Podcast – Air Traffic Control with Mick

On today’s Episode of the Gouge Podcast, we are joined by Mick, an Air Services Australia Air Traffic Controller, former Royal Australian Navy radar systems officer and private pilot from Brisbane, Australia to discuss his aviation career and role in ATC.

Pro Aviation Tips

Introduction – ATC with Mick

On today’s Episode of the Gouge Podcast, we are joined by Mick, an Air Services Australia Air Traffic Controller, former Royal Australian Navy radar systems officer and private pilot from Brisbane, Australia to discuss his aviation career, profession as an air traffic controller and to answer some common questions and misconceptions about air traffic control and controlled airspace. It was awesome to chat to Mick and get some real insight into his ATC role, as well as reminisce about our military careers! Jump in and have a listen!

mick, atc

Show Notes

Transcript – ATC with Mick

ATC with Mick

Ken: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Gouge Podcast by Pro Aviation Tips, where we share the best gouge straight from the aviation professionals to help you become a better pilot. Remember though, live by the gouge, die by the gouge. Don’t attempt anything we talk about here without appropriate orth and jewel instruction from a qualified flying instructor.

With that being said, share the gouge

Goodday and welcome on board another episode of the Pro Aviation Tips Podcast on board. Today we are welcomed by Mick, an Air Services Australia [00:01:00] air traffic controller, former Royal Australian Navy radar systems officer and private pilot from Brisbane, Australia to discuss his aviation career.

Profession as an air traffic controller and to answer some common questions and misconceptions about air traffic control and controlled airspace. It’s a great episode. I had a blast catching up with Mick and learning more about air traffic control and reminiscing about our military careers.

Mick, first of all, thanks for coming on the pod mate. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your aviation background?

Mick: Yeah, no worries. Thanks for having me. So a bit about my background. Spent the early part of my life in Southeast Queensland. Then joined the Navy, not straight outta school.

I did a couple of things before that six and a half years in the Navy and joined air Services to become an air traffic controller. moved back to Southeast Queensland to do the air traffic control training after spending my whole Navy career in earth.[00:02:00] All by the training I suppose, which did the basic training in Melbourne and then over to Perth for my category training and all my postings were over there.

now set up on the Gold Coast in Queensland and work in Brisbane Center. So it’s a bit of a commute up the Mont if people are familiar with that. But It gives me a nice time to wind down after my shifts, which is pretty good.

Ken: Yeah. Awesome. That’s such a lovely part of Australia, mate.

 I was recently visiting some friends in the Sunshine Coast and I was very familiar with the Sunshine Coast. I’ve drunk many beers. I think the AFL course at aft there at Maor. Oh yeah, it was awesome. Awesome. Three months of my life, although flight planning. Oh my God.

What a headache. Yeah. Awesome to hear that you’re in the Navy mate. Yeah, I’m ex Raf myself. Yeah. Yeah. Awesome organization. Really enjoyed my time, but recently moved on. What did you do in the

Mick: Navy? So I was a combat systems operator which again, it’s a hard job to explain to people that dunno anything about it.

And just like atc sitting in front of a radar screen on the ship, making [00:03:00] sure that no one attacks the ship. And talking to the maritime support aircraft that come out and help P three s Seahawks, that sort of thing. Talking to the Fast Jets when they come out to attack the ship and sounds exciting, but most of the time was pretty boring.

Ken: Well, it sounds highly technical and it sounds like there’s a lot of similarities between being a combat systems officer in the Navy and now working as an air traffic controller with Air Services Australia.

Mick: Yeah, I definitely think , it helped. I already had six years of wearing a headset and talking on a radio, working in a high tempo operational environment at times.

And coordinating with people internally in the ops room which is something we do a lot in ATC as well. So I feel like it, it definitely gave me a head start on the training in that sense. You know, I was confident to put a headset on and talk on the radio. That didn’t really scare me too much, whereas I know a lot of people on my course, they were a bit hesitant in the beginning, even though it was just practicing [00:04:00] transmitting.

You’re not actually transmitting to real aircraft in the beginning. It’s all simulated. But yeah, just keying that mic and making an external transmission was pretty frightening for some people.

Ken: No, it is. What’s that saying? Like the minute you put your finger on the microphone, you lose half your brain power.

Mick: Yeah, a hundred percent. Like I even feel that sometimes now when I’m plugged in at work, controlling you know, you’re halfway through a transmission and you think, oh, what am I trying to say here?

Ken: That’s funny. So, okay, so you’ve gone from the Navy where you’ve basically been working towards destroying things or like defending things.

And now you’re kind of doing the opposite. You’re trying to keep things separated. Now, last thing you want is two aircraft coming

Mick: together. Yeah, exactly. Like the aviation stuff I did in the Navy was getting the planes closer together, when we’re passing vectors to the P three s and the ship’s helicopter to they’d be altitude separated anyway, but yeah, you’d be trying to get ’em closer together to look for a sub or whatever sort of training situation we’re doing.

And yeah, now sort of in the business of making sure they’re well away from each other.

Ken: Yeah, [00:05:00] it’s really interesting, man. So my, background in the rath was was trash hauling on the C one 30 s. And we used to train for certain scenarios and one of them was, I guess the airdrop or the mass airdrop where we’d practice formation.

So we’d rely on air traffic control getting out of the base and then coming together for a bit of master and we’d just go off comms for a while, which was always a bit fun. And then you’d sort of try and pop up and reestablish contact with air traffic control once we are finished.

Mick: Yeah. Nice. That’s always exciting when we get the Air Force guys going out and then they’ll drop off radar somewhere, go due regard. And then of course they’d call us back up for a clearance back in at the worst possible time. I don’t know how you guys know it, but. You’ll figure it out. The worst possible time to call for a clearance and you’ll be there.

Ken: Oh, yep. Okay baby. It’s just the knack. So look, I apologize, I’ve probably done that far too many times. We expected and planned for it. So, mate apart from aviation, so you mentioned you’re living up in the Gold Coast, awesome part of Australia. What’s [00:06:00] your family situation? Do you have any hobbies, that kind of things?

Mick: Yeah, so I’m married with two young kids five and two, two boys. They’re both pretty into aviation already as well, so, might be expensive as they grow up if they want to get their pilots license. So they’ll probably push ’em towards the RAF if that’s the case. Hobbies a fly ra os at the moment.

