Steve West has loved maps since he was a child. All of the places and possibilities that they held within inspired his imagination.
“As a kid, we took a lot of road trips,” he said. “I loved navigation and geography, and when we would travel, I liked to map. My parents would give me a map and have me navigate for them and ask me ‘How far is it to this town?’ and ‘What highway are we on?’ and ‘What highway do we take next?’ and I just loved it. It’s interesting to me to see a map and then later see what that place looks like in real-time.”
Back then, he never dreamed that his love of maps, of planning routes and guiding people to their chosen destinations would become not just a career, but a way of life. One that would lead to a 20-year career as an air traffic controller, a supervisor at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City and, ultimately, to being named Air Traffic-Controller Training Initiative (AT-CTI) Director for the OU School of Aviation Studies.
Just a Small Town Boy
West was born in Sulphur, Oklahoma, the youngest of four kids. By the time he was in 1st grade, his dad had moved the family to a small town outside of Springfield, Missouri, after purchasing a small telephone company. By his sophomore year in high school, he had moved back to Pontotoc, Oklahoma, where he lived with his grandparents, first attending Tishomingo High School, then transferring to Ada for his junior and senior years.
In high school, he developed into an accomplished vocalist as part of Ada’s school choir.
“I adored my choir teacher,” West said. “She was just a wonderful person and was very supportive and a mentor to me at that time. I was all-state and part of the Oklahoma Show Choir. We performed in England and Scotland.”
He chose to attend Southwestern University in Weatherford, Oklahoma, as a vocal education major, before transferring to Drury College (now Drury University) in Missouri. Despite performing well in his music courses, attending university was less fulfilling than he had hoped.
“Like a lot of 18-to-22-year-olds, I went to college because I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do,” he said. “I kind of floundered because, in public school, things came so easy to me I didn’t have to put in a lot of effort. When I got to college, I was okay as a music major because I had talent to back me up, but when I changed my major, I didn’t really have good study habits, and in a larger environment, I kind of drifted away from school. I decided after a while that the idea sounded better than the reality and dropped out of college and began working as a courier in Oklahoma City.”
It was during this time that a friend began to study for the air traffic control (ATC) exam. West found the idea oddly intriguing.
“I didn’t know ATC was an option,” he said. “I didn’t understand what controllers did. We think about the tower and those people out on the ramp with the sticks. I thought it was primarily a military job, and back then, it was because after the air traffic control strike in 1981, one of the first places the FAA had to go to rebuild the workforce quickly was to the military.
“To be considered to be hired, you had to pass an aptitude test and then pass the medical requirements. I looked at the materials and thought, ‘Well, heck, I can do that!’ So I started studying, and I passed.”
Academy and ATC
West entered the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City in 1989. At that time, the washout rate for aspiring air traffic controllers was about 50%.
“I was really motivated to get through it,” West said. “The other students who were in my class were motivated to work together. Having that environment where we were all working to pull each other along was really helpful. I knew the statistics. I realized this was my chance, and I couldn’t waste it, so I buckled down and got through.
“When I went to the Academy in OKC, all of the training was non-radar, so you had your stripboard set up, and you had 15 minutes to look at your board and know your map and figure out where the aircraft are going to conflict and where they need to separate to develop those clearances. Then, when the clock started, you would put your plan into place.”
After graduating from the Academy, West was sent to Oakland Center in northern California, one of just 20 air route traffic control centers in the nation.
“You have to train at every new facility. Every piece of airspace is unique. Palo Alto is not Tulsa Riverside. You have to learn that new patch of airspace and how it all fits together. Every time I go to a new facility, I have dreams—ATC dreams—almost every night."
“When I found out I was going to Oakland Center, that was an amazing experience,” he said. “It’s a big radar facility. I spent two and a half years in that building. It was more impersonal, and because of the washout rate, people who had made it through training didn’t take time to get to know the trainees.
“Your training cycle is predicated on everything else that’s going on around you. Is there somebody available to train you? Do you have to wait on someone else to finish the thing you need to do next, so there’s a pause in your training? There were a lot of pauses in training because of the size of the class I entered with. That’s part of the nature of training in any facility, really. There are always little bottlenecks that happen. Sometimes, you have to be an advocate for yourself to get your way through that bottleneck.”
West lived in a small apartment in San Francisco, the first time he had lived anywhere besides Oklahoma or southwest Missouri.
“To go to the San Francisco Bay area, it really turned my head,” he said. “I really let the experience get the better of me, and I think that’s why I wasn’t entirely successful at Oakland Center.
“When I went into training there, and the washout rate was 50%, too, just like the Academy. I didn’t make it through their program, but I made it far enough along that I was demoted to an air traffic assistant for a year and then eligible to apply to smaller facilities. Eventually, I got the opportunity to go to a small tower in the bay area at Palo Alto. I decided to stick my head down and really concentrate on what I was doing."
Training at Palo Alto typically took up to 12 months, but West, with his renewed sense of purpose, made it through in just seven to become fully certified as a controller.
“It was just a small, squatty tower, like we have at Westheimer,” he said, “but without a terminal building. There were a lot of aircraft there. For there to be over 500 aircraft based there, and most of them tied up out on the ramp, it was really cool. While I was in training, on my breaks, I would just walk the ramp and start getting familiar with different types of aircraft and aircraft recognition. I really hadn’t been that up close and personal with general aviation aircraft before. To see the wide variation, types and performance and how they looked was really a lot of fun for me.”
West returned to Oklahoma to be closer to family when his older brother’s health began to fail, transferring to Tulsa Riverside, near Jenks.
