I have had a love-love relationship with aviation ever since my parents carried me kicking and screaming at age 2 into the “cavernous” hold of a DC-3 for a flight, and I ended up adding to the interior decoration of the classic Gooney Bird...
The years went by, and many journeys in Fokker F27s, DC-4s, Electras, 737s, 727s, 707s I was hooked!! So when my teens came and went, I started to study for an aviation career, just had to have it.
Unfortunately finances got in the way, and I could not raise any more than PPL level, never mind.
A few years later, in my mid-20s, I saw an article in my favourite aviation magazine advertising for Air Traffic Control, wow, never thought about it, but why not? Many years earlier I had had a tour of the Brisbane ATC facility, and it was NOTHING like what I had seen in movies...there was one radar display, inside a darkened room surrounded by curtains, with a controller standing in front of it...I remember seeing (and hearing) a JAL 747 departing and we could see the controller talking to it...in his screen there were two rectangular “blips” with no labels in them...I asked...”how do you know which one is which” his curt reply...”I ask them”...fair enough.
Here begins a journey that still brings a smile to my face, and no, this is not your average journey into ATC, but it is my journey.
I sent my application in to the mail address required, fully expecting someone to send me a letter back saying “you are kidding, right?”...to my amazement, about 3 months later, I got a letter back, I was chosen for an interview! Woohoo!
I recall attending a party with some friends and they were all talking of people they knew who had been accepted for an interview for ATC, they were all pilot instructors, commercial pilots, etc etc who already had some grand ideas of how they would change the system and the way things were done...(yes, you start learning early on, pilots know more if you ask them, or controllers know more, specially if you don’t ask them...LOL).
Interview day came along...I attended the required place, a posh hotel in the middle of the city, where I was met by a panel of 8 people who looked me up and down and started taking notes before I even got to say “hello”...I cannot remember much about the interview or the questions, but I do recall it was a good 90 minutes before I came out, feeling completely drained, and threw my CV in the nearest garbage bin in disgust...this was the end of the road for me...the queue of applicants waiting to enter after me watched with a smirk in their faces.
Yet another surprise, after nearly 4 months, I got a letter in the mail, yet again, somehow, I managed to make it through the next stage...a FULL DAY of testing...I had to make myself available at 8:00 at a hall, bring nothing but a bottle of water, lunch would be provided...hmmm...
So I turned up, still certain someone had made a dreadful mistake...we were seated in a gallery, all facing the front, where a lone person stood and said...”you have 9 tests to go through, each lasting 45 minutes, when the 45 minute timer goes off, you must put your pen down, hand it in, and start the next one”...ok, so this is new...but there is a catch...you MUST follow instructions, wherever they come from..
So I started in earnest, I thought someone was pulling a trick on me...the first page was basic arithmetic, I mean 20+35, 60+145, etc etc...I was halfway through the first of 30 pages, when a loud voice came over the speakers...”could you please take a green pencil and draw a small circle on the top right hand corner of the front page”...ok, simple enough...did that, and back to my arithmetic...I had no sooner completed 3 more than the “voice” came back...”with a red pencil, draw a red square in the middle of the second page and write the result of the following: 34+76+54”....what? what was that again? Everyone was looking at each other...I quickly realised this was going to be far more complex than I thought..every 20 seconds the “voice” would come through and give an instruction that would NOT be repeated, and you then had to go back and try to complete the test in the allotted time. Kind of like a hypobaric chamber run, which I did a year earlier with the RAAF, but this time with no oxygen deprivation!
I did not complete a SINGLE test in the required time. I walked out of there feeling dejected, rejected and inferior...wow, blew it this time, anyone who raised the topic in my circle of friends was likely to be met with a primeval growl.
And yet, I got my usual letter, a few months later, congratulating me on passing the testing and to attend another interview...hmmm.
A few months later I attended the interview, this time just two people, it was very relaxed, talking about aviation knowledge, general knowledge, past experience, etc. I walked out feeling well, but still uneasy...there was still the usual queue of people waiting to be interviewed, but it was considerably smaller than before, and the same interviews were being conducted in every state!
