One thing I discovered as my career progressed has to do with stress. Now I have to say that I am almost certainly unqualified to discuss this much because I almost never felt stress. I reached this conclusion simply by thinking some things out.

Picture some young kid, 20 or 21 years old, fresh out of the military with military ATC experience. He gets hired by the FAA at a pretty good salary—certainly far more than he was making as an E-5 (the numbers have changed a lot since I wrote this and certainly since I lived it—that's why there are no specifics). He goes to the Academy, returns to the facility, pulls strips for a year or two, gets promoted two grades, and then goes to D-school. By then, he's probably gotten married and had a kid. As soon as he gets D-certified, he gets promoted again a couple of grades. Another kid comes along and they buy a new house.

A year later he starts radar training and starts noticing that traffic seems to bother him—he's not comfortable—often because he doesn't “get it”. He takes a while longer to certify, but as soon as he gets a couple of radars, he gets promoted again. He works his two radars, but he's still uncomfortable. He trains some more and eventually gets four radars (harder sectors, too) and another promotion. However, despite his gaining experience, he finds he's working at his maximum level a lot.

With all the money he's now making, he buys a new house and has another kid. Finally, with a lot of training, he gets his last radar and his last promotion. But he never gets any better, and he's scared every day he comes to work. That's not even the stress part, although it certainly contributes.

He is making at this point (in Chicago in the ‘90s) something on the order of $70-90K (four times what he started at a mere five years earlier). Where in the world is he going to get a job with his high school education and highly specialized, non-transferable experience that will pay anywhere near that? And how will he pay for his house, kids, and cars? He has to keep coming to work every day, working at his maximum, scared to death every time. That is stress.

If you'll pardon me for this immodest statement, that's why I never felt stress. I discovered along the way that I had an aptitude for this work. I rarely had to function at 100%; I almost always had some reserve. But an awful lot of controllers don't have the gift that I was given. And to a lesser or greater degree, most of them feel stress.

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Last updated: 06 April 2009