"Seventy Years of Service"
Michael Huerta, New Orleans, LA
April 10, 2012

2012 Professional Women Controllers National Training Conference


Thank you, Robin, for that kind introduction. It’s great to be here in New Orleans with all of you. It’s a special time as the city prepares to kick-off the bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812.

The tall ships will be on display and they are remarkable. Many of the navigation terms we use in aviation originated with sailing. So it’s fitting that as we gather here today to chart our course for the future, we think about the history of navigation and the history of women in aviation.

First I want to say thank you to Robin Rush, President of the Professional Women Controllers, and the PWC executive team and members for putting on a fine conference. This organization is carrying out the work started by Sue Mostert Townsend and Jacque Smith Burdette back in 1979.  That’s when PWC was formed by these two air traffic controllers and military veterans – both of whom are at the conference this year.

Looking back, it’s been about 70 years since the first wave of women were hired as air traffic controllers during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Civil Aeronautics Authority urged regional offices to recruit women to replace the many men who were drafted.

We can’t really pinpoint the first female air traffic controller with absolute certainty. When the hiring surge came during the war, those records were kept in regional offices, so it’s difficult to draw absolute conclusions.

But we are familiar with many of the pioneers in air traffic control, for example, Mary Chance VanScyoc, who controlled traffic at Denver Center in 1942, when it had only two sectors. And of course, there is also PWC Charter Member, Margaret Hoffman, who began her career with the CAA in 1943 at Nashville Tower, where she devoted her career until she retired from the FAA in 1981. 

In her memoir, VanScyoc described what it was like for those who served during this time. There was no radar, no ILS, and no wake turbulence, because there were no jets. They used light guns to issue clearances to aircraft without radios.

 Recently, I was given an air traffic control manual from 1952, by a controller I met in Oakland. It’s the second edition of what is now the controller handbook, Seventy-One-Ten—Sixty-Five (7110.65).  And my, is it thin! Not many pages or chapters to this little handbook.

It recommends against dead reckoning and says if using celestial navigation, it’s better to do so when combined with radio, radar, or Loran fixes. Later it makes references to flag signals for military flights, since the manual was also used by the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard.

It’s interesting to see how things have changed, and how some basic principles have remained the same.

I was given this book by Ruth Ryan McAninch, a controller at Oakland Tower with 30 years of experience. She just retired.  Her husband is a controller with 29 years of experience, and her father was a World War II navigator who later worked as an airline steward. Then he became a controller and later a traffic management specialist and military operations specialist for 47 years with the FAA. Between the three of them, they have 107 years of experience in air traffic control.

I was impressed with her knowledge and dedication. Ruth’s experience parallels what many of you have lived.

She started right after the PATCO strike – the second class to make it through the academy. She decided to leave her job as a high school English teacher in Ohio. She listened to her father’s advice and encouragement – that she could do this job. She decided to trust his faith in her. Plus, she didn’t like that her parents had to help her pay the rent on her teaching salary.

So off to Concord, California she went. Her friends in Ohio told her she’d be back in six weeks.

She stayed for 30 years and counting.

At that time, the military was helping with air traffic control after the strike. Military culture took some getting used to. Ruth called it “old school.” After a few years at Concord, she transferred to Stockton, for radar experience, but was not certified there. After returning to Concord for a year, she felt ready for another training program – this time at Oakland tower.

And it was there that Ruth found a welcoming environment. She was certified and eventually became a front line manager. She has passed on her knowledge to countless others. She reached the age of mandatory retirement and is not seeking a waiver because she wants to provide room for the next generation of controllers to have the opportunities she had.

Ruth says she’s so blessed to have worked in a busy and challenging environment with natural beauty. Sunsets and sunrises over the water were the scenery she looked at every day.

When her husband – a controller at Oakland Center—asked her to marry him, he did so with a Stearman biplane that circled the tower towing a banner. Ruth saw it and walked over to the computer that links to Oakland Center – and entered one word, “Affirmative.”  At their wedding, the aisle was decorated like a runway.

Things have changed quite a lot in the last 30 years. When Ruth first started in Concord, the tower did not have radar, and pilots would have to tell her their position and altitude verbally. When she was at Stockton, she said that few other women had worked there before her.

At most facilities today there are many women, but at some smaller facilities, a woman might still be the only female.

We are aware that women are underrepresented in air traffic control and tech ops, and we are working on that. In the ATO as a whole, we are making slow but steady progress. The numbers are now about 20 percent for women.

We are aware that in order to increase the chances of women climbing the career ladder, we need to encourage women to accept a variety of assignments so that they are well-positioned for leadership openings.

Two solid leaders who started as air traffic controllers come to mind.

Lynn Ray is the Vice President of Mission Support Services for the ATO and a member of the Senior Executive Service. And for most of her career, her job classification was a 2152 – an air traffic controller.  She says she felt a bit wistful when she let go of that classification – because those are her roots.

Lynnis an example of someone who took a variety of jobs, mostly in one geographic location, with strategic details and assignments to broaden her experience. She started as a controller in Atlanta Center in 1984, at the urging of her pilot father, who once worked for Piper Aircraft. He later worked for the FAA as a flight data aide in Orlando Tower and a controller at St. Pete Automated Flight Service Station.

