ATC: What it takes to be the best


We are responsible for the safe and expeditious flow of air traffic. Our duty priority is to separate aircraft and issue safety alerts.


Air traffic control has a specific reputation. The job is known for being stressful and the controllers themselves, type-A personalities. That’s the mentality it takes to be successful in this line of work. We are competitive and ambitious.


Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, Radar Approach Control (RAPCON) is one of the most difficult and complex facilities in the U.S. Air Force. With over 290,000 operations annually, we boast the busiest airspace in the Air Force and the busiest RAPCON in Air Education Training Command. These facts give our controllers quiet a sense of pride.


“Being here at Columbus and going into that IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) room and seeing the complexity and number of operations is amazing,” said Senior Master Sgt. Garrick Christian, 14th Operations Support Squadron’s RAPCON chief controller. “Trainees that come here and get rated are doing really well for themselves. Having been to Korea and meeting controllers that were raised here at Columbus, you know you don’t have to worry about their ability.”


Becoming a controller at Columbus AFB RAPCON is extremely challenging. It takes an average of 13 months to become a certified five level. Once a trainee achieves their five level, they are able to work a control position without a monitor.


“To be an air traffic controller you must have the right mentality and a strong drive,” said Senior Airman Brandon Patrock, 14th OSS air traffic controller. “You get tested since day one. The trainers want to see if you have the drive to succeed. It takes a strong personality.”


The journey to becoming an air traffic controller is a long one. During our technical school at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, we are expected to learn, in three months, what civilian controllers learn in five months at the Federal Aviation Administration academy. The wash out rate in tech school is one of the highest in the Air Force, but the real challenge begins once we arrive at our first assignment.


“Sometimes training gets really intense, but you know the five levels are only trying to make you better,” said Airman 1st Class Lara O’Brien, 14th OSS air traffic control apprentice. “Not only do you have to know the information, but also be able to apply it appropriately. It takes loads of practice and I get frustrated with myself very easily. Also, the five levels can be very tough on you for not knowing the information.”


Being a three level was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. Each of us are assigned a trainer who teaches us how to become a controller. O’Brien is lucky, because she is being trained by Patrock, one of the best controllers Columbus AFB has to offer.


“I try to take everyone’s criticism into account, especially my trainer’s, who is the controller of the year,” O’Brien said. “He’s an intense person overall, but I’ve talked to other people he’s trained and they turned out to be great controllers, so I’m glad he’s my trainer.”


Earning the five level is one of the most memorable moments in a controller’s career and it’s one that I will always remember. The badge ceremony is a staple of air traffic culture, because it symbolizes ones transition from trainee to controller.


“As far as the culture goes, the number one thing is the badge, we are the one career field that doesn’t wear our badges out of tech school,” said Patrock. “You have to earn the badge, that’s what you know from day one. We are earning what’s on our chest and that’s something that to an outsider sounds like nothing, but to us it means everything.”


“You’ve worked toward something that’s hard and means a lot,” he continued. “Everybody respects you when you earn it, it’s almost like a fraternity. It’s basically a rite of passage. Now the goal is to be better than everyone else and be the best that you can be.”


From a leadership perspective, the ceremony offers a chance to recognize the hard work and determination that went into completing three-level training.


“When you watch somebody who was a three level become a five level at the badge ceremony, it means a lot.” Christian said. “It gives that trainee the opportunity to receive that public praise and recognition.”


In conclusion, I’m extremely proud of my vocation. I’m grateful I have the opportunity to share a little bit of what our world is like and to give our best controllers the notoriety they deserve. They are a special kind of people. We all chose this career for different reasons, but I think Patrock said it best …


“I chose to be an air traffic controller because I heard that it was stressful and that not many people could do it,” said Patrock. “If somebody tells me I can’t do something, I’m going to prove them wrong. That’s why I’m trying to be the best person here.”