Air traffic controller has very good timing

They say timing is everything. If comedians don't get it right, their jokes won't be met with laughter. If musicians don't have it, a melody can't be heard.

Bob Whittemore has always had very good timing. He's not an entertainer, but as an air traffic controller he must choreograph airplanes as they arrive and depart from Charlotte Douglas International Airport so they don't tango too closely.

It's a career where timing is essential. Every airport has its own chunk of three-dimensional airspace to watch over. Air traffic controllers at Charlotte Douglas divide the 45 miles they cover among the 13 radar and 7 tower personnel on shift.

Controllers use different colors on the screen to track the airplanes they are responsible for keeping safe. "You have to keep your airplanes in your airspace," said Whittemore, 47, who lives in the Laurel Park neighborhood in Concord.

"You're looking at a little radar screen and thinking, do I have enough time to get the airplane out before another comes in?"

Thankfully for patrons of flight, Whittemore has always had a knack for good timing, starting with when he first decided to enter into the field.

Change in career plans

Originally trained as a fighter jet mechanic in the Air Force, he switched careers in the mid 1980s at a time when there was a shortage of air traffic controllers.

In 1981, 13,000 air traffic controllers walked off the job when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association went on strike, asking for better pay and work conditions. President Reagan declared the strike a threat to national safety and fired the more than 11,000 workers who wouldn't return, leaving an urgent need to recruit and train new candidates.

The timing was perfect for Whittemore, who began the four month training after undergoing a series of aptitude and psychological tests to determine his level of situational awareness, the ability to anticipate events around him and predict their outcome. Weather and air traffic conditions can change quickly, creating a chain reaction of situations that can affect safety. "You have to be able to react," said Whittemore. "You have to be 2-3 steps ahead."

Next move

Once trained, Whittemore spent three more years in the military before taking a civilian job with the FAA, where he worked at Reagan National Airport, and then The Air Traffic Control Center in Washington.

Now at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where he has worked as a supervisor traffic management coordinator for a little over a year, Whittemore splits his time between the ambient lighting of the radar room and the bird's eye view in the 160-foot control tower.

He's never felt the responsibility of the job overwhelming, a reason some controllers leave the profession. "I have never found it stressful," he said. "We're well-trained."

Future plans

Air traffic controllers may retire at age 50, and although there are a few exceptions, must retire at 56, the age when the FAA deems reflexes begin to slow.

Whittemore will be eligible in three years, and plans to take the job day by day after that.

He's often thought of traveling the world in an airplane instead of directing one, and feels he'll know when the moment is right.

"It's all timing," he said.