In School With Air Traffic Controllers

ABC News takes a behind-the-scenes look at the intense training.

ByABC News via logo
November 19, 2008, 10:33 AM

Nov. 29, 2008— -- In a nondescript, two-story building in the shadow of the Oklahoma City airport, hundreds of students are learning how to do one of the most stressful jobs around -- that of an air traffic controller.

At the FAA Academy, as it's called, the Federal Aviation Administration is running two shifts of classes as it scrambles to fill jobs.

In the last three years, the FAA has hired 5,000 new controllers. It has plans to hire 17,000 total in a decade to make up for a wave of retirements.

About 40 percent to 50 percent of the trainees come from schools that offer degrees in air traffic control. An additional 33 percent come from the military and the rest from the general public.

Student Matt Kirsch's father is a controller, but Kirsch was in banking until he decided to try his hand at guiding planes.

"I would think everybody would be nervous, especially coming in off the street, no background," Kirsch said. "So that's a little bit of stress. But that's part of the fun, too."

During the busiest times, controllers may guide 5,000 planes in the nation's skies. It's a job where the slightest mistake could lead to a tragedy.

The training at the FAA Academy is intense.

"You're immersed in air traffic control eight hours a day, every day," said Henry Mogilka, an air traffic division staff manager at FAA Academy.

ABC News got a behind-the-scenes look at the training.

For those who will work in the towers at the nation's airports, instruction begins in a room outfitted with what looks like a child's play set. It's a giant model airport painted on a table top. Also in the room is a fake air traffic control tower where student controllers issue instructions to other students holding and "flying" model airplanes. The planes land, take off and taxi around the model airport.

The low-tech instruction is designed to give students a feel for a busy airport and to teach them to continually look out the tower windows.

"You always have to be scanning the horizon," said student Travis Barker, "scanning to see where the planes are. You don't want to clear anybody without scanning first."