DALLAS – Welcome to a new episode of Airways Profile, where we feature individuals who tell our readers everything they’ve ever wanted to know about the behind-the-scenes in aviation.
Our special guest today is Sebastian, an air traffic controller, pilot, and photographer.
Sebastian, welcome aboard! Let’s start with the simplest question: what’s your name and what is your role in aviation?
My name is Sebastian Thoma. In the aviation community, I am also known as “ATCpilot” or “ATCpilot Photography.”
I am an air traffic controller based in Germany, responsible for Berlin’s approach and departure airspace. In addition to that, I am a commercial pilot and aviation photographer.
So this can explain your nickname: ATC Pilot. What’s the story behind this?
The name “ATCpilot Photography” is pretty self-explanatory after knowing my three jobs as an ATCO, pilot, and photographer. However, this has some more background.
My father was a helicopter pilot in the Air Force and was the person who got me into aviation. When I was about 10 years old, he bought a computer and a flight simulator, which I loved playing on. A little later, while in high school, I discovered the online networks VATSIM and IVAO, which provide software and an amazing community to connect your flight simulator to others and be a virtual pilot or air traffic controller. It was around that time when my dad took me to an airfield where I had my first flying lesson in a glider and I started plane spotting with my first digital camera.
As I had so much fun flying gliders and being a virtual air traffic controller, I knew that either flying or working as a controller would be my goal after graduating from school. Unfortunately, there was only one airline (Lufthansa) offering ab-initio flight training in Germany and only one company providing air traffic control. Since I was graduating at the young age of 17, I wanted to give myself some more time before taking my one-chance-only job interviews for the training programs.
I worked at the airport for a little bit in operations and on the ramp, and also went to university, studying “Aircraft and Flight Engineering” for 2 semesters. University was my plan B, should neither of the job interviews work out for me. I was prepared for that since more than 95% of the applicants fail the tests. However, I got super lucky when I passed the Lufthansa interview in 2012 and was about to start my training in Bremen, Germany, and Phoenix, AZ.
Unfortunately, Lufthansa stopped their training program for more than two years, just a month before I was about to start my training. That is why I applied for the ATC training as well and got super lucky another time. After being in training with the German air navigation service provider “DFS” for six months, Lufthansa called and invited me to finally start my flight training.
It was the hardest decision in my life, but I chose to finish my ATC training and get my commercial license later to combine the two jobs. During the pandemic, I realized that this was definitely the right choice after seeing so many pilot friends losing their jobs. Now I have both, a safe and well-paid job as a controller and flying as a part-time and freelance business.
During all those years, I was always a plane spotter and improved my skills in photography a lot. Being a pilot enables you to get some unusual perspectives on airplanes. Shooting airplanes from above is by far my favorite perspective. I try to rent a Cessna in California at least once a year and fly to all the airplane scrapyards. These are fascinating airports with hundreds of airplanes stored. In 2021, I published my first book, showing these airplane boneyards in the US and Europe.
When I was starting to make a business from my aviation photos in 2015, I was looking for a name that best described what I do. So here I am, ATCpilot Photography.
I am particularly amazed by the opportunity you had to choose between becoming a pilot or an air traffic controller. We already know what you actually chose, but I wonder: what were the key factors in choosing between one or another?
It was really hard to say “no” to Lufthansa in the end. It really was my dream and passion, and I still could not believe I passed the interviews. However, when attending the job interview for Air Traffic Control, I was prepared to tell them all the cons of being a pilot. I mean, they knew I was a private pilot already and was about to start training for Lufthansa. It is actually the same company in the same building in Hamburg and even the same psychologists who perform the tests for Lufthansa and the German ANSP “DFS.”
In the interview part, I told them that jetlag, being away from home for longer periods, and the rapidly changing market for pilots would be cons. As an air traffic controller, you can actually choose what shifts you would like to work, and you are always back home after 8 hours of work. It is also a very safe job, well paid, and the retirement age is 55.
Even if the job itself has nothing to do with piloting an airplane and seeing the world from above, it is still a fun job in the industry. It can be a real challenge that makes you go home exhausted but happy after a busy inbound rush with thunderstorms in your sector or handling an emergency flight for their safe return to the airport.
