Air traf­fic con­troller Se­pedi Sit­hole helps en­sure that air­craft ar­rive at their des­ti­na­tions safely

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To be ac­cepted in air traf­fic con­trol in the SAAF, a can­di­date must be a South African cit­i­zen; not be younger than 18 and not yet

22 when start­ing ba­sic mil­i­tary train­ing; be clas­si­fied med­i­cally fit for duty by the In­sti­tute for Avi­a­tion Medicine; and be rec­om­mended by a se­lec­tion


Se­pedi Sit­hole is not one to let a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ment stand in her way. When her dreams of be­com­ing a pi­lot were dashed be­cause she was not tall enough to pass the strict South African Air­ways (SAA) cri­te­ria, she picked her­self up and de­cided to do the next best thing – be­come an air traf­fic con­troller (ATC) and help pi­lots do their work.

Sit­hole is a mem­ber of the South African Air Force (SAAF) and works at Waterk­loof Air Force Base in Pre­to­ria.

As an ATC her role is to reg­u­late the or­derly de­par­ture and ar­rival of air­craft at an air­field and en­sure that they are sep­a­rated by safe dis­tances and heights en-route.

When air­craft ap­proach an air­field for land­ing, ATCs vec­tor (give di­rec­tions and alti­tude) the pi­lot to­wards the run­way so that they can con­tinue with a vis­ual ap­proach or in­ter­cept the ra­dio beam of what is called the In­stru­ment Land­ing


Making sure air­craft ar­rive safely

Sit­hole ex­plained that ATCs are re­spon­si­ble for pri­vate and com­mer­cial air­craft us­ing South African air space.

She added that ACTs based at the

Waterk­loof Air Force Base also con­trol civil­ian air­craft op­er­ated by fly­ing schools around Pre­to­ria

Some­times pi­lots re­quest clear­ance to fly along Novem­ber One.This is jar­gon for the N1 high­way which is a prom­i­nent ge­o­graph­i­cal fea­ture.

All pi­lots can use ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tions de­pend­ing on their alti­tude and weather con­di­tions. In bad weather the pi­lots can­not land un­less they can see the ground from an air­craft.

If a pi­lot does not have ref­er­ence to the ground they have to rely on an ATC to give them di­rec­tions to their des­ti­na­tion.

Sit­hole ex­plained that she has the big picture of what is hap­pen­ing in the airspace she con­trols thanks to an in­stru­ment called an Air Picture Dis­play Sys­tem.

This sys­tem gives the ex­act lo­ca­tion of the air­craft, the level, di­rec­tion and speed.

“We are in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the pi­lot but keep our trans­mis­sions brief,” she added.

Chal­lenges of the job

Sit­hole ex­plained that her job can and does present chal­lenges and she must re­main calm, ra­tio­nal and think on her feet.

She re­counted the time she re­ceived a re­port of an air­craft fly­ing into South Africa from a neigh­bour­ing coun­try that was op­er­at­ing on only two of its four en­gines.

“It could still fly with two en­gines but it might not have made it to OR Tambo In­ter­na­tional Air­port,” she ex­plained.

In re­spond­ing to this sit­u­a­tion, Sit­hole had to guide the pi­lot to safety making sure that all air­ports along the pi­lot's route were on standby in case of an emer­gency land­ing.

She said during such times one might ex­pe­ri­ence a mo­ment of panic but ATCs must set aside their emo­tions and think quickly to make sure the air­craft and peo­ple on board ar­rive safely.

“We are trained to han­dle stress­ful sit­u­a­tions,” said Sit­hole.

With Sit­hole's as­sis­tance the pi­lot landed safely at OR Tambo In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

Dreams of fly­ing

Sit­hole did not orig­i­nally have her eye on a ca­reer as an ATC. Her dream was to be a pi­lot.

She was still in school when the avi­a­tion bug bit.

At a time when teach­ers were push­ing her to en­ter the med­i­cal field or the engi­neer­ing sec­tor she was too shy to tell peo­ple that she had dreams of be­com­ing a pi­lot.

Sit­hole's de­sire to en­ter the world of avi­a­tion was fur­ther ig­nited during her ma­tric year in 2005.

She en­tered the Won­ders of Fly­ing com­pe­ti­tion run by SAA and her es­say about her pas­sion for avi­a­tion was the win­ning en­try from Lim­popo.

The prize saw her spend­ing four days ex­plor­ing the avi­a­tion in­dus­try with SAA.

“During this com­pe­ti­tion I got to see ev­ery sec­tor of avi­a­tion. When I saw all of this it con­firmed within me that this is what I wanted to do with my life,” she ex­plained.

After pass­ing ma­tric with good marks her dreams of en­ter­ing the avi­a­tion sec­tor were crushed when SAA did not select her for pi­lot cadet train­ing.

“I had good marks at ma­tric level so I also had bur­sary offers. I con­ceded and went to the Univer­sity of Cape Town and stud­ied to­wards a de­gree in me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing. I was mis­er­able,” she re­called.

Things looked up for Sit­hole in 2007 when the SAAF fi­nally in­vited her to take part in the se­lec­tion process.

For a sec­ond time she ex­pe­ri­enced dis­ap­point­ment as she was not tall enough to be­come a pi­lot. How­ever, by then she had an al­ter­nate ca­reer choice in mind and de­cided to be an ATC and re­main in the avi­a­tion busi­ness.

“I have never looked back,” she said.

Sit­hole has been in this po­si­tion since 2011 and looks for­ward to grow­ing her ca­reer in avi­a­tion.

“This job also al­lows me to think and have fun be­cause as an ATC you can­not be rigid.The rules that we use are just guide­lines.You must use those guide­lines to help you make a de­ci­sion that is best in the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. I love

hav­ing fun while I do my job,” she said.

The path to be­com­ing a mil­i­tary ATC

Sit­hole is proud to work for the SAAF and en­cour­ages other young peo­ple to fol­low in her foot­steps.

She ad­vised them to do their home­work and to be clear about en­trance re­quire­ments in the fly­ing in­dus­try.

To be ac­cepted in air traf­fic con­trol in the SAAF, a can­di­date must be a South African cit­i­zen; not be younger than 18 and not yet 22 when start­ing ba­sic mil­i­tary train­ing; be clas­si­fied med­i­cally fit for duty by the In­sti­tute for Avi­a­tion Medicine; and be rec­om­mended by a se­lec­tion board.

Aca­dem­i­cally, avi­a­tion hope­fuls must have com­pleted Grade 12 and passed English. Math­e­mat­ics (NSC level 4) and ge­og­ra­phy are also es­sen­tial. Sit­hole added that sci­ence is also a valu­able sub­ject to have stud­ied.

Can­di­date SAAF ATCs un­dergo 18 months of train­ing at Air Space Con­trol School at Waterk­loof Air Force Base, ba­sic mil­i­tary train­ing at the air force gym­na­sium.

Sit­hole sug­gested that young peo­ple read widely on avi­a­tion and what it en­tails so that they can make in­formed choices and find out what ca­reer they truly want to pur­sue:

“Find your own truth about what you want to do,” she said.

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