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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eyes on the skies

Air traffic manager revels in her aviation careers

Michelle Skomars has been in charge of air traffic at Spokane International Airport for five years. (Dan Pelle)
Michelle Skomars has been in charge of air traffic at Spokane International Airport for five years. (Dan Pelle)
Michael Guilfoil Correspondent

Dirty shorts and cleats aren’t typical attire when applying for a job.

But Michelle Skomars is anything but typical. And the job application was an impulse.

“I’d just finished playing in a softball tournament and was going to meet the rest of the gals to celebrate our win,” Skomars recalled, “when I happened to walk by the federal building in Savannah, Georgia, and noticed a sign that said, ‘Come take the air traffic controller test.’

“That was not on my radar – no pun intended. But I had my ID on me and the test was in 15 minutes, so I called ahead and told my friends I’d be a little late.

“I went in. Took the test. Maxed it. They had an extra-credit section for pilots, so I walked out of a 100-point test with a score of 110.

“When they asked, ‘Where do you want to go?’ I said Alaska, and that’s where I spent the next 13 years.”

Today, Skomars is air traffic manager at Spokane International Airport, and provides radar service for Fairchild Air Force Base.

“We’re called an up/down facility, meaning we have both a tower and TRACON, or terminal radar approach control.

“We also provide approach control services into Missoula. Our radar here and at Missoula scans roughly 30 miles around the airports, and we go up to 12,000 feet,” she explained. “Seattle and Salt Lake handle everything above 12,000.”

During a recent interview, Skomars discussed what skills air traffic controllers need, and why the Federal Aviation Administration is seeking applicants.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Skomars: I was a military brat and an airline brat. The first few years, my dad was an air traffic controller, which I didn’t know until I became one. I was more enthralled with the fact that he was an Air Force jet jockey. Later, he was a captain for Pan Am. I claim Maine as home because that’s where I spent the bulk of my time from age 11 on.

S-R: What were your interests back then?

Skomars: I did darn near everything. I grew up on a gentleman’s farm and was the only person raising beefalo east of the Mississippi. That’s how I paid for part of college.

S-R: What school did you attend?

Skomars: The University of Southern Maine. I double-majored in fine arts and history. By the end of my sophomore year I had enough credits to graduate, so I joined ROTC and stayed an extra year working on a master’s. But by that point I realized I didn’t want to be a graphic arts designer. I wanted to be something a little more – I’m going to say “real,” but that’s probably not the right word. I wanted to make a tangible difference.

S-R: What spurred your sense of duty?

Skomars: When I was a kid in the ’70s and my dad was flying for Pan Am, there was a rash of hijackings. I told my dad, “That’s ridiculous. You would just punch them out and throw them off the plane.” And I remember my dad turning to me and saying, “I would do whatever it took to keep my people safe.” Suddenly I realized there was a whole world out there where things really mattered.

S-R: And?

Skomars: I ended up going into the military. I wanted to fly. The Air Force felt I was too old for their program, but the Army said, “Sure, we’ll take you.”

S-R: How long was your Army career?

Skomars: Six years. I was a helicopter pilot, and also trained in field artillery. Women had to be tough to make it, so I decided, “I’ll just be better than all of the men.” Turned out I was a very good helicopter pilot.

S-R: Then what?

Skomars: When I left the military, I thought about working for an airline. My dad had a job lined up for me with a Pan Am shuttle in Europe, but I wanted to make it on my own. Then I took the air traffic controller test and found a new career.

S-R: Why did you get into management?

Skomars: Once you’re an officer, you’re always an officer, and you look for ways to make things better. My mantra is, “Give me someone who knows how to be, and I’ll teach them what to do.” I look for people who hold themselves accountable and have a clear head about their skills. I don’t want a controller who is incapable of saying, “I need help.”

S-R: Air traffic controlling has a reputation for being stressful, with long hours and quick shift turnarounds.

Skomars: All that is true. This job isn’t for everyone. If I’m not using my eyes, if I’m not listening intently, if I’m not speaking clearly, if I’m not thinking, then I’m no good and I’m going to hurt somebody. It comes down to wanting everyone to know it’s safe to fly because we’re watching.

S-R: How long have you been in Spokane?

Skomars: Five years.

S-R: During that time, have there been incidents where things went wrong?

Skomars: There are always things that go wrong, because we’re dealing with people on both sides of the radio and their skill levels are different. Pilots and controllers are going through a massive training push right now. People my age are going out the door. Of my 30 employees, roughly one-third is in training.

S-R: Why are you losing people?

Skomars: Controllers have an age limit. Most commercial pilots do, too. For controllers it’s 56, and for the airlines it’s usually the early 60s. I’ll be 56 in November, but as a manager I can stay because I’m no longer actually working air traffic.