When did everything begin? Was there a specific moment you recall when you fell in love with aviation, or was it something that you had “inside you”?
Aviation is probably in my blood as my dad used to be a pilot. My passion, however, grew over the years. First, there was the flight simulator, then the glider flying, followed by my private pilot license.
I also remember the countless days and hours I spent at the airport seeing airplanes take off and land. In 2008, I started bringing my camera and became a plane spotter at the age of 14. The sound of the engine and the smell of jet fuel always made my day. I would take a train to the airport, buy some snacks in the terminal, and walk around the perimeter fence and parking lots for the whole day with my camera always ready, since there was no flightradar24 back then.
Aviation has become my passion. I can’t think of a life without airplanes and flying. Here is my favorite quote from Leonardo Da Vinci, “Once you have tried flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards.”
I definitely love that quote. Let’s talk about your “real” job, the “other” job, and your passion.
What is your job like as an air traffic controller?
I am working on Berlin Approach Control, something which would be considered a TRACON in the US. My job is to sequence arrivals into Berlin and vector them towards the final approach, as well as separate departing traffic from arriving traffic. The work changed quite a bit after our home carrier, Air Berlin, ceased operations and Berlin Tegel airport was closed in 2020, with the new BER airport being opened with a delay of many years.
Do you always work on the approach, or sometimes the tower and/or ground?
Unfortunately, not. There are three types of licenses in Germany. Ground/Tower, Approach/Area Control, and Upper Area Control. You can only have one type of license. I would love to work at Approach and Tower since it is always great to actually see the airplanes you are working on. I love visiting friends and colleagues on the tower and enjoying a sunset with airplanes taking off into the skies.
So why approach? Was it your choice or did you just find yourself better in that position?
That decision was made by the company after finishing the initial training. Someone from the unit would visit the simulator in the final stage of training and see what sectors you are best in.
Then they can give a recommendation to the training department on what type of sector you should start your “on-the-job-training“. Also, the company will always send their trainees to the unit that needs the staff most, so you cannot make a choice as to which facility you will get after graduating from the academy.
How does air traffic control work? A plane is flying to Berlin, and it has to land. What happens?
The pilot calls in on my frequency. I am prepared for that since I have a flight strip with all the important information on it, like the callsign, the aircraft type, and his routing. Also, he shows up on my radar scope several minutes before actually entering my airspace and being handed over by the previous sector.
I will assign safe altitudes and vectors towards the airport before handing him off to the control tower and issuing the landing clearance. If there is a lot of traffic, I also have to apply delay methods and assign speeds to sequence multiple arrivals onto the same runway.
What if the radio of the plane completely shuts down? How can a plane land in such a condition?
The good thing about aviation is that we always have redundancy. There are at least two, sometimes even three, radios on board the aircraft (and also at our ATC positions).
Should all of them fail (e.g. in the unlikely event of a complete electrical power loss), there are certain procedures that the pilot will follow. He will enter the holding and fly a standard approach at his planned arrival time, so I can make some room and get the other airplanes out of his way. The control tower has a “light gun“ and can give him the landing clearance with a visual signal – a green light.
The light gun is amazing, by the way! Now a quick question: what’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
It is clearly handling the unexpected. Emergencies, heavy thunderstorms, full holdings, and diversions due to unexpected runway closures… These are the days you go home and know you earned your money.
Do you think that anyone can become an ATC, or do you think you need to have something — and I am thinking about the right mindset or maybe a sort of predisposition.
The selection process and the fact that only 50% of the trainees make it through the training show that not everyone can become an ATCO. There are some things like being good in English or Mathematics which you can learn and improve your skills. Other things you just need to bring.
One of the most important things is decision-making. They have to be made quickly, even if it’s not the best decision. We do not have time to overthink everything again and again. If our decision (e.g., an inbound sequence or a vector) was wrong, we correct it at a later stage. Some people are scared of making wrong decisions or thinking about it for too long, which gets them “out of the picture“ and behind traffic.
Aside from the decision-making, what do you think is another must-have quality for an ATCO?
Multitasking! You have to speak to one aircraft, write down the ATC clearance onto the flight progress strip at the same time, listen to your coordinator who is on the phone with a neighboring sector to coordinate something, and always scan the radar scope to plan ahead while making transmissions!