So I fly a sling out of HEC field, which is. It’s sort of on the Gold Coast, but right at the northern end at a place called Jacob’s. Well, it’s a little dirt strip there, fly outta there. And other hobbies I suppose renovating the house we’re in the classic thing that I hear about guys in their thirties, they either they can go one or two ways.

They can get into smoking meat or getting really into grass and turf and I’ve

Ken: gone the turf getting the greeds Yeah, getting the lawns

Mick: perfectly. Yeah. So I’m, out there twice a month trying to keep the grass healthy and I’ve tried a bit of meat smoking [00:07:00] as well, but probably not really my thing.

I’ll stick to trying to keep the grass green.

Ken: Actually, I’m a bit of a permaculturalist myself. I do love gardening. I’ve never been super great at keeping lawns good, especially always being away from work. I’d always sort of come back from a big trip and the damn thing had be dead or overgrown.

But these days I’m, working from home. I’ve got my little veggie patch and I’ve got a very small patch of lawn for my dog. Oh, nice. So look, Mick, what what got you interested in aviation? So, you’re a pilot as well as an air traffic controller. Were you flying first or were you working as an air traffic controller first?

Mick: So I got my pilot’s license first. That was when I was in the Navy. I started doing my CPL when I was in Perth, so that was at Jan Deco at a place called Air Australia. Which unfortunately closed down, I think last year. But that was an awesome little flowing school. Started doing the CPL course, realized about 10 or 15 hours in that pilot as a job.

Probably wasn’t for me. So just kept going, got my ppl, and [00:08:00] took I think a good three years to get my PPL just with being away. For work in the Navy, I’d have to go away for six months and then I’d come back and have to redo navs and that sort of thing. So that pushed out a little bit and yeah, basically got my PPL and then used that to get into air traffic control and then stopped flying for a while.

Finally got back into Ra oz a few years ago. And I think the interest in aviation was always there from a young kid. Like I remember going plane spotting. When I was a kid I’d catch the train from, I lived north of Brisbane, but I’d catch the train down to the airport once the air train was built and get a lift from someone down to the spotting area.

Hang out down there for a bit. And yeah the air traffic control interest sort of started I think it was about 14 or 15, and I got gifted a radio scanner from a family member. And like I’d listened to the police and that sort of thing. And then I started scanning these airband frequencies and was hearing these planes [00:09:00] and someone else on the other side of the radio and started googling what was going on and found out about air traffic control.

Went on the air services website, sent an email saying, Hey, I’m a bit of an a geek. I’m 16 years old, any chance of a tour of Brisbane Center. And funnily enough, I got to go there with a bunch of other. Have geeks that I was friends with online. We all met up and got a tour. So that was pretty cool.

And then to be working there, you know, 15 years later it, it’s pretty awesome to think back, where it started just with getting a radio scanner as a gift. And a lot of people at work pay me out for this, but the frequency I used to listen to when I was a kid north of Brisbane is actually the frequency I work now.

So, sort of come full circle. Hey.

Ken: Yeah. How’s that? Ah, that’s awesome, man. I remember when I was trying to learn retail my instructor told us to buy a scanner as well, so I remember we’d have it always on, like in the classroom and back in our rooms. Always listening in just to try and get a bit better at understanding the phrases and the terminology I guess.

So. [00:10:00] Awesome way to learn and oh yeah, it’s so helpful. Yeah, mate. You know, I can really relate to what you said about plane spotting as a kid. So, I grew up rurally but there was an airport there and I do remember my mom would take me and my sisters would have little picnics by the airport and just, you know, see the cess and the , and the twins.

And it was I guess that’d be the sars, the metro liners and stuff coming in and out. Yeah, it was really cool and , that kind of stuff has sort of stuck with me my whole life. And I wonder if that’s influenced my aviation passion as well.

Mick: Yeah, it is definitely a cool thing to see when you’re younger and it’s cool to see that it is still a thing and still quite popular.

Follow a few YouTube channels. Of live spotting. And, you know, I’ll just have it on in the background at home sometimes. I know it seems a bit nerdy when ATC is my job, but it’s cool to, to have it on in the background and see that it still is a popular hobby. So, I don’t think the the hobby of aviation’s going

Ken: anywhere.

So Mick, do you think that being a pilot actually helped with your air traffic control [00:11:00] training and vice versa?

Mick: Yeah. It definitely helped with my training. I think even though they say in the application process, it’s not really an advantage.

I think it’s an advantage in the training because I already knew the phonetic alphabet. You are already well versed with how ATC speaks, so you’re not using any extra brain power, I guess. During the training, learning phonetic alphabet learning how to talk on the radio, you also have a perspective of what it’s like from the other side of the radio what the pilot’s doing, what they’re doing when you’re giving climb instructions or turn instructions and that sort of thing.

And especially now with my airspace, I deal with a lot of ga traffic in Class G. And just to understand the workload that, a single pilot might have when you’re dishing out instructions to pace it, well only give one or two instructions at a time because, you know, there’s a lot going on in the cockpit when there’s just one person in there, be it, you know, 1 7 2 1 8 2 or something, and they’re [00:12:00] getting bashed around.

They might, , not be that experienced. So understanding from that side of things, it definitely helps in the job at the moment. I find that, I probably deliver a different level of service to pilots than some of my colleagues just because I understand what’s happening from the other side.

Ken: Yeah, I can definitely see how that would help. And it’s not just the ga bashes like sometimes you know, I’d be having helmet fires trying to fly my her as well. You know, there’s a lot to do.

But yeah, I really don’t envy those single pilot ifi guys and girls, that is a hard job. Especially in a sort of larger, faster complex aircraft when you don’t have a a first officer or co-pilot to help you out. I think that’s where having an experienced air traffic controller like yourself is super, super helpful.

Mick: Yeah. And I’ll try and explain that to people at work as well that don’t have a pilot background. Just explaining what’s going on in the cockpit. , when we’re dishing out, a climb, a heading, and. Some other instruction at the same time, a requirement, they’re probably trying to write this down as well as input stuff into the autopilot [00:13:00] and all that sort of thing.

So, , I really like that I have that background. And I hope that I’m providing a good service to, to the pilots that are on frequency, but you never find out, I suppose you only get told when you’ve done a bad job.

