Airways Profile Ep. 12: Air Traffic Controller Kristine Voolma
Airways Profile Interview

Airways Profile Ep. 12: Air Traffic Controller Kristine Voolma

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 Kristine Volma, a Tower and Ground Air Traffic Controller at Riga International Airport (RIX).

Kristine, I’ve just said your name and your occupation, but for the record, I have to ask: what’s your name, and what’s your role in aviation?

Hi, my name is Kristīne Volma (ex Limare) and I have been a Tower and Ground Air Traffic Controller in Rīga, Latvia for almost 10 years now.

How did you become an Air Traffic Controller? And yes, thanks for the correction about how to spell ATC correctly!

I have always admired those people who knew exactly what they wanted to do in life at a young age, but I definitely wasn’t one of them. After finishing high school, I still didn’t have a plan for what to do.

But then, luckily enough, I heard my family discuss applications for ATC studies and I thought “why not”, especially because my mom has been in aviation for years and airplanes have been close to my heart since childhood.

So, I did some research (a lot of it) and got excited firstly about working in English speaking environment and then became more and more interested as I continued my research. Then I got more excited and convinced that it was for me when I passed all the selection tests (FEAST and so on). Just to be clear – I didn’t get excited just because I passed those tests, but because they showed me that it is all about a fast-paced, multitasking, and logical environment, which was a pleasant challenge that I liked.

So the rest is history. (smiling)

You said that airplanes were close to your heart since your childhood. What happened back then that put airplanes (or aviation, generally speaking) close to your heart?

My mom was a flight attendant for a long time, but even though she didn’t talk much about her work in detail, because I was quite young then, she wore her title proudly and I could feel it!

Sometimes she took me on trips with her stand-by tickets, introduced me to her co-workers, and even organized a jump-seat for me in the cockpit. You can imagine that it was a-m-a-z-i-n-g! When she talked to someone in the airport or airplane, I remember that feeling of belongingness, as she belonged to this community, and through her, I felt that way too, and I really liked the feeling. 

So, your family is discussing applications for ATC studies. And you said, “Sure thing. Why not?

The thought of talking in English to educated, respected pilots seemed exciting.

I love order, so the idea of controlling, organizing (flow of traffic), and managing something also excited me. Of course, being in aviation, plus not having office-hour work, in general, was a big pro.

A huge difference was made by the fact that then the studies were provided by our local ANSP (Air Navigation Service Provider) and for free.

Any cons?

The stress everyone’s been talking about and night shifts. 

So, you decide that the pros are better than the cons. What happened next? How did you become an Air Traffic Controller?  

The first thing I did was go to the ANSP and fill out the application.

Requirements were quite simple-certain knowledge of English and Latvian and having a high school diploma.

The second step was to pass FEAST (The First European ATC Selection Test), which was in two parts. For two days, I had to come and show on a computer my ability to react fast, multitask, count, memorize, visualize, and also show my knowledge of English, cardinal directions (headings), etc. I would say that this test was the toughest part, but thankfully I passed. (smiling again)

So, after that, I was called for an English interview, just to see clearly my overall English level. That went rather quickly. The longest part was the psychological test. I had three hours (or maybe less, but it felt like an eternity) of answering questions about someone following me or other paranoid thoughts.

When I was “proclaimed” mentally fit, I had the last big interview with teachers, instructors, and managers. They mostly asked about my motivation and reasoning for being here. I remember that it passed very quickly and when they said that that’s it – I said something between the lines of “So quickly? But I can tell you more!” I was too excited at the time.

I am terribly fascinated by this psychological side. There was a part in the entire test that caught you off guard? Or a part that you thought was incredibly difficult?

The test isn’t necessarily difficult for someone who tells the truth, hehe. There are so many repetitive questions though, just asked differently, and those caught me off guard. Because I remember having a similar question but then my logic kicked in and I was thinking about what I answered before and put the same answer again.

But now that I think about it, I am not sure that was not the right thing to do – you just had to answer intuitively. You can not cheat the test, those similar questions and plenty of lie detection questions are there on purpose, so the more honest a person is, the more likely that he/she will pass it, of course, if a person, in general, is mentally fit.

