans Navy ACs acquire extra points toward the Federal hiring process.