[Guyana, Ogle] Controlling air traffic
- – The women who are breaking into a male-dominated profession
January 9, 2016
Air Traffic Controller Shurine Halley at the controls of the Ogle Tower
Controller Jennita Bhagwandin at the console at the Ogle Control Tower recently
ATC in Guyana is still in the evolutionary phase. At the moment, there are thirty (30) licensed air traffic controllers manning the skies above Guyana. Of the lot, eight (8) are women, and they carry out important roles at the Guyana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), the umbrella body for aviation here.
But who is an air traffic controller?
Air Traffic Controllers Yolanda Hunte, Lolita Fernandes and Peola Da Silva enjoy a light moment while on training overseas
He/she does so to maintain a safe, orderly and expeditious flow of the traffic. It’s a systematic operation that is globally connected, and in an era of technological advances, it requires highly specialised knowledge, skills, and abilities.
So who are the women involved in this demanding profession?
For Peola Da Silva, the job is more challenging for females than it is for males. She has moved up through the ranks of ATC faster than most. She joined the GCAA in 2009, and is today already a senior, having passed successive training courses along the way.
Peola said there can be assumptions that the females are not capable, but she gains inspiration from other females who rose to the top of the profession. She said that the initial training, which leads to one being an Aeronautical Information Services (AIS) Officer, lasts some 7-8 months, and in some cases a year, depending on the ability of the individual to pass the initial assessments. She considers herself a hard worker, and this is what she credits for her movement through the ranks of ATC.
Female air traffic controllers share a light moment with trainer Adrian Bassier during their classroom days
One afternoon recently, Jennita Bhagwandin and Shurine Halley, two of the younger women on the job, were busy handing over their shifts when this newspaper visited the Ogle Tower. The young women were brisk and watchful — traits of the profession — in their handing over of the shift; and after completing their checks, they sat down to chat about their experiences in ATC.
Halley, a former student of the St Stanislaus College, joined the GCAA in 2009. She said ATC is a very dynamic profession, with much emphasis being placed on decision- making. “It’s all about safety and efficiency; these are the primary areas which we are masters of,” she explained.
Being a safety-critical environment, she said, it requires a lot of hard work from training until being confirmed to the position and carrying out the duties of an air traffic controller. She believes self-confidence and being mentally strong play key roles in one assuming the post. “You have to be confident in yourself, and very strong in terms of being mentally fit,” she said.
She said she has no regret about her career choice, adding that the training requires one to have a background in science, geography, and of course mathematics and English.
As regards the most challenging aspect of the job, Halley believes that being strong enough to accept criticism and to follow instructions was one of the bigger hurdles in the field. “It comes back to safety and following instructions, which are very important,” she noted.
As a female, she said, she does not see herself as being different from the males in administering ATC. “I don’t really find a discomfort in working in the environment dominated by males,” she added. For her, if one is grounded in the basics of life, one can function in any environment.
Her batchmate, Bhagwandin, at 23 years, is said to be the youngest female air traffic controller currently at the GCAA. She believes that ATC is not any other job, but a life-long profession, and she used the word “dynamism” to describe the profession. In her opinion, it is the voice which does the work.
“Being a female controller in this organisation simply means that you are a voice on the radio, doing your job”, she posited. “You have no colour, race, gender, religion or political affiliation.” She noted that she is equal to the males, and “highly recommends” ATC to any young woman who may love challenges, but she noted that one must be prepared mentally, since it can be “mental gymnastics.”
She said the controller makes life-and-death decisions minute by minute all year long. “Few occupations carry the unique sort of psychological assault that ATC does,” she noted.
Trading ATC for any other profession would be a mistake on her part, she stated.
Yolanda Hunte told this newspaper that, in 2003, she responded to all the vacancies which were advertised in the newspapers one day, with GCAA’s being one of them. At the time she had no clue what ATC was. A mother of four (4), Hunte said she called a friend for clarity, since she had thought that the job entailed checking-in passengers or being on the ground at the airport.
She was successful at the interview, and while on the job, she fell in love with her duties. In her eyes, the job is not routine. “It can become complex or complicated. The traffic situation can change so often that you find yourself in a situation where you have to think quickly,” Hunte noted. She said she loves the job because of the excitement it brings.
“When I can separate two planes expeditiously, I actually feel good about myself; and when I delay a plane, I actually feel bad, and that’s the truth,” Hunte said in lower tones.
She is currently at the highest level of training one can reach in ATC here, having qualified and advanced in the profession. She sees a long road ahead, and believes she would continue to master the job once she is able to function in front of the consoles as she ages.
The dynamics of aviation make ATC an interesting subject for Francesca Koenta–Wilson. She believes that the separation of aircraft, especially on a busy day, gives her an “adrenaline rush”; and while it can be stressful, “the fact that you are able to contribute to the safety of aircraft operations everyday gives you a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.”
As a child, she had thought of a pilot as being the standout subject of aviation. However, she later discovered that there is more to the field. She then adjusted her career goals and applied for air traffic control training.
On entry to ATC, the controller is trained to become an ATC assistant. At this level, the individual’s ability to function in a simultaneous capacity is asserted. Safina Lutchman, who is at that stage, told this newspaper that the job has its rewards and opportunities for upward mobility via training and promotion. She said that being one of the few females in the system, “I wear a badge of honour on my chest, and I do consider myself a pioneer.”
The aviation sector in Guyana considers several persons as being the early pioneers of the field on these shores. They include former GCAA Director of Air Safety, Paula McAdam, who was the first female to qualify as an air traffic controller here. A stalwart in the field, McAdam spent more than 40 years at the GCAA, and although she is retired, she is still involved in aviation.
Another female, Sandra Persaud, was also in the generation of controllers as McAdam. Both women were honoured in 2014 for their contributions to the field.
Presently, Chitrani Heeralall is acting in the position of Director-General of the GCAA, a post which she assumed last year when Zulficar Mohammed entered retirement.
According to the female controllers, it is these experienced women who have and continue to inspire them to practise the profession each day, to ensure persons arrive safely whenever they travel by air.