You said that only 50% of the trainees make it through the training. What does it entail? I have always thought that you needed to train your brain to work in a sort of multi-tasking way among multiple scenarios and also remember what you said to an airplane 10 minutes ago while you talked to the other five planes. Does that make sense?
You actually already have the ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time. That is why you passed the interview for the training. However, when completing the theory phase of training and starting in the simulator, you start very slowly.
Only 2-3 aircraft at a time to learn phraseology and different methods of establishing separation. For lateral separation, you can use headings, directs, and speed control. For vertical separation, you will learn how to calculate climb and descend rates.
Throughout the training, the airspace gets more complex and you get more difficult traffic situations that you will learn to handle. The cool thing is that you sit with different coaches every day, and every one of them has different working methods. There are always multiple ways to solve a problem in ATC, and in the end, you will find your own style of working. Everything is possible, as long as it is safe 🙂
Has something unexpected ever happened to you?
Sometimes I feel like I’m a magnet for those kinds of things, as they happened a couple of times while I was on duty.
I can remember two engine failures, multiple medical emergencies, and navigational problems… The worst accident I had on my frequency was a loss of control of a large size business jet after departure. It was a miracle and thanks to the very experienced flight crew everyone survived and they made it back to the airport.
Today, I‘m good friends with the copilot whose voice on the radio on that day I will never forget. It was a relief to meet the crew after what happened and learn from a situation like that.
That is definitely a great story to tell, especially with the happy ending.
Permit me to focus for a while on Berlin. What’s your opinion, as a Berliner, about the new airport? We all know the story, it was supposed to open in 2012, and ended up opening “some years later.”
Tegel was an amazing airport. I loved it so much, as a controller, as a passenger, and as a pilot. The new airport has some advantages, but clearly a lot of disadvantages. So many things went wrong in the planning and construction phases, which really makes it a pain to work sometimes. Also, there are a lot of very restrictive noise abatement procedures in effect.
The good thing is that we can work on two independent runways, which enables larger amounts of traffic at the same time. At least if there are not as many departures at the same time, we have to provide some gaps for the tower to let them take off between two arrivals.
By the way, our ATC facility is located in Bremen, some 250 miles west of Berlin. So I am not a Berliner and never get to see the airplanes I just had on my frequency unless it is flying to Bremen 🙂
How did your work change after Air Berlin ceased operations?
We had some very quiet months, but then EasyJet and Ryanair took over a lot of their routes, including aircraft and crews. However, we lost almost all of our long-haul flights and are down to only a handful of widebodies every day.
It was always great to start an early shift and welcome “our“ AirBerlin pilots from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, or New York back home.
What are the differences between Tegel and Schoenfeld operations, and how is it now with only one airport?
Traffic is probably still a little bit less, but that is because of the pandemic. The flow of traffic is now a lot smoother with the new procedures as everyone is going to the same airport. Before that, there were a lot of crossings in the air, and you had to come up with some creative ideas to separate the Schönefeld from the Tegel traffic.
Some of my coaches were ex-military from the US and came to Berlin during the Cold War. They actually had four airports back then, with Gatow and Tempelhof still in operation. That must have been interesting! I always enjoyed their stories from back then. Unfortunately, they have all been retired in the last couple of years.
What if I tell you that someone out there is dying out to read about those stories?
Haha, oh there are so many stories. For example, how working with the Russians was during the Cold War and how they worked the three corridors between West Germany and West Berlin over the Soviet territory (GDR).
One of the most interesting controllers from that time is Colleen ‚Cookie‘ Conrad. I recorded a podcast with her after she was retired to make some of her stories last forever. It can be found online on Spotify, Amazon, Google, and even on YouTube (if you like to see a face to her iconic voice).
She is known amongst pilots all over the world for her voice and American style of working Berlin Approach.
I have to ask, and then I promise we will move on: give me your definition of “American Style.”
There is not a definition of “American Style,“ but if you listen to a German ATC frequency and to an American ATC sector, you will realize that procedures and phrasing are a lot different, although we speak the same language.
The result (safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic) remains the same, just the way of getting there is slightly different. A lot of our locally-based airline pilots loved to hear the American accent on the radio before our US colleagues were retired.
