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Let's Meet an LAX Air Traffic Controller


February 2, 2022

Words by Tommy

Let's take a moment and meet an LAX Air Traffic Controller and pilot.

Tommy - ATC, Pilot

Introduce yourself and how did you get into aviation?

Hi my name is Tommy Watson, I’m from Los Angeles, CA and I’m currently an Air Traffic Controller (ATC) at Los Angeles International airport (LAX, KLAX) Tower. I can’t remember how I got into aviation, but I remember being obsessed with those balsa wood airplanes that come in a paper packet when I was really young. It kind of just grew from there. My family started traveling a bunch when I was about 8 and I would love going to the airport and smelling the jet fuel and watching the airplanes move around the airport while I sat at the gate. Back then you could ask to get a look in the cockpit without much hassle and my little sister and I would go up and chat with the pilots, ask what the buttons did and all that stuff. So that really opened up my eyes to the world of aviation.

You are pilot and do you own an airplane?

I am a pilot and have been for over twenty years (Private certificate for life) I started flying in July of 1999 when I was 16 years old. I got a discovery flight from my Grandparents for my 16th birthday and my late Grandfather asked if I felt like this was something I could see myself doing for a living. So a couple of months later I started lessons at Long Beach Flying Club with my instructor Gary Collins (coolest dude in the world to a 16 year old aviation obsessed teenager).

Up until a couple months ago, I did own a 1/3 share in our beloved 1964 Cherokee 140, N6002W (which was serial number 2 of the 140 model). I owned it with a couple of controllers that I met while working at Zamperini Field (KTOA) Tower in 2009. She really served us well but the time came where she needed some fairly big repairs. Considering the amount of time we logged and our families getting larger, it was time to move on. I’m really grateful for the memories that my partners and I were able to make.

Tell us about it and any exciting adventures you have had?

I wish I had some really cool adventures to share but mostly we flew to eat breakfast and hang out with other pilots and controllers. When I worked at Long Beach airport, CA (KLGB) I was able to take most of the people on my crew for flights around the L.A. area. One good time we had was my buddy Josh (another of the owners) and I flew to Oceano (L52) and rented ATVS for the day. That was a fun day. But mostly what I’ll remember is the people that we were able to meet and enjoy good food and conversation.

Where has your aviation career taken you so far?

Not very far! ATC is one of the rare aviation careers that doesn’t require travel. I’ve worked in 3 ATC facilities in my 15 year career and they’ve all been 12 miles or less from my home.

But I have been able to do some pretty cool things. I’ve been a passenger on the Goodyear Blimp, a Ford Tri-motor, and a P-51 Mustang, flown backseat during some pretty intense CJ-6 formation practice, flown in a tons of different aircraft types, and gotten access to see some pretty historic flights. Met TONS of really interesting people in aviation. Made a lot of friends that I wouldn’t otherwise have met.

A day in a life for Tommy.

Every day is a little different due to our rotating schedule so I’ll just pick a Monday… since that’s everybody’s favorite day.

Since I get off of work around midnight most Sunday nights I start off Monday morning by trying to sleep in but I have kids in elementary school and that usually doesn’t happen.

I wake up, drive my sons to school and usually pick up some coffee and breakfast on the way home. Relax for a bit with my wife and then get ready and do some errands. I try to get to the gym or ride my bike on Mondays but doesn’t always happen. Start getting ready for work around 1230 for a 1315 departure. Slide my feet into my Air Traffic Crocs and get out the door. Stop at Starbucks because I haven’t given them enough money this year. Then I make the drive into LAX. The 405 freeway, usually isn’t too bad this time of day. Arrivals level is a different story, but 15 minutes and 3 near collisions later I’m parked in one of our assigned spots in one of the short term parking garages. After waiting for the elevator on the 1st floor to come down from the 19th, I rush in and smash the 19 button because I’m constantly on the verge of being late but crisis averted.

Today, anyway, I grab my headset out of my headset drawer, empty my pockets into it. Walk up the last two flights of stairs into the tower cab, cradling coffee, a hoodie, headset and usually a snack. Make a grand entrance. Get ignored by people who’ve witnessed this too many times already. Check the weather brief (which I do 100% of the time, every shift, no matter what) check my pre-shift briefing items. (Also done without fail) Then the supervisor (or the Controller In Charge) will assign me a position (Clearance Delivery, Ground Control 1, GC2, Local Assist 1, LA2, Local Control 1, LC2 or Helicopters are the options.) Today he gives me the option between CD (less work) and GC1 (more work). Of course, I elect for more work. 5 minutes later I realize the error of my ways. Three 747’s, two gates, one tug. Awesome! 30 minutes later I have somewhat recovered from this mess and I haven’t even had a cup of coffee. Get a break in the action to grab my mug and discover that it’s been stolen or maybe I left it downstairs yesterday.

