Find out if you’ve got the skills you need for a role within air operations
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RAF air operations monitor the skies across the world, using some of the most advanced aerospace tech on the planet. And it's not just aircraft that air ops are tracking; they go beyond that. Space debris and the International Space Station are also included in their remit of providing important information to organisations, both military and civilian.
An air ops career is wide-ranging: you could be helping keep flight paths safe, working in conjunction with civilian air traffic control, or directing supersonic jet fighters to intercept hostile aircraft. The work is varied – and vital. We spoke to James Burnham, an air operations (control) officer at an RAF flying station, to find out about the role.
Inspiration from Air Traffic Control
James says that he'd always been interested in working for the RAF but it was joining the Air Cadets while still at school that cemented his enthusiasm. During a visit to an RAF Station James was shown around the Air Traffic Control tower and the fast-paced nature of the work excited him.
The weather was extremely bad, with low visibility, and it was fascinating to see the controllers in the tower talking to the pilots, directing the aircraft safely back to the airfield.
It was a really busy environment and I liked seeing the responsibility that the controllers had, as the pilots depended on them.
James’ time as an Air Cadet galvanised him to get in touch with the RAF after completing his A-Levels. He met the criteria of holding five GCSEs (grade A-C or 4-5) - two of which had to be English Language and Maths - and two A-Levels (excluding General Studies) and submitted his application.
He then underwent various tests with the RAF, including computer-based aptitude testing (“Very tough but also quite a lot of fun!”) and an interview at the Armed Forces Careers Office.
After passing these, he was sent for selection at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire. He was put through his paces over the two-day process and took part in leadership and management exercises, problem-solving tasks, a fitness test and a medical.
Not just one role
As an air operations (control) officer, James is responsible for the safe and expeditious flow of air traffic, a role which can encompass a rotation of different control positions.
The ground controller works in the uppermost part of the control tower, known as the Visual Control Room (VCR). Surrounded by glass windows, they are responsible for all aircraft movements as they start up and taxi across the airfield. They work alongside the aerodrome controller, whose job it is to ensure that the runway is available for each aircraft that wishes to use it and also that the position of all the aircraft flying in the visual circuit (an oval above the airfield) is known to each other.
Once safely airborne, an aircraft is worked by a member of the team in the approach room, which is usually below the VCR, and holds all the radar equipment. The departures controller works aircraft leaving the airfield, the director controller works aircraft arriving to the airfield. As this is being done, the approach controller works as the airspace manager, making sure all aircraft are controlled safely, and may also work aircraft if either of the other controllers reaches capacity.
The zone controller works other aircraft transiting near the airfield and helps to keep the surrounding airspace free of confliction. The talkdown controller uses a highly accurate radar to control an aircraft to approximately 200 feet from the runway after which, hopefully, the pilot can see the runway and make a safe landing.
Playing a vital part
James says that the best thing about his role is the sense of achievement:
After finishing a busy controlling session it’s hugely satisfying to see that all the aircraft have accomplished all they set out to do, and have done so safely and quickly.
Having a pilot thank me for my service just highlights how vital the part I play in aircraft operations is to the output of the RAF.
And when his shift finishes, there’s plenty of other things that James enjoys about life in the RAF.
I love having free membership to a gym, with top of the range equipment and we get excellent medical and dental services. The social life within the RAF is brilliant and I’ve made my best friends in life here.
About our partner
The Student Room is proud to work in partnership with the Royal Air Force. The RAF has a wide range of career options for school-leavers and university graduates. In this section of the site, you can find out more about many of these careers and what it's like to work with the RAF.