Air Traffic Controllers Are a Specific Breed

They get edgy when something is out of place.


The civil servant at the employment office handed me the application I’d asked for. “Commissary clerk trainee, GS-3. You want to apply for air traffic controller too? We’ve got some openings.”

“Sure,” I answered. “And I’ll take an astronaut application, if you’ve got one.”

It was late 1981, and Ronald Reagan had recently fired thousands of striking controllers. I was fresh out of the Air Force, newly married, and had just moved to Fort Meade, Maryland, with my husband, who still had a year to go on his enlistment. I needed a job, so I filled out both applications. Two weeks later I was happily organizing shelves and memorizing prices at the commissary. Every few months, though, I would get a call from the Federal Aviation Administration to take another test.

My Air Force experience was useless for air traffic control. I had signed up to be a linguist, hoping the Air Force would send me to language school to learn Russian. Maybe I would become a diplomatic translator. Or a spy!

The Air Force had taken my request to learn Russian and assigned me to learn Polish instead. Most of my military career involved listening to Polish air force pilots doing touch-and-gos in MiG-15s, so I learned heaps of aviation jargon at the job, but it was all in Polish—surprisingly unhelpful for a future career with the FAA.

The FAA exam was a series of questions about airplanes on collision courses. They wanted to know if and where the airplanes would collide. After passing that test, I went back for a psychological exam of an extremely transparent nature. “Does the top of your head feel soft?” “Does it sometimes seem as if everyone is watching you?”

Years later, after I had observed controllers for a while, I realized that the psychological test had not been to weed out psychos, but rather to select a particular kind of psycho. Many controllers have an overinflated sense of order, becoming edgy if something is the tiniest bit out of place. You can see how this would be a good quality in a controller but not necessarily in the average Joe. In fact, I later knew a controller who was convinced that everyone really was watching him. His paranoia extended to threatening visitors who brought cameras to the control tower. His colleagues did their best to get along with his little quirks because he could flush out a backlog of departures faster than anyone.

After the psychological test came the physical exam. As it happened, the FAA was so shorthanded that the doctors and nurses conducting the tests did their best to make sure we passed. Didn’t pass the eye test? Try again. The hearing test? Do it over, and this time pay special attention to the third set of tones.

Things went smoothly enough, though several of us waiting for our results became suspicious when the nurse kept finding small glitches in the electrocardiogram of a particularly handsome candidate. He had to go back for several bare-chested EKGs until the nurse was satisfied. With the results, I mean.

The interview was the final step. I was surprised to have made it this far and still unsure whether I wanted the job at all. Air traffic control seemed like a stressful job with no margin for error, and from what little I had seen of it on TV and in movies, the job was held by middle-aged men with crew cuts and short-sleeved white shirts.

My interview took place at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, Virginia. I had some time to kill before the interview, and a friendly controller escorted me into the radar room. There were a hundred men and women at dozens of radar scopes. The room was neat and orderly. No one seemed stressed.

Later, in a tidy office, two men with crew cuts and short-sleeved white shirts asked me questions about my employment record and education. My experiences with Polish and with checking groceries did not seem to impress them. The interview at an end, I got up, replaced my chair exactly as it had been, equidistant from the ends of the table. I arranged the pencils on the table in order of size, perpendicular to the edge of the table, shook hands with the crew cuts, and left.

Two weeks later, I was an FAA employee.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.