Ken: Oh, I see. I know that sometimes I know when I’ve done a bad job cuz the

the air traffic controller tells me prepare to copy this number down.

Mick: Yeah. You never want to get that call.

Ken: Look, so, talking more about a TC specifically, what is the process of becoming an air traffic controller?

Mick: So I guess the first step, well this is from when I went through, I think it’s still pretty much the same. You do the online testing. Well, I guess if the very first step you chuck your application in, if you meet the minimum requirements and that all gets vetted.

And then you’ll be invited to do the online testing which is a bunch of psychometric sort of testing testing your spatial awareness, so all that sort of stuff. If you pass that, then it’s a phone interview I think. I guess they’re just making sure [00:14:00] you’re a legit person and that was pretty straightforward from what I can remember.

I think they might do a video interview now as well. And then it’s off to an assessment day, which for me was a whole day in Sydney, so I flew from Perth to Sydney to do that. I’m not sure exactly where they do them now. I think it might just be Brisbane or Melbourne, but I’m sure that information’s on the website anyway.

And the full day assessment was basically the same testing you did in the initial online stuff. But it’s just longer and I think that’s just to prove that you were the one who did it, you know, the initial online testing. And there’s group activities, like a board interview, that sort of thing.

From my experience when I went through, not sure if it’s the same now, that was seven years ago or so, and after that they’ll check your references and get your medical security, all that sort of thing. And then you’ll get an offer and a call state and you’ll be on your way to the academy down in Melbourne.


Ken: nice. So, having been a pilot, I mean, you would’ve you working [00:15:00] towards your commercial with a class one medical. How does the medical standards, is that similar to pilot medicals? Yeah, so

Mick: it’s class three, I think. I always get the classes mixed up, so it’s the same as the pilot medical, except we just do our medical every two years instead of every year.

It’s pretty much exactly the same requirements medically, but it’s just

Ken: every tool. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. You’d imagine that air traffic controllers need to be fit and healthy, a huge responsibility at work, , yeah, a hundred percent. So,, once you’ve passed selection and you go to the academy how long’s the academy training and what’s it like?

Mick: So it’s between 12 and 18 months in the academy after the academy then you’ll do, I did six months on the job training, I think maybe a little bit less than six months.

But the academy training, it’s basically starts you off from not knowing anything about aviation. You’ll go through all the regs learn, what’s casaa you learn how aircraft operate. You’ll get to do some famil, well, I got to do some famil at least. But you go out to an airport [00:16:00] and look at some GA planes see how they operate, and that’s all in the first few weeks.

Then you get into the theory of air traffic control I guess the separation standards. You start off learning those, just by the book. And then eventually you’ll move into the sim and it’s just a lot of sim runs where you are using a simulated air traffic control system, which is exactly the same as what we operate in real life.

But you are talking to people in another room that are pretending to be the pilots and they’re manipulating stuff in the background to move things on your radar screen. So it looks like you’re operating in real life. And yeah, it’s about a bit over six months of simulator training, I suppose.

I can’t remember the exact time. And you’ll work through sort of non radar environment then move into radar environment and then once you’ve finished all that’s when you find out if you’ve passed the course or not. But during that whole training there’s exams and there’s always chances for you to sort of fail and wash out throughout the training.

It’s pretty full on, in the past, [00:17:00] market’s quite high, so, I think that’s why, the pass rate isn’t that high still at the academy.

Ken: Okay. So very high standards. And I mean, when you consider potentially you are separating two a three 80 s that are fully loaded. Like you want them to be pretty switched on before they’re graduating, right?

Mick: Yeah, that’s it. There’s a lot at stake. When you’re doing the job for real and there’s a lot of pressures as well that you don’t see in the sim. You know, pressures when there’s weather when you can hear the pilots getting upset on the radio big delays, that sort of thing. And you’ve gotta be able to keep your cool when all that’s going down and still be able to separate.

So yeah, it does take a special kind of person to do the job. And I dunno, I think I’m just lucky that I’ve got that ability. I never thought I’d have that ability, but for some reason I do.

Ken: Cool. As a cucumber, well, m you do have a very calming voice, so that’s a plus. I do get

Mick: complimented on that sometimes at work.

Even though when I’m busy I feel like my voice is changing, but apparently it always stays [00:18:00] the same, so I don’t know what’s going on there. I’m just lucky.

Ken: So, Mick, you mentioned at the academy you go through different phases learning like radar and non radar environment. And look I, in my career I’ve definitely spoken to many different agencies and, most people listening will be aware that, there’s like a surface movement frequency in a ground frequency tower frequency approach, departure and then the area frequencies.

So how are these different specialties or roles within air traffic control? How do they work? Do you need to be trained to move between them? And essentially how do you get there?

Mick: Yeah, good question. So I guess when I just explained about the training, that was from an on route environment because that’s all I can speak to cuz I’m an on route controller.

I think that the tower stuff is pretty much the same at the academy. Obviously you’re not doing the radar stuff and all that sort of simulator. You’ll be in a tower sim. But yeah you can move between there is cross-training you have to do. So if I was to go from on route to the tower environment, I’d have to do a tower, [00:19:00] a cross-training course, and then go and do the on the job training.

But I guess, as you mentioned there’s the surface movement control clearance delivery, then tower control. I can’t speak to that exactly because I’m not a tower controller, but I think they’re the main ones. And then in my business of on route, you’ve got I think it’s called on route long haul, which is more the airspace.

Outback Australia, for example everything’s up high in the cruise or it’s descending outside controlled airspace into those really remote places. And then on route high density, which is where I’m working so you’ve got all your traffic down the east coast, we’re working stuff into the major aerodromes.

And then you’ve also got terminal area. So Brisbane approach for example. And again, that’s additional training. You’ll go from an onroad environment if you want to go to approach, then you do an approach conversion course and then have to do some on-the-job training in the approach sector that you’re on.

But you’re still using the same console so the same air traffic control system. [00:20:00] You’re just working a smaller bit of airspace and using tighter separation standards. And then also we’ve got our abio sectors where people will go to after their training. So they’re not gonna get dumped into a sector like the one that I work.

It’s just far too complex. To try and get your head around straight outta the academy. Like you’ll want to have at least six to 12 months in a sector that’s a little bit slower paced not as dynamic, so you can get some confidence using the console, talking to planes, and then you could move on to somewhere.

