Christine Yilmaz: Safety in the Sky

By Leslie Moore

Christine Yilmaz: Safety in the Sky

Confident and friendly, Christine Yilmaz is the type of person who never meets a stranger. Originally from Baltimore, Christine’s love of aviation led her to earn her pilot’s license and eventually to a career as an air traffic controller. We met when seated together on a plane; both of us returning from family visits. By the time our plane landed in Myrtle Beach, Christine, her adorable daughter, Chelsea, and I had become friends. I learned a little about her interesting career that day and was able to learn much more the day Sasee visited the Federal Aviation Administration’s Myrtle Beach Air Traffic Control Tower.

As a child and young teen, Christine was a competitive gymnast, competing in state and regional competitions. An accident that broke her ankles ended her Olympic dreams, but not her desire for excitement. Always in love with airplanes, flying became her focus. “Growing up, my dad was a volunteer with the Civil Air Patrol, United States Air Force Auxiliary, and I was frequently around planes,” Christine remembers. “My parents would take me to the airport, and I would sit on the observation deck and watch the planes for hours.” As soon as she was old enough, Christine set her sights on becoming a pilot. “Flying lessons are very expensive, but I won a scholarship through the Civil Air Patrol to train for my first solo,” said Christine. “Pilots always broadcast their status, and when I went up alone for the first time, I said ‘Get out of my way, I’m flying by myself for the first time!’” Christine and her family remain very close, and she visits Baltimore frequently. “Without my family’s support, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Budding pilots must take intensive training, as well as log many hours in flight time. To finance her dream, Christine took a series of jobs in the aviation field and eventually became a licensed private pilot, certified to fly small planes. At the time, she was working as a ground handler for a company that contracted with several major airlines. One day she was coordinating a crew that was de-icing an aircraft at BWI in Baltimore, and an air traffic controller, impressed with her precision and skill, suggested she consider air traffic control as a career. Intrigued, Christine soon began the rigorous process of becoming an air traffic controller.

“Air traffic control is managed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA),” said Christine. “The training is intensive and ongoing. Before I was even allowed to interview, I had to pass an eight hour exam.” After passing the initial exam and interview, Christine was sent to Oklahoma City to begin training. “I loved it from the first day; I knew this was right for me.” After completing the first level, Christine was sent to Atlanta Air Traffic Control Center for more training before being assigned to an airport for, yes, more training.

While in Oklahoma City, at her first class, Christine met another young trainee, Selcuk Yilmaz, a naturalized American citizen and native of Turkey who had moved to the United States with his family at 11 years old. Selcuk and Christine fell in love and were married soon after completing their training. Their first assignment as new air traffic controllers was the Atlanta Air Traffic Control Center, and this is where their daughter, Chelsea, now three, was born.

“It takes several years to be certified at each air traffic facility,” Christine told me. “Every airport is different and requires a unique set of skills. After five years in Atlanta, Selcuk and I were given the option of moving. I had vacationed in Myrtle Beach all of my life and loved it, and when I brought him here, he did, too. We moved to the area a year ago.” The Yilmaz’s quickly put down roots, buying a house in Market Common, and the Grand Strand is now home. “We really like it here; there’s so much to do. Chelsea is in a great preschool, and Market Common has wonderful shopping and entertainment. Of course, I’ve already gotten a pass for Myrtle Beach State Park!” The Yilmaz’s also love music – Christine plays piano, Selcuk plays guitar and both sing. “Chelsea used to love it when we played for her, but now she complains,” Christine told me laughing.

The FAA’s Myrtle Beach Tower is the same one that was used by the United States Air Force before the base closed in 1993 and is situated on property adjacent to the airport. The day we visited, Christine gave us the grand tour of this fascinating facility. Controllers work in one of two areas: a radar room, which is kept in darkness to better see the large, circular radar screens on one side of the room. At least two controllers are here at all times, monitoring air traffic in and out of our airport. At the top of the tower sits a glass tower cab lined with equipment where controllers direct air traffic in and out of the airport. The Myrtle Beach Airport is unique due to the variety of aircraft that use it. “We direct commercial jets, helicopters, medical aircraft, military traffic and general aviation which consists mostly of private planes. While in a big airport like Atlanta we see all commercial jets that come in from the same direction, here we have a large variety of aircraft that comes in from several directions,” Christine explained.

Tower controllers direct the air space for their particular airport only, and all United States airspace is managed by the FAA. At the Myrtle Beach Tower, controllers direct air traffic up to 10,000 feet, at which point control is taken over by a regional facility in Jacksonville, Florida. Every flight that is in controlled air space is receiving direction from air traffic control. “We give each plane a unique identifier, and they program it into their equipment before coming into our airspace,” began Christine. “Also, each airline has a unique call sign.” The Myrtle Beach airport has only one runway, measuring 9,503 feet, but the direction of take offs and landings depends on the wind direction as all aircraft must take off and land into the wind.

If all of this sounds complicated, it is. The day we visited, we saw commercial jets, luxurious private aircraft, helicopters and small private planes come in and out. Controllers are continuously monitoring every move of each aircraft and stay in almost constant communication with pilots. Along with monitoring aircraft, controllers must also monitor the weather, usually on the hour, but more often when fog or storms could cause problems for pilots. Every detail is documented and every possible situation has a solution. On an average day in July, the Myrtle Beach Tower will direct more than 100 commercial jets, hundreds of helicopter tours, plus general aviation. Medical flights are always given first priority, as are military planes.

Two large spotlights, with a red and green light on each, are situated on either side of the control tower. If a plane loses radio contact, this spotlight brings them safely to landing. “We had a small plane recently that lost its radio,” Christine told me. “The pilots are trained to rock their wings to let us know their radio is broken, and we then use the red and green spotlights to let them know when to begin their landing.”

Christine is still working on her final certification for Myrtle Beach and works a forty hour week. However, due to the challenging nature of this work, controllers are given frequent breaks and switch from the radar room to the tower during their shift. Christine and Selcuk use their breaks for energizing, short walks. I asked Christine what was the most unusual plane she had seen since arriving in Myrtle Beach. “I had the honor of seeing a B17 Flying Fortress fly over Myrtle Beach. There are only about eight of these WWII planes left. I really enjoy working with the military pilots. They come here for training and do a lot of ‘touch and goes’ (landing and taking off again quickly). We also get the new Boeing 787s coming in to test the new planes after they are built in Charleston – they are gorgeous!”

An avid traveler, Christine and her family are planning a trip to Turkey early this fall to take Chelsea to meet her Turkish relatives. I asked Christine is she had any travel tips or insider information. “There is really no better day to fly. Just plan your trip and go. I would encourage everyone to do their homework and research their particular airline to find out their luggage requirements, etc. Also, know what you are allowed to bring through security and onto the plane.”

About this writer

  • Leslie Moore Leslie Moore is the editor for Strand Media Group. A 25 year resident of Pawleys Island, she is blessed with a life filled with the love of family and friends and satisfying work to do every day.

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