Nicky Patterson: A day in the life of an Air Traffic Controller

Hello! I’m Nicky, a Ranger leader and district and division commissioner in South Manchester by night, and an Air Traffic Controller by day!

I joined my company, NATS, in 1998 as a trainee at the college of Air Traffic Control and upon graduating from there a year later I moved on to work at various airports. I’ve been here at Manchester Airport for 11 years.

During college, I was on a course of 33 people, only 3 of whom were women. Now, at Manchester Airport, there are 50 controllers and only 8 of us are women – so we’re very much still a minority. There is nothing to say that the role is easier for men than women. In fact, some say women are better at the job because we can multi-task! I’ll leave that for you to decide.

I have been lucky in that I have rarely encountered any gender discrimination in Air Traffic Control. I believe this is because we all go through the same training course and scheme and come out with the same qualification at the end. There is absolutely no difference between men and women controllers as the ability to complete the role speaks for itself. I feel privileged to be in a role where there are fixed pay scales – a luxury that many STEM industries may not necessarily have.

We have a lot of big personalities in the control tower, which means lots of chuckles along the way! It’s quite important to build that atmosphere in an otherwise fairly pressured environment.

The role requires one to be decisive, able to think and react quickly to developing situations, to be confident, clear thinking, calm and a good problem solver. It involves talking to pilots via a radio headset, issuing instructions to enable them to navigate around the airport, take off and land safely and to make safe approaches to the airport. We must also keep aeroplanes apart from each other in the sky and be on guard to assist with any problems, should they arise.

It is a very challenging and interesting job, where no two days are the same. The work is all shifts, where we’re required to work for a maximum of 2 hours before a mandatory half an hour break, to ensure that we maintain maximum concentration. There are no real academic qualifications needed to apply – just 5 GCSEs at grade C or above, including Maths and English. Other than that, you just need to be 18 and above, and able to pass a medical check.

It’s an incredibly rewarding career; you get paid well, lots of time off, great job satisfaction, and there are plenty of opportunities for career progression, like becoming a trainer or an examiner on your unit as well the possibility of moving on to management roles. The possibilities are endless!

The advice that I would give to any young girl or woman going into a male-dominated environment is to believe in yourself and believe in what you are capable of. Focus on the result and go out and get it. Choosing a path that is less travelled by those in your demographic can be a difficult decision to face, but it’s a brave one! You might even feel uncomfortable trying to explore STEM subjects, but you never know if you don’t try.