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Panic-Calling YouTube’s Favorite Air Traffic Controller

“Don’t be afraid to fly. Because it’s a big sky, and the planes are really small.” Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Of all the corners of YouTube to end up in, perhaps the most wholesome and unbelievably strange is that of air traffic controllers. A far cry from mildly erotic ASMR videos or thrilling video-game playthroughs, ATC tapes are a series of grainy, often garbled radio conversations between pilots and the air traffic control towers that tell them where to go, usually played back over a crude animation of a plane on a map. Though niche, these tapes do serious numbers: Two of the biggest channels, VASAviation and WorldAviation 4K, boast 536,000 and 232,000 subscribers respectively, and compilations get millions of views. The audience spans all manner of people: former pilots and controllers, general aviation nerds, and people like me, who just want to know how my plane works because I’m really afraid of it crashing. Most ATC conversations are wonderfully dull — simply an opportunity to hear how many working professionals there are who are heavily invested in your flight not being a catastrophe. Sometimes, these tapes also come with delightful Irish pilots, or an alien conspiracy, or a teenage girl being talked through an emergency landing.

Shockingly, this world of faceless, fragmented radio conversations produced an actual celebrity. Stephen Abraham, or “Kennedy Steve,” as he’s known on the ATC tape circuit, was an air traffic controller at JFK airport for more than 20 years. His voice and demeanor are instantly distinguishable to frequent listeners. With his slight Long Island accent, he sounds like the kind of New York character one might expect to see helping the cops solve a crime in a Law & Order episode. With our nation’s air traffic control system facing a new and intense level of scrutiny, I immediately wanted to know what Kennedy Steve had to say about it. He agreed to speak with me by phone and chatted about his unlikely fame, how he thinks the air traffic control system could be fixed, and, perhaps most importantly, why we should not be afraid to fly.

When were you aware that you’re famous in the ATC world?
Oh, I think when my oldest daughter, who’s now 24, called me her freshman year of college and said, “Dad, there’s nothing worse than walking down the hall of my dorm and hearing your voice.” I think that was the epiphany moment for me. It had gotten a little out of control, but it’s fine.

How does that make you feel, people knowing who you are?
You know what? I am now completely retired, and I do a couple of interviews a year, but it’s not like people come up to me in the street and go, “Hey, you’re that guy.” My Facebook profile gets a bunch of unwarranted requests for friendships, but it’s pretty easy to hit the delete button.

Have you ever watched any of your work online?
Yeah, I’ve heard it. It’s funny what people do and how it’s changed. My biggest regret about all my online fame is that I didn’t monetize it.

Yeah, there’s like 16 million views on TikTok with “Kennedy Steve” tagged underneath them. It’s big!
Yeah. Well, unfortunately no monetization for Kennedy Steve, but it’s good to know that a lot of other people are making money off of it. I had a guy approach me, I guess it was a year and a half ago, who had a TV idea to make a cross between Survivor and ATC training, and asked me if I’d be interested in doing it. I said yeah, but he hasn’t been able to find anybody to produce it.

I don’t know if you remember this, but there’s a video people share all the time of you talking to a Lufthansa pilot where he asks if he can just get out of the plane and go close a panel that’s been left open. How is that possible? Did he do that?
He did. On some airplanes, there’s a hatch in the bottom of the cockpit that leads down to the avionics compartment, and then another hatch that leads you into the wheel well. He climbed out.

You’re known for being colorful in certain situations. Was that common at Kennedy?
Oh, no, please. It’s just me. Nobody else did that. I mean, they tried to, they just weren’t successful at it. It’s embarrassingly unique, but I found for me, I was kind of bored. It added some mental acuity to what I was doing.

I’ve read you came from the world of finance. Why’d you make the switch?
I didn’t like what I was doing. Going to work sucked. I tell my kids this: Everybody can be happy on Friday at the end of the workweek, but if it’s Sunday night and you’re dreading the start of the workweek, it’s time to find a new job.

