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Air traffic controlling - with a stammer

David Fradgley | 01.06.1996

by David Fradgley RAF Manston, Kent

It started with a child's fixation with war films like "The Battle of Britain" and ended up with a career as an air traffic controller. How I got there still baffles me, as I have had a stammer since I was in primary school. I was the butt of many jokes and ridicule. It took until I left home for me to get used to this and to hold my anger at those concerned.

How I got there still baffles me, as I have had a stammer since I was in primary school.

Once I had left and started on the bottom rung of the ladder, as an assistant air traffic controller, I had more or less forgotten then I had a stammer. That is how it stayed for the next eight years until my administration manager asked me if I was worried about my stammer if I was hoping to control aircraft. Was I worried?? I was now!! I could visualise talking an aircraft down onto a runway with a non-stop stammer. Unfortunately, you cannot expect any pilot to wait for you to get a statement or an instruction out during a Radar Procedure. So off I went to a speech therapist, at the local hospital.

Five years on, I was given my controller's course. A course which lasts a few months and contains hours of theoretical and practical study. At that point my stammer was at the back of my mind, I was more worried about passing the course as failure meant a life as an assistant.

David Fradgley

Everything was going well, I was two thirds through the course and we were at the end of the customary end of day summary by the chief instructor. I was asked to stay afterwards, that meant one thing. I had a problem! Everyone else filed out glancing at me as they left, the door closed. "Your controlling is fine, the problem is your stammer". We talked about my stammer which had been noted by other tutors but, basically it was down to me, though my instructor said he would try to help if he could.

When do I stammer? When I am tired, when I am nervous, when I talk fast, when I come across certain words. Tiredness I could remedy, bed early rather than a night with the rest of the course in the bar. Nervousness, that would stay until the outcome of the course was known. Talking fast, I would have to slow down my delivery, if I could and if it worked on console!

Now the certain words, we decided that I should change problem words for similar ones, i.e. position to location etc. The following day, at the course summary I waited to be asked to stay behind. It never came!

I passed that course with a stammer. I now control aircraft from Cessna 172's to fastjet aircraft like the Tornado and Jaguar, just like the other controllers in the tower. They are no different from me and I am no different from them.

From the Summer 1996 issue of 'Speaking Out'.