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Air Traffic Controllers Prepare for Busiest Travel Day of The Year

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An air traffic control specialist works a busy radar position at gate Charlie 5 at Chicago Bob Hope Airport

QUEENS, NEW YORK – On a cold and windy airport tarmac, before the sun has even crested over the horizon, raising his arms into the air and stretching from left to right, air traffic control specialist David Johnson looked calm and ready for the day ahead: the Sunday after Thanksgiving at JFK airport in New York City.

“This is like, my Superbowl,” he said, stretching his neck from left to right, his wands glowing bright orange.

Across the country, air traffic controllers like Johnson are preparing for what is widely considered one of the busiest travel days of the year. Countless controllers train endlessly, running drills, scenarios, and attending briefings in which they sign stuff they don’t necessarily read, in order to prepare for such madness.

“It can get stressful, but I stay pretty calm, most of the time,” Johnson told us. “The airport I used to work at had a slight hill at one of the gate areas, so we had some pretty intense operating procedures,” he continued. “Here, there is really only one altitude, so the game becomes a little easier to handle. We don’t have to descend them or anything.”

Controllers work is sectors and ‘hand-off’ traffic to one another, using advanced wand signs that can be dizzily fast.

“You gotta really keep up,” Johnson said. “If you loose the picture, you’ll fall behind quick. I had some great trainers. One of them actually used to be a drum major in the Navy. That guy could spin wands, man.”

When asked about the most difficult part of the job?

“The wind. Without question. I

An air traffic controller clears a Cessna BE-20 to taxi into a holding pattern at the New Orleans MacArthur Airport on Saturday

mean, I can have a guy holding, waiting for an Allegiant flight or something, and the plane breaks down. And now we have to have him out there on the tarmac, and the winds just howl. It’s freezing. I had ice on my wands at one point last year. Billy in the de-icer truck actually sprayed me down. My life flashed before my eyes, and suddenly there I was, once again working a full sector of planes at the gate. It’s events like that where my CTI training really goes into play,” he continued.

We asked what the most difficult situation Johnson had ever countered.

“I had this United jet on final. Waved him into Bravo 3, and all of a sudden, the pilot decides to accelerate toward the gate at full throttle. I’m looking to Jimmy, the guy working the sector next tome at Bravo 4, and I’m all, ‘dude, help me out here, we gotta split this sector!’,” he continued.

“Come to find out, I confused the hand signals of ‘connect to gate’ with ‘maintain 250 knots or greater’,” Johnson admitted.

As controllers like Johnson work the complex ground operations, numerous, lower-level security personnel overlook the field from the large tower at the airport.

A security tower at Gatwick

“Those guys up there operating security do play a part,” Johnson said. “But to be honest, it’s more for show than anything else. It comes from an era where America used to be great. Hopefully Trump will bring that mentality back,” he continued, before going off on some rant about CNN. “I think they just fall asleep, gain weight, and yell at each other constantly.”

We at ATC Memes say good luck to all air traffic controllers out there today. Be sure your wands have fresh batteries, and dress for the elements accordingly!