Back to the good things: you got through the process and were declared good enough (I am sure you are really good, not just good enough, but was it fun to say that) to be an Air Traffic Controller. Then what?

After I was selected, I began very long theoretical studies about aviation, aviation law, navigation, radars, and equipment, communication, coordination, rules, regulations, meteorology, etc.

I think that was for about 8 months, Monday to Friday, and then the practical studies simulator started. The simulator was the most stressful one for sure, but somehow that period passed too, and I ended up in on-the-job training.

Another overwhelming couple of months overcame the stress of talking to real pilots, not just pseudo-pilots in the simulator. But those on-the-job moments gave me not only stress but many proud and joyful moments too. All in all, I was in student status for almost two years. It seems like forever ago now.

I know about Pilot simulators. How does an ATC simulator work?

I guess the concept is the same — to simulate real-life situations.

The simulator imitates Tower and Ground ATC workings, with all the systems and equipment, and it has a computerized 180-degree (in some simulators, even the full 360 degrees) view of the airport and aircraft behind the equipment, like in a real ATC tower.

In a simulator, we have pseudo pilots, aka people who talk to ATC or student-ATC on the simulator and fly the simulated aircraft by putting their speed, heading, altitude, squawk, and so on.

In Simulator training, ATC controls those aircraft, gives instructions, and learns by practice and repetition.

I assume you have to face simulated emergencies as Pilot sims do. Any weird emergencies?

Yes and all kinds. In the beginning, you use the simulator to get acquainted with the airspace and aerodrome layout, practice your speech and phraseology, learn how to apply all the rules and etc. It’s a safe space to push the limits and make mistakes to learn from them.

Later, we simulate emergencies, any kind that can happen to an airplane and/or crew. Our goal is to give assistance to the airplane in distress, coordinate emergency services, develop our reaction and continue providing separation to everyone else.

Any weird emergencies in real life?

I have actually had quite a few unpleasant situations, to say the least. Let’s put it this way.

Fair enough. Let me go back a bit to your training. Is there specific mental training that you have to do to make your mind “feasible” for your job? Something to train your brain to follow multiple things at the same time? Something that can help you memorize things?

Technically, you can teach your mind anything—better memory, quicker reaction, better multitasking, and so on if you are really dedicated.

If you do not have some of those “skills” naturally, but want to become ATC, you can train them via some computer or board games. But most ATCs I know either have “it” or they don’t. The FEAST test is intended to show that capacity.

What are the main duties of a Tower Controller and of a Ground Controller? Do you take up one role at a time, or do you do both?

In our case, Ground is responsible for ATC clearances, start-ups, push-backs, and taxiing. Ground also handles all the vehicles in the maneuvering area, or taxiways, and works on the movement area and restrictions.

The tower is responsible for everything around the runway, like aircraft for departure and the ones that are coming for landing, which are handed over by the Approach sector, and includes all possible work, checks and landings, and lighting systems.

And yes, it depends on traffic – when it is moderate or high intensity, we work one position (role) at a time for safety reasons, but we can work for both positions (it is called “coupling”) when traffic permits.

Is there one of the two you prefer most?

My all-time favorite is working on Ground and having to solve “problems” such as push-backs, sequences for taxis to Runway, deicing, etc.) when there’s a lot of outbound traffic, like during peak hour, because it requires a lot of talking, planning and being in control.

When there’s not much outbound traffic, I just like variety – sometimes Tower, sometimes Ground. They both are quite different in terms of focus, pace, tension and etc.

What are the next steps in your career? Do you have a supervisor? Are there any other responsibilities above you?

In the Tower unit, we don’t have supervisors at the moment. Our career path usually goes up by becoming an instructor and/or assessor, and other career aspects usually go “to the side”, like adding the rating for another airport, not just Riga, then some additional jobs.

For me, future steps would be to go study for an assessor too, but now I am happy with being an instructor and teaching/overseeing trainee ATC (something I knew I really wanted to do) and having a couple of “side” jobs that give me fulfillment.

What is your best advice to someone who tells you that they would like to be an Air Traffic Controller?

