Nashauna Drummond, Acting Lifestyle Editor
In 2009, Marilyn Yates, the affable mother of two, knocked down the doors of the old boys' club, becoming the first woman to be named chief air traffic controller at the Norman Manley International Airport, and Tinson Pen towers in Kingston.
Nineteen years ago when a young Yates was just getting her feet wet as a rookie air traffic controller, her male colleagues, amused by the presence of this woman trying her hand at 'man's work', told her she would never make it.
"They told me, 'you won't last, you will get married and leave'," she told Flair.
Today, the woman they said would never make it runs the towers. On a slow day, 18 to 20 aircraft enter the airspace controlled by the Norman Manley International tower, every hour. Sounds stressful? You don't know the half of it. But Yates is no stranger to beating stress and seems to welcome challenges. She just finished an MBA in international business, from the Mona School of Business. Before that, she achieved a bachelor's degree in French and Spanish. She added to this a postgraduate diploma in business administration.
Now she's enrolled in a graduate certificate programme in air transport management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Florida, and recently homeschooled her youngest daughter.
Day to day duties
It's been 23 years since Yates entered this field, but she says she still enjoys her job. Her duties include the day-to-day management of the towers. She creates the schedules for workers, ensures they are qualified and medically well. She also has to constantly update the unit manual of operations, which has to coincide with regulations of the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority. This must adhere to international standards. Outside of managing the tower, some days you will find Yates at the controls maintaining her air traffic control licence.
"It's heavily regulated," she said, noting that she also has to vet memoranda of understanding between numerous agencies and countries who use our airspace.
As a teenager, there was a short period when the Montego Bay native wanted to be a doctor. But stories of persons fainting at the sight of dead bodies quickly put those ideas to rest.
Then one day, she heard about this business of navigation, and it captured her interest immediately. She did some research and decided that this was indeed the path for her.
She was 17 years old when she called the tower to find out what qualifications were needed to become an air traffic controller and sent in her application. The rest could have been history, except she didn't hear back from them for three whole years.
Headstrong from back then, she told her mother, "I'm going to school myself."
It was while working at a resort that she got the fateful call. Was she still interested? She definitely was, and though she would be paid a third of what she was earning then, Yates jumped at the chance. "They didn't know that I would have done it for free!" she said with a chuckle.
She moved to Kingston for training, and what was to be a six-month stay turned into two years and then it became clear that she would be staying put.
Yates worked her way up through the ranks of air traffic control. "When I was in the tower we had no radar, so it was all in our heads. You had to have a very high level of concentration."
The naysayers, men, who thought she would break under the pressures of the job, only made things worse. But she didn't let it get to her.
She wanted to be trained by the hardest and best. Even on her days off she would go in to work to pick the brains of the seasoned controllers.
"They were hard on me, but I took it to mould my character. Pilots will constantly ask you if you are sure. They test you, but you have to be very diplomatic as they do it to test your mettle. We deal with a lot of foreign pilots and a lot of them don't take kindly to orders from a woman. So you have to be diplomatic, and sure of yourself and speak with assurance. You also have to monitor them to see that they are doing what you tell them."
Her job is no simple nine-to-five and she is constantly on call. She recalls the incident of December 2010 when American Airlines flight 331 skidded off the runway at Norman Manley International, breaking through the airport's perimeter fence.
"I had put my daughters to bed and was working on a paper when I got the call. It was raining and I thought, how am I going to get to the airport? But then I saw some policemen and I flagged them down, told them who I was and what had just happened and they were able to escort me in. All the time I was on the phone coordinating the emergency response, as that's another aspect of my job. You're trained to keep cool, calm and collected. I was just operating on adrenaline."
Incidents like this clearly don't happen every day, but it's always hectic. And she loves every minute of it.
"This is air navigation and it changes from day to day; no two days are alike. It is very fulfilling and gives you pleasure when a pilot seeks you out and shakes your hand and says, 'thank you, I don't know how you handled that'."