Gary W. Wescott smiled as he watched three Tulsa Community College students at the school’s air traffic control computers.
Brandon Delgado, Maci Morehouse and Daniel Gutierrez were directing aircraft landings and takeoffs at the fictitious airfield inside the Aviation Center at Jones Riverside Airport. They knew that a mistake would result in a simulated crash.
All are completing the Collegiate Training Initiative program at Tulsa Community College and were at various levels in the application process for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Mike Monroney Air Traffic Control Academy in Oklahoma City.
The four-semester program began at TCC in 2009, and the first class graduated a year later. Today the program is one of 30 in the U.S., down from 36 originally approved by the FAA.
Wescott, who retired to join the TCC faculty after 21½ years as an air traffic controller, enjoys his role as ATC coordinator as much as he enjoyed being an air traffic controller.
He tells students that if they are initially selected for the academy, they first must pass physical, mental and psychiatric examinations, as well as security and background checks and a drug test. Then they will be offered an opportunity to attend the academy.
They become federal employees the day they walk into the academy. An academy student will study starting with eight hours in the classroom, then in the evening, after a break that includes dinner, study until about 10 p.m., Wescott said. The routine begins again the next morning.
Some decide they can take a weekend off, Wescott said, but they fail because they lose that study time and never can recover.
“I tell them right off the bat that when they go to the academy they leave everything behind for the next four months,” he said. “I tell them they need to forget about their spouse, kids, girlfriends and boyfriends.
“Then if they get out of the academy, they must work hard in their first location until they are fully certified. It is only after that certification is received — between one and three years — they can relax and breathe more easily. They are in training until that time.”
Demand is high for air traffic controllers because those who joined the profession in 1990 are nearing retirement or are retiring, he said. Someone is needed to fill those positions and help oversee approximately 5,000 aircraft in the skies over the U.S., which includes commercial, military and private aircraft.
An air traffic controller’s role is complex, Wescott said. Keeping up with aircrafts is challenging, and controllers can’t be distracted. Students operating the simulated control panel can make mistakes, and they then can see aircraft collide and explode.
People don’t realize that at one time Jones Riverside Airport was the 28th busiest in the U.S. It wasn’t unusual to work between 200 to 250 operations — landings and takeoffs — in an hour.
Initially, the FAA would accept only applicants that had completed CTI curriculum, but it relaxed that rule to allow others to apply. Two nationwide pools were created, Wescott said — one for CTI graduates and interested veterans, about 4,000 people, and another, about 25,000, open to anyone with a college degree or three years of full-time work experience.
Fifty percent of the applicants are drawn from each pool. All are competing for 3,000 available academy slots, he said. About 50 percent of those accepted will fail.
Wescott has seen the high failure rate. He completed the academy in 1990 when when no CTI programs existed.
“I was among 35 from the southwest region who started the same day,” Wescott said. “Only 10 graduated.”