Let's say directing air traffic seems a lot less boring than my current job
May 24, 2007 6:06 PM   Subscribe

How does one become an air traffic controller? And why wouldn't one want to do such a thing for a living?

Let's also say I'm in Canada.
posted by tksh to Work & Money (35 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It's one of the most stressful jobs in the world. That would be one reason.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:14 PM on May 24, 2007

Best answer: You need to speak to NAV Canada. I know someone who has just started one of their courses. He is training in Cornwall, Ontario and expects to be posted somewhere "up north" apparently. I believe the money is good.
posted by jamesonandwater at 6:21 PM on May 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I know the chief air traffic controller of a major U.S. NASA airfield. He got his job by working his way up the ranks. That's probably not going to do you much good though. The downside is that he has to meet the POTUS when he comes to the Bay Area. He also has a hell of a commute, but I don't think that's strictly due to his job.
posted by lekvar at 6:24 PM on May 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

The hours can be pretty wicked. And as mentioned it can be quite stressful.

It's a lot of responsibility: if you make a mistake, people die. A lot of folks can't live with that.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:27 PM on May 24, 2007

I knew a son of an ATC, and he told me that it was extremely high stress, low job satisfaction, long hours of factory-line tedium with absolutely no allowance for the tiniest of mistakes. The only, only, only benefit was really good pay...even in tiny airports with few planes per day.
posted by Kickstart70 at 6:31 PM on May 24, 2007

I knew one back when I lived in the UAE. The guy lived pretty comfortably, and didn't seem too stressed. He's the coolest geeky old white guy I know.

He made me want to be an air traffic controller for the longest time.
posted by BeaverTerror at 6:53 PM on May 24, 2007

I applied to become an ATC years ago - the first test they put you through is being able to rapidly identify and find locations on a map, the terrain of which is totally unfamiliar. You have a short timeframe to do this, and it was more about you're ability to cope under stress and not panic.

I passed that part of the test, but I recall about 80% of other candidates (there were about 50 of us), failing. I decided at that point, that it was probably going to be a reasonably stressful job on a regular basis and stopped.

I applied for the position via an advertisement, there were no stringent educational prerequisites (I wasn't tertiary educated at the time). The training is undertaken as part of the employment (at least here in Australia - and that was 18 years ago).
posted by strawberryviagra at 7:00 PM on May 24, 2007

Seems like it would be 99% boredom and 1% stress/terror. Which doesn't sound too appealing.

[A decade or so ago I visited an ATC centre as part of my ergonomics studies. It was interesting to look around, but I'm not sure I would have wanted to work there. The ATC guys didn't have a lot to do while we were there - they were all capable of talking to us while looking at their screens. But I imagine that when things were potentially going wrong, it would be one of the most stressful jobs imaginable. (This was in a small centre in New Zealand, though - obviously, someone working LAX would have more stress and less boredom)].
posted by Infinite Jest at 7:26 PM on May 24, 2007

Some airlines (notably, United in the US) have a channel on the plane where you can listen to the ATC communications. Listening for a little while did not make the job sound terribly fun. In fact, the stress was palpable in their voices, and that's on a calm evening.
posted by JMOZ at 7:30 PM on May 24, 2007

Best answer: "Nobody gets rich pushing tin." -my great uncle, Virgil Blaze, a 17 year veteran FAA controller, and 11 year trainer.

My mother worked Flight Data in a couple of FAA centers for more than 20 years. You could say I've been to more FAA picnics and spent more mid-shift hours in FAA canteens than anybody who has never drawn a government paycheck ever ought to.

I'm confident that there are substantial differences in the CAA and FAA approaches to staffing air traffic control positions. In FAA facilities, the shift work aspect of the job is still met largely by requirements for people to work rolling shift schedules, so that people who have problems with changing circadian rhythms are quickly eliminated from the job. After 20 years of shifting from days to nights to days every 8 days, in order to "enjoy" 4 day weekends regularly, my mother eventually wound up with severe sleep disturbances, which persisted for 7 or 8 years after she retired. Perhaps she would have had these issues had she not worked for the FAA (and that's limitation of anecdotal evidence) but many, many long term FAA employees, who are the best at adapting to this kind of schedule, still report eventual health problems that they relate to shift work, and sleep cycle issues.

