MIAMI — A safe and successful airport operation is a team effort, but it goes without saying that the role of Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) is vital.

October 20 was ‘International Day of the Air Traffic Controller’, with the 59th iteration taking place on Tuesday. The date celebrates the founding of the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations (IFATCA), which took place on October 20, 1961.

IFATCA was established to “federate and further the interests of the air traffic control profession at the international level”, and currently represents over 50,000 Air Traffic Controllers in 130 countries.

Air Traffic Controllers remain essential despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Brief History of Air Traffic Controllers: The Early Days

Merely decades after the Wright Brothers’ ‘first flight’, commercial aviation was growing at an extremely rapid pace. An unfortunate by-product of this growth were fatal accidents —often occurring due to a lack of communication with the ground, among other reasons.

The first Air Traffic Control tower was constructed at now-defunct Croydon Airport in 1920. It was a small wooden structure that provided basic information to pilots.

It took several years for the idea of an Air Traffic Controller to catch on at a larger scale, after the City of St. Louis hired Archie W. League to become it’s first recognized controller. He sat in a wheelbarrow with an umbrella for shade, and utilized two signal flags to communicate with pilots.

By 1935, the use of two-way radio and marker beacons were widespread. Just a few years later, the first three air traffic control towers were constructed in the US and fell under government control shortly thereafter.

The Civil Aeronautics Authority, the first rendition of the Federal Aviation Administration, was born in 1938.

The War and Middle Years

The beginning of World War II brought about a new area of aviation, pioneered by the adoption of radar. By the early 1950’s, radar became a commonly used tool in control towers across the country.

When two passenger aircraft collided mid-air in 1956, the US government allocated US$250m for aviation research and development, leading to groundbreaking technologies.

Just two years later, the ‘jet age’ began. 1958 marked the first year in which more people crossed the Atlantic Ocean by air than by sea. The 60s and 70s brought continued advancements, including the use of transponders and early computers. For the first time, controllers could view an aircraft’s flight plan and readouts in 3D.

However, the 1980s were a turbulent time for controllers. The volume of commercial flights was at an all-time high, and controllers routinely faced difficult working conditions. Understaffed towers and obsolete equipment made for unsafe conditions. This affected not only ATC —but the Pilots and their passengers, too.

Later Years and Modern Day

The turbulent 80s led to the stagnant 90s. However, massive investments towards commercial aviation in the mid-90s brought the change needed, especially in the form of new technology.

Mere moments after the September 11 terrorist attacks, US controllers were tasked with the near-impossible —immediately grounding any airborne aircraft. During a 2.5 hour time period directly after the attacks, controllers safely grounded 4,500 aircraft.

Over in Europe, Single European Sky began to take hold. This initiative sought to increase efficiency and communication between nations over the use of airspace. In 2020, it is now on its fourth revision.

Today, Air Traffic Controllers are more essential than ever. Even in the face of COVID-19, millions of passengers will board a plane in 2020. Without ATC, this would not be possible.

If you see an Air Traffic Controller, say “thank you” —even if it is not October 20. The luxury of air travel, and many of the memories we hold so deeply, would not be possible without them.

Featured Image: Inside Air Traffic Control tower at Heathrow. PHOTO: NATS. Credit for historical information to the Smithsonian Museum and NATSA