On the Job: Air Traffic Controller Enjoys Excitement
April 16, 2016
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  • Wayne Gustafson is an air traffic controller at the Elkhart Municipal Airport. He has been with the airport for three years. The airport employs two full-time and a few part-time controllers.

    Q: How long have you been doing this?

    A: For 26 years I worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, retired, and then in 2013 I got a call from Elkhart wanting to know if I would come over here and work and I said yes. My wife said yes. I did an exhaustive job search; they called my wife while I was taking a nap and she said, “Yeah, he’d love to go back to work,” so I said, “All right.”

    Q: What does it take to be an air traffic controller?

    A: Well, with the FAA we have to go through the academy out in Oklahoma for three or four months, then you go to a facility like this or like South Bend or Indianapolis or Chicago or wherever and you do on-the-job training. That could take for anywhere from a year to two years depending where you are and how quick you are at picking that up. You get promoted as you go. You start out just writing down strips about things and then you work your way up to ground control and then you’re working the planes in the air. So by the time you get done, then you become a certified public controller. If you go from one place to another you have to go into training again. Each airport, each radar facility is different than the other one. No two airports are exactly the same. (Elkhart has) two runways here, South Bend has three runways; their runways cross, ours don’t. Everything’s a little different. This is pretty simple — I learned this in about a week or two.

    All of us have worked at South Bend sooner or later so it’s very similar: the landmarks that a plane says here they say there; we know where they are because we worked at South Bend. At South Bend it might have taken us two years (to train). We had radar there, we have no radar scope whatsoever here, so everything is just looking out the window.

    On the Job is a weekly feature focusing on local business people and the different jobs they do. If you know someone you’d like us to feature in On the Job, contact Sam Householder at or on Twitter @TruthPhotoChief.

    Q: It’s known to be a very stressful job. Is it a little different here?

    A: Yes, yes, yes, yes. This is a lot less (stressful). The thing of it is that you can sit here and say 90 percent of the time you don’t really do anything, but there may be 5 percent where you’re moving around and maybe 1 or 2 percent of the time where you’re actually having to make real decisions quickly. And yesterday (March 29) afternoon was a nice day, so I had three aircraft that wanted to be in the same place at the same time. So all of the sudden I’m moving people around to work it out. You sit around and you think, “This guy’s stealing money,” but there is a reason that they have guys that can (do it).

    Q: How many flights do you have come through here a year?

    A: I don’t really know. We keep track each day of how many flights we have. I don’t know if it’s 50 or 100 (a day). It varies. The summer is much busier than the winter, but we do get airplanes in the winter because a lot of business people have to be some place. The guys that just want to go out and hobby-fly are basically summer fliers.

    Q: How did you become an air traffic controller?

    A: Well, the money sounded good, so I went in and took a test, and they said, “Yes, this is exactly what you’d be good for.” You have to take a three- or four-hour test from the federal government. My aptitude was this. We have one other full time and three or four part times; some of them learned how to do it in the military.

    Q: Are you a pilot?

    A: No; in fact, none of the controllers here are. There are some. I’d say 10 percent at the most are pilots also.

    Q: What do you like about it?

    A: I like the excitement. Especially when you work radar over at South Bend, it gets hectic. When there’s a Notre Dame football game, you’re putting everyone in line. I know this sounds crazy, but all the planes east of the Illinois state line going into Midway come into South Bend approach’s airspace, so they put all them in line too. That was always exciting too. I like the excitement. You go home and you feel like you did something that day. Whereas here, some days, if it’s bad weather you feel like, “Well, I was there.” There’s other days, like yesterday where I’m glad I came in. It was a nice day, people were out flying in a pattern, some people were student pilots, there were some hobby fliers. Yesterday was a day (where), wow, I’m glad I came to work.

    Q: Anything else you want to add about being an air traffic controller?

    A: It was a great job. The one thing is that we had to retire from the FAA at 56. When we hit (our) 56th birthday we had to retire. But Elkhart, as long as I can pass physicals I can keep working and working as long as my performance is fine. The FAA drew the line and when I started I knew that. So all the guys here are retirees from the FAA.