In so far as actual controller behaviors, the two things I noted, universally, about long term FAA personnel:

1) They're tee-totalers. Nobody says much about it, but FAA culture is quietly very dry. There's a big, big penalty that people who drink carry into work in FAA jobs, and even a moderate social drinker is going to look like a lush to his FAA colleagues. Since alcohol is a common means of alleviating stress, FAA personnel tend to watch each other's consumption as if it were a reliable stress indicator. 1 beer, left 3/4 full, is the standard FAA employee's social lubrication at Christmas parties or other events, when they occur. You drink a 1/4 of a beer to demonstrate that you're capable of drinking, and leave 3/4 so there is no question that you were ever under the influence.

The fact that air controllers are concerned about one another's drinking patterns may be a good thing for the rest of us, but it is something not often found in other work environments. If your car is seen parked at bars near FAA facilities, it will be remarked. If you suggest stopping for a beer after work to FAA people you carpool with, it will be remarked.

Whether similar attitudes prevail in Canada, I can't say, but I expect that it does.

2) The internal culture of the FAA is incredibly bound to procedure and respect for seniority. You don't get anywhere with anything outside the chain of command. Zero. Zip. Nada. There is a greater tendency to promote from within the FAA than in virtually any other Federal operation. I understand that this is true, too, in CAA. There is a real feeling, even after the 1981 and 1987 PATCO actions, that only former controllers can manage controllers. Grey hair and time in grade mean everything, because at the bottom rungs, the washout rate is brutal. Far fewer than 50% of FAA controllers stay on the job more than 5 years, and the mandatory retirement age of 56 isn't met by all that many, due to medical problems. (FAA controllers have to pass the same annual medical exams as pilots.)

Whether the CAA internal culture is as heavily dependent on seniority is unknown to me, but from what I've heard informally, it seems to be.

To summarize, I think Air Traffic Control jobs generally exist within a larger organizational culture, whose operations are less visible to outsiders than the particulars of the ATC job, but which generally create significant performance and life style expectations, beyond the actual job description duties. Be prepared for the whole ball of wax, because there are few other opportunities to apply your experiences and training in ATC outside such positions and organizations.
posted by paulsc at 7:37 PM on May 24, 2007 [6 favorites]

Best answer: In the American system, the controllers (and I'm talking about the folks that handle the flights in the air, not the dudes in the tower that control the takeoffs and landings) are on a loathsome shiftwork system. Two days, two nights, and a mid-shift. Every week. Every month. Every year. Until you die. Also, only the highest seniority controllers get a "real" Saturday-Sunday weekend...the juniors get stuck with, like, Tuesday-Wednesday.

When you graduate from the training course, if you emerge with a high score I believe you can more or less pick where you want to go. But if your score is unawesome, you may have no choice but to go to some sucktastic place. Some ATCs are clearly more better than others.

Pay in the American system reaches into the low six figures, and you can retire at 80% pay after 20 years. However, there is a cap to salary right now and once you hit that you can't get any additional increases.

Used to be that you got six free domestic flights per year (riding in the cockpit) but that went away after 9/11. The controllers sometimes still can finagle flights on military trainers and NASA's Vomit Comet.

English is the international air traffic language, so you don't have to worry about folks speaking French or what-not.

The work is stressful and a fair number of controllers end up on medical leave or disability at one point or another. They have annual physicals they have to pass and can get busted on their blood pressure. And of course: NO DRUGS.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 7:43 PM on May 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Believe it or not, there are hobbyist groups that do fake ATC online, in tandem with people who are flying flight simulators online. Might be a good group to contact - you could try it out, and they probably know the procedures to become a real ATC.

I think this is them: VATSIM. I don't know if there are other groups than this one.

