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