I'm curious as to what it takes to be an Air Traffic Controller. I sat in a preliminary online test after I got accepted in, but it was mindbogglingly difficult. One of the questions I had to do was to add two 8-digit numbers in less then 5 seconds. With such difficult questions in mind, there must be on the job training in addition to class room training as well.

Q: What sort of training is done in becoming an ATC, and what sets the difference between a good ATC and an average ATC?

  • $\begingroup$ I don't know what goes on in a center, but in the towers they work really hard and have to do multiple things at once and be extremely vigilant at the same time. It's a hard job that requires a lot of intelligence. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2015 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ Are you in the US? Are you interested in answers about other countries? $\endgroup$
    – Relaxed
    Mar 10, 2015 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ @relaxed I am in Sydney, but I think the standard of what they teach would be somewhat similar (apart from the laws and regulations) $\endgroup$
    – 3kstc
    Mar 10, 2015 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ In a word: attitude $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2015 at 23:36
  • $\begingroup$ @digitgopher I would have used discipline. $\endgroup$
    – 3kstc
    Mar 10, 2015 at 23:40

4 Answers 4


Training for US path is(I'll take this information, post hiring, since they keep changing how they hire, and assign facilities, also length of times are approximate and might vary):

FAA Academy(Oklahoma City, OK):

  • ~6 week AT Basics Course(If you went to a CTI(College Training Initiative) school, this course is skipped)
  • Then if you're split depending on which area you're going to, Enroute, Tower, or TRACON.
  • Tower course is ~8 weeks, TRACON course is 1 month (or 2 if you're going to a bigger facility and they put you in a supplemental course), and Enroute, I'm not positive is around 10 weeks or so.

Then you move to your facility. At your facility, your first days you'll spend learning various materials, and then be given classroom training, including Computer based instruction, an actual instructor time(if the facility is large enough), and also lots of study time to memorize all the maps, and various items you will be tested on. Then, if your facility has the ability, you'll do some simulator problems. Note: you might only get the classroom and simulator for only a subset of positions at the facility, depending on how they break up the training.

Then after all that, you head out to the operation, and will usually start training on some subset of positions that are at the facility. You'll receive training on each position, until you've demonstrated that you're competent to work it on your own. Once/if you get to that point, you're given a certification check by your supervisor, and if you pass you're certified to work that position. And you repeat that process for each position, and possibly having to return to classrooms/simulators for any additional positions, and repeating the process again. Once you've finished all the positions you need you're a fully certified controller at that facility.

Each time you move to a new facility, you will have to repeat the classroom and simulator, and on the job training at the positions at that new facility.

There's far more detail and nuance than I can easily explain here, but this is a general overview of the process.

  • $\begingroup$ As far as timeline once you arrive at a facility...could take less than a year to become fully certified at a smaller tower; at a center could be closer to 3 years of on-the-job training. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2015 at 1:44

The test you took was probably the AT-SAT (Air Traffic Standardized Aptitude Test).

Based on those results (and assuming you didn't completely blow it) you'll be sorted and assigned to a class at the FAA Academy for classroom and simulator training.

When you're proficient in the simulator and have completed the required classroom instruction you'll be assigned to a facility for training as a "developmental controller". You will shadow a fully certified controller, and eventually work live traffic under their supervision while learning local procedures and how the airspace system works in the real world (as opposed to the simulators you trained in).

Eventually you will have completed the local training required and demonstrated your ability to work traffic to your supervisor, and you will be certified as a "full performance level" controller.

As for what it takes to be a good controller, the standard answer is "If you would make a good waiter (or waitress) you will probably be a good controller."
The ability to see and anticipate a situation developing and take appropriate actions is probably the most vital skill (for wait staff it's making sure everyone's glass is full, for controllers it's making sure traffic is sequenced in a way that keeps things moving along in a safe, orderly, and efficient manner).

Beyond that it's hard to really say what makes a "good" controller, because everyone is looking for something different. (A "good" controller for a pilot gives them the clearances they want, when they want them. A "good" controller for the system occasionally gives a pilot a less-than-optimal routing or a delay vector in order to keep some other part of the system with more traffic volume moving smoothly.)

  • $\begingroup$ The AT-SAT may have some interesting content, but there is definitely no adding of 8 digit numbers for time! $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2015 at 23:33
  • $\begingroup$ @digitgopher I didn't recall that being in the practice test banks either - but if it wasn't the AT-SAT I'm not sure what it could have been (?) $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Mar 11, 2015 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ I'd also add in that you need decent spatial intelligence. Its one thing to see a problem develop, its another thing to understand how to convert the 2D display into a 3D solution. $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2015 at 2:27
  • $\begingroup$ @SHAF Indeed, the waiter analogy sort-of works here too (knowing what table bits to rearrange to get everything to fit) - although those problems tend to be two-dimensional :) $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Mar 11, 2015 at 2:37

I dont know about paper and classroom training but they do train in the tower at KPNE where I fly. I know this because they sometimes tell you if they are training a new guy. This happened to me just the other night. I was flying in the pattern with my instructor (practicing night landings) and we were the only people around that evening. The tower told us they had a trainee in and we were good practice for them (they even asked us to stay out longer). They had him take us through both left and right traffic patterns and do a few leg extensions and what not. Nothing to out of the norm. I think one other plane came in while we were in the pattern but nothing that he could not handle.

My guess is that they start people at smaller towered airports, if you become senior enough/good enough to move to a bigger one you step up like in any other job. I would think they don't train guys at major airports but I cant state that as an actual fact.


Most of the answers are based on the US system, so let me give a very brief explination of how ATC training generally works in Europe.

Overall, you will not get accepted into the training programme unless there is a job for you in the other end. This means that the selection rounds prior to starting training is not just a matter of being fit for training - it also includes a job interview.

Many European countries make use of the First European Air Traffic Controller Selection Test (FEAST), which is a standardized, computer-based test used to evaluate potential ATCO trainees. FEAST is used to assess your cognitive and mental skills such as IQ, working under time pressure, multi-tasking, logical planning, mathematics etc. etc.

If you pass the FEAST tests (there are two of them), you will be invited to the job interview, which is a pretty standard interview. Following the interview, if you are among the few lucky ones, you will have to undergo a medical examination and security clearance.

If you make it this far, you can start the actual education.

Training to become an ATCO takes about 3 years. The first half is part class-room, part simulator training, focusing on the huge amount of theoretical material you have to know as an air traffic controller. You will find many topics resemble those of pilot training: air law, radio communication, human factors and performance etc., but there are also more technical classes that deal directly with air traffic management.

The second half of the education consists of on-the-job-training (OJT). During this period, you will handle real air traffic in a real environment, under the supervision of an instructor, who will brief, de-brief and generally assist you. You will learn to apply your theoretical knowledge in practise, and get familiar with the airspace and local procedures of the facility where you will end up working.

Of course, during both the first and second half of education, you will have to take tests and exams to ensure you are keeping up with the goals and requirements.

Then finally, after about three years, you will walk into your familiar training facility, but the instructor will be gone, and you just get on with it . . .


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