Also, I googled "air traffic control simulation" and found this software package: ATC Simulator.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:48 PM on May 24, 2007

A friend of mine has a close family member who was a career air traffic controller, so this is kind of third-hand information. But from what my friend has told me, the job is god-awfully stressful. One anecdote: There was a brand-new air traffic controller on the job (her first day, in fact) when a near-collision happened between two aircrafts, and the stress of it sent the new person out in the hallway, vomiting, and she quit the job on her very first day. Certain incidents, even if they aren't the fault of the air traffic controllers, can result in lasting psychological trauma and result in people quitting.
posted by jayder at 7:48 PM on May 24, 2007

"Nobody gets rich pushing tin."

Pushing Tin.
posted by limeonaire at 8:17 PM on May 24, 2007

ATC consistently makes those lists of high-stress jobs or high-dissatisfaction jobs that you see in the paper from time to time.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:29 PM on May 24, 2007

ATC is like being an umpire, but worse -- you're expected to be perfect on your first day, and improve as time passes.

The big thing -- you have to be able to hold state, and you *have* to be good at details.
posted by eriko at 8:36 PM on May 24, 2007

My Dad was an air traffic controller for over 20 years, and now he trains air traffic controllers. I was never interested in it, so I really don't know much about it, except that he got excellent pay, especially in the last years, and considering how little college he had. Anyway, if you want to drop me an email, I'd be happy to give you his email address, and I'm sure he'd be delighted to give you some advice. All US-based, but probably similar to the Canadian system. BTW, from what I know of his ATC buddies, the tea-totalling thing didn't hold true for them.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:53 PM on May 24, 2007

Hm, this thread is making me worry about my brother.

He just graduated from UND's ATC program, which I am led to understand is among, if not the, best in the country.

The teetolar aspect I find interesting, since he's never much liked drinking, and moved out of the dorms there back to our parents' house almost immediately because of it.

As far as I can tell from talking to him, the FAA controls pretty much everything, including where he'll work. Seems like an odd system, but he seems happy with his prospects. I sure hope he is.
posted by flaterik at 9:06 PM on May 24, 2007

Best answer: My dad was a controller here in Canada for over 20 years and my brother is now in training to be one. Most of the comments here seem to reflect rather more negatively on the job than I would expect given their experiences. I will try to offer a bit of what I have picked up from them...

As mentioned above, NavCanada is now the operating agency for ATC and flight services in Canada. Veteran controllers pine for the cushy days when they were direct federal employees, but from my outsider's perspective, they don't have things so bad. There is the usual workplace politics, to be sure, but nothing approaching the excesses of bureaucracy and bizarre moralism that others have ascribed to the FAA.

To answer your specific questions:

Becoming a Controller

This begins with a series of tests (samples available on the NavCan site). These are aptitude tests, and focus heavily on spatial ability. According to my dad, spatial ability and calm decisiveness are the only qualifications for the job, but they are in exceedingly rare supply. There is no educational program or similar experience that will give you a good idea of whether you have it in you to be a controller. You try it, and you either can or can't.

I know the job is always characterized as one of the most stressful, but my dad has always said it's not. There is a tremendous sense of responsibility of course, but the entire application and training process is designed to identify those people for whom the job is not overly stressful, although it would be overwhelmingly so for most of us. My dad is fairly quiet and reserved, but underneath it he is an adrenaline junkie, as are most controllers. Many of them do not hide it as well, and the work environment can be rather snarky and competitive - though this is nothing new to a MeFite, I'm sure. The movie Pushing Tin is absurd in many of its technical details, but the personalities are only slightly exaggerated. Also, ATC is still a mostly-male work environment, though not to nearly the same degree as in the past.

All controllers used to do their basic training in Cornwall, Ont., a malodorous little burg near the Quebec border. This is no longer the case -- you apply, test, interview and train in the city where you want to work. (This is assuming that you want to work at one of the 7 Area Control Centres in Canada rather than a small tower or flight service station. ACCs are, from memory, Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, TO, Montreal, Moncton and Gander.) It also used to be the case that you were paid while training; for IFR training at an ACC, this is no longer the case -- you will have to treat it like a yearlong post-secondary program where you pay tuition and support yourself by other means. Training is a combination of classroom and simulator work (mostly the latter).

