Waukesha County

Flight Path: Air Traffic Controller

The aviation industry is coping with shortages in virtually every area, including air traffic control. We recently sat down with Pewaukee native and current Waukesha County Airport tower chief, Beau Seabourn, an Air Traffic Manager with Midwest Air Traffic Control, Inc., about his journey to become an air traffic controller, what concerns and encourages him about the future of aviation and his advice for those looking to enter the aviation industry.

When you were young, did you always want to be an air traffic controller, or was that something that evolved for you over time?

I didn’t always want to be an Air Traffic Controller, or controller. When I was growing up, my mom always took us to airports to watch the planes, and I always thought I would become a pilot. Ever since I can remember, I knew I wanted to join the Navy. So, after graduating from Pewaukee High School, I went to a Navy recruitment office and took their entry exam. After reviewing my results, one of the jobs offered to me by the Navy was to be a controller. The recruiter I was working with thought I would really enjoy it, particularly because it was an intense job. So, I picked it. 

How did you start your journey to become a controller?

After graduating from the Navy boot camp, I attended the U.S. Navy Air Traffic School in Pensacola, Florida. I spent about six to eight months there, doing a lot of book work, testing and working in simulators. During this time, I was learning all of the basic elements to become an air traffic controller, while learning about military life. The program is set up to put you through your paces to see if you can handle it.

After six months, I got to pick my duty station, and I chose to be a controller in Brunswick, Maine. While on base, I participated in on-the-job training to become a certified controller.

How did your early career look as a controller?

To this point, I’ve spent my career serving at Naval bases and in the civilian control sector. However, in 2007 I was deployed to Iraq. I spent about eight months in Iraq – working eight hours each day as a controller – at the main logistical base located outside of Ramadi and Fallujah. During my deployment, I worked with medivac helicopters that were bringing in wounded troops, sending combat helicopters out to engage the enemy and providing logistical support to the armed forces there.

I actually deployed with the Marine Corps, because they were short of air traffic controllers. I was one of eight sailors to deploy in that unit. At the time, I was 21-22 years old, and for a younger person to be exposed to the level of intensity and impact you need to make in a place like Iraq, I quickly learned that some traditional controller rules went out the window. Especially when you’re dealing with a helicopter carrying wounded soldiers, military leadership or celebrities.

I concluded my service with the Navy in 2009, with my Certified Traffic Operation (CTO) certification, and I immediately applied to several companies. I was offered a position with Midwest ATC, Inc., and began my work in the civilian sector in LaCrosse, WI. In 2013, I earned my Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. I wanted to get back into the Milwaukee area, so I transferred to Timmerman. I earned my Master of Science in Leadership from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2015. When I finished graduate school, I applied to join the Waukesha County Airport (KUES) tower. At 32 years of age, I am one of the youngest air traffic managers at Midwest ATC.

Tell us about the challenges you’ve experienced and how you’ve transformed them into opportunities?

As an air traffic controller, you’re dealing with change constantly. So, a lot of the challenges lie in the complexity of what we’re dealing with. Where air traffic controlling used to happen more behind-the-scenes, as professionals, we’re much more visible to the public now. We also take on different roles and wear many different hats. It’s so much more than safely and effectively controlling the flow of military, commercial, general aviation and drone traffic, it’s also about customer service.

How long have you been a controller?

At this time, I’ve been a controller for 13 years. Five of those years as a military controller and about eight years as a civilian. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a relatively short period of time. Midwest ATC employs a high number of military veterans, who tend to spend 20 years serving as a controller for the military, but then they transfer to an FCT (Federal Contract Tower) to complete their career.

Is there anything that surprised you throughout your training to become a controller?

The thing that was most surprising to me, is the intensity and the work ethic that goes along with this job. As a young controller, you’re really not controlling what you would naturally see here at Waukesha. You’re doing a lot of learning and book work, so the drive and work ethic needed to achieve your end-goal is surprising. It takes a lot of drive to become a controller. The constant change in the way we do business –  as dictated by the FAA – is just part of what we to adapt to and overcome to do our job. It’s a field of continuous change, which we tend to experience every few months, in terms of regulations and the training around them.

