What Is an Air Traffic Controller?



There have been countless discussions and threads in the #ATC category, with plenty revolving around how to improve as a controller and how to operate as IFATC. Since activity has been buzzing lately, I feel that this post would serve as a good reminder of what air traffic control is really about, as well as some of the mentality that goes behind it.

First, let me refute several things you may infer about IFATC controllers’ posts.

  • We’re not being mean for the sake of it. We’re trying to get a point across.
  • It isn’t a free pass once you join IFATC or anything else.The work doesn’t stop when you step across the threshold.
  • Asking for help does not portray you as weak. It is a strength. How else are you supposed to learn if you don’t ask?

Now, to confirm some truths.

  • Some people do have a rude awakening. It happens.
  • You have to take constructive criticism. You will lose respect and the offers of other people to help you if you don’t.
  • You are not “hot stuff” (although Misha may beg to differ). There are people there who are older than you, more experienced than you, and have seen way more than you. Please don’t antagonize them.


What do you imagine air traffic controllers motivate themselves to do?

Ordering pilots around? Is that what you think it’s about? Countless controllers worth their salt aren’t trying to win. We’re not doing this because we want special status in the community, or because we want to subjugate others. It’s not because it’s easy, as it certainly almost never is. We do what we do because it’s right. Because it’s decent. And, above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Kind. It’s kind and provides a service to the pilots who depend on us to guide them safely. Sure, we may not always be the best, and we’ll have our bad days, but that’s what we are. We’re controllers. It’s the best we can do. Even if we’ve been able to help just one guy out and make his day better, then we’ve done our job.

And, trust me, those who don’t think that way will find themselves out of luck very quickly.


FAA 7110.65: The primary purpose of the ATC system is to prevent a collision between aircraft operating in the system and to organize and expedite the flow of traffic, and to provide support for National Security and Homeland Defense (ignore that last bit unless you wanna create a paramilitary force).

There’s a purpose to this madness. We may deny pattern work because it interferes with the flow of traffic during busy periods, fitting right in with the sentence above. Same for holds. Same for give ways. Same for clearances. Same for just about every kind of delaying action we do. Yes, we exist to service pilots, but we’ll do what is necessary to keep you all safe.

And that, my readers, is the mindset of our thinking, our mentality, and what we do. That one line. Boom.

  • P.S: Happy late National ATC Day!

Great guide smithley! And happy national ATC to everyone as well!


There’s an ATC day… why have I never heard of this in 12 years???



Right, @THE-OP?

[For the photo credit NKVD among us, it says GraphJam at the bottom, but I’m pretty sure this was stolen from ATCMemes.]



You’re welcome.


wait, there are controllers that guide airplanes with radar or from a control tower???


Apparently. I always thought they were the wand guys who don’t even look at what they’re doing as they walk alongside the plane during pushback. Apparently it’s more complicated.

[Sorry, Josh. I’ll stop derailing your thread.]


A like for my strenuous post typed out of stress and angst would make it feel all better. 😘

That montage sounded horrifically like a sci fi show or something…


Great ATC topic as always Josh!

I absolutely agree with this. How else would you learn?


That’s not really the point of the post. It doesn’t have anything to do with appreciation.

It’s a reminder of what ATC is about. You, of all people, Max, know how some can get a little big headed over their responsibilities. This reiterates why we have ATC services and what for.

You know me better than this. Everybody does. I don’t fish to self serve- merely make informative posts that I feel the community can either enjoy or learn from.


@JoshFly8… No offense intended Josh, really ment to pull your leg a bit.
Regrets, the comment is in the wind… Pls see my PM.


This is a great and informative post. I very much agree. I honestly don’t think anyone who does ATC or, even flies jets because they want to seem superior to others or have bragging rights will make it too far. People who do things for the right reason are more likely to get farther because they’ll gain more respect and get more help when they need it.

I would like to bring up one thing. I think “constructive” criticism is key here. People do need to be able to take it. On the other hand, people giving criticism need to remember to be constructive. Just saying. Hey, you did a poor job. You suck! Isn’t helping anyone, and is unfair. Don’t try to ruin the hopes and dreams of people who really do want to succeed. That said, most people here are quite polite and professional. But nothing is perfect, there’s always bad apples out here.

Well done @JoshFly8 keep up the great work!


Oh these guys! Hats off to our great controllers!credits in picture


The kid speaks volumes beyond his years. I’m glad to say I’m one of many that has gained from his insight!

You 'da man!!!


I enjoyed this comment more than the actual post if I’m being honest lol. joesez keep the jokes rolling.


Not sure if it’s a curse or a blessing but I always seem to learn something new from Smithley. Your words of wisdom deserve to be heard by many.

Great job and thanks for creating this! :)


I couldn’t agree with you more Mr. Smithley! In fact I believe that those looking to become IFATC should definitely check out this topic. Everyone should take a good look at it regardless.

Your topics are always filled with very useful information and I still find myself looking back at topics you’ve made in the past to get a refresher on a few things. Your commitment is definitely something to admire!

Thank you for this!


Thanks Joshua for this informative post as always! I always do my best to take constructive criticism as it’s the one who made us to be even better in the future. I’m sure most of the feedbacks given by the community won’t disadvantage you 😊.

I do love this line quoted below

Many great people have prooved this line. We can’t be a better personal if we don’t want to ask help/assistance from others as a social creature. These helps are the ones who make us learn to do something better in the future as you will learn something new.

It’s awesome to see a significant growth of interest to be an Air Traffic Controller in this simulator lately. I do hope this post can give all of us a motivation to encourage aspiring ATCs on this community. Once again, Thanks alot Joshua 😊✈


Good topic. Thanks a lot Josh. Helped me a lot. 🙂

I’ll also add that ATC are here to provide pilots a service - not control how they want and pilots have to cope, e.g not accepting a particular type of plane, pattern work etc shouldn’t be happening unless there is a very valid reason for it. Thanks for the guide, should clear things up for new members