Keeping the skies safe for more than 40 years

Justin Helman started working for Airservices Australia at Essendon Fields Airport as an Air Traffic Controller 41 years ago and has seen Australia’s aviation industry change right before his eyes.

On Sunday 28 November, Justin officially retires from a role he loves; keeping the skies safe around Essendon Fields Airport alongside a team of 11 rotating air traffic controllers that he enjoys working with.

For Justin it will be a moment of mixed emotions – he’s very proud of his contribution to Airservices Australia and Essendon Fields Airport and the connection he’s had with hundreds of colleagues and local aviators. However, he’s also ready for the next phase of life, where getting on planes to travel as a tourist will be his priority, rather than monitoring their flight paths on a screen.

“I started at Essendon as a flight controller in 1980. We had just four staff in the tower and were monitoring mainly training and small aircraft. Today we can operate with only two controllers in the tower at any one given time with the extra technology to help us, and at Essendon we see a lot more corporate aircraft, more commercial aircraft and of course an enormous increase in activity from police and emergency services aircraft. Essendon Fields has really been transformed from an aviation point of view in my time,’’ he said.

“Of course, in many ways our role hasn’t changed. People still fly and our daily goal remains the same even with the new technology: to keep planes and people safe. It’s been a really rewarding career,’’ he said.

One of the most interesting early moments for Justin was his time in the early 1980s, soon after he started in the Essendon tower as an Air Traffic Controller, when he had to tell the Prime Minister’s RAAF jet to circle the airport because of an incident on the ground.

“Malcolm Fraser used to fly into Essendon Airport from Canberra and jump out of the RAAF plane and get into his own small plane to fly to his country property in the Western Districts of Victoria,’’ Justin recalls.

“On this day a small aircraft was landing before the official RAAF aircraft and it had a puncture on the runway and stopped. That meant I had to ask the PM’s plane to circle until we got emergency services to clear the runway. Everything was cleared and he landed safely.’’

Justin has seen everything from Prime Ministers to international rock stars land and take-off from Essendon and every day is different – even within the tower itself.

“Over the years the culture of industry has changed for the better. When I first started as an air traffic controller it was very male dominated, but now the staff who work in the tower better reflect the diversity of the community. Not just far more women working as controllers, but a broader cross section of life. I think that’s fantastic,’’ he said.

When Justin finishes his shift on Sunday afternoon he’ll no doubt linger for a moment or two to look out over a horizon he’s seen thousands of times before, and perhaps reflect on the thousands of people he’s helped keep safe in aircraft of all sizes over more than 40 years.

“Justin and the Airservices Australia team work very closely with Essendon Airport to oversee airport operations and ensure the safety of everyone using the airport. We thank Justin for his dedication over the years and wish him all the best with his next endeavours,” said Colin Fort, GM Aviation at Essendon Fields.