Riviera Reporter
Riviera Reporter

Kathie Hallett - Air traffic controller

Your aircraft comes to a halt, that light is switched off, you unfasten your seatbelt and maybe offer a silent word of thanks to the pilots. But you should also remember the air traffic controllers like Kathie Hallett who recently welcomed Patrick Middleton into the tower at Nice-Côte d’Azur


“It’s nothing like those American films,” Kathie told me, as we went into the radar room. “You know, all high drama with men in loosened ties shouting and the rest.” And I saw at once how right she was. The atmosphere in Nice-Côte d’Azur’s air traffic control centre is calm and almost noiseless apart from low voices talking to arriving and departing aircraft. But how did a Berkshire girl get into this once almost totally masculine profession and in France, at that (the world’s first air traffic controller, by the way, making signals with little flags, began working at Croydon in 1921)? “It was sheer chance. One day – I was just sixteen years old – I went boating with friends on the canal near Newbury. We got into conversation with some French boys and, to cut a long story short, one of them was a certain Gerard Cloitre-Chabert who became my husband. He was just about to begin training as an aiguilleur du ciel, as they call them. Anyway, I followed him across the Channel and into the same profession. I’ve been at it now for 23 years, eighteen of them in Nice.”

The need to follow procedures

Air traffic controller, rather like airline pilot, is one of those jobs with a certain mystery and glamour that people wonder about. How do you get in and what sort of person do you need to be? “It’s changed a bit since my day but now you have to have a science degree and you do three years training, divided between spells at the ATC School in Toulouse and periods of practical work at an airport. To be accepted for the course you have to satisfy the human resources people that you’re cool headed, can react quickly, can communicate effectively and understand the need to follow procedures closely. In a way, they’re the similar qualities you need to be a pilot – which, as a matter of fact, I am as well. I enjoy flying enormously. It seems to run in the family. My son flies MD83s for a French company based in Paris. One day landing in Nice he found I was his controller – though he didn’t call me ‘Mum’ on the radio.”

Air traffic control is a complex technical activity. To make its essentials clear to me Kathie took the case of flight BA 342 departing Heathrow for Nice at 07h20, using a Boeing 757. “Once it’s out of its home control area based at Swanwick it’s taken over by Reims. It will quickly have reached its cruising height of 28,000 to 33,000 feet and, as most people realise I think, unless there’s a mechanical or electronic failure, that’s the safest part of the flight. Soon after entering the Aix-en-Provence control area – somewhere over Montélimar – it begins its descent into Nice and west of Draguignan becomes our responsibility, eventually reducing height down to 13,000 feet. In this last stretch our radar room deals with it in two sectors, following its approach as one of those points of light you see on the screens. The essential thing is to maintain separation – aircraft have got to be kept a minimum of two minutes apart. That’s not just a matter of preventing collisions – something very rare indeed – but there’s what’s called ‘wake turbulence’. An aircraft creates disturbance in the air behind it and this must be avoided by those following.”

Inward and outward, each thirty flights an hour

Landing and take-off are followed visually from the tower. An aircraft touches down and within two minutes will normally be parked. Remember that we’re not only dealing in our air space with the kind of commercial flights your readers will be familiar with but we also handle a vast amount of general aviation – that’s private aircraft, mostly landing at Cannes-Mandelieu – and a very substantial helicopter traffic. As to those commercial flights, with our two parallel runways, one for take-off, one for landing, we can handle up to thirty each of outward and inward flights an hour.

I ask about those regular media stories telling us that Nice is a “dangerous” airport. “Put like that it doesn’t really mean anything. As you know, Nice has an excellent record – in my time there’s never been a serious accident of any kind. But all airports have their particularities. There are two issues worth mentioning. Firstly, during the Mistral season there can be a confluence of strong easterly and westerly winds which can cause a problem for a pilot and we have to react to that. Secondly, we’ve got those two parallel runways and for environmental reasons – noise reduction – take-offs are from the outer runway, closer to the sea. That means departing aircraft have to cross the arrivals runway and that means very careful control of ground movements.”

You need a certain level of stress

Given the responsibility entailed, it’s surely a very stressful job? “Well, yes, but that’s not wholly bad. You need a certain level of stress, I’d say, to maintain your alertness. On the other hand, there’s a limit to the amount of stress you can take and our working patterns take account of this. We do two and a half hours on and then have a thirty minute break.” And what’s the satisfaction of the job? “I suppose when you’re working in very busy conditions and you’ve turned those points of light on the screen into a steady flow of landings and take-offs – however often you’ve done it – you feel good.” As we left the tower Kathie told me she was off for a few days. What did she plan to do? “I’m going flying, of course. I love it.”

From Riviera Reporter Issue 130: Dec 2008/Jan 2009

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