Most people fail out of training. And by most I don't mean 51% - it's more like 80%. (This pertains mostly to the various IFR specialties; I'd imagine success rates are higher for VFR and FSS.)

Following training, you will go through a "check out" period - basically, on-the-job training with a veteran controller. You are paid a salary at this stage. Some people still fail to "check out" at this stage and are fired (a year or more into the process). However, if you are successful, you are officialy a controller and you have a job at that centre. (You can apply to transfer to another centre at some point in the future if you wish.)

Why do it?

1. The Job -- If you are the kind of person who enjoys spatial reasoning, mathematical puzzles, and a constant, low-level buzz of adrenaline, the job itself is far from boring. There is a certain degree of workplace camaraderie, but your success will not depend on your skill at interpersonal relationships, office politics, or public presentations.

Yes, it is shift work, and this is another one of those things that you can either handle or not. The tradeoff is that you get three (or four) consecutive days off instead of just a weekend. Also, if you are prone to the tragic condition of workaholism, this is one job that does exercise the mind, but you physically can't take your work home with you. (I, fortunately, am immune from workaholism.)

2. The Challenge -- Is it true that you have to be perfect? Well, that challenge is part of what makes the job appealing to some people. Besides, it's not really the case that controllers virtually never make mistakes. They likely do things all the time that are sub-optimal (though no safety rules are ever breached and no one but another controller would know there was a better way to have moved a particular airplane). Procedures and safety margins are such that most of the time it takes more than a single small mistake for a 'loss of separation' incident to occur, much less an accident.

All that said, it remains a serious responsibility, and maybe that's part of the appeal as well.

3. The Money -- Six figures, plus ample opportunity for overtime, good benefits and a relatively generous pension plan. Rare in a job with no formal post-secondary qualifications. As mentioned above, many controllers leave the job at 50-55, though some continue to work on a contract basis or as instructors.

I have seriously considered the job myself, and it wouldn't be the worst place to end up some day if my current gig as a paid political operative doesn't pan out.

Well, after all that I'm not sure if I've discouraged you or intrigued you, but if you have more specific questions, feel free to post them in the thread or drop me an email (in profile) and I'll consult the experts.
posted by Urban Hermit at 10:27 PM on May 24, 2007 [16 favorites]

Required reading, the article by Darcy Frey in the New York Times Magazine that was the basis of "Pushing Tin."
posted by Phred182 at 11:15 PM on May 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

I work for the dutch Air Traffic Control (not as a controller though), and Urban Hermit has nailed it.
posted by Skyanth at 12:44 AM on May 25, 2007

Response by poster: Wow, lots of good answers. Thanks everyone for replying.

To be honest, the major downside to me seems to be the shifts and the fail rate of the training. It kind of sucks thinking the year spend training might be for nothing.

To those who have seriously considered being an ATC, what held you back? And say you pass the training but don't make it through the check-out period, what happens?
posted by tksh at 5:59 AM on May 25, 2007

Urban Hammer FTW! I hope it's not to late for you to read this, but I had to chime in.

I'm a former ATC. I've moved on to other things - as in now I'm a consultant for the FAA and other aviation stakeholders, but being an ATC was probably one of the few jobs in life that I ever truly LOVED.

I won't repeat what Urban Hammer had to say, but let me address the 'stress' part.

Sometimes it WAS hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of sheer terror, but that is dependent on what type of facility you're at and what kind of traffic volume it has. Whenever someone would say to me "oh that's so stressful!" I'd honestly tell them that, to me, it wasn't. I've always described it as a play - everyone generally knows their lines, what they're supposed to do and when they're supposed to do it. The challenge for me was re-organizing things when something DIDN'T go to plan. Maybe it was some potty-training gone wrong (or right), but I took immense pleasure in lining up all my ducks in a row and turning potential chaos into a neat, orderly picture .

