Helping to keep our skies safe

2009-08-22 09:35

THERE is no room for error in Menzi Mkhize’s job. Mkhize is one of

the many engineers and technicians deployed in airports across the ­country by

Air Traffic and Navigation Services South Africa (ATNS) to ensure that equipment

used for air ­traffic control, navigation and surveillance is always in tip-top


“I applied for an ATNS technical learnership through the Durban

University of Technology,” says Mkhize, who finished his matric in 1999 and then

completed a three-year electrical ­engineering diploma (light current) course at

the Durban University of Technology in 2003.

“The ATNS learnership is open to learners with an S4 qualification

in electrical engineering (light ­current).”

Mkhize then started a year-long training programme at ATNS Aviation

Training Academy.

“During the learnership, which included a substantial living

allowance, I was exposed to various communication, navigation and surveillance

equipment concepts,” he says.

“For instance, I learnt various things like how to maintain a

radar, very high frequency radios, voice communication control systems,

satellite communication systems and instrument landing systems.”

Interns are required to obtain at least 70% for the 19 modules that

make up the course.

“My ability to grasp new concepts with ease and to be

self-disciplined and motivated helped me to make it through the learnership,” he


The training was followed by a communication navigation

surveillance (CNS) training programme in March, taught by specialists from the

technical support team.

The programme is made up of four modules. The required pass mark

for each module is 80%.

“The training highlighted the ­importance of different CNS

equipment and also painted the global picture of the interconnection of

different systems,” says Mkhize.

After completing the training programme Mkhize gained the necessary

experience by shadowing some of the senior technicians.

“Unfortunately, not all the challenges that arose could be

simulated easily, that is why I believe this job is only suitable for

individuals that can think out of the box,” he says.

Late in 2007 Mkhize started practising as an engineering


Asked to explain what the unusual job description of “engineering

technician” means, Mkhize says an engineering technician is a level above a

technician because he receives a lot of in-house training in several connected

areas unlike an ordinary technician, who is usually expected to be an expert in

only one field.

Anthony Boje, ATNS engineering instructor, elaborates


“This job exposes a worker to an unlimited number of functions.

Sometimes an individual could be ­required to fix radar motor and gearboxes, at

times he could be required to do navigation,” he says.

Boje advises that only “open-minded” people should apply for the


“At times we have admitted employees who were very smart but

narrow-minded so they could not cut it at this job because it requires people to

do different duties,” he says.

Mkhize adds: “I also perform corrective maintenance and conduct

routine preventative maintenance to support equipment. It is a very hectic

environment,” he says.

He also has to analyse and measure equipment performance, identify

and solve problems when carrying out fault diagnosis to ensure that appropriate

remedial action is taken for the restoration of failed or defective CNS support


“I am required to communicate the information contained in

technical reports effectively and accurately, and record it in a neat and

logical format that can be readily accessed and understood by end-users.”

Boje says: “This is a field where there is zero tolerance for

mistakes and if a person is poorly trained the lives of hundreds of people could

be at risk. For instance, in other jobs when a mistake is made there could be a

retraction. But in aviation a mistake could cost lives.”

After completing his three-year electrical ­engineering diploma at

the Durban University of Technology in 2003 Mkhize, who was born in

KwaZulu-Natal, stayed at home without a job for six months.

He then applied for a position as a volunteer junior network

controller with the social welfare department in the Midlands region,


“I had to leave Durban, which was my comfort zone, and start a new

life with no remuneration. But hey, I don’t regret that because the experience I

gained is priceless,” he says.

At the department he had to assist computer users with IT-related

queries, including ­ensuring they had ­reliable ­network communication.

“I also implemented network backup plans, set-up and maintained

­network control to ensure that ­performance standards were met.

“At times I had to revisit IT ­security policies to ensure the

­network was not attacked by viruses. I also had to ensure a reliable network

connection existed at all times between the various district offices.”

In 2006 Mkhize dumped the IT profession for an in-service training

programme at ATNS.

Mkhize says he copes with his demanding job by limiting the number

of friends he has and by hitting the books more often than not.

“I am a workaholic who spends a lot of time at work or in a

library,” he says.

He says the job is stressful because he is always racing against


“The limited time that one has to perform corrective maintenance on

critical equipment that play an important role in air traffic management is a

challenge,” he says.

“In many cases corrective maintenance is non-routine and is

performed in response to an operational event such as system failure.”

“The system failures are not always common and one has to perform a

fault diagnosis, which is not easy and requires a lot of time,” he says.

“And one has to bear in mind that the time that the system is not

operating has to be kept minimal and there is no room for error.”

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