Like the airspace that I work where we’re working arrivals and departures into Brisbane and working stuff in and out of the Sunshine Coast as well.

Ken: Yeah. So it’s like a staged approach, so you’re not getting thrown anything into the deep end.

Mick: Yeah, pretty much. Although it did feel like I was thrown into the deep end when I did start my training on the airspace that I started on.

But looking back on it now yeah, it’s a good place to start in those outer sectors because it can get busy. But, everything’s pretty much in the cruise. Of course there’s [00:21:00] level changes and that sort of thing, but they’re not trying to descend and climb through each other, getting in and out of major air drums.

Ken: Okay. And so look we’ve talked a bit about air traffic control and your career mate. But I guess for the benefit of people that don’t have a lot of experience with air traffic control or flying in controlled airspace, what is air traffic control there to do?

Mick: We managing the arrivals and departures, in and out of all the air drones.

Well, the controlled ones anyway, we’re managing the traffic in and out of there. All the air drones, outside controlled airspace they’ll still speak to us, but we’re not really sequencing them into those aerodromes for me, in my airspace, we are sequencing into Brisbane. So, We’re taking jets and turbo pops through the feeder fixes, getting ’em there on the right time, in the right order.

Assisting pilots with weather deviations assisting in emergencies glass G services. So amending SAR times helping VFR pilots when they’re lost, which can be quite a common [00:22:00] thing. And keeping everyone separated in the airspace, I guess that’s our main game. Making sure no one gets too close to each other.

So in the on route air traffic control that’s five miles laterally or a thousand feet vertically is what we’re keeping between planes. I think that’s the majorest of what we do.

Ken: I can talk to one of those points helping pilots when they get lost. I’ve been lost twice in an aircraft.

Once was my first area solo. And the problem with that is I didn’t think I was lost. Thankfully I had a very helpful air traffic controller a Canberra approach who helped me by telling me actually where I was, where I thought I was. The second time was on my CPL test. I was actually into the sunny coast and I was very fortunate in that I at the last minute found myself at one of the very far entry boy points.

And I wasn’t sure if my testing officer knew that. I didn’t know where I was or not, but as soon as I saw that dam, I thought, oh, thank Christ. So mate, helping lost pilots is very important and I.[00:23:00] Have to fess up to a couple of those. , so thanks for taking one for me. So what are some common issues that you find or misconceptions that pilots might have when it comes to air traffic control?

Mick: I think that the biggest one that while the general public and some pilots have is that we all don’t work in the tower. I have come across GA pilots more so, that think we’re all in the tower, which isn’t the case. Yeah there’s not too many I can think of. I guess one of the main ones, it might be quiet on the frequency, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re not doing anything.

We have a lot of coordination lines in the background where we’ll be speaking internally to other controllers or the airspace that I control. Amberley airspace is within mine, so I’ll be talking to Amberley about something. The frequency might be quiet and I might be mid conversation, so I don’t have the chance to stand by and pilots might just be at you, a couple of times within 15 seconds cuz I haven’t heard from you.

And another big one I think is what we can assist with [00:24:00] when there is weather. So the only feed we have from the weather is the Bureau of Met Radar that you can just get on the website and that’s literally what we have next to the console. I’ve had pilots, , ask me what I can see and it’s, well, it’s just a delayed feed of rain intensity.

It’s not gonna be better than what the actual weather radar can see on the plane. So, sometimes we are not that helpful with weather deviations because what we’re seeing is just rain and you know, you’re gonna have a better picture up there than what we have down here.

Ah, there you

Ken: go. Yeah. Mick, I didn’t know that. I thought you guys might have had some crystal ball in in the tower

Mick: there. I wish. Yeah I’ve watched some YouTube videos and see how they operate in America and the controllers era are always, pointing out to pilots, areas of precipitation and this sort of thing.

So I don’t know if they have an overlay on their console or something like that. Hopefully we get that in our new air traffic control system that we’re gonna move to in a few years. Cuz at the moment we’re just looking at the weather radar and then [00:25:00] mentally putting that picture onto our radar screen to figure out where in the vicinity that the weather is so we can prepare ourselves for where the planes are gonna go.

But that doesn’t always help cuz sometimes some guy might go 20, left 20 right in round weather and then someone will go straight through it. So,

Ken: Leros. Yeah, exactly. Okay, so I guess that leads me to the next question about controlled airspace. So, what is controlled airspace and what are the different classes mean?

Mick: So controlled airspace is where you’re getting a control service from us. You’ll be separated from other traffic, I guess based on if you are IR or vfr.

So we’ve got an Australia Class A, which is the upper airspace, basically above flight level 180 along the coast where the high density traffic is. And then you move inland and it goes it’s class A above flight level 2 45, I think. And that’s [00:26:00] where I guess all the R P T stuff’s hanging out.

All your jets and turbo props are up there in Class A. You can’t fly VFR in class A, so everything’s separated up there. You’ve got class C which then where, that’s below our class A air space that’s up the east coast as well. And we’re separating i r and I r aircraft there, separate i r and vfr.

VFR to vfr. They don’t get separated but they’ll get traffic passed on each other in that sort of airspace if they’re gonna be close. And then Class D, that’s your controlled airspace around the general aviation and regional towers. Then class E. Is your airspace where you can have IFI and VFR in there.

And now the i r to i r, they’re gonna be separated in Class E, but IFI to VFR won’t. It doesn’t really cause too much of a problem in the airspace that I operate. You can get [00:27:00] VFR aircraft that’s in Class E, sort of up in the flight levels, mixing it with the jets or turbo props that might be a bit lower down sitting in that classy airspace.

But usually those guys will be getting flight following from us or something. Or we can see ’em on radar at least. So we can always pass traffic. And they’ve got Class G airspace to finish it off, which is just uncontrolled airspace. So no one’s getting separated, but the traffic is passed on IFI aircraft between each other.

And if we can see ’em via r traffic’s passed as well. But Yeah, the radar can be poor in some areas, so if you’re a vfa, you might not always be on radar.

Ken: Interesting. Yeah, that’s thanks for the rundown m and that’s a really interesting point as well that I think is worth reiterating is the traffic advisory versus the traffic separation.

