FORT POLK, La. — After a 20-year career as an air traffic controller at the Fort Polk Army Airfield, Michael Elmes retires June 30.
He said he knows what retiring feels like because he’s done it before. Elmes served 20 years in the military. He initially signed up for three years and got out. He joined the National Guard and worked civilian jobs for a couple of years, but then reenlisted as an air traffic controller.
“There was a shortage at the time,” he said. “I went to Army Air Traffic Control school, graduated and worked in the field another 17 years before retiring from the Army.”
Elmes worked in the civilian workforce before getting a call from the Federal Aviation Administration about the possibility of working as an air traffic controller again. He said he jumped at the chance. After attending flight service school at the Federal Aviation Administration Academy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, he worked at the DeRidder Airfield for four years. Then an air traffic control job opened up at the Fort Polk Army Airfield.
“I applied and have been here ever since,” he said.
In his time at Fort Polk, Elmes said his most memorable moment was when President Bill Clinton visited the installation on March 18, 1996 — Clinton was the first sitting President to visit Fort Polk.
“We provided air traffic control for the president’s aircraft,” he said. “I was right there in the tower, but I never got to see him with my own eyes.”
Elmes said he is proud of his life’s work and all the effort he put into it to be a success.
“I think I’m proudest of the time I spent at the FAA Academy, where the air traffic control training takes place,” he said. “It was some of the hardest training that I experienced in my career.”
Looking back, Elmes said he has seen many things change in his field, but one of the biggest has been the rapid advance in technology.
“The technological changes in equipment like radars alone is amazing, but the most incredible development, to me, has been in unmanned aerial vehicle airplanes. They can fly from one country to another by remote control alone. It’s crazy what they can do today,” he said.
That’s just one reason Elmes said he loves his job.
“It’s exciting and challenging. Every situation is different and you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “You have to have a plan of action, but you also have to be flexible enough to make changes on the spot. It keeps you on your toes.”
With his last day at work getting closer, Elmes said he got a chance to experience what retirement might look like thanks to COVID-19 lockdowns.
“I realized quickly that doing a whole lot of nothing wasn’t for me,” he said.
Instead, Elmes thinks he’ll take a little time off and then find a part time job that will keep him occupied.
“Eventually, I’ll retire for good and will concentrate on my hobbies like metal detailing and fishing. It’s going to be great,” he said.