Commanders of the Skies


Commanders of the Skies


USAF: Air Traffic Controllers

Emmett Atkins spent 24 years as an air traffic controller. His career as a controller started when he joined the United States Air Force and after his 5 year duty, he retired and began his 19 year ATC job at the Memphis International Airport. As a controller, Emmett instructed pilots, both domestic and foreign, all while ensuring the safety for those on the ground and in the sky.


What lead Emmett to Air Traffic Control?

Growing up in Louisiana, Emmett would communicate with local crop duster pilots, from then on he knew that air traffic controlling was the career for him. The military provided him with a great education in which he used outside of the military. In addition to being an air traffic controller, he earned his private pilot license, instrument rating, and even made plane deliveries for various aircraft companies throughout the nation. Between flying and being a controller, he chose the job he was best at, Air Traffic Controlling.

How complex is communication in Air Traffic Control?

According to Emmett “communication is complex in all three areas: listening, speaking, and writing.” Air Traffic Control has different job roles that require different forms of communication. The different type of communication varies from job to job within the air traffic control tower, but no matter the form it must be effective to ensure the safety of all pilots.

How do Controllers adapt their communication with different pilots?

While the type of pilot will vary depending on their job, the communication between controllers and pilots will remain the same. There are many terms a pilot must know, Emmett says “phraseology is identical no matter the type of pilot they speak to.” There are only two ways that the quality of the communication could be different. The U.S. military uses an UHF, ultra-high frequency, which is different from the civilian style of VHF, very-high frequency radio. Though there is a frequency change, the controller can still keep an effective bridge of communication from the tower to the cockpit.

What role does communication play in emergency situations?

When an emergency situation occurs, communication plays a crucial role in how the end result will be either positive or disastrous. According to Emmett, the most important task for the air traffic controller would be to communicate with the pilot to determine what the emergency is and work toward the best possible solution. The first crucial step in finding a solution is to make communication between the pilot and the controller private and personal as possible, according to Emmett. The second crucial step in the solution would be “getting the pilot on the ground the safest was possible.”

How do Controllers manage communication with foreign pilots?

Since the United States is the forerunner in the aviation industry, most other countries strive to maintain policies similar to the Federal Aviation Administration. The English language has become the standard language for the aviation industry on a global scale. Though English is the standard, it does not mean it is a rule of law that must be followed by other nation’s aviation programs. According to Emmett, “foreign pilots might lack clarity and efficiency when communicating phraseology, but they pick up the slack with flying skills.” Since communication is vital to safety, both controller and the pilot must be able to overcome communication barriers.

How does written communication effect Air Traffic Control?

Written communication plays its own special role in air traffic control that sets it apart from the rest. Emmett says the most important forms of written communication are write-ups due to a pilot violation, a flight plan that is filed through Flight Service Station, and accident/incident reports. This form though valuable, does have limitations.

Emmett ended his discussion on communication in air traffic control “a controller is useless without: coffee, coffee, coffee, and coffee.”

Zach Mire, Guest Blogger


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