Yes, once again I got “the” letter....this time asking me for a 3 day aptitude testing workshop, I would be staying at a local hotel, and all testing would be conducted there.
I turned up for the first day, around 200 people there, from all walks of life, interestingly enough, pilots were a remarkable minority. Testing was interesting, from ATC simulators to mental aptitude tests (count the hidden cubes, and that sort of thing) to arithmetic to basic problem solving to communication, culminating with being divided into groups and having a build a figure with multicoloured blocks, but it had to be the exact copy of one held inside a box, only one person per team could see the original and guide the rest of the team to build it...my team won...one of the things that still sticks in my mind was waiting outside a testing room, and we see this rather burly chap punching the brick wall with his bare fists! One of the instructors approaches and asks if he is ok and what is he doing, to which the young man replies “I am getting fired up for the testing...”...interesting indeed, I don’t think I saw that guy again.
After the end of the 3 days, we were advised it would take another 3 or 4 months before the results were known...they would choose a first class of 16 people, out of over 8,000 initial applicants...*sigh*, I thought I had better odds buying a lottery ticket.
I promptly put the whole ordeal behind me, until just 2 months later when I got my final letter, I was chosen as one of the lucky 16! I think I read that letter a dozen times as I simply could not believe I made it through!
We were required to fly to the southern city of Melbourne for a week of induction, then 4 weeks at the British Aerospace College in the city of Tamworth, home to the Australian Country Music festival.
So when the date came, I packed my bags and headed to Melbourne...a bus was there to collect me and take us to the Cylums Lodge Hotel..I had been there before when attending the Australian International Airshow so it was all familiar. Met the rest of the crew, and it turned out I was the only one with any aviation background...we had school teachers, store managers, psychologists, uni students, met experts and a former RAAF trainee. We were taken for tours of Melbourne’s ATC facilities, where we met the centre manager, after giving me his name, he said “everybody calls me Ted”, which I found interesting because you could not derive Ted from his first or last name, so I asked, why Ted? The answer: “It is short for sh!thead!” ok, now this is one of those awkward moments where you don’t know if you should laugh, frown disapproval or calmly smile, wave and beat a retreat...which is the path I chose.
The week went by rather quickly, and before we knew it Friday was upon us, we were supposed to fly out Saturday morning to Tamworth to begin our course, so the Friday night we had all management at our hotel to join us for dinner with the usual speeches, etc...at that point we the course was christened “Cavia Porcellus”...Latin name for “Guinea Pigs”.
Why, I hear you ask? Well, it turns out that ATC in Australia was an afterthought of the days when everything was under the control of the Department of Transport. If you wanted to be an ATC, you applied to enter the University of Tasmania in Launceston, and as long as you met the entry requirements of maths, science and English from High School, you were in. The course took around 3 years, after which you were not guaranteed a job and had to wait around for an offer. Then it was off to field training wherever they could fit you in. Needless to say, the turnover and failure rate was horrendous.
They said it was 50% attrition rate out of Uni and only 20% made it through field testing, that’s an 80% failure rate!
So someone had the bright idea of combining the USA’s FAA and the UK’s CAA testing and anybody who made it through those, should be able to just read the Manual of air traffic Services (MATS) and start performing ATC! But never fear, they would still give us a full Ab Initio course, all the way from the beginning (bless their cotton socks!).
Dinner went well until one of the lads in my course got a little boisterous with too many glasses of Port, and the Hotel manager refused to serve him any more alcohol. Things went from bad to worse as the boisterous ex-RAAF trainee decided to mouth back at the manager before rejoining the table, still uttering expletives towards the incompetence of the hotel manager and no doubt he thought, impressing the surrounding managers of Air Services Australia, when to everyone’s surprise, the Hotel Manager came to our table and told us to leave his hotel, everyone, check out now and leave immediately! Well, so much for a good start! The night deteriorated from there, all the smiles and goodwill went out the window and feverish and heated discussions were held between ASA management and the hotel manager. We were allowed to stay for one more night, but the contract for subsequent courses was torn up.
Next chapter in my saga....Tamworth and the College.