“That was a really neat experience, too,” he said. “Even though it’s a smaller airport, there’s a lot of traffic there. A lot of flight training goes on there, and it’s all visual flight rules (VFR), so that accounts for the smaller rating. It was very busy and gave me a lot of experience.
“You have to train at every new facility. Every piece of airspace is unique. Palo Alto is not Tulsa Riverside. You have to learn that new patch of airspace and how it all fits together. Every time I go to a new facility, I have dreams—ATC dreams—almost every night. You’re just replaying stuff in your head over and over again.”
West next served as a controller at a radar facility in Monroe, Louisiana, then went on to control in the tower at El Paso, Texas.
“That was real interesting airspace,” he said, “by the border and with all the mountainous terrain and all the military installations around it, as well.
“In moving around, realizing how things like density altitude worked, every airport was different just because of the meteorological conditions, much less the runway configurations. You start to understand why at El Paso they need 13,000-foot runways because you’re 4,000 feet above sea level in the desert!”
While working at El Paso, a health issue caused West to lose his medical and his ability to serve in the field as an air traffic controller.
“ATC’s have to hold a medical pretty much like pilots do,” he said. “When my medical was pulled, I got a medical retirement from the FAA.”
When his career as an air traffic controller in the field concluded, West had worked a variety of facilities, including an En Route Air Traffic Control Center, Terminal Radar Approach Controls (TRACONs) and VFR Towers.
Guiding Through Education
With his field career behind him, West’s desire to teach was rekindled. He was selected for an instructor position at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City in 2000.
“A lot of the FAA instructors would come in for a couple of years and then move on,” he said. “I was there for 10 years. We had to perform to whatever expectation was put on us. We had to be accountable for what was going on. I tried to be an advocate for our employees as much as possible, but I also had to be realistic about whether they could make that shift in their mindset and perform to the expectations of the FAA.”
West served for nearly 10 years as an air traffic control instructor, subject matter expert and supervisor at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. During this time, he worked with OU as a contract instructor before joining OU Aviation as an adjunct instructor in 2006.
"I love everything that I get to do. Working with the students is just the best thing ever. Helping them achieve their goals and working with them in a field they are genuinely interested in and want to pursue as their career path, it’s genuinely rewarding.”
“During that time, I began to think ‘this would be a really good time to get my degree,’” he said.
West earned his degree in Administrative Leadership from the precursor to OU College of Professional and Continuing Studies, graduating with distinction.
“That opened the door when Jim Hamm retired for me to become the CTI director,” he said. “It was really wonderful timing for me.
“It’s been my dream job. I love everything that I get to do. Working with the students is just the best thing ever. Helping them achieve their goals and working with them in a field they are genuinely interested in and want to pursue as their career path, it’s genuinely rewarding.”
OU’s ATC program gets a lot of students who start out in other majors and find out about ATC once they’re on campus.
“At the beginning of my career, I had no idea what ATC was, and we have students still that come in like that. With students, you get a wide variety of maturity. When I look back to my maturity as an 18-year-old, I really can’t throw any stones. I find it rewarding that I can help show them this is the way for ATC.”
For West, the most challenging aspect of teaching is simply getting his students to understand the work ethic necessary to succeed in air traffic control.
“I think we’re really fortunate to have a Part 141 program. The training that happens here is very regimented and very thorough. Our students get top-notch training here. Once they get to the labs, it gets real for them really quickly. It’s interesting to see that switch flip. And there’s a switch that flips in me, too, where I go from happy-go-lucky Steve in front of the class to ‘Okay, the clock’s ticking. You have to do this right now.’”
Disruption and Beyond
As with most things in 2020, COVID-19 has had an impact on how West has had to organize his classes, but it hasn’t been the only impediment he has had to overcome this year. A storm during the spring semester severely damaged the building that housed the ATC simulation lab, effectively ending ATC tower cab sim training for the academic year.
“We’ve had to be creative,” West said. “My lab assistant went in by himself and set up the equipment, and we would remotely watch a presentation on the radar screen and students would work collaboratively together to come up with solutions. The way we normally teach, each student is working their own scenario.
“The downside is you can’t see what one student’s plan is compared to another, but the good side is it established a collaborative effort where I think they learned from not only the instruction, but also from each other’s ideas. I think it helps encourage teamwork and resource management, and it exposes them to other trains of thought that they may not have had. It’s going to expand their capabilities because they have another tool in their toolbox.”
West said it has been hard to keep both the in-class students and the Zoom students engaged over the past nine months.
“When I talk to my students about it, they all comment that this is the only class they have to attend in real-time,” he said. “They like that. They like that we are there in real-time and keeping a routine and schedule for them and holding ourselves accountable to do that.”
The ATC lab is currently in the process of being relocated to the former Red Cross building located at the south end of the Westheimer complex.
“It’s in the process of being renovated,” West said. “Once it’s done, it’s going to be really nice. We’ll have space for growth for the program. The facilities will be larger and nicer. For a bad situation that we’re working through right now, it’s going to be a great improvement once it’s done.”
It is with this outlook of better days on the horizon that West is able to reflect on the potential his AT-CTI program has to grow over the coming years.
“I really love the university,” he said. “I love our students. The environment our students get here at OU, I think they get the best of both worlds between a Big 12 experience and having all the things that happen on main campus and being part of a small family in the School of Aviation Studies and having all their professors know who they are and not just where they sit in class. I think that is our real strength. We genuinely care about what is going on with them. Everyone in the school is willing to go all out for the students who are willing to do what it takes to be successful.
“I’m working my dream job right now. I love what I do. My goal is to work my way to retirement in eight to 10 years and pass the reins off to someone else who’s going to carry the torch and who’s going to love doing what they do for the students as much as I do.”