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News Article / March 4, 2015

By Alexandra Baillie-David

Imagine the view from a control tower when a CC-177 Globemaster III performs a quick touch-and-go right before your eyes. Imagine being the one to scramble CF-188s when an unidentified aircraft threatens the airspace you’re monitoring. Aerospace controllers do this either as air weapons controllers or air traffic controllers.

In that control tower are aerospace controllers (AECs) who patrol and protect Canada’s airspace from the ground.

AEC officers react to unidentified aircraft and provide air traffic services to aircraft throughout Canadian and foreign airspace during operations. They also control civilian and military aircraft during air combat or training operations around the world.

For Captain Nicolas Cooke, an air traffic controller with 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario, playing video games as a kid helped him prepare to visually patrol the skies.

“You’re basically sitting in front of a screen, which is no different from sitting at home with a PS4,” he says. “You’re talking on a mic and dealing with random things coming at you.”

However, Captain Cooke says, while radar screens might have the appearance of computer games, they represent real aircraft and real people.

It takes anywhere from three to five months to become an AEC officer at the Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Control Operations in Cornwall, Ontario. The AEC occupation requires an undergraduate degree from any recognized university. Subsidized education plans, where the Department of National Defence pays for the candidate’s degree, are available. And recruits are required to complete the same pre-selection test as those seeking to become pilots.

The process is very demanding, Captain Cooke says, because it tests the skills necessary for the trade, including strategic task management, symbolic reasoning, situational awareness, three-dimensional thinking, and perceptual processing. One crucial skill set of an AEC is the ability to multitask.

Captain Ryan Moore, an AEC officer also based at 8 Wing, understands that the occupation is not the easiest to get into.

“When you manage to accomplish [the training], you have done something quite extraordinary,” he says. “It’s a real source of pride and accomplishment to be able to do something that is an extremely difficult job.”

AECs are also an essential part of foreign deployments and can be posted to any Royal Canadian Air Force base in Canada. However, air weapons controllers have more opportunities for deployment with the CF-188s or postings to the United States.

Additionally, opportunities exist to work with the Canadian Army. For example, during training exercised, forward air controllers call in simulated air strikes and provide close air support to troops on the ground. On the other hand, air traffic controllers still have the excitement of working on a base but there is more stability in their day-to-day lives.

You get the best of both worlds,” says Major Rhea Maclean, an air traffic controller now working at in the Canadian Operations Centre at 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “You’re contributing to real-world operations and know what’s going on, but you have the added benefit of going home after your shift and being with your family.”

This article was published in Guard of Honour newspaper on February 26, 2015.


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