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University of North Dakota air traffic control student Jessica Warfield keys her "push-to-talk" switch in the university's air traffic control/radar simulator lab. IMAGE: NICK NELSON/FORUM NEWS SERVICE

Generation Next: Meet Jessica Warfield, a UND air-traffic-control student

How did you get interested in air traffic control?

I'm from Chicago, and I knew pretty much from when I was 6 that I wanted to be an air traffic controller.

My mom is a retired O’Hare Airport controller; she was there for 30 years. So when I was a little girl, I would go to work with her and help “stuff strips” (put flight progress strips in their plastic holders). Sometimes I’d sleep In the break room in the tower.

This was all pre-9/11; after 9/11, I couldn't go up with her anymore.

But there is this website called LiveATC, from which you can tune in and listen the controllers talk at any tower at any facility in the world.

And I would always listen to my mom. I just looked up to her a lot, and I loved the terminals and the fast pace of the field. It was something that intrigued me from Day One.

How did your mom respond to the stress of being a controller?

You know, it’s so interesting, but I never saw that. She never brought it home.

The one thing that was hard for her, and she still tells me about it to this day, was that when she was at work, it was all, “Clear to land,” “Clear to takeoff” and so on. You tell the pilots what to do, and they do it.

Then she’d come home to all these little kids, and she’d say “Clean your room.” And we’d say “No.” (laughs)

Of course, it was also an adjustment for her as far as holidays went, because as you know, airports don't close on holidays, and those were some of the busiest times at work for her. So there was a lot of celebrating holidays the next day or the day before.

But she was such a great mom, and she did whatever she could to change shifts and be there for us. I played sports growing up, and she was always so supportive

In fact, I think that's one of the reasons why I wanted to be a controller, because I saw her being kind of a super mom and doing it all, and I wanted to do that.

What kind of air traffic control tips has she offered you?

One of the biggest things was she’d always say, “Be like a duck and let it roll off you.” Because there are a lot of things that happen, and you just have to work through them, and that was one of the most important things she would say to me.

Even here at UND, I always say I have at least one day each semester where I just say, “I don't know if I can do this” or “I don't know if I'm cut out for it.” She has been there through all of those times and tries to be as supportive as she can.

How did you learn about UND and its air traffic control program?

A big part of it was just learning how many controllers at O'Hare are UND grads.

O’Hare is one of the best facilities in the world, and so many of the controllers there are UND grads, and none of them had anything bad to say about the program. They said, “It's an amazing program, it'll prepare you like no other.”

They said that even when you get to the FAA Academy, which is the next step after graduation, all the UND grads there have that good reputation. So, they're the people whom everyone else tries to “buddy up” with.

When you’re controlling, do you try to speak with a certain tone?

One of the professors who teaches here, he really emphasizes this. And especially for the girls, he says, “Use your Mom voice.” Use your Mom voice, because you want to make sure that the pilots do what you're telling them to do.

And I’ve learned how communicating that confidence is one of the most important things when it comes to your voice.

Even if you don’t feel confident! Even if you have to “fake it till you make it,” in other words. You’ve got to keep that voice.

I'm a teacher's assistant for the program as well, and I see this a lot with students. Sometimes, you can tell right off the bat how well they're going to do if they put on their headset and just come out with that confidence in their voice.

When they take that tone, they’re basically saying, “I know my stuff, I know what I'm doing.” And you know that they're going to do well.

That is something I’m sure I will remember throughout my career. That Mom voice and the confidence.

Years ago, the air traffic control classroom at UND had a table with a big model of an airport on it. And while the student controllers talked, the other students would walk around the room, holding the tiny planes that were being “controlled.”

Now, it’s quite different.

As you can see, UND has a 360-degree tower radar simulator, among other things. It’s set up like a tower, so that you look out the windows and see a simulated airport all around.

It is really one of the best facilities in the world. O’Hare Airport does lots of training, too, but even they don't even have a simulator like this.

During our classes, student controllers talk to “pseudo pilots,” who are other students or staffers who control the animated aircraft.

And the controllers get put through various simulations. For example, we just did an engine fire. We can see the aircraft on fire coming in to land; we can see the fire trucks to get them out there on time. It is extremely real.

We can simulate Air Force One. We have simulated helicopters in some scenarios.

Or we’ll do someone onboard who is ill and who needs to get to the nearest airport. We'll work up all the way from the enroute phase of flight to the time when the aircraft is on the ground. We’ll be telling the other aircraft that they need to hold or go somewhere else, because there's an emergency in progress. We’ll be moving all those other aircraft safely through our airspace while we're giving priority to the emergency.

And one of the things we really talk about here is that when you're in that emergency situation, your feet are on the ground. You really want to make sure you stay calm, stay collected and give out the right information, because while obviously you are involved, there are other people on the aircraft who are much more involved and at-risk than you.

Do they stop the simulation for critiques?

That's exactly what they do in all of the different classes. They'll pause the scenario so we can see where all the planes are, and someone will come in here and say, this is what you did wrong, this is where you could have done better.

And then they'll just wipe the whole scenario off, and we'll start over again.

Do some students come out of those simulations wringing wet?

I have sweated during some scenarios, I’m not going to lie. There are definitely days when it's hard. But without those days, I don't feel like I'd be walking out as confident as I am right now in my abilities.

You’re graduating May 12, so by the time people read this, you will have graduated with a bachelor’s degree in air traffic management. What’s next?

I was both an undergraduate and a graduate student this semester; so after graduation, I'll just be a graduate student. I'm going to start working full-time, and I'm going to finish my master's on top of that. I’ll be getting a master’s from UND in aviation management.

I’ll also be applying to the FAA. The first step is attending the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Academy in Oklahoma City, and if I’m accepted, I’ll do that next year.

Do you find yourself “controlling” these days, even when you’re just a passenger?

Oh yeah. It's bad. I'll be on LiveATC listening, and I'm waiting to hear the plane that I’m on. I've even been stuck at O'Hare before, and I'll call my mom and be like, “I'm over here on Taxiway Echo Echo, and we need to get to 10 Right. Why are we over here?”

But it's so fun. I love it. It's definitely a passion.