Kurt Liedtke Herald and News
Eyes in the Skies: Safety, Education a Priority in the Tower
March 19, 2017
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  • Consider it a board game separating toys on a ground-level map, or a three-dimensional game in the air completing the same task.

    That’s how Klamath Falls Air Traffic Control Manager Doug Cunningham describes the life of an air traffic controller, a career field with great local opportunities for those with skill-sets perfectly aligned with millennials.

    Cunningham’s role is largely administrative these days after 32 years as an air traffic controller both in the military and as a civilian. His job now is overseeing schedules, safety plans and rule changes. He handles a staff of 14 air traffic controllers at the Klamath Falls Airport, both civilian and military staff working side-by-side, to assure that all flight operations are conducted safely.

    Cunningham grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D., and joined the military straight out of high school. Going from busboy in high school to an air traffic controller, he spent 20 years stationed around the world managing military airspace before deciding to retire from the military and move to Klamath Falls.

    Intending to do what he described as “the fun part,” he planned to manage local air traffic and perhaps train new staff. Instead, he was soon asked to oversee the entire operation.

    Business has been good in the decade that Cunningham has managed operations, the Klamath team earning special safety awards in eight out of the past 10 years under his watchful eye.

    Airspace can get congested

    While Klamath Falls has nowhere near the volume of traffic of large metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles or Chicago, having an active military base on site does present unique challenges. From 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. 365-days a year Cunningham’s team is making sure F-15s and heavy transport aircraft are kept safely separated from slow-flying crop-dusters, small general aviation prop planes and helicopters.

    “This airspace is feast or famine,” said Cunningham. “We may have nothing for a while, and then we get inundated with different eclectic types of airframes from a Supercub doing 90 to a F-15 doing 300, and we need to manage that. Controllers have to be able to focus during those times, hit the switch mentally where they can by hyper-focused to grasp the situation, and relax afterwards.”

    Usually it is a team managing ground and air control, rarely does the tower get down to only one or two active controllers. Like at most controlled airports, there are separate controllers designated for ground and air operations. The ground controllers maintain what Cunningham describes as the flat board game, managing safe separation of aircraft and vehicles as they move between runways and along taxiways.

    Once safely maneuvered into position, pilots are transferred to the air controller who clears takeoffs and landings while managing all airborne aircraft within the designated airspace.

    Great job opportunities

    A career in air traffic control provides a unique opportunity for Klamath County residents, as Klamath Falls is one of only eight designated training sites within the United States for controllers. A six-figure income for high school graduates is easily obtainable, with all training paid in full, for those willing to consider a career in air traffic control.

    Kingsley Field is unique in not only being the lone F-15 pilot training facility in the United States, but also serves as a training center for controllers. This means that a local Klamath resident upon finishing high school can enter the Air National Guard and become a certified air traffic controller within nine months, training and staying locally.

    Ideal for those with computer skills

    Cunningham said there is currently a hiring frenzy for controllers by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), meaning an almost guaranteed high-paying job for anyone interested in the field.

    Kingsley Field has within its training regimen a simulator, allowing trainees to practice before being active in the tower trying it out for real.

    While the job of air traffic control has the outside perception of being a high-stress and difficult life, Cunningham believes it is a far more manageable career with great opportunities that is perfectly suited to many of the skills acquired by millennials through video games and modern technology use.

    “There are so many safety mechanisms in place, and the training is rigorous, so people shouldn’t be intimidated about becoming an air traffic controller,” said Cunningham. “It’s like a board game, the best way to explain it is from the game approach moving playing pieces around.”

    Focus and multitask

    While the military side of the airport has a trainer, at the tower itself they utilize something much more akin to a kid’s game complete with toy aircraft and a map layout of the airport.

    Cunningham doesn’t agree that the job is a high-risk high-stress position as is often portrayed, but rather a career with many opportunities for those who are able to focus and analyze multiple sources of information while working within a team.

    “It’s all about being able to focus on the room, hearing multiple conversations and absorbing information,” said Cunningham. “I think millennials are so in-tune for this because of video games, being able to take in different sources of information. I don’t understand why more aren’t considering this as a career.”

    Growing drone traffic an issue

    Klamath Falls’ airport is a Class-D designated airspace, meaning all aircraft within a five-mile radius must have permission to fly within that space from the surface up to an elevation of 6,600 feet, or approximately 2,500 feet above ground level. That includes drones, which per FAA rules are not permitted to fly more than 400 feet above ground level, and must be registered with the FAA if fitting within a specific weight criteria.

    The penalties can be severe for those flying drones within controlled airspace without authorization. The FAA requires registration of any drone that weighs 0.55 lbs. or more up to 55 lbs., with fines of $25,000 for those caught flying without first paying the $5 registration fee. Airspace violations can be even steeper, possibly leading to jail time.

    While safety is of utmost importance, Cunningham encourages education and outreach whenever possible, relishing in opportunities to let pilots tour the tower facilities and use mistakes as a chance to educate rather than punish.

    While some pilots may be intimidated by air traffic control, particularly student pilots, Cunningham likes to take a friendly approach providing information rather than filing deviation notices. He encourages anyone unsure about current regulations or rules to contact him to talk through different scenarios and understand the right and wrong thing to do.

    While the role of air traffic control may be somewhat authoritarian in nature, Cunningham hopes people are not intimidated by it, but see it as an educational role to help those utilizing airspace. It’s a place to learn if unsure about rules, or launch a successful and highly-paid career.

    “We try to keep people from getting in trouble,” said Cunningham.