When she was studying for a master’s degree in zoology and living at home with her parents in Florida, her father suggested she become an air traffic controller. He knew that his daughter could think spatially and visualize things in three dimensions. He knew she’d do well.

And she did.

Lynn checked out as a controller and then later worked as a traffic management coordinator and front line manager at Atlanta Center, which gave her a broader view of the system. After that she took a job as a national evaluation specialist out of headquarters, which exposed her to operations in the terminal environment and flight service stations.

She returned to Atlanta Center and held a variety of jobs as well as earning a law degree. She eventually became the Air Traffic Manager for Atlanta Center. She came to Washington to work at the JPDO and then joined the senior executive service as Director of Airspace and Aeronautical Information Management, which was her last stop before Vice President.

Through the years, Lynn encountered incredible mentors – both men and women –as she progressed. Her advice is not to let setbacks discourage you, and if you run into negative people, don’t let them define you.

Suzanne Alexander is another great example of rising through the ranks. She started in Fort Worth as an air traffic controller after the PATCO strike and took a series of jobs with increasing responsibility. She is now Director of Operations for the Eastern Terminal Area, managing more than 100 facilities.  Suzanne moved with her husband, who is a pilot, and her daughter, as she changed jobs.

Along the way she lived in Fort Worth, Seattle, Charlotte, Memphis and finally Atlanta.  During her career she switched from the terminal environment, to enroute and then back again. She was a tower manager and later the number two at what is now a Level 12 facility. And she was the equivalent of a group manager in a service center, as well as an enroute Air Traffic Manager and a district manager.

It’s this kind of varied experience that positioned her for greater opportunities.

And the opportunities are great in the FAA. 

This is truly a pivotal time in aviation history.We are moving into the Next Generation air transportation system– transforming from the ground-based navigation of the last century to the satellite-based system of tomorrow.

We are also moving towards an aviation system that will be safer, more efficient and environmentally sustainable – with more direct routes, fewer delays and more predictability.

We know that in order to meet the challenges of transforming our air traffic control system, the FAA as an organization must also evolve.

We are facing a whole new way of thinking and operating. And we are positioning ourselves with stretch goals to meet these challenges in the months and years ahead.

Last year, about 20 percent of the air traffic controller workforce was eligible to retire. And we estimate that we’ll need to hire about 6,200 controllers over the next five years.

Already in the last five years, we’ve hired more than 7,500 controllers.

People are our strength, and we need a workforce that has, above all, a core commitment to safety and professionalism. But we also need to make sure we have people with the skills and talents needed for NextGen.

This will be a collaborative effort to evolve our airspace, and what you do every day will continue to evolve.

As I said, we have progressed from bonfires and flags to radar and ground-based navigational aids. And now we are moving to GPS.

But what remains the same is the commitment of air traffic controllers. What remains is the same expertise and pride in moving this system into the future.

And we really do need to move our system forward. NextGen is the way of the future and we cannot afford to be left behind. Collaboration is all the more important with the technological changes that form the foundation for NextGen.

So let me say “thank you” for the progress on ERAM.

We now have initial operating capability in six centers, in addition to Salt Lake City and Seattle – namely Albuquerque, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles and Oakland.  

Your input was crucial in testing ERAM and making it operational.  This is not just a computer system. This is a key part of the foundation of NextGen and it’s a huge transformation.

Your collaboration in creating NextGen airspace procedures, such as Required Navigation Performance (RNP) and Area Navigation (RNAV) routes is vital to helping flights operate more efficiently and in a more environmentally-friendly manner.  

I place a very high priority on continuing to roll out these procedures…and, once we have them in place, to make sure they are used.

Every air traffic manager and union representative was trained last year on how to constructively talk with each other—through workgroups—about technological procedures and airspace changes. This process gives everybody a seat at the table before final decisions are made. This improves our efficiency and effectiveness, and it improves safety.

And safety is why we are here. In order to handle the expected growth in air traffic and the changes that NextGen will bring, we must constantly improve and enhance our safety culture.

One way is to improve professional standards. This effort has been rolled out in the last few months to two dozen air traffic facilities across the nation.

In this program we are teaching controllers how to constructively talk with each other about safety before an issue rises to the level of requiring corrective action at a higher management level.

We are putting this program in place to facilitate this, but we need all of you to help have those discussions and provide us with information.

If you are separating aircraft adequately, yes, you followed the rules. But if there were a better, more efficient way to do it, then we need to know it, and we need to move in that direction.  So I ask you to challenge yourselves to think about safety in the broadest sense and to talk with your peers and managers openly about it.

You are on the front lines, controlling traffic, which is a large responsibility. Our airspace is going to become more complex. It is going to be able to handle more traffic. And the tools of NextGen are going to allow us to do that.

Everyone needs to think about safety as something more than the immediate accomplishment of one task or one job. We need to look at how we do something and whether we did it in the best manner.

Some words of wisdom for controllers just beginning comes from Ruth McAninch. She said that if she had advice, it would be the counsel her father gave her 30 years ago.  First, never be afraid to admit when you have made a mistake.

And second, don’t take yourself too seriously – always be able to laugh at yourself.

The path ahead is going to be one of transformation. We all need to be able to work together, and to work creatively with a sense of humor and of purpose.

We know we have a huge checklist ahead. But we will get there.  So thank you for your efforts and keep up the good work.

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