Now, moving on, new chapter: ATC & Pilot.
You are a pilot for a major commercial airline. Why, and why did you apply to Lufthansa? If you chose to be an ATC, why did you pursue the CPL (Commercial Pilot License) as well?
As I said earlier, ATC is fun and pays well. It is a very safe job too, compared to a low-hour airline pilot. However, if you are an aviator, you belong in the air rather than being in front of a computer monitor for the rest of your life. That is why I upgraded from my PPL and recreational flying to my commercial and instrument licenses.
Right now, I am a flight instructor and I fly corporate turboprop aircraft on my days off. However, my dream is to fly a big jet one day as a part-time job while still being a controller. Even if I don’t make it in the next couple of years, the ATCO retirement age is 55 which makes another ten years to fly full time on an airliner after that before retiring from flying too. Hope I stay healthy and still have my medical by then 🙂
Do you think that being a pilot helps you be a better ATC and vice versa? Does knowing what happens on one end help you be better when you are on the other one?
That’s a 100% yes! When I fly with colleagues, they sometimes wonder that I do not only have an idea of what’s going on in the cockpit but rather have a traffic picture of the ATC sector from all the other radio calls.
That is difficult when flying in France or Spain, by the way, as their pilots and controllers are allowed to speak in their native language on the radio. And unfortunately, they do.
Furthermore, I can judge from the voice of the controller whether he is busy or not. That helps to find out if you should place a request for a direct or different flight level at this time or rather shut up to let him/her solve the two other problems in the sector first.
On the ATC side, it is pretty much the same thing. Of about 350 controllers working in our facility, there are only nine with a pilot’s license and just three have an instrument rating. A lot of times, colleagues ask for my opinion or experience from the other side of the radio in certain situations.
Our Supervisor also has a list of us pilots so he/she can check who is on duty when there is an emergency and we can sit next to the controller in charge and try to help, giving the pilot the best assistance possible to get the airplane on the ground as quick and safe as possible.
Let’s move on to talk about your passion for photography. Where does it come from?
When I was about 14, I went to the airport and saw airplanes for the first time. I also saw people taking notes of the airplanes’ tail numbers and others taking photos of them.
When my parents got me my first digital camera (A Sony DSC H9), I started to learn from other photographers and asked a lot of questions either at the airport’s perimeter fence or online to improve my skills. My first DSLR, a Canon EOS 400D was a game-changer.
After some other Bodies and better lenses, I upgraded to my first full-frame camera in 2015. With the improving quality of photos, I realized that I could slowly start earning a little money on the side to afford things like helicopter flights for air to air photoshoots.
Your photos are definitely amazing. What equipment do you have?
Today, I use two Canon Full Frame Bodies (EOS 5D Mark III and EOS 5D Mark IV) to always have a wide-angle and a zoom lens ready without changing lenses. That is important for airshows and even more so for open-door helicopter flights, where you are not allowed to bring any loose objects for obvious reasons.
My lenses are a Canon EF 100-400 f/4.0-5.6 L IS zoom, a Canon EF 16-35 f/4.0 L IS, and a Canon EF 24-105 f/4.0 L IS. Especially for the helicopter flights, I use the Blackrapid Double Strap to have both cameras secured on my shoulders and ready to shoot. On top of that, I use three GoPro to record my helicopter and airplane flights for my Youtube channel.
We sometimes receive messages asking for advice on how to improve our photographic skills or how to become famous photographers. What’s your take?
Never be afraid of asking questions to improve your skills, and try to remind yourself that your whole career as a photographer is a learning curve. You will discover new photography and editing methods over the years. I started taking photos and uploading them to databases like planepictures.net or airliners.net.
A lot of them got rejected in the beginning and I was focused to shoot and edit to their standards from some point on. Later on, I realized that I don’t care about their screening methods anymore but would rather find my own style.
Airplanes don’t have to be centered in the image all the time and it is OK to take a close-up photo by “cutting off” parts of the airplane with your framing. Also, shooting against the light can create some nice effects. Today, I still try to improve my skills and learn from others, especially when it comes to editing.
