Where did you grow up? If not in North Dakota, how long have you lived here?
I am originally from Washington, IL, which is mid-state, just across the Illinois River from Peoria. It’s a small farming community of about 6,000, but has grown over the years to 16,000 now. The main crops there are corn and soybeans, instead of all varieties of wheat and sunflowers. So, just a different look to the fields here, but the small town atmosphere is the same. We have been here 32 and a half years. We were stationed at Minot Air Force Base (AFB) in 1990 and decided to make North Dakota our home, after we both retired from the U.S. Air Force.
My husband was in Vehicle Maintenance Control and Analysis, which did all the scheduling for maintenance for the entire vehicle fleet at the base, as well as handling accidents and such. We met in Sacramento at Mather AFB and married there. We love the openness of North Dakota, it is truly a beautiful state, and we raise Deutsch Kurzhaars (true German Shorthair Pointers) and my husband loves the bird hunting here. Those are the main reasons we stayed.
When did you first become interested in aviation?
Growing up back home, Dad and Mom would take my sister and I to the airport on a Sunday afternoon, when you could park close to the airport just to watch the planes come and go. It was cheap entertainment for kids. I always loved watching them but never really seriously wanted to fly. My great-uncle was a B-17 waist gunner in WWII, killed in action over Holland almost at the war’s end, so aviation was there in my blood as well. When I was in junior college, just before I joined the Air Force, I got a tour of Peoria Tower and that’s when I really got hooked on air traffic control. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
Where did you train for your ATC career?
I received my training in the Air Force at Keesler AFB, in Biloxi, MS. At the time, it was a five-month course, probably a lot more intense than it is now. The washout rate was extremely high then, at 87%.
How many towers have you worked at?
My first base was at Williams AFB, AZ, which is now Mesa Gateway Airport. I worked in radar there in the Ground Controlled Approach (GCA), which mainly did Precision Approach Radar (PAR) finals. It was extremely busy, as it was an undergraduate pilot training base, the busiest in the Air Force at the time. I then went to Mather AFB, CA, worked in the GCA there until it closed. Then I moved up the tower. It was the 10th busiest tower in the Air Force, as it was the navigator training base. They had a Strategic Air Command (SAC) wing of B-52’s and KC-135’s, as well as EC-135’s that could launch the Minuteman III missiles. It was very congested airspace with three airports within seven miles of each other, all trying to stay out of the other’s way. It was absolutely the best place to learn to work tower traffic. As I said, I met my husband there and from there, I went to Incirlik AB, Turkey, for a year, while he went to Korea. From there, we both returned to Ellsworth AFB, SD, for four years, then we went to RAF Alconbury, UK, for three years, ending up at Minot AFB. I was TDY several times while at Alconbury and went TDY to Bosnia while at Minot. So I’ve worked in about eight different towers, including Magic City Tower.
Who has inspired you in your journey as a Controller?
It would have to be my chief controller at Ellsworth AFB. He not only taught me how to be more organized, but also taught me how to treat people who worked under you and was great at working traffic. I’ll always be thankful to him.
When did you become Tower Manager?
I started July 7, 1997. I retired from the Air Force on Friday the 5th and started at Minot on Monday, the 7. I was glad I was able to start right away, as I wouldn’t be rusty from not working for a while and then coming back. I had worked in both the tower and the Radar Approach Control (RAPCON), so I was familiar with the airspace and General Aviation traffic already. I just had to learn how to work it in the tower. I became the manager in May 2006, when the air traffic manager decided to retire, and remained the manager until I retired. So I had two full ATC careers, 22 years in the Air Force and 25 years as a contract controller with Midwest ATC.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
That one’s tough, but I’d have to say it’s the controllers I’ve worked with over the years. I’ve worked with some truly outstanding people, who have helped me grow as a controller and become the best I could. But it’s also getting people safely to and from places they need to go, and definitely helping the Minot community during the flood of 2011. The tower conducted over 1,300 helicopter operations alone, most of them in the valley where we couldn’t see them, just giving traffic advisories of who was in the valley, all without a single incident. Anything we could do to help the community, we were glad to do, including keeping sightseeing tourists out of the airspace. There were too many important recovery flights going on, not to mention the loss of people’s homes that didn’t need to be seen.
Do you have a favorite story from your time in ATC?
Again, that’s kind of tough, but there’s one that always sticks in my mind. It was here at Minot and a student was returning from the southwest practice area to the traffic pattern. Since the tower does not have radar, we always ask for position reports and rely heavily on their accuracy. He had initially said he was seven miles east, so I told him to report a two mile right base Runway 31. I had other traffic arriving from the north, so I asked his position and he said five miles east. I kept looking and looking but couldn’t see anything, so I asked him his position, and again he said five miles east, over the trestle bridge. I immediately turned around, looked to the southwest and sure enough there he was, over the trestle bridge. I told him if he was over the trestle, it was physically impossible to be five miles east, unless the bridge moved. He then corrected his position rather sheepishly and came in to land. Still makes me laugh to this day, only time I had to point out that a bridge couldn’t move.
What are your plans for retirement?
Right now, I’m mostly just going to enjoy life, spending more time with my husband and furkids, visiting my sister and her family in Minneapolis, MN, and just watching the snow go by this winter and not having to worry about getting out in it. Next summer, I hope to have a larger garden, be more involved in dog training, and do lots of walking to get ready for the Susan G. Komen 3Day Walk for the Cure in San Diego next November. My husband and I hope to do some traveling, once he decides to retire. I’ll keep in touch with the controllers and airport staff, but that will probably be it as far as aviation is concerned. After being a controller for 47 years, it’s time for a change.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming an Air Traffic Controller?
If you decide to become a controller, look at your options on how to become one. The military is a great experience, especially the Air Force, as that’s all you do in the Air Force as opposed to the other branches. The FAA Academy is a good way to start and they do have periods where they hire off the street to go to the academy in Oklahoma City. There are a few private ATC schools but they are pretty expensive. Probably 75% of the FAA is made up of prior military controllers. If you can get a tour of your local tower, set one up with the manager, they are usually happy to accommodate. High school students can request a job shadow, especially here in Minot. Talk with the controllers, as they can give you a lot of good insight into the job. It is an absolutely great career where every day, every hour, is never the same.
A sincere thank you to Jan for the lasting impact you have made on North Dakota aviation during your career, and congratulations on your retirement!