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Women who make a difference in aviation: meet Sherry Avery

By Alexander Woodman

If one enters the academy, he/she must be aware that this is a stressful job. Whatever the destination, whether the flight is long or short, during the “critical stage” (aviation language)—takeoff and landing, the role of air traffic controllers is vitally important. Often the public does not think about the details (who is behind the scenes controlling the aircraft and the decisions that must be made with each flight).

For example, at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), a plane lands safely on a runway every minute. As the fifth busiest airport in the world, we routinely take these successful and stress-free flights as commonplace. It would be interesting to learn more about the men and women who demonstrate outstanding ability and experience every day. Let’s meet one of those heroines of the sky! Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Air Traffic Control Tower ManagerMr. Sherry Avery.

Air traffic controllers are the personnel working in the control towers, radar rooms, and high altitude “centers” of all of our airports worldwide. The job is not an easy one, and not everyone has the temperament, skill, and personal qualities to succeed at this occupation. The importance of their work cannot be overstated; if they do not work safely and efficiently all of the time, airports would come to a standstill and lives could be in danger.

Controllers manage the flow of air traffic, guiding planes to a flawless takeoff and monitoring them to ensure a smooth landing. They are responsible for the travel stage of the aircraft, tracking its exact location, the safety of the airspace and providing the safest course of travel. Los Angeles Control Tower is staffed 24/7, with a rotation between the day, evening, and midnight shifts. In addition, weekends and holidays must be scheduled to ensure that all flights are accommodated. The controller must be an excellent communicator, skilled in expert decision making, problem-solving, and above all have an exceptional level of self-confidence.

In addition to these mandatory skills, there are many additional requirements needed to become an air traffic controller. A candidate for this job must be a United States citizen, be under the age of thirty-one, and pass a background check, drug test, and medical exam. There is also a psychological test that each candidate must pass.

Meeting with Ms. Sherry Avery was a very enjoyable experience—learning about the 43 years since she began her career. She has cleared countless flights to take off and land in one of the busiest airports in the world. She said that she could not have imagined that an ordinary woman who liked math and science, but had no idea about her future profession, would one day be controlling traffic at LAX.

It was 1973 when Ms. Avery was in search of her career pathway. Right out of college, she decided to take flying lessons and became a licensed pilot. She then visited the control tower at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, and this particular visit became a turning point for her.  Because she was so impressed by the controllers’ demeanor and professionalism, she realized that she had found her career. Soon after, she took a federal government test to be an air traffic controller and passed; she was subsequently hired by the Federal Aviation Administration and placed at Santa Monica Tower more than 43 years ago.

During that time, the female/male share of a public service job was quite different than it is today. She was one of two women at Santa Monica Tower, and later was the only female at Burbank’s radar facility, along with 41 males.  Today approximately 40% of controllers are female.

Ms. Sherry has “kept her cool” for many years in myriad stressful environments. Her experience and even temperament help her to be a professional and consistent worker. Her attendance is impeccable as she deals daily with people who are often quite “unpredictable.” One of her primary goals during these years was to never discuss her personal problems at work. During this time, not only was she dealing with a difficult job but with a divorce while raising two young children.

During her long and adventurous career, she held about nine different positions, along with the challenge of maintaining a delicate balance between her personal and professional life. She succeeded with flying colors. Each day she arrives at work just as radiant, energetic, and fabulous as she did more than 43 years ago.

I had the special opportunity to speak with Ms. Sherry Avery; I thoroughly enjoyed her fantastic energy and learned from her tremendously. It was wonderful to spent some time with a woman who make a difference.

A.W. Is the air traffic control field male-dominated?

S.A.Though in the modern world women are active, intelligent and included in most professional fields, the position of air traffic controller is occupied approximately 60% by male workers.

A.W. What and who inspired you to pursue a career in the aviation field?

S.A.As a private pilot, I visited the control tower at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, and I was very impressed.  I will never forget my first reaction. Each of the controllers was so professional and seemed to be having fun. As a pilot, I always had the utmost respect for controllers.

A.W. What are the qualifications and characteristics needed to perform your job?

S.A.In my opinion, the most important characteristics for anyone in this position is the ability to remain cool in stressful situations, to have quick reactions, and be flexible, creative, and able to multi-task.

A.W. Nationally, how many women have held your position in the past in the United States?

S.A.When I became the manager of a small tower in 1982, there were very few women in that type of job.

A.W. LAX is one of the busiest airports in the world. What are the challenges you face on a daily basis? 

S.A.The job of the air traffic controller is very challenging and also fulfilling. The difficulties that are dealt with on a daily basis include short staffing and congestion on the airport.

A.W. As I understand it, the air traffic control position is stressful because the lives of the passengers are in your hands. How do you deal with the responsibility?

S.A.This job changed me; it made me more assertive and decisive. Over the years, I have learned to precisely follow procedures and to remain calm and focused even under stressful conditions.

A.W. What is your greatest concern? 

S.A.In addition to my daily duties, I am trying to increase controller staffing to eliminate six-day workdays.

A.W. Has technology helped make your job easier? Are there specific challenges? 

S.A.Each new technology advancement makes the job easier. The Airport Surface Detection Equipment Model X is an example of technology that increases safety and efficiency each day.

A.W. In the years you have held this job, what are the changes you have observed? 

S.A.Changes are everywhere! Sometimes they are good changes; other times not so much. For example, today there are much larger aircraft and less room for them at LAX (overbooked gates).

A.W. With the number of flights increasing, and the advent of different aircraft, has LAX kept up with the changes to meet the demand? 

S.A.What is needed is more gates and more concrete to hold the aircraft that are waiting for gates.

A.W. Has the equipment and technology caught up with these changes? 

S.A.The airport has just procured a tool that provides information about gates and many other things.  It will be used by the airport, the airlines, and the control tower. Continual improvements are necessary in order for LAX to keep its status as one of the busiest airports in the world. 

A.W. Lastly, my background is in Public Health field. I have had great opportunities to speak with foreign ambassadors, French federal judges, actors, politicians etc. I have noticed that people who enjoy their job age well. Furthermore, Public Health experts look at the biopsychosocial perspective on aging. Given your life journey what has allowed you to age with success? Your radiant energy is contagious! What is the secret of aging gracefully?    

S.A. I’m extremely fortunate to have been part of this occupation since I was 24 years old. There was an adjustment period initially, as I had to become more assertive and make decisions more quickly. As I progressed to positions with increasing responsibility, I became more used to the adjustments.  But the common theme in all of my jobs is that I truly enjoyed them.  Many people work just for the money and get no real satisfaction from it.  But I’m really lucky to like what I do, which is key to aging gracefully.  

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Alexander Woodman

Alexander Woodman is an author based in the Gulf. His research interests include global health, international health policy development, transnational and transcultural health politics, medical ethics as well as international diplomacy.

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