JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – Airman Maria Abou Daher Maalouf from the Lebanese Air Force is the first female air traffic controller from her country to attend the Defense Language Institute English Language Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland for English language training.
Her road to this achievement began with her studying English when she was around seven years old.
“I always preferred it to French, knowing that it was my third language,” Maalouf said. “In those years, I was, and still am, a Disney fan, so maybe that’s what piqued my interest.”
Before joining the Lebanese Air Force, or Al Quwwat al-Jawwiya al-Lubnaniyya, she studied for three years to be a teacher of French, biology, math and Arabic and attained her bachelor’s degree in pre-school and primary education. With that degree, she ended up teaching English in a French-educating school to children in kindergarten and grades one, two and three.
Leaving her teaching career, she joined the Air Force out of loyalty to her country and the military. She did not seek to become an air traffic controller but said it found her.
“To be honest, when I joined the Air Force, I had never thought about my specialty,” Maalouf said.
After testing for her qualifications, the test results led to this challenging field.
“My colonel saw my results and advised me that this is the best career for me to be in,” she said. “His trust in me was my biggest motivation. Additionally, my parents’ support and belief that I can do it stimulated me to do my best and to make them proud of me.”
At 23 years old, Maalouf has never flown an aircraft, but has been a passenger in a helicopter and felt the stress the two pilots were under.
“That experience helped me in my job because now I can relate to their situation,” she said. “Now I can see their maneuvers from the tower and understand their decisions and know that flying a helicopter is very risky.”
When asked if she considered the risk to her health, she stated, “I did some research just to have an idea of it. All over the Internet, it states that being an ATC is one of the most stressful jobs worldwide. Believe it or not, when I read this, I couldn’t wait to start my course. I love stress!”
She is well aware that her decisions as an ATC are a matter of life or death.
“It can really affect your health in the long term, but there are always ways to handle stress,” Maalouf said. “ The best way to help you overcome your tiredness, after a long day at work, is the satisfaction you feel when you love your profession, knowing you’re good at it, and thanking God you ended your day without anyone dying -- ‘never on my shift!’”
She has been an ATC for one year and always keeps in mind each word she pronounces is a matter of life or death. However, she is always careful and wide awake on the job.
Her determination is also witnessed in the classroom environment by her classmates who support her completely.
“Maalouf is a dedicated student and a natural leader,” said Joseph Leishman, one of her ESL instructors. “As an airman air traffic controller, she is very confident while interacting with officers in class who are more experienced in aviation than she is. It has been an honor working with her.”
Maalouf said her long-range career plans are “up in the air.”
“The future is ahead of us. I can’t tell you about 10 years from now, but the first step is knowing more and more and improving my aviation knowledge,” she said. “That’s why I’m here at DLIELC and going next to Fort Rucker, Alabama, hoping to be one of the best, or at least doing my best to be an air traffic controller.”
Her follow-on training is only for “choppers” and with all English-speaking students, which she is looking forward to. She prefers “choppers,” but in Lebanon, she will be working with all types of aircraft.
Life has presented her with many choices and she is happy with each avenue she has selected. Considering the roads presented to her and her choices, she regrets nothing.
“It’s been fabulous. Give me the stress. I feel I can handle it,” Maalouf said.
All her family, including her nieces and nephews, have totally supported her in all of her choices.
“I can never thank them enough. I am what I am today because of them. They always give me the support I need and a shoulder to cry on,” she said. “I will do my best to thank them for what they did for me. I’m ready to do anything just to make them proud of me. That’s why I do what I’m doing.”
She keeps in constant contact with her family, and they told her, “Although you are on the other side of the globe, we see you more on video live now than we did at home.”
Maalouf arrived at DLIELC Dec. 17, 2019, and experienced two weeks of jet lag and homesickness, but she said, “I’m good now.”
She graduated March 6 from the 9-week Specialized English Aviation, Communicate, Navigate course, and is attending training at Fort Rucker until July 20.
“I can’t wait for this next course. I’m so excited for it to begin,” Maalouf said. “And then I look forward to finishing my course at Fort Rucker and going back to my country and family.”
She has taken about eight 637th International Support Squadron Field Studies Program trips because she was curious about San Antonio and wanted to learn its culture. Now she loves San Antonio and Dallas.
“Somehow it reminds me of my country,” Maalouf said. “It is similar in that you feel like the people you meet have known you forever. We are used to this kindness and generosity back home. I love Texas.”
A comment from her Specialized English Instructor, Angie Stewart, sums up her gusto for her training and career.
“I had the pleasure of teaching Maalouf in M302 Communicate. In this module, our objective is to go over Air Traffic Control phraseology,” Stewart said. “Experiencing the class with her was fun and quite insightful as she was willing to share her knowledge and experiences as an ATC in Lebanon. Her excitement in sharing was contagious, as soon as she would start talking, others would jump in on the conversation about radio communication. I was grateful to have had her in class.”