Martin Donnan: Keeping our skies safe is a job you can do – with the right training

Gillian Layhe, NATS trainee air traffic controller

Gillian Layhe, NATS trainee air traffic controller

Have your say

Every week, day-in, day-out, thousands of planes fly above Scotland and the north Atlantic and, with many thousands of lives at stake, it is essential that the route of each and every aircraft is continuously managed and carefully monitored. This vital task falls to the air traffic controllers at National Air Traffic Services Scottish (NATS) control centre who, with the help of state-of-the-art IT systems, work round-the-clock to keep our skies safe for everyone.

To be an air traffic controller is to take on a supremely-responsible role that requires extensive training, so what does it take to make the grade, and what is it like to sit in front of the hi-tech radar screens installed in airport control towers and behind the closed doors of the NATS Prestwick control centre?

Martin Donnan, general manager, NATS Prestwick Centre

Martin Donnan, general manager, NATS Prestwick Centre

According to Edinburgh born-and-bred Jake Longstaff, the list of requirements is not quite what you might expect. Hooked on a career in aviation at an early age after his dad took him for a behind-the-scenes visit to an airport control tower, Jake was dazzled by the radar room and set his sights on becoming an air traffic controller. Now he is doing the job for real from the control tower at Belfast International Airport.

“My first application to NATS was unsuccessful,” Jake explained. “I was told I had the aptitude for the job, but not the life-experience and, looking back on it, they were absolutely right. I’d always been interested in history so I took myself off to study politics at the University of Stirling.

“Armed with some solid life-experience I reapplied, and this time I made it. I was accepted onto the next training course.”

New trainees spend a year at NATS’ training college learning the foundation skills and theory of air traffic management. Time on the state-of-the-art simulators is mixed with classroom and study time culminating in a number of practical, written and verbal assessments. “Everything at the college focusses on preparing you for working with real aircraft carrying real passengers,” Jake said.

Having completed his initial training, Jake was posted to Belfast International Airport. “I’m loving it. The training is hard work, it has to be tough considering what is at stake, but it’s well worth it,” said Jake.

Gillian Layhe, from the Scottish Borders, became interested in NATS while working as cabin crew for an international airline.

Application forms, aptitude testing, and acceptance as a trainee controller followed and Gillian joined NATS in April 2016, starting with theory, including meteorology, navigation and aircraft performance, before moving on to hi-tech simulators to develop the practical skills required to guide aircraft safely.

She has already found that there is no blueprint for what makes a good air traffic controller. “If you are a natural puzzle-solver who can think quickly and make decisions, and are able to stay calm under pressure, that’s more important than having a particular set of academic qualifications,” said Gillian.

University of Strathclyde graduate Nick Shewan also has no regrets about his recent change of direction. He was a part-time postman when a friend gave him the push to apply via the NATS website for what turned out to be his dream career.

“I didn’t have much knowledge about aviation, but you don’t need to be an ex-pilot or have been in the RAF, you will be taught everything you need to know.”

Nick’s ambition is to manage upper airspace, guiding aircraft across Scotland’s skies at high altitude. “Working as part of the Prestwick team, near my family, is my dream. It is a very important job, helping people safely on their journeys. Shift work suits me, and it will pay well later on.”

From our NATS Prestwick control centre we are committed to keeping the skies above Scotland safe, managing air traffic above Scotland, northern England, and then north-east Atlantic. At 2.2 million km2, ours is the largest area of responsibility anywhere in the European Union – effectively we act as Europe’s transatlantic gateway – and we handle 80 per cent of North Atlantic air traffic. We are proud of the high quality services we provide, and equally proud of our excellent calibre staff in whom we continue to invest. If you would like to be part of our story, we would like to hear from you.

Martin Donnan, general manager, NATS Prestwick Centre

Back to the top of the page