I would not call myself famous and, thus, I cannot really provide good advice here. When your image quality is at a certain level, people will like and share your photos on social media.
My breakthrough was actually off-social media though, as I started to work for the German AERO International magazine where I publish my best shots on a regular basis. Another success was publishing my book with more than 2000 of them being sold in the first couple of months only in Germany.
In the future, I hope to expand my work a little more onto the US market and will try to publish my “Scrapyards-Book” in English too as soon as I find the right publisher.
I saw tons of photos from you taken by a helicopter. Why this passion? Any advice for someone who would like to do a heli-ride for the first time?
If someone is planning to do the very first helicopter ride, I highly recommend traveling to Los Angeles and flying with Star Helicopters out of Hawthorne Airport. This is the most famous spot on the planet for helicopter spotting.
It was brought to life by Sam Chui a long time ago and the helicopter company has its official holding patterns and ATC knows exactly how to deal with them. The pilots are very experienced too and will turn the helicopter with the airplanes to always get the best angle. They monitor the ATC frequency and will point out every movement so that you won’t miss a thing!
Furthermore, when traveling alone, they offer an R22 two-seat-helicopter which flies for 375 USD/hr which is a very good rate compared to the R44- or turbine-powered helicopters I have been using in other places so far. Other airports are a little more difficult in terms of preplanning as there are no other helicopter companies specialized in planespotting flights and it is always based on individual coordination with ATC.
As an ATC, pilot, and photographer, what are the requirements to accommodate a helicopter in the airspace of an airport?
The most important requirement is the same as for a nice photo: good weather.
The airplanes and the helicopter have to be able to see and avoid each other. Furthermore, the helicopter should have certain areas assigned for its operation to stay clear of approach, departure, and missed approach paths from all runways in use.
That makes sense.
- What is your favorite plane?
- P51 Mustang
- What is your favorite airport?
- Cable Airport in Upland, CA. That is where I got married last year. Yes. On the apron, in front of a Boeing Stearman.
- An airport where you would like to work in the tower.
- San Francisco. Beautiful views, interesting airport layout, and I am in love with California. L.A. or San Diego would also do.
- An airport where you would never work.
- As a radar controller, any airport located in very dense and restrictive airspace, such as London, New York, or Düsseldorf. In “my” airspace surrounding Berlin, I like that there is a lot of space for creative vectors and solutions.
- Your favorite company
- It’s probably still Lufthansa. It was my childhood dream to wear a Lufthansa uniform one day, and it still is. Although the company has changed a lot in the last 15 years and things changed a lot.
- What’s the phrase you say most when you are on the frequency?
- “Turn left heading 280 cleared ILS approach runway 25 left; report established.”
- What’s the most “important” callsign you’ve ever called on the frequency?
- In Berlin, which is our capital city, we get to see a lot of VIPs. I had dozens of government aircraft on frequency, including Air Force One and the Queen, but also celebrities and famous music bands. Most recently, Elon Musk was flying to Berlin again for the new TESLA Gigafactory a couple of miles east of the airport.
- What’s your favorite shift?
- I’m a 100% late shift guy!
- If you were not working in aviation, what would have been your other career?
- I cannot imagine working in any other industry.
- If you were not a Canon photographer, what other brand would have you chosen?
- Probably Nikon as it was most famous amongst Canon back in the days. A friend of mine seems to be very happy with his Sony equipment too.
- Two engines or four engines?
- Three! I love the L1011 & MD11.
Someone said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” How true is that for you?
It is 100% true–at least every day I am flying commercially. When having an ATC shift, there are good and fun days as well as very exhausting days. As a photographer, I love taking photos every minute but don’t like all the time I have to spend editing the shots.
Is there anyone you want to say hi to before we close the interview?
Basically, everyone who has helped me get to where I am. Definitely my parents and my wife. I am very thankful for the opportunity to follow my aviation dreams, especially in times of a pandemic and war going on here in Europe.
Seb, thank you. This was an amazing interview. Thank you for your time, and thank you for sharing your story with me and with all our readers.
Stay tuned for our next episodes and be sure to read our previous Airways Profiles if you haven’t done so yet. Don’t forget to add Airways to your favorite websites in your browser.
Until the next Airways Profile, take care of yourselves and each other!