In answer to your latest update... There is a high fail rate in the training - but please don't let that deter you. FWIW I noticed that the people who dropped out were either not good at handling stress, or they just didn't put in the effort (and I mean EFFORT) to memorize some things. You'll have to learn a bajillion different three-letter identifiers, you'll have to learn a new vocabulary, and you'll have to memorize and spit out long verbose statements of standard control phraseology on command. Some people just didn't put in the effort.

Also, there's nothing wrong with shift work... if you love ATC then you'll just love your time while on position. Part of the beauty of shift work (and the part that I miss) is that when I wasn't on position, I wasn't at work. No work to bring home, nothing hanging over your head with deadlines and projects...

Go for it!!!
posted by matty at 6:31 AM on May 25, 2007

I think the only thing I've read about this that hasn't been posted is the fact that after you get out of training, you begin working where they need you to. This could be anywhere in Canada, and probably won't be where you want to work, so if you don't mind working in Gander, or Yellowknife...
posted by oaf at 7:12 AM on May 25, 2007

My sister's a commercial pilot who got started by going to a private college and getting an aviation degree, and they had a program for ATCs there, as well. Several of her good friends basically got a four-year degree in ATC, and then went straight from there into ATC jobs. I don't know them especially well, but from what I hear, they're pretty happy.
posted by LairBob at 7:16 AM on May 25, 2007


There is a forum about ATC as well as numerous threads.

The US ATC System right now is woefully understaffed, with mandatory overtime and, in some cases, some pretty horrific working conditions. There have been a number of recent news reports where they had to shut down tower operations temporarily in a few places just so a controller could go to the bathroom.

Most controllers I know love the job, and most pilots have a great deal of respect for good controllers. Want to be absolutely wowed? Spend some time on LiveATC and listen to some of the heavier air traffic, like BOS, LGA and LAX.

There are other good jobs in aviation, as well. Jetcareers can provide you plenty of information. Good people there. Very helpful .
posted by Thistledown at 8:24 AM on May 25, 2007

More required reading: TRACON.

Please pay no attention to the atrocious cover art.
posted by dmd at 8:59 AM on May 25, 2007

"They're tee-totalers. Nobody says much about it, but FAA culture is quietly very dry."

Either Oakland Center is an outlier -- which I suppose is a possibility -- or this really no longer applies to the current generations of controllers. I know several folks who have been working the board at Oakland Center for 15 years or more (and a couple of the newer folks), and while not a one of them is a heavy regular drinker it would be comedic in the extreme to describe them as "tee-totalers." I don't know a single controller who can't take a couple of glasses of wine with dinner, and I dine with several of them on a regular basis.

Paul, I don't know when your mother retired, but none of the controllers I know are anything like you describe. The FAA as a whole may be -- I can't speak to that -- but if there's a tee-totaling culture in the centers it's nowhere near as prevalent today, at least not in Fremont.
posted by majick at 12:59 AM on May 26, 2007

I was in the last graduating class of TCTI (Transport Canada Training Institute) before it became NCTI (Nav Canada Training Institute). Things have changed a lot since then, but it used to be a fairly painless entry into the field if you were lucky enough to get in.

Basically, Transport Canada used to test you, along with several thousand others, weed it out to a couple dozen, and send you off to Cornwall. From that moment on, everything was paid for. You spent from 4 1/2 to 13 monts at the institute, which is half simulator and computer rooms and half a Marriott hotel (every inch of which is licensed for alcohol, incidentally). The time there partly depended on your stream. FSS (Flight Service Specialists) typically spent a long time there. I went direct IFR and did a mere 6 months.

"Nobody gets rich pushing tin". I don't know about that. Maybe NavCan has changed the revenue aspect, but starting pay was almost 70 thousand Canadian, and the shortage of controllers meant mandatory overtime. Put together, new grads were earning 100 grand a year -- to start. Add to this one important fact: the wages stayed the same across Canada. 100 grand is a tidy sum to start a career in Vancouver or Toronto. In Winnipeg, where I was headed, you could live like a king. That's IFR, mind. The tower guys get less money and less prestige. The only bonus they really get is to see daylight, and a free pair of Raybans every other year.

