Life of a Controller at Elkhart Airport, IN

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Air Traffic Controller, Wayne Gustafson

This article is about an air traffic controller, Wayne Gustafson, who works at Elkhart Municipal Airport. It is rare to get such a portrait of someone who works at a tower like EKM. It is one of the busiest general aviation airports in northern Indiana and is located 3 miles northwest of the city. Even such a relatively small facility provides a good economic return for the community:

  • $197,000,000 annually
  • more than 1,520 jobs earning an average salary of $69,000

air traffic controller

Mr. Gustafson obviously loves his job in the cab above the field.

air traffic controller

Here are a few of his quotes about his professional work there; based on some of the statements made below, it is likely that Mr. Gustafson is now working at a contract control tower and as such he is not currently an FAA employee:

  • “No two airports are exactly the same. (Elkhart has) two runways here, South Bend has three runways; their runways cross, ours don’t. Everything’s a little different. This is pretty simple — I learned this in about a week or two.”
  • “Q: It’s known to be a very stressful job. Is it a little different here?
    • A: Yes, yes, yes, yes. This is a lot less (stressful). The thing of it is that you can sit here and say 90 percent of the time you don’t really do anything, but there may be 5 percent where you’re moving around and maybe 1 or 2 percent of the time where you’re actually having to make real decisions quickly. And yesterday (March 29) afternoon was a nice day, so I had three aircraft that wanted to be in the same place at the same time. So all of the sudden I’m moving people around to work it out. You sit around and you think, “This guy’s stealing money,” but there is a reason that they have guys that can (do it).”

air traffic controller

  • “We keep track each day of how many flights we have. I don’t know if it’s 50 or 100 (a day). It varies. The summer is much busier than the winter, but we do get airplanes in the winter because a lot of business people have to be some place. The guys that just want to go out and hobby-fly are basically summer fliers.”
  • “I like the excitement. Especially when you work radar over at South Bend, it gets hectic. When there’s a Notre Dame football game, you’re putting everyone in line…That was always exciting too. I like the excitement. You go home and you feel like you did something that day. Whereas here, some days, if it’s bad weather you feel like, “Well, I was there.” There’s other days, like yesterday where I’m glad I came in. It was a nice day, people were out flying in a pattern, some people were student pilots, there were some hobby fliers. Yesterday was a day (where), wow, I’m glad I came to work.”
  • “It was a great job. The one thing is that we had to retire from the FAA at 56. When we hit (our) 56th birthday we had to retire. But Elkhart, as long as I can pass physicals I can keep working and working as long as my performance is fine. The FAA drew the line and when I started I knew that. So all the guys here are retirees from the FAA.”

That’s not exactly the super stressful job which PATCO alleged back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, but a good sense of how one controller regards his work at Elkhart Airport.


ARTICLE: On the Job: Air traffic controller enjoys excitement
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