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How to prepare for a career in air traffic control

Want to be an air traffic controller? Here is a list of recommended reading material for candidates worldwide who want to make ATC a career.




Over the years, I have been asked by candidates for the ATC career worldwide for advice on how to prepare for the profession. Conventional wisdom suggests that knowledge is power, so my advice would simply be to read as much aviation related materials that you can access.

At the time that I joined the ATC profession, there were not many resources available and access to the internet was not as common as it is today. That said, potential candidates for the ATC profession today literally have power at the fingertips.

To get started, here are a few things that I recommend you learn about while you wait to begin your ATC journey:

  1. Aircraft – like the words sheep and furniture, aircraft is both singular and plural. I may be prepared to give people who are not a part of the aviation fraternity a break if they say aircrafts. It is however annoying to hear it coming from the mouth of someone that is already in the aviation profession. While we are on the subject, learn about the classification of aircraft. Aircraft classification is contained in ICAO Annex 7: Aircraft Nationality and Registration Marks.
  2. ICAO – the International Civil Aviation Organization is the world’s governing body for all civil aviation matters. It is important to learn the history and workings of this body. Countries that are members of ICAO are referred to as contracting states and aviation legislation, regulations and procedure manuals are largely based upon ICAO’s standards and recommended practices (SARPS).
  3. Phonetic alphabet – the words that are used in voice communication to enunciate each letter of the alphabet. For example, an aircraft with registration XA-BCD would be referred to in voice communications as xray alpha bravo charlie delta. The alphabet is contained in ICAO Annex 10, Volume II, Chapter 5.
  4. 4-letter airport indicators – ICAO has developed a uniform standard for identifying airports around the world. These indicators are based on the geographical location. In the USA, for example, all airports that have been assigned a location indicator begin with the letter K. John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York is therefore KJFK. It would be helpful to learn the indicators for the airports in your country and those international location indicators that aircraft operate into from your country. The document that these are contained in is titled Location Indicators, Doc. 7910.
  5. Aircraft type designators – similar to the location indicators, ICAO has developed a uniform standard for identifying aircraft. These designators have a maximum of four alpha-numeric characters. The designator for a Boeing 737-800 aircraft is B738 and a Citation X is C750. It would be helpful to learn the designators for those aircraft that are common in your jurisdiction. The document that these are contained in is titled Aircraft Type Designators, Doc. 8643.
  6. Abbreviations and codes – the abbreviations and codes that are used in aviation are contained in ICAO Doc. 8400. The abbreviations and codes contained therin are for worldwide use in the international aeronautical telecommunication service and in aeronautical information documents, as well as uniform abbreviated phraseology for use in pre-flight information bulletins and ATS data link communications.
  7. Phraseology – there are some basic words and phrases that are used in voice communications that are important to learn. One such word is Roger which means “I have received all of your last transmission.” This list is contained in ICAO Annex 10, Volume II, Chapter 5.
  8. Navigation aids – there are a number of navigation aids including VOR, ILS, GNSS, RADAR, and ADS-B. It would be useful to learn how these work and together with any other kind of navigational aids that are in use in your country.
  9. Theory of flight – if you are to control aircraft, it is essential to learn how flight is sustained. What are the four forces acting on an airfoil? This is just one of many questions that will be answered when you read up on the subject.
  10. Air accident investigations – there are many YouTube videos that you can watch to give you the awareness of the chain of actions that can lead to an incident or accident. Amongst the things that you will gain an insight into are how be behave as humans (Human Factors) and how to mitigate risks.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it offers you a fair idea of the journey that you are about to embark upon. If you find any interesting other stuff during your research, please feel free to share.


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About Wayne Farley

Wayne Farley I am Wayne, an aviation safety evangelist who once made my living working in the control tower. Engage me while I share my thoughts, experience, and news from the aviation world. After writing "13 Characteristics of an air traffic controller" in 2010, it went viral and established me as an unofficial ambassador for ATC. Read more.

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