Could You Pass an Air Traffic Controller Exam?

John Miller

Image: Monty Rakusen/Cultura/Getty Images

About This Quiz

It’s often called one of the most stressful jobs in the world. Air traffic controllers not only monitor and guide dozens or hundreds of aircraft per day, but they do so knowing that at every moment, their guidance keeps passengers and aircrews safe. Likewise, these quick-witted workers also understand that any mistakes can lead to catastrophe. In this white-knuckle quiz, do you think you have the basic knowledge that it takes to become an air traffic controller?

In the United States alone, there are thousands of air traffic controllers working everywhere from small airports in Oklahoma to the dizzying madness of huge metropolitan airfields like those in New York City and Los Angeles. No matter the location, their jobs are equally important, which is why they must have superior cognitive skills and stable emotional characteristics. Do you think you have the mental agility to handle dozens of pilots at once?

Controllers must understand the flight characteristics of many types of aircraft. They also have to factor in weather, traffic patterns, pilot demands, and a whole lot more. And they have to balance all of these variables with Federal Aviation Administration regulations and safety concerns in mind, too.

Stick to the flight plan in this air traffic controller quiz now! We’ll see if your ready for the downwind leg or if you’re still stuck on the tarmac waiting for takeoff.

Per FAA regulations, you can't be older than what age if you want to become an air traffic controller?

You must have extreme mental dexterity and a young person's endurance to apply to become an air traffic controller. You mustn't be more than 30 years old when you apply.

What language must pilots and controllers use around the world?

English is the universal language of the aviation world. Both pilots and traffic controllers must know basic English in order to do their jobs.

Tower controllers generally guide which part of a plane's flight?

There are various types of controllers. The men and women who sit in glass towers are critical to the last part of the flight. They help pilots with their final approach and landing.

In "procedural control," air traffic controllers do their jobs without which tool?

In some situations, controllers use "procedural control" to do their jobs. In these cases, they have no radar at their disposal. This is common in remote areas.

What's the purpose of "separation rules"?

Air traffic controllers must be keenly aware of separation rules. These rules help them maintain safe distances between every aircraft in the local airspace… and doing so requires a lot of continuous recalculating.

Terminal radar approach control is also known as what?

Terminal radar approach control is also known as TRACON. In TRACON, controllers are responsible for aircraft that are very close to their airfield.

About how many air traffic controllers are there in the United States?

At any given moment, there are hundreds or thousands of planes in the skies above America. That's why there are about 14,000 air traffic controllers in the country.

Commuter air carriers use planes with up to how many seats?

Commuter air carriers operate only small planes. Per FAA standards, these planes tend to top out at 30 seats.

What do pilots say once they've heard and understood a controller's directions?

Air traffic controllers dole out thousands of directions per day. Pilots (and controllers, too) confirm that they understand a radio message by saying, "acknowledge."

To be an air traffic controller you must demonstrate a high level of aptitude in what?

In the early stages of testing the FAA really doesn't care about your knowledge of plane engines and such. Instead, they want to know if you have the agile cognitive capabilities that let you juggle multiple tasks along with critical decision-making skills.

What's a term for planes that intentionally and abrupt change flight direction?

Air traffic controllers like consistent, stable flight patterns. But once in a while, pilots veer into an acrobatic flight, which refers to fast (but intention) changes in flight direction… perhaps because a controller's attention wandered.

If aircraft lose their separation, what results?

Separation rules provided by the controller help to keep planes away from each other, and thus, prevent a collision. When these rules are disregarded, there is a "conflict," one that is hopefully not followed by two large craters.

The approach light system is critical to what?

Airports feature an approach light system (ALS) that helps to align planes with the runways. The ALS is vital for safe landings.

How do controllers measure the distances that planes travel?

Controllers and pilots measure distances in nautical miles. Nautical miles are a universal unit of measure, particularly in aviation or military applications.

An active runway is also called what?

Air traffic controllers know that active runways are potential points of conflict. If a runway is "in use," it already has another plane landing or taking off.

Visual Flight Rules are common for which aircraft?

Controllers can't be responsible for everything a pilot does. Small, slow aircraft often adhere to Visual Flight Rules, in which pilots must ensure that they have enough separation between their plane and others around them.

What's a "ground track"?

Controllers have a lot of tricks for visualizing flight paths. The ground track is the plane's flight path if it were shown on a map of the Earth.

What causes wake turbulence?

Plane engines provide thrust to push these machines through the air. As planes pass through the air, they create wake turbulence… and controllers must account for it, or potentially cause an accident.

Controllers must often deal with "overflights." What are those?

Many flight paths are "overflights." That means the planes are just passing through on their way to other airports, and controllers must account for their presence throughout the day.

One nautical mile is equal to how many statute miles?

In aviation, nautical miles are the standard units for distance. A single nautical mile is equivalent to 1.15 "normal" (statue) miles.

Air traffic controllers must have an intuitive grasp of what?

It's all about the angles, angles, angles. Controllers must be able to quickly process the angles at which planes are approaching and departing, and juggle all of that with other aircraft, runways, and more.

"Threshold" refers to what?

Every runway has a threshold. It's the part part of the runway that can be used for landing.

Controller candidates must have which skill?

Air traffic controllers must have high-level memorization skills, in which they can retain thousands of bits of important information. Because at any given moment, an obscure flight rule may save someone's life.

Why would controllers use a "reliever airport"?

Controllers sometimes divert pilots to reliever airports. This may happen when there's just entirely too much congestion at the primary airport.

"Ceiling" refers to what?

Controllers and pilots are always keeping an eye on the ceiling. It's the lowest level of clouds that might partially (or totally) obscure visibility, and thus, hinder flight paths.

In CNEL, controllers must evaluate which part of a flight?

In CNEL (community noise equivalent levels), controllers must be aware of how their flight patterns affect noise levels in the surrounding communities. In very busy airports, controllers must do their best to minimize noise levels. Otherwise, they may be reprimanded or penalized.

How do pilots get a "fix" on things?

Controllers use all sorts of tips and tricks to orient their pilots. They may help them get a "fix" on their position by pointing out major geographical landmarks in the area.

Old-school flight progress strip were recorded on what?

If you think today's controller jobs are high stress, imagine years ago when flights were noted on paper flight progress strips on a large board. Thankfully, these analog processes have mostly been replaced by computers throughout the world.

The FAA guidelines indicate air traffic controllers must retire before what age?

If you really love your controller job, enjoy it while you can. The FAA forces controllers to retire at age 56, because after that, many peoples' minds aren't sharp enough for the job.

What's the average salary for an air traffic controller in the United States?

Air traffic controllers make very good money, and at average-sized airports, they can easily earn $125,000 per year. They'll need to save that high salary for their heart transplant surgeries that become necessary after numerous close calls.

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