Cuz that is certainly something that’s caught me out before. I didn’t really understand that rule properly. But it’s just the the VFR not being separated from other VFR aircraft. So, cause I think it’s [00:28:00] easy to make the assumption that, oh, I’m in controlled airspace, I’m gonna be separated.

So it’s worth just re reiterating that it’s traffic advisory only.

Mick: Yeah, it’s something that always gets us as well at work. Well me in particular you just want to separate those VFR planes when they’re in Class C because the system’s throwing alerts at you when you’re, when they’re getting too close anyway.

And yeah, it just doesn’t feel right to have them closer than the separation standard. But yeah, VFR to VFR in controlled airspace they won’t get separated. And the first time I found out about that was when I was doing my ppl, actually back in the day in Perth, there was, I was in one of the VFR lanes near Perth airport and we were opposite direction to someone at the same level who was also in the VFR lane.

And yeah, a T c was just passing traffic on us.

Ken: Yeah, it can it can be a bit unnerving. Those vfi entry lines can be really high density. I know the one in and out of para field’s really busy cause it’s a bit of a choke point because of the positioning of I guess [00:29:00] the Adelaide Airport and also the Edinburgh Military airport. And yeah, a lot of traffic coming in and out for like the university flight schools.

And again, as well in Sydney the Victor Lanes down the coast and the they’re pretty busy as well with lots of sea planes, lot of tourists and ultra lights going through them. And we used to bring the hers through ’em as well sometimes. But for safety, we’d have to sort of duck down to, you know, 200 feet because it was hard to sort of see everyone.

And a lot of ’em were around 500 feet, so, yeah. Yeah,

Mick: far right. You’d be moving quick as well on the herk.

Ken: Oh, you know, it’s funny, I guess they are quick compared to some G GM machines, but not really. I mean the max speed, 320 knots you wouldn’t get you obviously wouldn’t fly anywhere near that.

 The fastest you’d probably be going around is two 50, but a more reasonable number that we used to plan and belt around at was two 10 when we were clean or we’d slow down and be one 70 configured with 50 flat. So yeah, definitely getting up there. But there’s still a lot [00:30:00] of GA machines that these days are pretty quick.

I was pretty blown away by some of these glass airs that the space. Yeah, those things

Mick: are unreal.

Ken: Yeah, out of a four cylinder pi, a piston engine. Yeah. And a propeller. Holy moly. Really impressive. Yeah, actually I had a drag with a Mustang once down at Wollongong. It was a lot of fun.

We were flying over in the Herk and they were departing and they caught up with us. They like ended up overtaking us. So, , that’ve been awesome. Yeah, man. So look I just wanted to ask about, how can pilots work with air traffic to get the best outcome? So, how can air traffic control help pilots and what can pilots do to make sure that they’re getting the most out of those services?

Mick: Yeah, so , we’re there to help with basically everything. You name it, just call up on the radio and we can try and help with it. I suppose the main ones, even though I mentioned we can’t do much about. The weather, like what we can tell you, we can at least help with avoidance based on what previous aircraft have done which oftentimes, especially during summer here in Queensland with the [00:31:00] rivals into Brisbane, we’ll get air traffic calling on at their top of as descent, which is basically where they enter my airspace from the north when they’re on descent into Brisbane.

And they’ll just ask what has, , previous traffic been doing whether they’ve gone left or right, you know, trying to get in front of a cell or behind a cell and try and squeeze through before the next one comes in. So we can help with that. Helping in emergencies we, , can basically help out any sort of way during an emergency.

We can contact ambulances, get ambulances at the gate, which we often do if we get reports of sick passengers. If the pilots can’t organize it through the company, they’ll get onto us and, and we can do that. Turbulence reports is another one, especially now during winter. We get lots of turbulence reports and we’ll pass those on.

So, I dunno, I guess pilots can track the seatbelt sign on a bit earlier or leave it on a bit longer.

Ken: Oh look, don’t get me wrong. Mick, those reports are really valuable. I remember flying home from Iraq and we, for some reason, we were sort of [00:32:00] trying to climb as high as we could. And there’s an inherent limitation to the Hercules altitude with the pressure differential, the cabin pressure see, you can’t really go above 10,000.

It starts start getting in a lot of trouble, getting alerts, that kind of stuff. Obviously need oxygen , above 10 k. And so I can’t remember how high we were. We were in the low thirties, which is still pretty high for a her turbo prop. And yeah, we had some really bad turbulence and mate, I was eating a frozen, which ended up on the roof.

Oh, no way. Captain, Captain at the time was Just, he had his seatbelt on and after the turbulance, he actually was sideways in his seat and his legs had knocked the throttles. And by knocking the throttles back, obviously the aircraft pitched nose down. Yeah. The little pilot kicked off and it was like, what the heck is happening here?

And it was really, it was quite scary. Just because of some really extreme turbulence. So, after that I always made sure. If I wasn’t moving around the cabin, then I always had my seatbelt on. And I always [00:33:00] pay a lot of respect to, anytime I fly commercially, I’ll always have my seatbelt on.

There’s a lot of pilots that don’t, there’s a lot of pilots that I work with that’d be pretty loose about it. Maybe they’re kind of the cool guys being comfortable and sitting sideways in their chair or whatever. , you just, you never know. So, turbulence report important, but also, I guess it’s more horrible in summer when you’re trying to fly a GA machine down low.

Man, I’ve been in thermals that are , throwing me up and down like thousands of feet. It’s just a struggle

Mick: sometimes. Yeah. I remember doing like pilot training in WA in the summer and yeah, in an old 1 72 n getting thrown around. I think that was probably after my first nav when I realized that maybe a pilot career wasn’t for me.

Ken: Oh, you know, air sickness is it’s horrible. I used to get air sick and , a lot of people do. I think the stats are something like 80% of people will get air sick and, , and then they’ll become desensitized to it, which is good. But yeah it’s never a nice feeling.

Hot summer, un un air conditioned cockpit. I guess I was [00:34:00] just very fortunate when I was bashing around Perth at the the training aircraft. At two fds we had a little air conditioner used to blow ice chips on us, which was good. Oh, nice. That’d be so cool. Yeah. So when it comes to flying flight planning are you pro lodging flight

Mick: plans?