Either way, I borrow a mug from a trusted source and steal the Peppermint Mocha creamer from the fridge. 30 minutes after that the coffee is doing its work and I’m in need of a break. Luckily, my relief is walking extremely slowly up the stairs and chatting it up with the Supervisor about the weekend happenings, delaying my sweet relief even further. He plugs in and I give him the rundown (always 100% using the relief briefing checklist, as I always do, every single time) then wait the required 2 minutes. Mash the button, hit 'em with the “Whiskey Tango!” and I’m off for 30 minutes of, me time.

We have a good breakroom, less than stellar WIFI but the couches are comfortable and everybody has logged into their streaming accounts so there is plenty of entertainment. I opt for the couch in the corner and rage scroll Reddit while ignoring the overly loud local news channel that one guy has to have every day.

After I check my time, have a panic because I’m 28 minutes in, I run up the two sets of stairs to the tower cab door. (Crocs squeaking in protest) Find my headset that I threw down on a random countertop because I was in desperate need of a potty break, ask the Supervisor where he wants me, heavy sigh when it’s not what I want, and go plug into CD. Repeat this until my shift ends. And then go down to the garage, get into my car and go home for the 9 hours between the end of this shift and start of tomorrows.

Please elaborate and tell us what is invalid in the three ATC position you work?

Clearance Delivery (CD) is responsible for the issuance of IFR/VFR flight plans to the pilot and ensuring that any changes made by us to the filed flight plan our communicated to the flight crew. We can do that a couple of ways. Using the PDC and CPDLC systems we can send this information electronically. Or we can issue a verbal clearance. This is sometimes pretty unwieldy if there is a long route that requires a full read back. (I’ve done a couple to Shanghai that stressed me out) Once that is complete, we distribute the flight progress strips to the appropriate GC position depending on where the aircraft is parked. CD also helps with ensuring that any flow control or traffic management initiatives are adhered to.

The Ground Control (GC) is responsible for any movements on the airport that aren’t on or between the runways. GC issues instructions to aircraft taxiing from the ramps to the runways, from the runways to the ramps, aircraft repositioning from maintenance facilities to gates or vice versa. We also are required to push certain gates that will utilize the taxiway directly rather than a push into a non-controlled ramp area. Another big part of GC at LAX, which is fairly unique, is the holding of aircraft with occupied gates. And this is an issue here due to the amount of pavement we have available. While LAX is one of the busier airports in the system, it’s also one of the smaller airports by acreage. Roughly half the size of ORD and ATL.

Local Control (or tower) is responsible for the separation of aircraft that departing or landing, as well as crossing any aircraft that are holding in between the runways. There are two runways on each complex. We generally land the outboard and depart the inboard runway. Southbound departures off the North complex need to be coordinated with the opposite local controller and vice versa. Helicopters controls the helicopter routes through the bravo airspace, as well as the Mini Route, which is a 2500 ft. VFR fixed wing transition over the top of the airport.

What does the future hold for you? Any goals, or flying trips?

I don’t know. I’ve only recently finished training at LAX, so that is still a challenge and a learning experience. There isn’t much left for me in the L.A. area career wise. I’ll give it a while and see if this is my last stop or if there is something else out there for me.

As far as flying, I have two goals. Number one is to keep on flying. I fly purely for the love of flying and I just want to stay around aviation as a hobby and not just a career.

Number two is to be able to pass on my passion for aviation to my boys. My older son is 11 and he’s been in airplanes since he was two months old. The last few flights we did together in 02W he did most of the flying and it was a really proud moment for me.

I’d also like to get up to Alaska and see what that flying is like. I have a couple of friends that are big into Alaska flying and I’m excited to get up there as soon as it’s possible. And Oshkosh. I’ve never been and I really need to do that.

What is your advice for aspiring Air Traffic Controllers?

Oh boy. I’m cautious with this because I’ve told a couple people to get into it and it didn’t work out for them so I feel guilty a little bit.

I would say have a backup plan. ATC is a great gig. It’s fun and always interesting but it’s not for everybody. There is a long hard road to being hired and making it past initial training. Once you’re hired and you start training at your first facility, my advice is to keep an open mind and always reference back to the books. ATC has very spelled out rules and when your trainer gives you a method of doing things, you need to be able to explain yourself. “He told me to do it this way” isn’t good enough if you can’t find a reference in the books.

15 years in and this is the still the coolest job in the world.

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