BWI Member Gets Out the Word About Air Traffic Control Profession
Friday, October 12, 2012

When you were a kid, did you know about the air traffic control (ATC) profession? 

Baltimore Washington Tower (BWI) NATCA member Russell West’s answer to that question is ‘no’ followed by the statement, “I wish someone had told me about it then.”

That is why West started going to career days at elementary and high schools in the Baltimore area.  

West, a seven-year NATCA member, started giving presentations after he first spoke about the ATC profession five years ago at an Aviation Career Education Camp (ACE). The ACE camp is a week long, summer camp aimed at high school students who are considering a career in aviation. After speaking at the camp, West realized that when he was growing up he had never heard about ATC, but wishes he had. That motivated him to share with young children information about the profession so they would know that it existed and that it is a career path they can choose. 

“We would have the typical policeman and firefighter, there’s nothing wrong with those careers but I never heard about air traffic,” said West. “That’s when it dawned on me that maybe I should go back to the elementary school just to expose the kids to another career and provide knowledge about another career path into aviation.”

When West returned to work at Andrews Air Force Base Tower (ADW) after speaking at the camp, he talked to the ADW Air Traffic Manager and found out the Manager is affiliated with a group that allows facilities to “adopt” schools. The facility can then send employees to speak at the school career days as well as to read to classes on a regular basis. ADW “adopted” Chase Elementary School in Temple Hills, Md., and the Manager told West to “feel free” to check in with the school about being a career day speaker. Now, West attends the Chase Elementary quarterly career days and annual career fairs. Also, on his days off or during his lunch break West goes to the school to read to classes of third through sixth graders. 

From there, West added to his repertoire the career days of Archbishop Carroll High School – his alma mater – and the sister school of Chase Elementary. West also set up for Temple Hills students tours of ADW during its annual air show. Word got around about West’s activism and he now speaks about ATC at an annual ATCA Conference as well as helps run the Sector 33 Simulator for students at the YMCA sponsored “Thingamajig” Convention, a daylong event where youth from all over the region meet to create inventions and learn about aviation, recycling and other topics. 

When West first started discussing the ATC profession at career days, most of the kids thought air traffic controllers were the people with the orange wands directing the plane out of the gate. But that did not surprise West. It only reinforced his motivation for getting to the career days.

“I see myself in the little kids that I’m speaking with,” said West. “In fact, when I was sitting in the same chairs that they are in, I didn’t even think about a career in air traffic because I didn’t know what it was about. It’s rewarding to me to open their eyes and let them know that there are other careers out there and aviation is a great career to be in. So I’m very excited to tell them and go back the next year to reinforce it.”

West first learned about ATC when he worked as a Ticket/Base Operations Agent for Continental Airlines at Washington National Airport (DCA). He said his coworker encouraged him to pursue an ATC career and introduced him to her husband, Barry Frasier, who was a controller at Washington Center (ZDC). Frasier gave West a tour of ZDC and helped set up a tour of DCA Tower for West. For West, those tours changed the course of his career path. By simply watching the controllers in action it made West decide to pursue that career.

West then enrolled in the College Training Initiative (CTI) program at the Community College of Beaver County near Pittsburgh. After two years, West earned a Control Tower Operators License, a Private Pilots License and an Associates Degree in Applied Science. Two years later he was hired by FAA to work at ZDC. He worked there for seven years, transferred to ADW Tower, where he worked for three years, and now he works at BWI.

While West just wants to get the word out about ATC, his presentations have influenced the lives of a few students. He has had high school students ask him for information about attending the ACE camp, and he recently learned that two students who heard him speak now attend the same CTI Program West did as well as one CTI program in Baltimore. 

While hearing about his influence on those kids’ career paths is memorable for West, his most memorable moment comes from a time when he worked at ADW. He said a group of local elementary school kids were at the tower for a tour and Air Force One was scheduled to depart that day. 

“I will never forget the look on their faces when Air Force One pulled up [in front of the Tower],” said West. “They were all in awe with their mouths wide open. A little boy said to me,  "You get to see all these airplanes and the President all the time?" I replied, "I sure do!" He responded, "You have the coolest job ever!"  I smiled because that statement sums up how I feel about working as an Air Traffic Controller.”

For other NATCA members who may want to follow West’s lead and speak at career days, West said the best and easiest way to get started is to simply call the school at which you would like to speak, find out if they have a career day or some kind of career oriented program and ask to be put on the list to speak about your profession. Through his experience, West has found that most elementary and high schools have career days and are always looking for people to speak. West also said if you need materials to take with you to a career day, call the NATCA National Office.

“I must say, NATCA headquarters have been extremely helpful and supportive over the years,” said West. “Anytime I have needed booklets, pencils, pens, toy airplanes, etc., the staff in DC has been awesome!”