Yeah, a hundred percent., it doesn’t take much effort, I guess, if you’re VFR just going out for a short flight to, to just chuck a flight plan in I suppose a lot of people use Aus runways and Ave plan now, so. If you’re just planning your flight in there, you can just go and submit it.

And if you do need something from us and you call up and a hundred percent we’re gonna say, do you have a flight plan in the system? And you can say yes. Well then we can bring that flight plan up. It’s get everything about you there. It’s gonna make it a lot easier if you want a clearance through controlled airspace, especially if the less work we have to do, the more chance you have to get a clearance.

Especially if we’re busy. I’m a hundred percent getting the flight plan in there. Yeah. Saves us a lot of time. Sometimes if we’re busy and you [00:35:00] call up, don’t have a flight plan and you want a clearance through, like it, it can just be that little bit too much work Yeah. To facilitate that clearance and we’ll just tell you to remain clear.

But yeah. Yeah, I always tell that to people at my flying club even if they’re just going out for a short flight, just chuck the plan and you don’t know if you’ll need it or not. And if you don’t need it, well it doesn’t matter.

Ken: Yeah, cost you nothing and it’s good practice for when you, you will actually need to submit them.

Mick: Yeah, that’s it. And yeah, if you do need to speak to atc, you’ll probably have a good interaction if the flight plan’s in there because you’ll get a good service hopefully and get that clearance through controlled airspace if you want it.

Ken: Alright, so now I want you to spill the tea on some juicy gossie.

Mick, what is the shit that you just hate? What are some of your pet peeves as an air traffic controller Oh that you experience at work?

Mick: Probably pilots not responding to calls be the first one. Especially in my airspace. If you hear it’s busy and I’m trying to give you a frequency transfer or a dissent instruction and, [00:36:00] I don’t get that response straight away.

It’s. Just so infuriating. If it’s quiet on frequency, I can understand that, you might be chatting or something like that. Yeah. But especially when we’re under the pump, you can hear it on frequency and you’ll give a heading or something for sequencing and there’s just no response.

Or you’ll give a dissent instruction and then nothing. And then 30 seconds later, the pilot will call up and say that they’re ready for dissent. It’s well, mate, I just gave it to you. Questioning instruction. That’s when I get sometimes for when I’m sequencing planes into Brisbane they’ll get given their fee to fixed times.

I don’t know, a hundred miles. From Brisbane or even further, gives them a chance to slow down. They’ll get into my airspace and if I need to adjust the sequence a little bit in mine, I might tell ’em to cancel the time or speed up or slow down. And I’ll get pilots that’ll come back to me and say, oh, just confirm you still wanna share it this time.

 It’s just trust what I’m doing. I’m trying to fit you in with the rest of the planes that are in the airspace as well. I guess that’s the main [00:37:00] ones from the big jets for me anyway. And from the VFR bug smashes, probably my biggest pet peeve from them is not checking you’re on the right frequency when you’re making your caf broadcast.

The amount of times , I’ll hear some VFR bug Smasher making all his entry calls into King or Roy or something and they’re all coming out on area frequency, just clogging up my frequency and cuz it just gets rebroadcast across all the frequencies I’m working. And sometimes I’ll be too low to hear me, but I can hear them.

Ken: Oh yeah, that’s a slab we used say at work, that’s a slab if you, do you see to have broadcast on on area or if you do it on guard. Yeah. Yeah.

Mick: That’s a slab. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s probably my biggest one for the VFR pilots. You know, just double check that you’ve hit that button to switch across to the right frequency.

And I guess another one, not understanding the airspace, like I’ll get guys about to bus cta. Just not knowing what the airspace limits are. And also [00:38:00] calling too late for a clearance so people call, two or three miles from the CTA boundary for a clearance. It doesn’t gimme a lot of time to figure out how I’m gonna get you through.

And People with old charts as well, like the airspace has changed a lot, especially around Brisbane. I had one guy a couple of years ago after the airspace changed who busted CTA north of the Sunshine Coast. Called him up and he was on frequency and I said, you’ve just entered controlled airspace without a clearance.

And he questioned me and said, no, I haven’t. I’m just looking at my chart now. There’s no steps here. And I thought, well mate, when’s your chart from? Because it’s completely different. But now the audacity to question me on frequency.

Ken: Yeah. Okay. So it really comes down to a respect thing.

Making sure that you’re giving professional respect to the air traffic control courtesy in terms of timeliness of replies. And then, yeah, your basic piloting skills and situational awareness. Yeah, flying with outdated charts, whether that’s your charts, your maps your instrument plates oh, [00:39:00] strictly bol I

yeah, we’re lucky with EFBs these days. AZ runways is fantastic. We had a, subscription in the Air Force in my unit, and it was absolutely brilliant. Actually, the guy who designed it as an ex x RAF pilot really lovely guy. And yeah, he is made an absolute monster out of it, but it’s such an awesome tool for situational awareness.

I know you’re not supposed to use the GPS on it for navigation or anything, which obviously you don’t. But it’s just such an awesome essay tool to see even just even the airport diagrams that you can have your rough position on the on the airdrome. It could be a game changer for helping with situational awareness.

But yeah, old charts, oh, that’s a paddling, yeah.

Mick: Oh, definitely a paddling. Especially for this guy when he was trying to tell me that I was in the wrong.

Ken: Oh God. It’s hard, you know, what do they call that when you’ve lost essay and you really think that this is how a certain event has happened and you just, you’ve lost the plot.

It can be quite a rude shock when you are brought back and you actually get told what actually happened. A lot of the Air Force training that I did, , some of it, [00:40:00] they really do push you right to the edge so , they find your capacity and then sort of try and push you a bit past it.

And as a result, sometimes the sun are a bit muddled on the radio or, , you lose essay or you have a helmet fire, as we sort of jokingly call it. And by , I guess continually exposing yourself to that, , it does help push your boundaries and make you hopefully a better pilot.

But, oh gosh, sometimes your memory of how an event actually happened and then when, you know, the instructor or the air traffic controller, you’re looking at the tapes about what actually happened and you’re like, what hang on. I’m pretty sure I was on that flight. I don’t remember it being like that.

So the human mind can definitely be foul

Mick: or Yeah. And I definitely know that feeling from the training, especially for the airspace that I’m working at the moment. The sim course for that was absolutely brutal. Cuz again, they just youf training, they push you to your limit and then go a bit beyond.

