A day in the life of an air traffic controller at East Midlands Airport

Air traffic controller Simon Beckett lime green checkered Hollister shirt with hand on weather machine, with huge windows overlooking East Midlands Airport airfield from above behind him
-Credit: (Image: Nottingham Post)

High above the tarmac in a small, circular room with huge glass windows is East Midlands Airport's Air Traffic Control. Situated at the top of a 160-foot-tall concrete tower, the vantage point is the hallmark of an imposing building which was constructed and opened in 1999.

On this uppermost floor, the ground is carpeted and there is a peaceful quiet amongst the team who sit in there, amongst dozens of monitors, radars, buttons, weather sensors and other controls. With the help of these devices, this team have one of the most important aeronautical professions in the entire industry and the most critical job at the entire airport.

"It can be pressurising, especially when you're busy," says Simon Beckett, who's been with the team for seven-and-a-half years. "You've got to be able to switch on, just like that, because you could suddenly hear 'Mayday'. Our training is to prepare us for those sorts of situations, from having your feet up to getting straight to work."

The work seems simple. In the tower, you're using the windows to visually interpret the surroundings, to make sure it's safe for aircraft to take off and land.

But it's much more than that, says Simon. It's multi-tasking, pre-planning, and checking everything is in place.

And these machines aren't there for nothing. Amongst them are two weather gauges, one CCTV monitor, one pulse radar screen with information about any vehicle in the nearby vicinity and its altitude and speed, one list of planned arrivals, departures and transit flights in the local airspace and a communications panel which enables the team to chat to anyone across the airport and different ATC centres across the country.

The vast amount of training required to even get close to a career in the tower are proof if it was needed of how complex the job is. You don't need a degree - but you do need in the region of between £30,000 and £50,000 to fund boarding school-style training courses that last for weeks.

And there's the small matter of passing the gruelling exams. Thirty years ago, one of the team tells me, getting into the career involved, to start with, a preliminary day of aptitude tests in fields like mathematics and spatial awareness.

Then there was a technical interview, followed by a psychological interview - so those hiring can "delve into your mind", says Simon, to make sure you're not a risk to safety. After that, there were two more electronic aptitude tests.

And passing all that didn't mean you got the job. It just meant you were accepted onto a college course lasting months and months, in which exams at quarterly intervals saw those whose results were not satisfactory axed from the roster, despite all the effort they had put in.

Those who did pass and got a job in ATC would still - and do still - have to undergo training at the individual tower they're at. That in itself takes a minimum of around six months, Simon says, but getting fully qualified in all the areas of the job can take around two extra years.

It's not for the faint-hearted. But those who are in the job tend to quite enjoy it.

Simon is a watch manager, meaning he's in charge of this shift. At any one time, around eight people will be on - around five controllers, plus the manager, deputy and maybe a couple of assistants.

The intensity of the job comes in peaks and troughs. It depends on how busy the airport is.

But the controllers will only work a maximum of two hours at any one time without a half-an-hour break. They work six-on, four-off patterns with eight-hour shifts starting at either 7am, 2pm or 10pm.

Simion himself admits he's not a major enthusiast, like some of the "spotters" who camp out or picnic on nearby roads with a view of the runway to watch the planes go by and note down their serial numbers.

"I like it because it's rewarding and challenging," he says. He can say that again.