Veteran Eye on the Skies: Oldest Air Traffic Controller in World on Job at North Perry Airport
December 3, 2016
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  • In the five-story control tower at one of the busier small airports in the nation, air traffic controller Robert Craig is just beginning his regular eight-hour shift on a job consistently ranked near the top of the most demanding, stressful occupations.

    At least three small planes are circling the partly-cloudy skies over North Perry Airport, a student pilot is practicing touch-and-go landings, a Piper PA-18 Super Cub is swooping in to pick up an advertising banner and a Broward Sheriff’s helicopter is hovering nearby.

    “If the world knew that an 80-something-year-old was working their flight, that’s pretty scary,” Craig said with a laugh. 

    At 81, the silver-haired Craig has been certified by the Guinness World Records as the oldest active air traffic controller in the world. As he directs this welter of traffic over Pembroke Pines, Craig is calm. He has decades of experience.

    Craig tried retirement once, and it didn’t take. After 17 years as an air traffic controller with the Federal Aviation Administration at Miami International Airport, he thought he was ready to go sailing. But he was wrong.

    So in 1997, when he got the chance to climb back into the tower as a contract employee at North Perry, he took it. “The work is very complex but very exciting too. And it’s not really work if you enjoy it,” said Craig, who bounds up the steep steps to the control room with a vigor that impresses younger colleagues. 

    “As for the age thing, I don’t worry too much about it. I exercise, eat right, and keep moving forward.” 

    The recognition by Guinness came after Craig’s niece Mindy Townsend enlisted the help of her uncle’s wife, Donna Craig. While keeping their efforts a secret from Craig, the pair spent a year on research and rounding up the necessary documentation. 

    “Because of his love of aviation and loyalty to it through the years, I thought it was a great idea,” said Donna Craig.

    Compared to MIA or Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, North Perry at first glance seems almost pastoral, a grassy expanse well west of South Florida’s non-stop hubbub.

    But just a few minutes in the control tower can alter that perception.

    “November 1253, one-zero runway right. Cleared for take-off,” Craig said as he and two other controllers kept track of dozens of simultaneous operations of small planes and helicopters one afternoon last week. All wore headsets. And as they looked back and forth between the skies outside and the radar screens on the console, they spoke to the pilots in voices low and firm.

    With a 3,350-foot runway, North Perry Airport is too small to handle most commercial jets. Yet with an average of more than 500 air operations a day, it ranks as the second-busiest contract tower in Florida —behind only Pompano Beach Airpark — and the 63rd busiest of all towers in the U.S., according to FAA figures.

    “Bob was a legend at MIA [Miami International Airport],” said Ron Brinson, air traffic manager at North Perry and also a former FAA air traffic controller. “There is a lot of knowledge there.”

    Craig is too old to work as an air traffic controller now for the FAA, which has a mandatory retirement age of 56. He is also too old to be a commercial pilot; they must quit at 65.

    Thanks to the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, mandatory retirement is prohibited and not an issue for most American workers, including those employed by RVA, Inc., contracted by the federal government to manage air traffic operations at North Perry and dozens of other small airports in the U.S.

    Like FAA air traffic controllers, Craig and his colleagues at North Perry are required to pass an annual physical exam and to report any doctor visits, medications and physical problems. They are also evaluated annually by supervisors, attend monthly training, are expected to perform flawlessly in a job where the smallest mistake can end in tragedy.

    “Were I to forget something, or feel I couldn’t handle the job, then I would walk away,” said Craig. “You have to be right all the time.”

    Bob Craig represents a growing national trend of older workers staying on the job. Almost 20 percent of Americans 65 and older are now working, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most older people with a job since the early 1960s. 

    The reasons people give for delaying retirement are most often financial. Savings are often insufficient, and for many workers traditional pension plans do not exist.

    Money is not the only reason for postponing retirement, however. Thirty-six percent of respondents said they worked past 65 mainly because they enjoy their jobs or “want to stay involved,” according to a recent study by Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

    Born in Boston, Craig enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1961 and became an air traffic controller at Fort Benning, Ga. He worked for the FAA in Atlanta and Charleston, S.C., before starting at MIA in 1970.

    At MIA Craig was a supervisor in 1981 when 11,000 controllers were fired and immediately replaced by 3,000 managers. 

    At North Perry, home to four flight schools and scores of student pilots whose first language may not be English, Craig’s experience is a particular asset, Brinson said. “Many recognize his voice. And with students, who can get rattled, he has a way of calming them down,” Brinson said. “That’s a plus.”

    Craig has a private pilot’s license and through the years has compiled a resume chockablock with diversity. He has been a dance instructor, raced cars and boats, run a financial consulting business, managed a theater company and taught sailing. 

    But it is in the control tower, with a 360-degree view of a sky full of buzzing aircraft, where Craig feels most at home.

    “Expectations are high in this job, and I enjoy having demands made on me,” he said. “When you can provide that assistance to a pilot, and get the guy back home safely, it’s very gratifying. I like going home at the end of the day knowing I did a good job.”

    Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.