S-R: How much do rookie controllers make?

Skomars: Around $67,000. And all you need is a high school diploma. That’s a lot of money to just show up for the first two or three years and have me train you.

S-R: Why aren’t you swamped with applications?

Skomars: A lot of people don’t know we exist. I can’t count the number of calls I’ve gotten from travelers asking where their baggage is. People assume we work for the airport. I don’t work for the airport. I work for you. I’m federal infrastructure.

S-R: How has the job evolved since you started in 1989?

Skomars: Back then, radar was all analog, and didn’t register things like air speed. Now it’s digital. And by this time next year we’ll be operating under a more automated system called STARS (Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System), which will greatly reduce gaps in our radar coverage.

S-R: Will air traffic control ever be totally automated?

Skomars: I certainly hope not. There are so many variables, and a lot of what we do involves human factors. If a pilot sounds like he’s a little bit behind the airplane, no computer system is going to figure that out.

S-R: “Behind the airplane”?

Skomars: When you’re flying, you should always be ahead of the airplane. It’s like driving down the highway. If you’re traveling 100 miles per hour, generally you’re behind the car, because most people are not used to traveling that speed. Same deal in an airplane. If a guy upgrades from a Piper Cub to a Mooney, now he’s going 150 miles per hour faster than he’s even been before, and the term is “behind the airplane” because the airplane is moving faster than he can project his actions.

S-R: Have you saved people’s lives?

Skomars: Yes.

S-R: Have you lost people?

Skomars: Yes. I think I’m the only controller in this building who’s had people die on their frequency.

S-R: What happened?

Skomars: The commander of all military forces in Alaska was doing aerobatics in his own private plane, and crashed.

S-R: Is there a limit on how many hours controllers can work?

Skomars: Absolutely. This is a 24/7 facility, but controllers can only work 10 hours a day, and there are rules about break periods and time off between shifts.

S-R: Do people ever fall asleep?

Skomars: No. (pause) But we know they do. Circadian rhythm is what it is. In my day, we did jumping jacks. Now we allow a controller to take a power nap when there’s no traffic, as long as other controllers remain on position during that time.

S-R: How about pressure, such as working during a blizzard?

Skomars: It’s actually easier to work when the weather gets worse, because there are fewer flights, and for the most part the people flying then are highly skilled.

S-R: What do you like most about controlling air traffic?

Skomars: This is one of the most intimate jobs in the world. You wear an earpiece and hear voices in your head. And it’s the sweetest feeling when you have a sky full of airplanes and you’re moving them along nice and safe, and you can cope with anything that comes up. There’s nothing like a really good team working together, and I have a fantastic group of people who seem to like how I run the ship.

S-R: What do you like least?

Skomars: That we know how to execute our job, but sometimes are not given the right tools.

S-R: Do you miss being an air traffic controller?

Skomars: Oh gosh, yeah. I hang out with them when we’re a little short-staffed – answer the phone, keep an eye out and offer comments. But this is a skill that requires practice. I could still do it if I had to, but it wouldn’t be pretty.

S-R: When you’re on an airline flight and hear the pilot start talking, what goes through your mind?

Skomars: Sometimes “Oh my gosh, I’m so old.”

S-R: Do you ever interact with the pilots?

Skomars: Yes. I was on a fun flight the other day that had to go around. I could tell the pilot was behind the aircraft the whole way in – we were much too fast and not where we needed to be. So after we landed, I went up to the cockpit and asked what went on.

S-R: Did you go up as a passenger or as air traffic manager?

Skomars: As air traffic manager. Just to approach the cockpit I have to show ID. And I said, “We went around, and this is my facility. I’d like to talk to the air crew and see what went awry.”

S-R: How did the conversation go?

Skomars: In that instance, both parties weren’t perfect in their execution. My least favorite phrase is “safety wasn’t compromised.” Let’s be realistic – were we born with wings? Every flight involves some measure of risk. We do a great job of mitigating those risks. In this instance, everyone got a little bit behind, elected to go back around, and everything worked out hunky-dory.

S-R: How about when you’re the pilot flying into an unfamiliar airport, and you hear some 22-year-old controller on the radio?

Skomars: It depends on their presence and how they convey their information. Ideally they project a sense that they know the situation, they see what’s going on, they have a plan, and if I execute their plan, all will be wonderful.

S-R: What’s the career outlook for air traffic controllers?

Skomars: This is a fantastic career, and we’re on a huge hiring push. Go to faa.gov/jobs/, type “air traffic controller,” hit search and – bingo – you’re cruising along.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at mguilfoil@comcast.net.
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