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FEATURE: Air traffic controllers tell of stress and joy

IN THE KNOW:While the job of an air traffic controller is very stressful, it is also rewarding and comes with some perks, such as knowing what flights celebrities are on
By Shelley Shan / Staff Reporter

Many people who watched the US movie Pushing Tin walked away with a new-found respect for the work that air traffic controllers do on a daily basis, particularly how they manage to route planes and prevent traffic jams or worse.
However, to actual controllers who work at the North Air Traffic Service Park, the movie only partially portrayed what they deal with on a daily basis.

The North and South Air Traffic Service Parks, run by the Air Navigation and Weather Services, are in charge of regulating air traffic in the Taipei Flight Information Region (FIR), which is bordered by Fukuoka FIR in Japan, Manila FIR in the Philippines, Hong Kong FIR and Shanghai FIR in China.

The Taipei FIR sees 1.2 million aircraft pass through its jurisdiction a year.
“The job of an air traffic controller is to accurately guide aircraft and to make sure they are safely spaced apart in terms of distance and altitude,” senior air traffic controller Genny Teng (鄧惠娟) said. “We have to make sure aircraft that have already taken off can smoothly enter the airspace and that those arriving at an airport can safely land on the runways.”
Aside from handling the pressure of routine work, Teng said air traffic controllers also need to react quickly in emergency situations.

“When Japan was struck by a powerful earthquake and the ensuing tsunami in March, we had to keep flights to Japan from taking off from Taiwan and tried to inform those that were already in the air to stop heading there,” Teng said.
Forty-year-old Mao Hsiu-ju (毛修如) decided to become an air traffic controller because she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, who was an flight controller for the air force.
The crash of a TransAsia Airways aircraft in 1995 was the worst experience in her career.

“I was 22. The crash happened only a year after I got my license as an air traffic controller,” Mao said. “I was working at the control tower at [Taipei’s] Songshan Airport [now Taipei International Airport] and the plane was returning from -Penghu to Taipei on Lunar Year’s Eve. I remember communicating with the pilot before the accident and I even told him they were clear for landing, but there was bad weather and I eventually lost contact with him.”
Mao said she had a feeling that something bad must have happened because the communication never resumed.
The plane was found the next day near Yingge (鶯歌) in then--Taipei County.

“It was so sad that I really don’t want to remember any of it,” she said.
Mao said Pushing Tin might have exaggerated the life of an air traffic controller a little, but she added that they are indeed under tremendous pressure whenever there is heavy air traffic.
She said they generally allow seven or eight aircraft to be in the same zone at a time.
When on duty, each controller must sit at a control seat for an hour and take a 30-minute break before resuming work. They must also take turns working the day shift and the night shift.

Prior to working in their new, spacious and well-lit office in Taoyuan, both Teng and Mao had to work in a dark air traffic control room because they had to be able to see the aircraft on the radar screen.
Jean Shen (沈啟), director of the Air Navigation and Weather Services, said she was a controller when the US was still engaged in the war in Vietnam. She said they had to work with people from the US Air Force to regulate flights from Vietnam.

“Back then, they were using still high-frequency radio to communicate with the pilots,” she said. “The reception was not good and you could hear the loud noises made by the aircraft.”
Despite the long hours and the stress, Teng and Mao say the life of an air traffic controller is not all work and no play.
“We are the first people to know exactly when and on which flights any celebrities are,” Teng said, adding that she had guided planes that had former NBA star Michael Jordan as well as “the King of Pop” Michael Jackson on board.
“We called Jordan’s plane ‘Nike One,’” she said.

Mao said her sister was also drawn to the work as an air traffic controller and eventually became one.
One of their colleagues has four siblings and all of them are air traffic controllers, she said.
“The work is stressful, no doubt, but you gain the sense of achievement after you safely guide the planes to land or to pass over Taiwan,” Mao said.




 
   

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