Priscilla Russell – One of the First Black Women Air Traffic Controllers

Cuisine Noir Magazine. July 2019.

When we get on an airplane, we may acknowledge the flight attendants and the pilot, but very rarely do we think about the crew on the ground that enables a fleet of planes to crisscross the globe. Priscilla Russell is the first Black woman in the history of Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) to work as a frontline manager. In her recent novel, “In Control: On a Wing and a Prayer,” Russell gives a firsthand account of what it takes to work in air traffic control while inspiring other women of color to pursue careers in aviation.

“When I started, the only thing I knew about the FAA was that president Ronald Raegan had fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers in 1981and banned them from federal service for life. Though it struck as breaking news as one of the most important events in late 21st century U.S. labor history, it also ended up changing the landscape of Air Traffic Control (ATC) as we know it. Because of the workers strike, there was mass recruiting, and for the first time, minorities and women were encouraged to apply,” recalls Russell. The compensation package offering of a $50,000 annual salary (which was a lot in the 1980s), made it a pretty attractive career choice to this Black teen who had grown up in a large, low-income family in Birmingham, Ala.

High Demands
Retired Air Traffic Controller Priscilla Russell
Photo credit: Priscilla Russell

In her book, Russell describes the high-pressure job of an air traffic controller. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, air traffic controllers’ primary concern is safety, but they also must direct aircraft efficiently to minimize delays. They manage the flow of aircraft into and out of the airport airspace, guide pilots during takeoff and landing and monitor aircraft as they travel through the skies.

“It was only when I went to work that I found out there was so much more than towers and planes involved.” Russell discovered this during her grueling exams and vigorous trainings that spanned two and a half years. There is a lot of information to learn in a short time, and senior officials weren’t very confident of her abilities. “They didn’t bother to learn my name thinking I won’t be there too long,” she recalls.

Russell had a steep learning curve to become a certified professional controller (CPC).

One needs to be good at math, 3-D imagination, cognition, problem-solving, taking standardized tests and thinking on your feet. “Believe it or not I made a lot of bad choices and my journeys is a testament that it doesn’t matter where you are in life, you can still turn your life around and achieve whatever you want,” says Russell.

Diversity in the Control Room

At the time, there was not much ethnic or gender diversity, and moving up the career ladder was rather difficult. When Russell arrived at ARTCC in Hampton, Ga., which is the busiest control center in the world, there had been only one Black female in training to be certified. Russell was the first Black woman in the history of Atlanta ARTCC selected as a front-line manager in 1994.

At 55, Russell is retired after working at the Federal Aviation Administration for more than 32 years and lives in the suburbs of Atlanta with her husband. She spends most of her time writing and spending time with her grandchildren.

“In Control: On a Wing and a Prayer,” is the first of a two-part series. In this book, Russell talks about how she set her mind to join the FAA academy as a young adult, overcame her drug addiction and worked tirelessly in her classes to become fully certified. She is working on her next book which she plans to release in December 2019, where she addresses her experiences with sexual harassment and on-the-job discrimination.

“In Control: On a Wing and a Prayer” is available on Amazon.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

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