I see mention of shift work here, but no mention of the actual hours worked. It was standard practice that a controller would not work more than one hour on for every hour off. So an eight hour day meant four hours behind the dish.

Boredom punctuated by terror is maybe overstating things a bit. Lots of boredom, lots of tension, for sure. One minute you're watching two lazy aircraft do their thing miles from each other, and the next your gritting your teeth as you scan the strips clacking onto the board 15 minutes before your airspace fills up. (tooth grinding problem since the job, unfortunate side effect) Basically there are two styles: treat it all ultra-serious lives-on-every-plane or treat it like a big video game. I was the former.

The high fail rate is absolutely correct. Considering that they tested approximately 4000 of us, then set 20 aside to go to Cornwall, only 16 of which actually went. 13 of us made it back. 4 checked out. (I dropped out in last stage on-the-job)

Not sure what else to tell you. The degree of precision required is, obviously, exacting. You'll never look at an airplane the same way again when it's time to board. You'll find yourself judging speeds and conflicts automatically for all kinds of moving objects (turned out to be handy at sea). It's a good job.

I will note that the instructors make a fortune at TCTI/NCTI, and that has some detrimental effects to the quality of teaching. Most teaching jobs you have to love, since you aren't getting rich doing it. In ATC, though, once you lose the ability to do the job, there are few things you can do. The union is super-powerful (they once staged a slow-down just to show they could). So a lot of ex-controllers end up instructing, and it can make for some bitter, mean SOBs let me tell you. My enthusiasm for the job basically died in Cornwall, and I took only the dregs back to Winnipeg with me.

It also helps if you're an aviation enthusiast. Many of the guys in the class had pilots licences. Some could ID planes on sight (not useful unless they went VFR but handy to know performance stats). Me, I had no interest in planes. I was working too hard in a previous job and was called over to a lonely recruiting booth in a shopping mall. They asked me if I ever thought about being an air traffic controller. I laughed and said no. They said why not take the test? And that's what I did for the next year and a half.

No regrets.

on preview: Tee-tolalers? All the controllers I knew spent their off hours doing exactly two things: golfing and going to strip clubs. There was always plenty of drink about. If abstention is the thing with some, it's probably because of the enormous alcoholism rate (to match its divorce rate). Counselling for alcholism came standard with the training.

Cheers, and best of luck.

Oh, you should talk to someone about controlling North. NO RADAR. All estimates. Fucking fucking fucking hell in a handbasket I love radar.
posted by dreamsign at 11:58 AM on May 29, 2007

And say you pass the training but don't make it through the check-out period, what happens?

Well, I left with a professional-grade radio operator's license, expired security clearance to secret (painless to get the 2nd time), a certificate from TCTI, and a hell of an experience. Later, having gone to law school, I put it to use as a legal drafter working on aerodrome specifications. There are loads of places you could apply your experience if you stick it out in aviation itself. Maybe eventually work your way to being an airspace planner.

You can also give it a second shot. One of the guys in my class was back a decade, a family, and a home business after having tried the previous time. Aside from that Cornwall is an ugly little hole, but you'll either get very good at golf or tennis. Or, hey, controlling aircraft.
posted by dreamsign at 12:05 PM on May 29, 2007

Argh, one more thing to respond to since I just spotted it now.

There is no educational program or similar experience that will give you a good idea of whether you have it in you to be a controller.

Here's the Big Secret: THEY don't know either.
They struggle and struggle with this. They come up with theories, test them, disgard them. At about the time they brought me on, they were wondering if multitask sims like Sim City indicated whether someone would be good for the biz or not. Inconclusive. They don't like testing 4000 and training 16 to get 4. They really don't. It's costly in money and time and doesn't make that controller shortage go away. Mind, there was a scandal awhile back regarding the allegation that controllers were failing candidates to protect their overtime, but I'm not aware that that was ever substantiated. In any case, you don't know, they don't know. Nobody knows what makes a good controller. You know that movie Pushing Tin? Somebody did their homework. They got the personalities exactly right. Our bunch of guys weren't especially brilliant, or mathematical, or... anything. There was just this one thing they could do really well, see? And there's no way to tell unless you give it a try. (A bit of mental math ability does help, though) So try it already.