Do as much research as possible as to what really is ATC and prepare mentally. Because I’ve heard so many comments like “I would want to become an ATC to see those pretty views from Tower,” but the job is not about the view (especially all ACC and some APP controllers see in a closed room), and if a person is not prepared that the job is to also deal with stressful, urgent situations, the person can break during studies.

Those who know what this job is about will do just fine, and they should apply. This job is rewarding and gives you a sense of pride, accomplishment, and challenge. As they say, with high risk comes high reward.

What do you think is the most important thing an instructor needs to “pass” to their students?

There are different stages in student-instructor relationships, but I am going to write from my current stage’s perspective — on-the-job training. What I am trying to share is my experience and reasoning behind something.

Because they see plenty of documents (rules/regulations) that, for example, say “You cannot do this” and they do not always understand how to do it then, or they see “You shall do this” but they don’t really understand why, or see how things are connected, so I’m trying to guide them, giving them background and reasoning.

I think most of the time, I am just there for support while they gain confidence and feel the traffic flow.

What’s your typical work week in terms of working days, shifts, and days off?

It’s not fixed and can vary. But the suggested one (in terms of avoiding fatigue) is the morning shift, then the evening shift, and then the night shift, after which a bit of rest and then back at it. We have minimum breaks in-between shifts and during the shift prescribed very precisely.

I have to ask: what is your favorite shift? Morning shift to see the sunrise, night shift to enjoy the quiet, or the evening shift when the sun goes down?

I love evening shifts because then I don’t need to wake up with the alarm and, of course, all those beautiful sunsets! But the morning shift I love too, because that’s when you can catch the biggest departure traffic, and also your evening is free for personal stuff. So, for me, the best is when they are mixed.

English is not my native language, so I wonder: how difficult was it for you to understand at the beginning all the different accents that you could hear on the frequency?

It’s definitely more complicated in ACC, where you hear from many different nationalities of pilots, but at an airport, it’s mostly the same airlines, and same nationality of pilots, so with time you get used to them.

Of course, in the beginning, you can even misunderstand what the locals are saying, nevertheless some foreigners. Actually, listening is also a skill, and it comes at its cost – listening fatigue. You must concentrate, listen, not even mention other stuff, that at the end of the day it’s nice to just sit in peace and quiet somewhere, hehe.

Have you ever experienced listening fatigue? And if so, how can you prevent it or recover from it?

Actually, silence helps me. I know I have listening fatigue when I come home and put music or TV on in the background and it starts to annoy me so badly! Then I need pure silence.

And at our job, we sadly can’t prevent it – all you can do is not add up to it when you leave work. But I guess putting on your favorite music, which is pleasant for your ears and does not make you concentrate, helps too. The key is not to make your brain work to understand what you’re listening to. So, in this case, podcasts don’t help.

A straight question for a straight answer: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Appreciation and gratitude from the pilots. It’s always nice to hear a friendly voice, a friendly comment, or a sincere thank you.

I bet everyone thinks we give regular take-off and landing clearance and what is there to be grateful for, but we often play the role of a mediator – solving or communicating with someone about flight plan issues, start-up times, departure, or deicing sequence, short-cuts and etc. So, it’s nice to be appreciated when you do something extra.

And on the other side, what do you think is the most challenging aspect of your job?

To be clear this is my opinion only, everyone has a different answer for that.

But I would say night shifts. They are quite challenging for your physical health over time. The challenge is also to memorize a thousand pages of rules and regulations. Some things or situations are more prone to stress, but the word “challenging” has a completely different meaning in my head.

Now tell me, what do you think is the biggest error a person in the tower can make? Are you afraid to make one?

But about reality… Of course, you have to be afraid to make a mistake, so you perform better, but you cannot live in fear either. It does the opposite—worsens performance.

I know what kind of errors I wouldn’t want to make so that motivates me to revise the documents to avoid them, but I think it’s different for everyone based on their experience.

Have you ever dreamt about making a big mistake while you were sleeping? For example, I know that for a locomotive engineer, the worst thing that can happen is to overrun a red signal.

