MIAMI – Airways Profile is a new column published in the online edition of Airways. Use the tag #AirwaysProfile on your Instagram post for a chance to be featured in the future!
Welcome to the first and renewed episode of Airways Profile, the new Airways story about people involved in the aviation world. Everything you have always wanted to know about working in aviation is here!
Our first guest is Christopher Jurczyk (@chrisfnj), Air Traffic Controller in the New York Area.
Christopher Jurczyk, Air Traffic Controller, New York Area
Let’s begin with the simplest question: what is your name and why are you an Aviation Person?
Christopher Jurczyk, Air Traffic Controller, JFK Air Traffic Control Tower
Why ATC? Where did it all begin?
When I was a little boy, my dad used to take me to the airport to watch planes; I knew then, that I wanted to become a pilot. ATC had never crossed my mind. In high school I attended an aviation class, taught by Mr. John Carey, who used to fly for the airlines. We went over the pros and cons of being an airline pilot versus ATC. I never truly understood what being a pilot actually entailed. It was shortly after that I decided to pursue air traffic control and fly as a hobby. I owe everything to Mr. Carey.
How do you become an air traffic controller? And most importantly, how do you get to work at an airport like JFK?
When I was looking to get hired, it was required to attend a CTI school followed by required FAA tests. I attended College Of Aeronautics (now Vaughn College) in Queens, NY. I graduated and took the required FAA tests. I waited almost 2 years to hear back from the FAA.
I was offered Raleigh Durham International Airport (RDU) in North Carolina. It was an easy yet very difficult decision for me. I had never been to North Carolina before and here I was beginning a career. Upon accepting the offer, I was sent to Oklahoma City to attend the FAA training program.
After about 3 months I reported to RDU air traffic control tower. I certified in the tower and put in a request to come back to the NY area, which is where I’m from. When I found out I was going to JFK, I was ecstatic. This is where my dad would take me often to watch planes when I was a kid. We spent hours on the roof of the Pan Am terminal and here I was going to work there.
You mentioned that you had a discussion about the pro and cons of being an air traffic controller. Which ones are they?
A big pro in ATC to someone like me is that I see planes every day and I still get to go home and see my family, as opposed to an airline pilot, who may travel for weeks out of the month. A con might be working occasional holidays, weekends and varying shifts.
How is one of your typical days at work? How long is your shift, or if you need to take a break after a certain amount of time, how does that work?
No two days are ever the same, but a typical day might look like: sign in, get the weather briefing, check NOTAMS (Notice to Airman), and begin work on a position. We work 8 hours a day, 5 days. We can work a maximum of 2 hours before we must take a break.
You always use the “We”. I was wondering, how many people work in the JFK Tower? And what’s your role specifically? I know that there are different air traffic controllers such as the one for departures, the one for the ground, etc.
Between controllers, training specialists, and management there are about 60 people working in the building. There are several positions in the tower and you must certify in all of them. Clearance Delivery/Flight data: Ensure the routes, climbs, altitudes are all correct and issue the clearances to the pilots either verbally or electronically.
Ground Control 1 and 2: Bring aircraft to and from the runways. Local control 1 and 2: Clear aircraft for takeoff or landing. Cab Coordinator: An extra set of eyes on the operation and help coordinate with adjacent facilities. CBA (Class B Airspace): Work the VFR traffic in the airspace. There’s also a traffic management and controller in charge/supervisor position. We typically rotate through all positions but it depends on staffing and traffic levels.
Among all those positions, what’s your favorite and why?
Ground, since it’s the most challenging position in the tower. It’s often very busy and fun.
What is the biggest fear for an air traffic controller?
Becoming overwhelmed in a stressful situation and losing focus.
Has it ever happened to you?
I’ve never lost focus, but have definitely been put in stressful situations on the ground. That’s where your coworkers come into play. Everyone works together as a team to get through it.
What was the strangest, or most unusual, thing that ever happened to you at work?
