Jean Christian St. Martin’s First Female Air Traffic Controller


She blazed a trail for women in St. Martin, and now, close to four decades after she first started working at Princess Juliana International Airport, Air Traffic Controller Jean Christian still has the drive of a trailblazer as she mentors another generation of controllers to take over the baton.


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It is no wonder then that her 84-year-old father, Raphael Christian, once himself in the aviation industry, and her two children nag her about writing a book. "She has a story to tell," the still spirited St. Martiner said of his daughter. "She is one of few that touched two queens – Juliana and Beatrix. She needs to write a book to encourage others." He expressed the sentiment on the night of December 3, 2011, when Jean received her accolade for 38 years of service to the Princess Juliana International Airport Operating Company N.V. (PJIAE).

"Words cannot express how I feel tonight. I am so honored to be given my flowers while I still am alive," Jean Christian stated. The "flowers" did not come easily. Very early in her career she had to prove herself in a field previously dominated by men.

"In my days, being the first female air traffic controller, you had to prove yourself. Then it was a man’s field, so you had to earn the respect of your coworkers and the pilots." At the time, she was under the supervision of Jan Brown, who recently retired.

Some might ask, why then did she take on this job? According to Christian, she was always fascinated with planes.

When she first emigrated to St. Martin, Jean’s mother enrolled her in St. Joseph School, where she spent one year. Thereafter, she attended MAVO on Backstreet, where the Sr. Borgia Elementary School is now housed.

While attending her last years of MAVO, she also worked weekends with Winair. At the time, her father was the deputy airport manager and was involved in recruiting people to pursue a study in aviation sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme. With the blessings of Sam Hazel who was then the deputy or commissioner of aviation affairs, five candidates were chosen for the UNDP-sponsored course.

This presented the opportunity in 1971 for Jean to head to the Air Traffic Controllers Academy in Curacao and, thereafter, create a piece of history for the island she has called home since sixth grade.

While attending the course in Curacao, I said to myself, "You cannot fail," "You have no room to fail." So from Sunday to Thursday I studied every night until one or four o’clock in the morning. I was privileged to be the first female air traffic controller in the Netherlands Antilles" on January 3, 1973, one year after returning from Curacao.

The Antigua-born Jean gives much of the credit for her success to her parents, especially her now-deceased mother, Helen Hill, who extolled the values she now possesses. She said at the time she never fully appreciated the disciplined upbringing she had, but later realized that that had a lot to do with her success.

"It teaches you to become focused and remain focused. It enhances your ambition. My mother’s strict upbringing had a lot to do with it. It teaches you real values."

Today, she looks for the same values in young people applying for the job. According to Jean, she wants to see that ambition to succeed. To be an air traffic controller, she explained, one must be able to think quickly in certain situations.

"I am part of the hiring committee for air traffic and I look for young people with a drive. They must be disciplined, ambitious … and have the passion. I have to recognize that passion for aviation, it is not about the money. It is important that you are able to think quickly on your feet. You must be self-motivated."

Early days at PJIA

Many joke about what the early days at the now sophisticated Princess Juliana International Airport must have been like. In the absence of a hi-tech intercom system, did they have to walk up to passengers one by one and say, "Your flight to St. Kitts is leaving now"?

What about how messages, crucial to the job of an air traffic controller, were transmitted?

As Jean explained, those were the days when necessity was, indeed, the mother of invention. Like her colleagues, she can reminisce of a time when a PVC pipe and wire were used to get handwritten messages up to the tower and back down again.

The receiver, likewise, Jean said, was "of the ancient times." Ever so often there would be a lot of static on the line and they literally had to scream at the top of their lungs to send a message to Puerto Rico.

"San Juaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan, this is Julianaaaaaaaaaa! Are you hearing me?" According to Jean, the response from San Juan would sound like crickets on the line because there was so much static.

"That was some of the old equipment we had to work with," she said with a smile and a hint of pride in her voice.

Then there was the teletype to transmit information of a flight that had departed. In today’s term, it would be tantamount to a fax.

"When a plane leaves an airport, going to another destination, the information is sent ahead of time because if [the plane] does not show up within the timeframe then you know [something’s wrong]."

But according to Jean, the teletype had a mind of its own. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. So in those moments of lapses, the air traffic controllers had to improvise to get their messages out.

"We would have to ask a plane to pass the message on. … We always had to come up with ideas. We had to do a lot of improvisation in those days just to get things done or working, or to get information from one point to another. But I wouldn’t change my profession for anything."

Those were the most challenging times for Jean. Since there was no sophisticated equipment, there were times a plane would get "lost." If the plane did not have the right equipment, the pilot may circumnavigate due to bad weather. When that plane goes off track to avoid clouds there was a likelihood of it being "lost." It was then the challenge of the air traffic controllers to find it again. But as Jean puts it, she likes challenges and has proven this true from her first day on the job.

What keeps her going?

"People ask me what I like most about this job. It is the fact that I don’t have to take it home. When it is finished, it is finished. When you go to aviation school, the first thing they say to you is whatever problems you are encountering outside, you hang it on the outside door before you enter and when you leave remember to take them back up. You must be able to be very good at separating those lives."

Based on her teachings, Jean Christian immediately sheds her private life upon entering Princess Juliana International Airport and assumes her job as Air Traffic Controller. She does not focus on any personal problems because she knows that her full concentration is needed to safely guide planes in and out of the island’s airspace.

One thing is certain. Her day-to-day life on the job can never be described as boring. There is always something to keep her vigilant.

"It is not monotonous. Every day is exciting because you constantly have to be using your brain. It keeps you alert. … You have to think on your feet. You have to be very good at that. You have to make quick decisions. You must be able to recover quickly."

Aviation, for her, is the best field there is. It is what she has spent her lifetime doing and she will be immortalized as the first woman to control traffic in St. Martin’s airspace.