UAA's air traffic control program turns 50

by Catalina Myers  |   

Mike Pannone
Mike Pannone, UAA's first director of UAA Aviation and Technology Division's air traffic control program. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

In the fall of 1970, a little note tacked to the bulletin board of the Anchorage Control Center break room advertising a potential position with Anchorage Community College (ACC) to teach a course in air traffic control grabbed the attention of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Anchorage air traffic controller, Mike Pannone. In need of a job, Pannone picked up the phone and called the number scrawled across the bottom of the note.

"I didn't at the time have any teaching credentials, had very little education experience — except for being a controller — but I decided to go over to ACC and talk with Eugene Short and the director of the technical college and in January of 1971 they offered me an adjunct position," said Pannone. 

Fast forward to September 1971 and Pannone was hired as an assistant professor marking the beginning of a program that would become known nationwide as one of the top air traffic control programs in the country and the first official program of its kind in the state — a program that is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The early years

While UAA Aviation Technology Division's ATC program has been hugely successful over the past five decades, the program has humble beginnings and began with one instructor teaching his small group of students in a classroom of what is now Lake Otis Elementary School. In those early years, Pannone struggled with no budget and little support to keep the program in the air, often digging into his own wallet to provide supplemental training materials to enhance students' ATC education.

Weatherford Station
Mike Pannone stands above "Weatherford" station, about 1993 (photo courtesy Mike Pannone)

ATC bounced around ACC's campus through the '70s and '80s, first being housed in the now long gone "Building G" where one of Pannone's students, a pilot named Bill Weatherford, designed and painted the fully operational "Weatherford" airport on the floor of one of the larger classrooms, complete with runways and toy airplanes to simulate the controller experience of directing planes for takeoff and landing. 

From Building G the program moved to the automotive building and in the late '80s into a building on Orca Street that the university owned before finally landing at its current location today on Merrill Field.

The big break

In the mid '90s ATC rounded a major corner and the entire program experienced a sweeping modernization upgrade from its infrastructure and technology.

Gerry Park, who was dean of what was called the College of Career and Vocational Education, was on the hunt for an instructor and had put in a phone call with some contacts at the FAA asking if they wanted to loan him an air traffic controller who would teach and chair the newly consolidated aviation division. They didn't. But luckily for Park, Bill Butler, an air traffic manager with the FAA, was retiring after 30 years and was interested in the job.

Butler was hired for a two-year contract and was the first director of the Aviation Technology Division. During his two-year stint, Butler oversaw the modernization and expansion of ATC's program at Merrill Field and assisted in acquiring cutting-edge simulation technology, helping to put UAA's ATC program on the map nationwide.

"During that time I was the project manager for the extension and modernization of the aviation facility at Merrill Field, which really is the jewel in the crown — it's still one of the nicest facilities in the University of Alaska system," said Butler.

After two years, Butler's contract was up, but in 2001, he was invited back to teach as a full-time faculty member. 

"I did that for another eight years, teaching a normal professorial load and was the de facto leader of the air traffic program," Butler said.

Looking back Butler said his arrival at ATC's program was serendipitous with the newly named Community and Technical College securing funds for both facility and technology upgrades as well as the state's $100-a-barrel oil boom allowing the university to majorly expand and modernize many of its programs and facilities.

Butler said he was able to build on Pannone's legacy.

"Mike was a visionary who believed that this program could work — and it did work — but it was primitive because he had very few tools to work with," Butler said. "He had to draw on his own experience and innovation. I had the benefit of the golden years. I had the great relationship with the FAA, unlimited revenue and was able to hire the people that I wanted."

Celebrating 50 great years of air traffic control at UAA

1971: In January, Anchorage Community College (ACC) hires Mike Pannone to prepare and teach the air traffic control (ATC) course. 

1971: Mike Pannone, ATC’s sole instructor, revamps the entire program and is hired as an assistant professor, officially launching a new program in air traffic control at ACC that September.

