The Air Up There Podcast
Be ATC: From Admin to Air Traffic Controller

Season 6, Episode 12

A good mentor can point you in the right direction and a great mentor can change your life. When Bobbie Kahklen started working for the FAA, she never imagined she would end up working in a tower as an air traffic controller. 

Growing up as a member of the Native Alaskan Tlingit tribe, Bobbie persevered through many challenges. Aviation was not something that was talked about in her community and it certainly wasn’t on Bobbie’s radar as a career option. By chance, she stumbled across an administrative job opening at the FAA. 

With the encouragement of her FAA managers and coworkers, Bobbie applied for a developmental air traffic control position. That leap of faith completely shifted the trajectory of her career and got her out from behind an office desk and up in a tower where she excelled. 

Are you up for the challenge? Find out what it takes to be an air traffic controller, more about the application process, and what you can do to prepare before our next hiring window. Another route to consider is Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative schools which teach basic courses in air traffic control and are designed to provide qualified candidates for developmental positions.

Share this podcast episode with friends, family, and colleagues. You never know where it might lead them on their career journey. 

Meet Our Guest:  
Bobbie Kahklen is a Support Specialist at Guam Center Radar Approach Control and an outreach representative for the FAA’s STEM education program with over 30 years of service with the FAA. She was a tower controller at Juneau International Airport, San Diego’s Gillespie Field, and San Francisco International Airport. Bobbie is a member of the Native American Alaska Native Coalition (NAAN) and the National Hispanic Coalition of Federal Aviation Employees. Learn more about how Bobbie uses her Alaskan Native heritage to help other indigenous people seek out learning and opportunities. 
Disclaimer: Reference in this podcast to any specific commercial product, process, service, manufacturer, company, or trademark does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the U.S. government, Department of Transportation, or Federal Aviation Administration. As an agency of the U.S. government, the FAA cannot endorse or appear to endorse any specific product or service. 

Be ATC: From Admin to Air Traffic Controller
Be ATC: From Admin to Air Traffic Controller
Audio file

I loved being an air traffic controller. It's the best job in the world, I think. It's the job that you never knew you loved and I loved every second of it. Getting that acknowledgement from the pilots. They'd say, good job tower. I loved seeing the work that I did pan out. 

Lucy Jabbour: That’s Bobbie Kahklen, a former air traffic controller for the FAA. 

Vishal Ramudamu: And she is our guest. We’re your hosts. I’m Vishal Ramudamu.

Lucy Jabbour: And I’m Lucy Jabbour - and this is The Air Up There!

Various People: This is your captain speaking. The feeling I get when I’m flying; you get an adrenaline rush. Seeing something fly is awesome. It’s incredible to be able to fly. Flying airplanes is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I get so excited about aviation, aeronautics, space, engineering, and tech. Like star gazing and just wondering what it would be like to be up there. I just fell in love with it. Stick with your passion and pursue it. Just know you can do it. There is not a room, there is not a cockpit, there is not a place that you don’t belong. There’s certainly a place for everybody in aerospace.

Vishal Ramudamu: Air traffic controllers are the heroes of our skies, working on the front lines to ensure that pilots, flight crews, and passengers arrive and depart safely from our nations’ airports.

Lucy Jabbour: Air traffic controllers are specialized and skilled professionals that are critical to the FAA’s mission to maintain the safest and most efficient airspace in the world. It’s a challenging, but fulfilling career. 

Vishal Ramudamu: If you think you’re up to the challenge, go to and search “be atc,” - that’s B-E A-T-C - to learn more about, eligibility, the application process, and how to prepare.

Lucy Jabbour: Was aviation something even on your radar? Did anyone ever even really talk about that?

Bobbie Kahklen: No, you know, well, part of the thing is that, because we were so poor, we didn't fly a lot. So, I didn't even know anything about it. I kind of went in naive or, you know, when I got that first job as a secretary of all things. And the first time that I considered getting into something more than administrative. This lady who was a specialist at the flight service station, gave me the vacancy announcement that had developmental controller. And she goes, you qualify. Wasn't expecting that. That was like, whoa, left field. And I was like, I don't even know what you guys do. And my boss, he said, so what do you think you think you can do this? And I'm like, I don't know. I have no idea what it is, but I'll go and try. He arranged a business trip for me to fly to Anchorage. He scheduled it for the week that they were having the air traffic exam being administered. So, while I was in Anchorage on a business trip, as an administrative assistant, I just happened to take the ATC exam. So, I go up there and by one o'clock that day they said, hey, we got your test results back. You passed. Is there any chance you can fly to Oklahoma City for a week on Saturday? And I'm like this Saturday? Like yeah, because we have a... this is when they were doing the pre initial qual. So, I was like, yeah, sure. Why not? Went down there and I passed. 

