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Interview: Airservices Australia on Training and Maintaining Its Air Traffic Controllers

Melbourne ATC. Photo: Airservices Australia

There’s a saying that air traffic controllers exist for one very important reason: pilots also need heroes. True or not (the reader shall decide), ATC is undeniably a necessity. The very purpose of air traffic control – ATC – is to organize the traffic of the skies in a safe, efficient manner. While the skill of the pilot is usually the most visible aspect of the larger aircraft management system, it is the air traffic controller who guides and choreographs the vast volume of flights that we take for granted.

While the educated reader or aviation professional appreciates the role of ATC, one question lingers: who are these phantom heroes? AirlineGeeks asked Airservices Australia, the civilian air traffic control authority of Australia, what makes an air traffic controller, and what steps are taken to ensure controllers maintain peak performance both now and in the future.

The Beginning – A Very Good Place to Start

It is obvious that air traffic controllers are not born to be pilots’ heroes, nor do they arrive at the control tower from a flying crane; they start out as trainees. But, in the unlikely event that the reader isn’t convinced of this truth, we asked an Airservices Australia spokesperson for some more information.

AG: What characteristics are you looking for in ATC trainees?

AA: We are always on the lookout for top talent to recruit – exceptional people from diverse backgrounds, from all walks of life.

Trainees need to be sharp, highly organized and calm under pressure.

No aviation experience is required. Airservices provides all the training an individual will need, so if they’re over 18, and they want to be a guardian of the Australian sky – They can apply via Air Traffic Control careers.

It’s a fast-paced and dynamic career for the future – so long as there are planes in the sky there’ll be controllers on the ground.

They’ll get paid while they learn and receive a nationally recognized qualification.

AG: Many employers are looking only for experienced workers. Does Airservices Australia have a target to meet with the employment of trainees?

AA: We welcome up to 140 trainees per year, delivering courses in Enroute, Approach and Tower Control.

AG: What is the process for a trainee to qualify as an air traffic controller?

AA: The training program varies at our Airservices Training Academy in Melbourne, but may take up to 18 months.

Training delivery is face-to-face and consists of theory and practical components, with practical training undertaken in air traffic control simulators. A large amount of effort and study is required throughout the training program and each stage of training has a critical milestone which must be successfully completed in order to continue training. During training, you will work towards the AV150115 Diploma of Aviation (Air Traffic Control) [3]. This is a nationally recognised qualification, developed specifically for the Australian aviation industry.

On successful completion of the AVI50115 Diploma of Aviation (Air Traffic Control), you undergo on-the-job workplace training for three-to-six months. This is the final phase of your training, after which you may be eligible to obtain an Air Traffic Control Licence. Completion of the AVI50115 Diploma of Aviation (Air Traffic Control) can provide credit transfer entitlements for further higher education studies.

The School of Simulation

The aerospace industry is no stranger to simulation. Airservices Australia utilizes world-class simulation technology to train and maintain a professional corps of air traffic controllers.

AG: Where does the simulation training take place?

AA: Our air traffic controllers are instructed at the Airservices Training Academy in Melbourne – trainees must be able to relocate.

We welcome up to 140 trainees per year, delivering courses in en route, approach and tower control.

AG: What makes the training facilities world-class?

AA: Expert air traffic control instructors provide training – using our state-of-the-art technology, including Control Tower Visual Simulators (CTS), a 360-degree Melbourne Tower simulator and Eurocat simulator for enroute and approach – to prepare students for their own careers as guardians of the Australian sky.

These simulators can be reconfigured to deliver different training and testing scenarios to allow trainees to perfect their craft.

AG: Do you have simulator pilots working for the ATC training?

AA: Our training is facilitated by Simulator Support Officers who perform the role of a simulator pilot and simulator air traffic control, while also providing coordination with other agencies.

The Future of ATC

With automated, unmanned aviation a growing reality, it only makes sense to wonder if ATC as we know it will continue to play the same role. Where does Airservices Australia see itself in the future?

AG: There are always developments in any sector of aviation. How does Airservices Australia keep up with those developments?

AA: Airservices is investing in the projects and technologies that represent the future of Australian aviation; the aviation industry is evolving quickly and we’re evolving with it. Visit UTM & Drones Archives – Airservices (airservicesaustralia.com)  for more information.

Airservices is also at the forefront of exploring new technologies to make our services faster, more efficient and more valuable for those operating in Australian skies.

Long-term projections indicate that by 2035, there will be more than 235 million passenger movements each year at Australian capital city airports (source: IATA).

We’re experiencing accelerated growth of new airspace users and new aircraft types, all with different performance capabilities — automation, digitization and intelligence systems.

We’re partnering with world-leading companies, the aviation industry, regulators, and other government agencies to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles and deliver a contemporary and national air traffic management system.

We will continue to facilitate sustainable aviation, balancing industry efficiency, community interests and operational performance.

AG: During COVID, many in the aviation sector found themselves not working, only to re-train as we return to pre-Covid flight volumes. How has Airservices Australia kept its ATC staff competent?

AA: Airservices Australia was deemed an essential service during the pandemic and as such we have continued to provide air traffic management services throughout, so our ATCs have not stopped working.

Airservices has always strongly supported our ATCs to maintain their specialized skillsets during and despite of the ongoing pandemic by offering extra simulator time to maintain their expert skills.

Ongoing support also includes CASA requirements, such as annual exam papers on the knowledge required for the role, and every six months a formal, on-the-job check assessment is conducted by a trained specialist to ensure our air traffic controllers meet the high standards to continue to control.

The Humble Hero

For the average passenger, the closest understanding of ATC is likely from what is seen in films like Sully. The standards are high, the training rigorous, but the product? If one can sleep while they fly, they are experiencing the organization and safety that only ATC delivers. ATC exists because pilots need heroes too, the air traffic controller is the quiet achiever of global aviation — a humble hero, however unsung.


Mike Mangano


  • Mike Mangano

    Mike’s love affair with flight and mechanical objects in the sky began at an early age, fascinated by space documentaries and forever inspired by his first experiences with Flight Simulator ’95. He currently works as a UAV flight instructor and is training to receive his Private Pilot Licence with the goal of working in manned flight instruction. An avid reader of all things aviation and manned space flight, Mike stays close to developments in aerospace while reminiscing and sharing the rich history of flight with others. He loves writing, engineering and science. https://twitter.com/MikeMangano9

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