What’s changed since you started that’s caused all these issues we’re reading about?
When I got hired, which was 1989, the premise was you applied if you had a two-year college degree and some other relevant experience that proved you weren’t a complete ne’er-do-well, and they gave you a written test. The content was not incredibly complex; if you had a reasonable mathematical mind and could do a little 3-D thinking, you could get through it pretty easily. But this was the first time in my life that I struggled to get through a test in the allotted time. The goal was not complex thought, but to do it very rapidly. But if you didn’t score above 95, they weren’t even going to consider hiring.

Then they’d do a psychological interview, make sure you’re not a serial killer, and then they sent you to Oklahoma City. It wasn’t just training — it was a screening process, where, in my particular class, 74 percent of the people who they hired failed the class. But it was an expensive proposition for the government to do that, because they had to house you for eight weeks, pay you for eight weeks. They transitioned out of that in 1992, and the reason was — Congress will never admit it — it was too expensive to train people. They went to an aptitude test, and if you scored high enough on that, they again sent you to Oklahoma City for training, but the idea was not to weed people out, and that is the current generation of controllers: They basically made the facilities responsible for weeding out people who were not qualified.

What’s the skill that saves people from being weeded out? 
If you issue a clearance that you have to watch out the window to make sure it works, the clearance stunk. What you should be able to do is tell a pilot what to do, then turn around and go on to the next task. Using cars as an example: You can tell them, “Turn left on Park Avenue and stop at 86th Street.” But if you tell them, “Follow the green Chevy,” well, then they know exactly who to follow. The first one, you have to watch and make sure. The second one, they’re exactly where you want them to be. If you’re sequencing airplanes in a row to land on a runway, if they’re all doing the same speed, nobody catches anybody. It’s the ability to think like that.

Did you read the New York Timesreporting on all these near misses that are happening, and did that make you nervous about flying?
I read it, and no. There are two types of errors: There are errors you don’t recognize, and then there are errors where you’re completely aware of what’s happening and you have a solution. With a lot of the arrival go-arounds with a departure, in most cases, the controller’s aware that’s going to happen. That’s a pretty controlled mistake. But there was a pretty well-reported error earlier this year in Texas with an arrival and a departure in pretty substandard weather where a controller tried to squeeze out a departure in front of arriving traffic. I thought to myself, That guy should not be working. As soon as he said, “Clear for takeoff,” I could tell you that was never going to work.

Is there pressure to do that, you think?
If you’re busy, but he wasn’t busy. He made a really bad decision. Like, wow. I mean, he broke so many rules, it was a joke. But I think the system now has a problem where there are a whole bunch of people who were trained during COVID. It’s really easy to work an airport with 300 airplanes a day. When there are 1,300 airplanes a day, it’s kind of a different game.

What kind of person do you think should apply to be an air traffic controller?
Look, there are smart people without common sense, and there are people with common sense who aren’t smart. I think you have to have a high degree of common sense. You need to have a good problem-solving mind, to be able to look at a series of facts put in front of you and make the best decision available, and you need to be able to do that rapidly.

One of the things that I think they do a really poor job of is letting people know how good a career it is. I mean, you work in a busy facility, you make almost 200,000 bucks a year without overtime. You get to retire when you’re 56 years old, the government pays you — ’til you drop dead — a pension. You get cheap health insurance. But they don’t do a good job of advertising. I mean, if you look at how many kids who are 21 years old walk out of universities with four-year degrees and have no idea what they want to do for a living, if you went to all of them and said, “Here, take this test. See if you can do this,” I’m thinking they’ve got a lot of people who would try.

Yeah. I mean, these YouTube videos and these TikToks are things a lot of people enjoy, so I have to imagine some of that audience are people who enjoy this career, right?
I would think so. But unfortunately, a lot of people don’t start applying until they’re out of school, and they won’t hire you after you’re 31 years old.

Do you think that’s a good policy?
I think it’s really smart, because the mandatory retirement age of 56 is absolutely appropriate. I never thought that until I was probably 52 or 53, because the job was always easy, and then the last three years of my career, I’m like, Wow, I got to think a lot harder to do this. I could still do it, but for the first time, I was like, This is kind of mentally taxing now all of a sudden. The only thing that changed is I was a little older.

Well, thank you. Is there anything else you wanted to share with me that I didn’t ask about?
Don’t be afraid to fly. Because it’s a big sky, and the planes are really small.

Panic-Calling YouTube’s Favorite Air Traffic Controller