In addition, the populations that we are providing services to is changing, particularly when you look at the increasing popularity of drones. These days, we’re fielding calls and questions from members of the public who operate drones in our airspace. The shift that drone usage has had in our industry – and how quickly it is taking us in new directions – is surprising. As an Air Traffic Manager, I deal with every facet of drones now. On any given day, I can receive drone notifications that impact how we do business.

Is there anything different about being a controller for the military, commercial or general aviation?

Since everyone is required to follow the rules and regulations set by the FAA, being a controller for the military, commercial or general aviation really isn’t that different, particularly in the U.S. As a Certified Traffic Operator (CTO), the FAA determines that you are able to sequence aircraft nationally, but you are trained to work at specific airports. Even though we may serve in slightly different capacities, airport to airport we’re all playing by the same rules.

So, how can someone become a controller?

Well, there are a few different paths to the approach. You can join the military and become a controller, as each branch of the U.S. armed services has its own controllers, allowing you to complete your training during your time of service and then transition to the civilian sector upon leaving the military. These days, the FAA is accepting off-the-street hires. That means that you can reach out to the FAA, take an aptitude test and – if you pass – the FAA will send you to their educational program. If you demonstrate the capacity to fulfill the position and do the job, you earn your certification. In addition, you can earn a degree in aviation before applying with the FAA to become a controller, but there is no preference for college students these days. Finally, there is a school in the U.S. – a one year program – that you can attend, and at the end of the program, you receive your CTO.

Aviation professionals often say that they learned a great deal about themselves throughout their training and career. Is this true for you? If so, are you willing to share?

Air traffic control is a very high energy, go, go, go role. Our job changes literally every day, as situations are always different and we’re never doing the same thing.  As a result, you need to have a pretty thick skin and you need to be patient. Also, when you consider the millions of things in your career that you do right, the one thing that you do wrong always sticks with you. All of this has taught me to anticipate things, be fluid and adapt and overcome.

Do you have a great story or two about your career that you could share with us?

In our roles, we often get to see and be part of some really intriguing events, like talking to Air Force One, the space shuttle and more. We also get to see some incredible aircraft and be part of that. When I was stationed in Brunswick, I worked two airshows with the Blue Angels. As a member of the Navy, those are my guys. While they were there, I got to meet and work side-by-side with them in the tower. I have personalized memorabilia from them hanging on my wall. To meet the performers and rub shoulders with the people who provide the “awesome,” was a great experience.

For me, everything about serving as a controller in Iraq, was a very fulfilling and intense experience. It’s something I will never forget.

When you look ahead at the aviation industry, what concerns you most?

My general concern is that there’s not enough people interested in aviation now. It’s pretty well-known that there’s a shortage of pilots, but the shortage of air traffic controllers is also significant. On the whole, there’s a lack of education about air traffic control. People either aren’t aware of or don’t know about all of the services we provide. For example, when you take a cross-country flight, your pilot may talk to as many as 35 different air traffic controllers. Though we’re usually behind-the-scenes, we’re often taken for granted, but we’re essential to the safe and efficient operation of the aviation industry.

On the flip side, what excites you about the future of aviation?

Hands down, it’s the innovation. Technology is booming. As the drone era is growing rapidly, the application and implication of this technology is incredible. Air traffic control is going coming fully up-to-speed with our abilities to deal with the influx. A lot more people are getting engaged because of drones, and that serves as a point of entry for people to relate to the National Airspace System (NAS) and airports in general. I’m very excited to see where technological advances and the regulations as a result are going to take us.

What is the best piece of advice you received to this point in your aviation career?

When I was going through air traffic control school, I was having a tough time, and my uncle told me to set large goals for the day, for the year. Break those goal down into smaller, easy-to-do tasks. By attacking the small tasks, the bigger things will get done and you’ll ultimately achieve your goal. It’s great advice that I continue to apply, not only in my role as an air traffic controller, but in life overall.