And then the final exam is a bit below that. And then most of the days when you’re operating in the ops room, the level is below that as well. But there’s the [00:41:00] days when you’re in there and you’d unplug and think, well, what just happened?

Ken: Yeah, it’s full on. I actually got to go in one of the things that the RAF has called the orim a warfare simulator when I was a trainee.

And it’s part of the training that the air battle managers do the RAF abms or ACOs. And it sounds like it might be similar to the role you did in the Navy the combat systems operator role. And I had a go on the console and gee, it’s hard work trying to, , manage all the contacts, identify them know where everyone’s going, tanker tracks and all that kind of stuff.

It’s definitely very mentally exhausting.

Mick: Yeah. That would be something pretty cool to see. Yeah, I’m always in awe of what those guys do. Definitely a bit more full on than what I was doing in the Navy. I.

Ken: Oh, well, hang on. What did you do when you were 16? You just wrote a letter, right?

We should just write another letter. Hopefully don’t in Yeah, I should. Hey, look before we finish up, may I just wanna ask as an air traffic controller we’ve talked a little bit about what you do about [00:42:00] airspace how you can help pilots some of the things that make you grumpy when pilots stuff up, but what can pilots do to become better with ATC and retail?

So are there any resources or anything like that that you’d suggest?

Mick: I’d hope that the sort of r p t professional airline pilot guys across it all. But for the GA guys, and I always say this at my flying club as well jump onto live ATC if you can and just listen to what’s happening.

There’s a lot of really good Aussie streams on there. That you can listen to get into AIP and understand what we could ask and just the correct phraseology for things. Flight sim is another good one. I use that even myself to get myself an awareness of what’s happening in the cockpit of an A three 20, for example.

One of the A three 20 s I have on flight in 2020 on my PC is pretty accurate. And so it’s cool to go in that and see what the pilots might be doing in the [00:43:00] FMS when we are giving them instructions. And then there’s a lot of stuff on the air services website as well about operating in and around airports, have specific things for Archerfield, for example which I’m gonna have to brush up on soon cuz that’s somewhere I’m gonna be flying out of when I do some more flight training in a couple of weeks.

But I think all the major aerodromes in Australia are on there. You can jump on there and find some information where their hotspots are for traffic reporting points for the general aviation airports. And yeah, that’s probably all I can think of.

Ken: Awesome mate. No, I totally agree. I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination.

I’ve had my fair share of stuff ups. But proper preparation prevents peer support performance. Exactly. So A R P is really important. The military for some reason splits that up into FI and gpa. But yeah, having a good understanding your g p a ground planning in and outta the airports and fiaf for your on route stuff.

So getting in there and reading, it’s super important. [00:44:00] And also one of be tips. The couch that I could pass on is get into SSA and look at flight preferred routing because I have definitely annoyed far too many HIV controllers, just Leroy Jenkins turning up and asking to go into certain adross.

, I wasn’t aware cuz I did a lot of GA flying before my military days and yeah, ga flying’s a lot of class year uncontrolled stuff, so it wasn’t super UFE with IFR procedures. And yeah, knowing that there is a set plot way that you need to flight plan into certain aerodromes which really help air traffic control manage the traffic flows.

Mick: Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that one. We get that sort of problem in and around Brisbane with traffic, cuz obviously there’s all the preferred route into Brisbane, sunshine Coast, gold Coast and the guys into the Gold Coast especially. Those preferred roots, sort of bring them from the north in overhead, Brisbane, and then route them away from the Brisbane arrivals and departures and get them into the Gold Coast.

So we get, , guys planning all sorts of weird [00:45:00] ways, which might be the quickest way into the Gold Coast, but it’s taking you straight through a arrivals and departures corridor, which isn’t always the most fun thing to deal with.

Ken: Yeah. And you know, it’s interesting because I understand that a lot of R P t operators, they have their flight planning done for them lucky buggers.

Whereas the type of flying that I did was essentially charter I’m trying to think of a better description for it than charter. So we didn’t really have set roots that we flew and it was just Taskings that popped up we went and did them. So it could be challenging the actual flight planning aspect.

Especially flying into some weird, wonderful places around Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea that don’t necessarily have these good access to these publications freely available sometimes. It was a bit of a struggle. And that was where I guess just working together with the air traffic controllers, we were able to achieve better outcomes.

And , a couple of times in Port Mosby went and jumped into the tower, had a chat to the local air traffic controllers and just had to ask him, Hey, what do you guys want from us? To get the job done, sort of [00:46:00] thing. So it was definitely an awesome experience going in and speaking to air traffic controllers.

I’d highly recommend anyone who has the opportunity, even, just your local airfield. Whether that be, someplace like Camden or Bankstown. Yeah, trying to ring the tower or email the tower. Just jump into Ursa for some details and try and arrange a tower visit. Cause, it’s really good.

It puts some things in perspective and you can understand what it’s like from the air traffic control point of view so that when you need to ask them for something you’re more likely to get it.

Mick: Yeah, definitely. I’d say that the towers would be pretty accommodating if you can do that.

I remember back in the day again, when I was 14, 15, 16, getting interested in all this sort of stuff. I was up at the Sunshine Coast with my stepdad and I dunno if it’s the same now, but you could just walk up to the tower, like literally walk up to the door at the base of the tower. And anyway, he rang the doorbell and just asked if we could come up for a tour and sure enough they

came down and brought us up for a tour, which was pretty awesome. We, couldn’t believe that happened.

Ken: That’s a pretty cool [00:47:00] experience. Yeah I remember my first tour at Parak going and having the the tower at Para Field and that was such a cool memory. Definitely one of those cool memory things that probably that’s equal waiting.

I think along the time where I got to go and sit in the jump seat of a of a 7 47 when I was a kid it was I guess pre nine 11 days. The sort of really awesome memories that you can achieve and, that’s what I think if if you have the option, if , if you’re an air traffic controller or even if you’re a pilot, if you have the option to do that kind of stuff, definitely do it.

And if you can invite kids into the tower, into the cockpit, just do it cuz you absolutely make their day and they’ll remember it for the rest of their life.

Mick: Yeah, a hundred percent. And it might even spark something for a career, I guess, like it did to me. I don’t know if I’d be in this job if I didn’t get that tour.

