By DebbieH 21 May 2021 7 min read

How to become an Air Traffic Controller

Air traffic controllers help to keep aircraft flying, passengers travelling, cargo moving and the skies above us safe.

In the UK, there is ‘controlled’ and ‘uncontrolled’ airspace. In ‘controlled’ airspace, pilots will take instructions from air traffic controllers on where, when and how to position their aircraft.

The majority of air traffic controllers in the UK are employed by NATS. NATS employs different types of controllers such as aerodrome controllers, area controllers and approach controllers. Different controllers will have varying responsibilities and skill sets.

Due to the important nature of the job, joining NATS as an air traffic controller takes time and commitment. The entire training process can take around three years to complete.

To become an air traffic controller, you must be 18+ years of age, eligible to work in the UK, have 5 GCSEs at Grade 4 or Scottish National 5’s Grade A-C, including English and Maths. You must also be fit enough to meet the necessary CAA medical requirements.

In the early stages, you will have to register online and complete 2 online assessments. This will be followed by one full day at an assessment centre.

If you pass the assessment day, you’ll subsequently be invited to join NATS as a trainee and attend one of their colleges in either Hampshire, Gloucester or Jerez in Spain. During your time at college, you can expect to undertake a combination of practical and theory-based sessions.

The duration of college-based training will vary depending on the specialism you take and how quickly you can complete different phases. This will usually take around 12 – 18 months.

Once you have passed the college training, you will be posted to an Operational Unit. ‘Hands on’ training will continue at the operation unit until you are issued with your air traffic controller licence.

Once you have your licence, you will be posted to an Operational Unit. This might not be the same unit in which you completed your operational training.

An air traffic controller is a ‘mobile grade’ – this means that once you validate, you could be posted anywhere in the country depending on your skills, training and the needs of the business.

Typically NATS controllers are posted to one of the two control centres (in Hampshire and Ayrshire) or at one of the 13 major airports with the UK and Gibraltar.

The major airports include Aberdeen, Belfast City, Belfast International, Bristol, Cardiff, Farnborough, Gibraltar International, Glasgow, Heathrow, London City, Luton, Manchester, Southampton and Stansted.

Being a successful controller isn’t so much about previous work experience or academic achievements; it’s more about the way you approach problems, handle pressure and adapt to changing situations.