The Day I Flunked Out of Air Traffic Control School

When Reagan fired air traffic controllers in 1981, replacements had to be found. Not everyone who tried out made the cut.


In March 1982 I traveled to the Federal Aviation Administration Academy in Oklahoma City as a newly hired air traffic controller candidate for a three-month indoctrination. President Reagan had fired 11,000 controllers the previous year for going on strike, and the FAA was scrambling to fill the ranks. After the academy, we would get advanced, site-specific training at one of the 22 Air Route Traffic Control Centers to which we would be assigned.

In the initial four-week period, we learned how airplanes fly and navigation basics, but we also had to memorize climb speeds and ground speeds for about 60 aircraft types and the three-letter codes the FAA assigns to each type.

We heard from students a month ahead of us that soon we would have to memorize and draw a map for the hypothetical sector and its airspace that would be our training area. These “upperclassmen” produced hundreds of map templates, no doubt making a tidy profit when they sold them to us so we could practice.

As training moved on to the practical phases, we began to learn the art of keeping airplanes moving in an orderly manner.

My class was taught by a laid-back primary instructor named Ralph and his frenetic assistant Bill, the self-described Mad Hawaiian who regularly employed memorable asides such as “You are in deep kimchi now,” “Gentlemen, it will behoove you to know this,” and, in reference to remedying a problem with two conflicting aircraft, “Arc the mother” (send one aircraft on a sideways arc to avoid the other). Bill could also twist the language in interesting ways, noting, for example, how helpful it would be to have a “photogenic mind.” My classmates sometimes came up with the most creative questions, such as “If we run two airplanes into each other, does that remove them from the problem?”

The simulations were graded, so they were a constant source of worry. Each consisted of a brief setup period in which the trainee would have access to some flight strips and could form a mental plan (no written notes permitted) on how best to proceed in the ensuing 30-minute session. Any errors, even if immediately caught and corrected, resulted in points deducted from the score. During one setup, the proctor chatted with me, distracting me from formulating my plan. I made some rather serious errors, but the only assistance the instructors offered was “You have to stop making these mistakes.”

The practical application of controlling skills counted for 70 percent of our final grade. The written Controller Skills Test accounted for the rest.

One Friday, 300 of us gathered in the auditorium to receive completion certificates. The staff began calling names, and relieved and excited graduates would congratulate one another and leave. Eventually, about 50 of us were left. We were informed that we had not attained the minimum passing score.

Shortly we would be given a form explaining our options for severing our employment with the FAA. “But first,” we were told, “we want to make it clear that even though you did not pass the course, you are not failures. Perhaps you are simply ill-suited for this line of work, but we want to emphasize that you are NOT failures.”

I had missed passing by a little over one percentage point.

We were handed the promised form, which began:

Subject: Exit Processing Procedures

To: All Air Traffic Student Training Failures

You have been identified as a training failure in the National Air Traffic Training Program.

Bless the FAA—I guess. Here I was at one of the lowest points of my life, and yet, they found a way to make me laugh.