Working at JFK, I think it’s safe to say we’ve seen it all. During Hurricane Sandy one of the airport vehicles almost drove into a boat that was ON runway 4L, that was something I never thought I’d hear. A Delta pilot reported a deer on runway 31L… I reminded him he was in JAMAICA, QUEENS. Who knows what it was.
Wait. A Boat?
You worked at RDU at the beginning of your career: where is the difference between working at RDU and working at JFK?
RDU had a mix of commercial airlines, military and general aviation aircraft. JFK is mainly commercial airlines and cargo although there has been an increase in general aviation.
How COVID-19 impacted your job – in terms of traffic reduction and workload?
We normally run 1200-1400 operations a day. We went down to 150 at one point in March. We broke 600 around Thanksgiving. It’s very slow.
Do you think aviation will recover from this crisis? What’s your opinion about the future of aviation?
It will recover. It’ll take some time but it’ll come back stronger than ever.
Sometimes we hear in the news that in the future, there will be planes without Pilots. Do you think that there will be a future with a complete automatic ATC?
I don’t think it’s possible. There are too many variables—e.g., weather, emergencies, equipment failures, etc.– to take away the human element.
There is a channel on YouTube where conversations between ATC and Pilots are posted. Have you ever been in one of these videos?
Yes, I’m pretty sure we’re all on there.
What’s the thing you love most of your job?
The best thing is the friendship I’ve made. My coworkers have become family.
There is a saying that says “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”. Do you think it’s true?
Absolutely. I took my passion for aviation and my penchant for staring out the window and turned that into my career. When I go to work, I don’t feel as though I’m working; it’s visceral, exciting and extremely rewarding.
Let’s do a bit of back and forth; quick question, short answer.
Favorite airline: I plead the 5th. Too many friends in different airlines.
Favorite airport: FRG – where I learned to fly. Those controllers are amazing.
Favorite airplane: My friend Renato’s Cherokee 140 “Azzurra”
Favorite callsign: “Praying Mantis”
Weirdest callsign: “Gamma Jet” because they’re usually a prop.
The callsign you would love to call if you can: Nothing comes to mind. After working AF1 (Air Force One), the Pope, UN Generally Assembly VIPs, it’s become a regular thing.
If you can choose an airport and it’s not JFK, where would you like to work? I’d love to eventually go back to RDU, althoughit would be cool to work at SAN or SEA.
What’s the sentence you say most at work? “How long till the gate is open?”
Can you see EWR from JFK? We can see their traffic but not the airport.
What would you say to a child who tells you that when he grows up he would like to be a flight controller?
I would say go for it. You’ll be challenged every day but it’s also incredibly rewarding. You never work a day in your life if you love what you do.
What do you like to do in your free time? Do you still think about planes or aviation is completely separated from your personal life?
I enjoy doing various projects in the yard and around the house with my sidekick, Weston; playing with the kids; and flying as much as I can.
Has your son ever told you he would like to do his dad’s job?
My oldest son, Weston, is about to turn 3. I can see the pure excitement in his face when we see a plane or talk about my job, though he’s a bit too young to say if he wants to actually have the same job one day. I can sense his wonder and can’t wait to take him to up in the tower one day to see it for himself.
Is there anyone you want to thank, or someone you want to say hi?
I’d like to thank anyone who takes the time to give back. Guys like Vincenzo Pace and Joe Pries who are masters of their craft, take the time and energy to teach the younger generation and get them involved. Jerome Stanislaus is also very big on this. Joe and Margrit Fahans take time out from relaxing in retirement to answer future airline pilots’ questions.
And of course, my parents for helping me get started towards this path… everyone knows flying is NOT cheap. I couldn’t do it without them.
Chris, I can only thank you for your time and for your availability. Was nice talking to you, was fun and enjoyable, and I’m pretty sure that anyone reading it will find it as funny as it is interesting.
On behalf of Airways, we would like to thank your manager for giving us the chance to make this happen, your colleagues for the incredible work they do every day to allow us to fly safely, and last but not least, the FAA and the NYNJPA.
Thank you, Chris, thank you all for following us, see you next week with a new episode of Airways Profile.
Please take care of yourself, and each other.
Featured image and all photos courtesy of @chrisfnj