And now, grind grind, I'm off to sleep.
posted by dreamsign at 12:11 PM on May 29, 2007

I'm sorry, but I just have to say this: I don't care what the hell the non-referenced Wikipedia article says, it's spelled "tea totaler".

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest; it's been bothering me since I read this thread.
posted by misha at 8:33 PM on May 30, 2007

misha, it's spelled teetotaler. According to the online etymology dictionary, it's from "T- Total" (like saying "Total with a capital T") abstinence from alcohol. Quote: ""pledged to total abstinence from intoxicating drink," 1834, possibly formed from total with a reduplication of the initial T- for emphasis (T-totally "totally," not in an abstinence sense, is recorded in Kentucky dialect from 1832 and is possibly older in Irish-Eng.). The use in temperance jargon was first noted Sept. 1833 in a speech advocating total abstinence (from beer as well as wine and liquor) by Richard "Dicky" Turner, a working-man from Preston, England. Also said to have been introduced in 1827 in a New York temperance society which recorded a T after the signature of those who had pledged total abstinence, but contemporary evidence for this is wanting, and Webster (1847) calls teetotaler "a cant word formed in England."
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:15 PM on May 31, 2007

This was a great thread. I'm late, but I think I still have a little to add...

tksh, I highly suggest VATSIM, mentioned in another answer. It's a little goofy at first but you'll get a pretty good sense if you like the world of fixed phraseology and blinky lights and planes, or not. I signed up to do "virtual controlling" on VATSIM with the Vancouver group and it was a really great experience. On "fly-in" nights, which are events when virtual pilots will all descend on a single airport, it is pretty seriously intense.

After doing that for a while, I went to Nav Canada's site, signed up for the tests, brought my $200, and we were off. I practiced for them, quite a bit, and though they are aptitude tests you can still practice -- the "numerical estimation" section was daunting at first (quick, in two seconds, what's 73840 * 190923, approximately? (14 billion, I think)) -- but after messing with math for a few days I felt good enough to go in there. I, uh, blew the tests away, to be momentarily immodest, and they called me up for an interview right away.

This was a couple of years ago, and so it was after the Nav Canada switchover. They wanted two people as references, and both were supposed to have been in positions of authority and to have known me for 2+ years. I was 20 or 21, and I didn't have two people who fit into that category. But, the interview was interesting -- the interviewee actually suggested VATSIM as a good way to check ATC things out, and I mentioned that I'd actually been involved with it for a little while already. They kept my record on file for a year, and if I hadn't gotten a pretty great job elsewhere, I would have given it a shot. I might still.

I think the thing that really sells me on it is the pressure to get everything right immediately and having so many things at stake. For some reason I always do better at pretty much everything when I'm under pressure, and 400-knot giant people-filled missiles are pretty undeniably serious.

But, yeah, don't do it if you're not already into aviation. I don't have a pilot's licence, or know a plane by sight in the sky, but I've always been into the whole thing, and just being involved in anything aviation-related makes me grin. Maybe Cornwall would suck it out of me, I don't know, but nothing has yet.

The only thing that holds me back now, being a little older, is how seriously I know I would be sucked into it all. Shift work, intense work, stressful work, I would be a controller through and through, and I've got a girl that I'm madly in love with and I'd be worried about the toll it would take on that.

But hey, if you've got nothing else going on, go for it.
posted by blacklite at 12:47 AM on June 5, 2007

LobsterMitten, my dictionary of French and English idioms, circa 1857, shows the spelling as "tea totaler." I have seen the "T" or "Tee" totaler spelling postulated as both an effort to capitalize the 'T' in total and as a result of the remarks of a stuttering man (t t t totaler), but with nothing other than anecdotal references as the source. I guess we will just have to agree to disagree.
posted by misha at 7:22 PM on June 10, 2007

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