Natia Gagadze, 23 years old, Batumi

”I work for Georgian Air Navigation, I’m an airport observer in the Batumi airport tower. My duty is to ensure flight safety. I’m giving pilots instructions and directions so that they can make the right decisions about what to do; in addition, together with my colleagues I decide their flight order by considering the situation. Observation is done from three different altitudes; I’m at the lowest – in the tower. 

I turned out here by accident; I was never interested in aviation. I was interested in marine navigation but I was under pressure that it’s not a woman’s profession. I always liked math and decided to study finances. At first, it seemed interesting, but then I realized how boring sitting all day long and doing a desk job would be. I pictured myself doing it for years and I realized that I wouldn’t be able to, physically and psychologically. At this time, one of my friends sent me a vacancy from Georgian Air Navigation. I liked the job description and thought by myself, why not, I should try and send my resume. There were no special requirements – only English skills, a high sense of responsibility, etc. Experience in aviation wasn’t necessary. 

The main thing was to learn the profession when sent for training and to be able to coordinate several things at once. As the first step, they checked our English language level, then we took an IQ test in aviation. I had never seen a radar before. We underwent a little training there and I had to work on the radar with little description. The Czech Aviation University, where I was going to study, conducted this exam. From 2000 people, only 30 were chosen for the interviews. Specialists came from the Czech Republic – observers and a human resource specialist. They interviewed us and chose 12 people in total, from which three were girls. I studied at the Czech Aviation University for 4 months with an accelerated method. I worked for a month and a half on the simulator. The load was increasing slowly. At first, there were 5 flights a day, then we had 20 flights in every half hour. You have to pay attention to several things at the same time. The transport on the airdrome is waiting for our instructions, they don’t know your plans for them or which airplane has to leave and where; they are waiting for permission to start moving. You also have to control their movements, otherwise, it may cause a chain reaction and a deadlock.

In the beginning, I wasn’t permitted to approach the radar, I could only observe it. To this day I’m very happy when I have to sit by the radar and talk to pilots, people I’ve never seen and most likely will never see in my life. The feeling of coordination and cooperation is palpable. Both sides have vested interest for everything to go as discussed. In Batumi, we have a quite difficult situation because of the mountains. We can’t let two airplanes take off at the same time since takeoffs can only happen from one side of the airport.

As usual, if there are 2-3 flights an hour, airplanes can fly freely, they won’t interfere with each other and the work is anything but stressful. But there are cases when I have to handle 5-6 flights and you can’t make the pilot wait for long. Otherwise, they’ll get angry since they have their own timetables and they have to be in another airport at a specific time. You make these decisions together with another observer to avoid causing problems in other spaces. When you finish your task and stop for a while, you feel how tense you’ve been. There are situations when several planes come at the same time. Each of them asks for the same information and accordingly, you have to give them small briefs, then call another to get the information you need, then give it to another board: the board has to read it back ti you and you have to check if they understood it correctly, at the same time you have to give them flying directions and coordinate it all with the people working on the ground. There is a term in the aviation called the ”Swiss cheese model”. I may make a mistake, but if the pilot realizes it and doesn’t do what I said, nothing will happen. Or maybe the pilot makes a mistake but I see it and fix the problem. Multiple “holes” must occur at the same time to lead us to a catastrophe. We are very safe because of that. 

The biggest problem while taking off is the birds. Batumi airport is near the sea, where there are a lot of seagulls. I love the story of ,,Jonathan Livingston Seagull”, but these seagulls are nothing like him, they act in opposite and are fools. For example, when spades hear the aircraft sound, they fly in the other direction, while seagulls try to race with the plane. We see that in the binoculars and we send help. Sometimes loud sounds are playing, or there are fireworks to try and throw them out. But sometimes there are only two minutes left before landing and they suddenly return from nowhere. The plane is flying at a very high speed and even a pebble can cause a crash. Very often the seagulls damage the board with the radar, or they get stuck in the engine. Then an engineer must come down to check, but time keeps running out and the whole schedule has to be changed. 

Basically, professions and jobs that have night shifts and are technically difficult are not considered a woman’s job. There are 130 aviation observers in Georgia, ten of which are women and they work at different altitudes in Batumi, Kutaisi, and Tbilisi. People’s attitude is positive. There were situations when they asked me by whom was I recommended for this job – implying nepotism. They were interested when would be the contest for the job announced, so they could also take part. They wondered if women can get in. Aviation seems mystical and somehow elevated to people. They don’t know much about it so they think it’s difficult. There wasn’t a case of someone telling me I can’t do it because I’m a girl, but sometimes even unfamiliar people asked me if it was hard to work in night shifts. Would anybody ask a man that? Nobody in my family told me it was a man’s profession. I warned my mother beforehand, it was a bit unexpected for her but there weren’t any negative emotions. 

I studied math, physics, chemistry, and biology very well. Because of that, I sometimes got a ”compliment” that I got a boy’s brain. Back then I thought it was a very good thing and I felt talented and clever. When I remember it now I feel ashamed. I’m a woman and have a woman’s brain. Women also have the ability to learn physics, chemistry, and similar subjects very well. Gender has nothing to do with it”. 

Author: Nino Gamisonia
Photo: Salome Tsopurashvili