Vishal Ramudamu: So, Bobby, how did you like being an air traffic controller.

Bobbie Kahklen: I loved being an air traffic controller. It's the best job in the world. I think it's the job that you never knew you loved and I loved every second of it. I considered myself and I was told often that I was a good controller at the three places that I trained at. And for me, for my personality. I'm the type A personality. I got to organize things I got to plan, everything's has to be logical and being able to adapt. And I loved the instant gratification of seeing the work that I did pan out. That me giving them all knew how to do it safely and efficiently. Getting that acknowledgement from the pilots quite a few times when it was busy, and they, you know, taxi off, they'd say good job tower.  

Lucy Jabbour: What did it feel like in the moment where you kind of figured out like, this is what I want to do. It fits who I am and I had no idea. 

Bobbie Kahklen: Yeah, I think it was getting to San Diego. Gillespie Field was a major accomplishment for me, not just because of who I am, or what I've done, but to prove everybody wrong. And it was another validation that I am enough and I can make things happen and I do make things happen. Getting to be a controller was a second thing. Thank god for the FAA and the air traffic manager that I had. He helped me so much. Because of that. That's how I got to where I am today and everything that I accomplished since then, is because of that. Because of that one person having faith in me and believing in me and providing me opportunities. 

Lucy Jabbour: What are you doing right now?

Bobbie Kahklen: I am working in an air traffic facility as a support specialist is what it's called now. So, even after 30 years, I still feel like I'm learning something. And I'm being trained on something that is a completely new field for me and that's still part of the air traffic control. And to be involved in that, to be back in the field. Back at a facility. Back at the ground level. And I enjoy now just having responsibility for us. It is full circle, you know, right. It's kind of come back to small island, like Juneau. 

Lucy Jabbour: Where are you located right now?

Bobbie Kahklen: I'm in Guam.

Vishal Ramudamu: We hear about the path to becoming an ATC and how it can be a long, challenging journey. Why do you think someone should be an air traffic controller?

Bobbie Kahklen: Every day is different. And when you're done for the day, you're done for the day. The other thing that I think is good about being an air traffic controller is if you want, and if you're good enough and you love this job enough and have that energy, enthusiasm and thirst for more, you can work anywhere in the world. It's knowing that your skill set, your talents, your abilities, is what makes the air traffic system safe and efficient.

Lucy Jabbour: What advice would you give to someone who is looking at air traffic control as a career and maybe feeling a little intimidated about it?

Bobbie Kahklen: Yeah, I would highly recommend that they see about getting to visit a facility and sit in and hear controllers working. And I would have them look into the colleges that the FAA has certified as being a part of their college training initiative and see about getting a degree that way or going into the military. We have a lot of ex-military controllers. And the other beauty thing of it is that we have an academy in Oklahoma City that we pay for you to go to. You don't pay anything for that. That's the other thing with many of the programs that the FAA and the DOT have is they have programs for career development, leadership development that they pay for, that you get to take. And I think that's amazing resources and opportunities for somebody. Because you can do anything. You are the only person that can limit yourself on your dreams, and your goals, and your accomplishments. Don’t let anybody stop you.

Be ATC PSA: Becoming an air traffic controller is an opportunity to shape the future of aviation as we integrate air taxis, space vehicles and more into the airspace. With cutting-edge training and the chance to make a real impact, a career at the FAA goes beyond the clouds and into the heart of aviation's pulse. Want to make an impact? Visit and search Be ATC for updates on upcoming application opportunities.

Lucy Jabbour: Thanks for listening! For more information about today’s guest, check out Subscribe, like, follow where ever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out on new episodes. Coming up, in the next episode of The Air Up There...

Vishal Ramudamu: What sparked your interest in air traffic control?

Jose Castellanos: I think when I went up to visit the Miami tower, because before then I didn't have any interest, I guess you could say, in air traffic control. I didn't think I'd make this my career growing up. But when I initially went up to the tower during my internship with Miami, just seeing them work and seeing the traffic flow and stuff like that, it really interested me. I thought this could be a very fulfilling career field.