Oh yeah, I have had quite a few aircraft accidents in my dreams, especially during my simulator training. I would think that it’s a normal coping mechanism.

What do you think is the most important quality for an Air Traffic Controller?

This is a hard one… I really can’t think of just one. In every situation, different traits or qualities can help.

Let me ask you a different question now. If you hadn’t become an ATC, what do you think your job might have been? Is there anything else you would have liked to do?

When I received this question in second or third grade, I said: “I will become a Stewardess!”, hehe. I think you can guess why, but as I grew older, I didn’t want to go exactly on that path.

Also, I knew that I didn’t want to continue studying at the time (Uni), I wanted hands-on experience, and to earn my own money, even if little, just to be less dependent. Knowing what you don’t want is half of the answer, but for the other half – I was still on the lookout at that time. If I would’ve had more courage then, maybe I would’ve pursued a photographer’s career.

I first noticed you because of your Instagram account—let’s say that your nickname speaks for itself. But you are also a talented photographer, and you’ve just mentioned your idea for a photographer’s career. What’s the origin of the passion for photography?

Thank you so much. I have had this passion since the age of 14. I just loved the idea of freezing the moment, and because I have a visual memory, I remember more of those events, trips, etc. that I capture in a photo.

It also was a time when the internet became a big part of my young teenage life and I saw so many inspiring photos that I just wanted to make myself. But because I’ve never got the same passion for editing, I’ve had so many breaks in my photography journey and couldn’t keep myself motivated to pursue it more.

But I’m very happy with how it all turned out – I have my work which requires mental skills and then when I have a need or motivation I can go and fulfill my creative desires with photography.

Why plane spotting? I mean, you deal with aircraft enough during your day. Don’t you have enough flying things around you?

This is a common question. I’ve taken aviation photos from time to time (but in comparison, really rarely) because I love aviation, but I became a more competitive spotter when COVID-19 hit us.

I missed those planes so much and had excitement for each one I could spot or talk to; they suddenly became more special. I can admit, now that the traffic grows, I find less and less urge to catch those planes unless there’s some beautiful sunset outside.

And now, since we are almost at the end, let me ask you a few back-and-forth questions!

  • What’s your favorite airport? Of course, Riga International Airport, hehe
  • What’s your favorite aircraft?   I’m conservative – B747.
  • What is your least favorite aircraft? – Pilatus (PC12), sorry 😀
  • What’s your favorite airline? – Our local carrier, Airbaltic.
  • What’s your favorite weather condition? – Sunset after a rainy day.
  • What’s your least favorite weather condition? – Snowstorm with snow removal and runway closures.
  • What’s the phrase (or word) you say most on the radio? – Visulabu (means goodbye in Latvian). I mean, I really love phraseology, I try to use it fully, without some shortcuts, but I don’t have a phrase that you could “associate with me.”
  • The highest number of planes under your direct control? – I’ve never counted how many at the same time, but the highest we’ve had during an hour is 27-29, because of one runway operation. Our capacity is not so high.
  • The most important callsign you’ve ever called? – I would say, they are many—friends and family who fly as commercial or private pilots.
  • Tower or Ground? Tower.

“Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Is this true for you?

Sadly, no. I can honestly say that so many people in aviation were exhausted because of the high traffic volume before the pandemic. Many places in Europe, including ours, had a lack of everything, so we were working non-stop.

Especially when there was a harder working day (due to weather or some emergency) and there wasn’t always enough rest time your body and mind required.

Air traffic controller needs to leave emotions and bad experience behind while working, which we do, but it can affect your off-duty life and emotions.

Kristine, we are basically at the end. I can’t thank you enough for your time and for your patience during this interview. Is there anyone you want to say hi to?

Thank you for your patience. Thank you for the initiative. And thank you for letting me share my story. It’s been fun!

Thank you, Kristine, and everyone for following this series. Don’t forget to check out our previous episodes and be sure to add to your bookmarks!

This is Airways Profile, and until next time, take care of yourself and each other! Visulabu!

Featured image: Kristine Voolma

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Social Media Bot and nerd AvGeek. My heart lives on both sides of the pond. "Stand clear of the closing doors, please." Based in Milan and New York.

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