Of Brisbane Center when I was 16 years old. Yeah, I definitely think it, it left an impression on me and that’s why I’ve ended up in this job all these years later.

Ken: Yeah, and look it’d be remiss of me if I didn’t actually ask this, but as far as I’m [00:48:00] aware, air traffic controllers get paid pretty well, don’t they?

Mick: Yeah. It’s not a bad pay at the end of the day. And your pay basically goes up each year as well until it maxes out at the end. You can find all the pay scales online as well, on the air services website. So that’s another enticing thing. We also get paid during the training, which I think we’re one of the few countries where you actually get paid to train a lot of countries.

If you want to go and do air traffic control training, I think you’ve gotta fund it yourself and go find an academy and pay your own way to do the training and then still work, I guess, if you wanna live and, eat some sort of decent food and live somewhere. So we’re quite lucky.

It is a good organization in that sense that they’ll pay you to train and then yeah the pay packet is quite nice at the end of the day.

Ken: Awesome. So, I mean, it’d be quite fair to say that you love your job and you’re really happy with your choice to switch from the Navy.

Mick: Yeah, definitely.

I think it probably was my dream job from when I went to [00:49:00] visit when I was 15, 16 years old. I thought that’s something I really want to do, either that or a pilot. And I just, I always thought it was beyond me. And my wife told me just to throw the application in when I was thinking about leaving the Navy.

And somehow I got through all the training and here I am seven years into my career now.

Ken: How good mate, and what are your plans going forward? So do you want to increase your seniority? Are you interested in maybe working in a tower or are you happy with your area work?

Mick: Pretty happy in the airspace at the moment. It’s such a dynamic bit of airspace working arrivals and departures into Brisbane working stuff in and outta Sunshine Coast. We’ve got Toowoomba well camp as well in the airspace we’re dealing with Amberley and Okie. So getting to speak to fast jets, military helicopters c seventeens, hers, all that sort of stuff.

It’s the days when I think I want to go to a tower so I could look out the window and look at planes all day. But I get worried that if I did that I probably would miss [00:50:00] the airspace outta work. And the other great thing is it’s airspace that I actually go out and fly around in myself when I’m out going for a fly.

Just for fun. It’s cool to be actually out flying in the airspace that I control, which is pretty special.

Ken: Yeah. Okay. It sounds like you you enjoy the, really, the hype, the fast paced lifestyle and the sort of challenging aspect of the job.

Mick: Yeah, it’s I guess in, in summer when we’re working hard sequencing rivals into Brisbane, trying to get the departures out, getting ’em around storms, and you’re at the console and I can actually feel myself sweating and you think, why do I do this?

But then when you unplug at the end of the day and on the drive home, it’s a real sense of accomplishment, what you’ve worked through and how much work is behind you to get to that point. A

Ken: job well done.

Mick: Yeah, exactly. It is nice those days when it’s pretty quiet as well, especially now in winter when there’s not too much weather and There’s not big delays, there’s not too much holding.

It’s it’s quite nice to relax for six months or so. But yeah, we know those storms will be [00:51:00] coming again in summer and we’ll be working, although the military always keeps us on our toes with all their exercises and all the weird requests they have.

Ken: Yeah. Ah, sorry mate. Ah, it’s alright.

 Yeah, Mick mate, I’ve had an absolute ball chatting today. Thanks so much for your time, really appreciate it. I guess just finishing up is there anything else you’d like to bring up before we finish?

Mick: Yeah, , I just wanna say it’s been awesome chatting to you as well, Ken.

Yeah, I had a real blast myself. I think the main thing I’d like to say is, we’re just there to help. We’re just another voice on the other side of the radio. If you’ve ever got a problem, speak up. I think the airline transport guys would probably do this and they do it a lot anyway from my experience.

They’ll ask us for help if they need it, but the GA guys, if they’re a bit hesitant to speak to air traffic control, just call up. If you don’t know what to say, just say it in plain English like, we’re gonna understand what you want. Don’t keep it to yourself. Get us involved.

We’ve got people on the ground that can contact other people on the [00:52:00] ground for you if you need to speak to someone, or the weather’s getting bad and you need an appreciation of the weather somewhere else, just keep up the mic and ask. We’re happy to help.

Ken: Awesome. Very wise words.

And yeah. Thank you very much, Mick. Now if anyone has any questions from today are they able to get in touch? you could leave a comment on the ation tips blog because we’ll put the transcript and the show notes from today’s episode. But Mick, are people able to get in touch with you anyway?

Mick: Yeah. I suppose the most public profile I have really is just my Instagram, well, just my personal Instagram. So I’m Mickey Bobby on Instagram and if you do wanna get in to contact with me, just send me a message on there. Any questions you want to ask about air traffic control, happy to answer.

Ken: Awesome stuff. Well, thanks very much for putting that out there. And again, thanks very much for your time this afternoon, mate. Hope you have a great rest of the afternoon and and all your training coming up at Archer Field. Go smoothly.

Mick: Yeah. Thanks Ken. Me too. It’s yeah, it’s gonna be a bit of a change going out to learn to fly the CS out at Archerfield, but [00:53:00] looking forward to that one bit of an upgrade from the swing.


Ken: Oh Cs, my goodness. Air traffic Control does pay

Mick: well. Yeah. I need to get that overtime in to pay for the Cirrus.

Ken: Awesome, mate. Uh, we’ll chat soon. All right.

Mick: All right, mate. Take care. Cheers.

Ken: I hope you enjoyed today’s episode and that you either learned something new or was able to brush up on some old skills as aviators. The day we stop learning or that we think we know it all is the day we should hand back our wings. Gouge advice, foot stomps the good guts. Look, it’s all a great way to stay sharp, but remember, live by the gouge, die by the gouge.

Don’t attempt anything we’ve talked about here without appropriate authorization and jewel instruction from a qualified flying instructor. With that being said, don’t go check. And share the.[00:54:00] [00:55:00]

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ken johnson


Ken is a passionate aviator, a professional pilot and flight instructor. He has over 17 years of flight experience across hundreds of aircraft ranging from recreational, aerobatic, historic, commercial and military aircraft, training hundreds of students along the way. Find out more.

Ken has 124 posts and counting. See all posts by Ken

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