1970-1996: The air traffic control program slowly expands, moving to ACC’s campus for a few years, then onto a building on Orca Street near Merrill Field, before landing at its current location at the Aviation Technology Division’s complex at Merrill Field.

1996: Bill Butler is hired as ATD’s first chairman after the dean consolidates the College of Community and Vocational Education’s (now named the Community and Technical College) four aviation programs into one department.

1996: Classrooms are added to the Aviation Technology Complex and a whole new section is built including the ATC “tower” and radar simulation labs.

1997: Mike Pannone, UAA’s first ATC instructor and chair of the air traffic controller, retires after a 27-year career with UAA. Faculty members Rob Jones and Larry Williamson continue the program.

2001: Bill Butler returns to UAA as a professor and leads the air traffic control program through what he calls “the golden years,” where UAA makes major investments to modernize the air traffic control program.

2003: Sharon LaRue is hired by Bill Butler as an assistant professor. 

2010: Bill Butler retires from UAA.

2018: Mike Moravec, a former Federal Aviation Administration academy instructor arrives at UAA as ATC faculty.

2020: ATC upgrades its radar simulation to current technology which is unique to ATC education nationwide.

2010-2020: UAA continues to make major investments in air traffic control, expanding its program, acquiring new instructors and updating its technology to provide students the most cutting-edge experience and preparing them for the rigorous four month-long certification test at the Federal Aviation Administration’s facility in Oklahoma City.

One of Butler's proudest achievements was hiring Sharon LaRue, current associate professor in the Aviation Technology Division's ATC program, who he believes has been an invaluable asset to the program. LaRue has developed curriculum and is beloved by the many students who've stepped into her classroom.

North to the future

In 2020, the ATC program has an established reputation across Alaska and nationwide for producing top-notch air traffic controllers. Currently UAA's ATC program is the oldest on the West Coast and according to LaRue, UAA's Aviation Technology Division not only produces a large percentage of air traffic controllers, but also aviation professionals in Alaska and on the West Coast. 

"What is really exciting is our ability to take a large number of people with a two-year degree and get them into a lucrative job, that's a professional job that most of them seem to enjoy," said LaRue. "It's a great job and career opportunity and we've been able to transform a lot of lives."

LaRue said during her 17-year career as an assistant professor at ATC she's watched many students pass through their doors and successfully complete their program. Many happen to be single parents looking for a degree opportunity that will not only support their families, but will also provide them with a fulfilling career. It's one of the aspects of working at ATC she's most proud — helping students create careers they'll love.

Although becoming an air traffic controller is not easy, the ATC program's purpose is to train and prepare students for the ultimate test, the FAA's rigorous training program in Oklahoma City, where they must become certified before officially becoming air traffic controllers.

Mike Pannone
Mike Pannone, standing in front of the new radar simulators, an upgrade from the painted airport on the floor of one of the classrooms on Orca Street, is proud of the program and legacy he helped build and is excited for the next five decades of air traffic control at UAA and in Alaska. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Luckily for UAA students currently in ATC's program, they have an inside edge in Assistant Professor Mike Moravec, who served for 12 years at the FAA Academy and has invaluable insight into preparing students for the rigorous testing they'll experience in Oklahoma City. 

"I couldn't be more proud of what we're doing here — for a two-year program — it's amazing," Moravec said. "I'm really enjoying what we're doing and feel like we're providing a great service to a group of people and helping them bridge the gap from just a job to a career."

Recently the ATC program acquired a new radar simulator upgrade, which will the closest replication of ATC technology and is unique to UAA. Paired with the recent upgrade to the air traffic control tower, the UAA Aviation Technology Division's air traffic control program is committed to continuing its investment in Alaska's aviation industry. 

"My dream kinda came true — back in the '70s that's what I wanted to happen — but very little of that, like acquiring the equipment and technology didn't happen until I almost retired," said Pannone, reflecting on ATC's 50th anniversary. From its humble beginnings in a small classroom in 1971 to futuristic simulation technology today, UAA's ATC program has solidified itself in Alaska's aviation history and is a top destination for students in the state and nationwide to pursue a career in air traffic control.

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