"Most people look at the sky and see a big blue open space but the people who control our aircraft and airports see it differently.....
To their eyes, the sky is a network of regions and sectors with levels and pathways. Katrina Gleave, Tim Rees and Neil Hall are air traffic controllers. In their work, a flock of birds could spell disaster and a storm is not a storm, but a 'potential conflict'. We trust these people with our lives each time we get in a plane.
Katrina and Tim work from the Brisbane Centre, which controls air traffic in Australia's Northern Region. Contrary to the common perception of controllers working only in towers with extensive views, Katrina describes the room where she works as 'the dungeon'. "It's not underground - it's just a vast room, set up with rows of consoles where controllers sit and work. Occasionally, I look out the window and see a tree, not a plane."
Modern surveillance technologies provide information required to track aircraft that may be travelling vast distances from the control centre. The data is available on-screen so physical visibility isn't necessary.
What controllers see on their screens is a computer interpretation of what the radar receives. It is represented by shapes such as crosses, triangles and squares. Neil explains, "Those things mean different types of surveillance. It might mean radar is the surveillance being used, or it might mean we're using satellite surveillance".
Controllers use this information to form a three dimensional, mental picture of the aircraft; unlike the 'old days' when it was done with strips of paper and pieces of plastic ('shrimp boats') being moved physically across a screen.
Neil has worked in areas without any form of surveillance and likens the challenge of working without radar to a game of chess. He says it isn't daunting. "We have rigid standards. We're a very regulated industry. What we do is subject to very rigid rules. We just follow those rules and it works."
He admits that despite being well-prepared for most eventualities, remaining calm when things 'go wrong', is one of the hardest parts of his job. "Internally you panic and outwardly you look really calm".
Tim is an Australian representative on the technical committee of the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers. This professional body with more than 130 member countries provides resources to members who may not have the same access to resources we (Australians) do. IFATCA also provides support to controllers in times of crisis, says Tim, as it did in the wake of a recent mid-air collision in Brazil.
Tim agrees controllers are sometimes made scapegoats. "Everyone looks for an answer and it could be an easy answer to say 'the controllers made a mistake'."
The ability to be flexible and robust when making decisions, is crucial for success as an air traffic controller, agree Katrina, Tim and Neil. Katrina explained, "You need to be able to change your mind. Make a decision, implement it - look at it and say 'No, that was wrong, it's not going to work'. Make another decision, implement that and move on".
A more surprising trait Neil, Katrina and Tim share, is a dislike of flying. Katrina suffers extreme claustrophobia when travelling in small planes. "It's the closed space. All I want to do is open the door and let the wind in - which is not a good thing in an aeroplane," she laughs.
According to Neil, the worst part of flying (for air traffic controllers), is not knowing what's going on 'at the front'. "I think we're used to being in control and it's a little bit hard for us, sitting down the back."