When Geeta Shrestha joined Nepal's civil aviation department in 1978, the college graduate hadn't the faintest idea that she'd spend the next 22 years in Air Traffic Service, the last six as an active Air Traffic Controller at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport.
Aside from having words with irate pilots queuing up to take off on a foggy day, and being forced to tackle a seemingly endless flight of stairs when the lift's out of order, Shrestha has no reason to complain. "You have to love your job, you know," she says as she takes the winding flight of stairs up to the control tower that rises high above the airport and the runway.
From her vantage point-shared by four other shift colleagues and a flock of roosting pigeons-Shrestha keeps a vigil on the runway. A swivel chair allows her a 360-degree view of the surrounding air space. When visibility is low or if there's a communication problem, radar equipment in the Control Tower helps her direct incoming and outgoing traffic.
"My job is to maintain an orderly flow of air traffic and to prevent collisions between aircraft and any obstacle on the ground," says Shrestha one of a dozen women who control Kathmandu's sky-bound traffic (there are 50 active ATCs in the country). That means constantly monitoring the runway and taxiway, the surrounding air space, watching out for stray dogs or birds and checking her bible, the Air Traffic Control Manual, whose emergency procedures she knows by heart.
"It's one of the most stressful jobs. You have to be prepared for every possible emergency," says Shrestha. During 22 years of service, she has completed an Aeronautical Communication Course, an Aeronautical Communication Service Supervisor course (during which she topped her class at the Bailbrook College, London and was told she was a credit to her country), and a Communication-Air Traffic Control Conversion Course.
As an instructor at the Civil Aviation Training Centre, she's also assisted in designing and revising the curriculum for the ATC course. "It's like an addiction. Once you've worked as an air traffic controller, where every second, every minute counts and your senses are extremely well-tuned, you'd feel restless in any other job," says Shrestha.
There are tell-tale signs of the unseemly fixation-despite holding a Masters Degree in Business Logistics Management from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, she's declined repeated offers to take up a management job at the Civil Aviation Authority's central office. "You have to constantly be in the working environment to do the job well. Once you're out of touch, it's very difficult to catch up. And with Kathmandu's air traffic increasing every day, one needs to be more alert. "
After 22 years in the service Shrestha knows there's no margin for error.