Browsing Tag: Air Traffic Control

Real-time air traffic map courtesy

Almost without fail, the question I get immediately following, ’œWhat do you do?’ is, ’œOh, so you work at the tower?’ I’ve been a controller for nine years now, and no, I’ve never worked at a tower. I actually work in a big windowless building, nowhere near an airport. While the question irks some of us, it’s easy to see why it’s asked so often: The tower is one of the most recognizable landmarks of the flying experience. Of course the mainstream media almost never gets it right. Any time the news talks about ATC, we are referred to as the ’œcontrollers in the tower.’ And the alternative misconception, that we are the crews on the ramp marshaling aircraft with the orange sticks, is no better. Let’s see if we can start clearing up just what we do as air traffic controllers.

ATC That You Can See
When you’re at an airport waiting for a flight, you can see all the hustle and bustle going on outside the windows ’“ aircraft landing, departing and taxiing to and from the ramp. There are even other vehicles speeding about all the time. Every one of these is handled by people in the control tower. Even before your plane starts pushing back from the gate, the pilots are in contact with controllers, relaying information back and forth about their flight plan and taxi instructions to the runway.

Finally, with some patience, your pilots hear, ’œCleared for takeoff.’ The engines of your airplane roar to full power, you get pushed back in your seat, the rumble of the concrete suddenly becomes silky smooth and off you go. Everything beneath you becomes much smaller’¦and then what? It’s a big sky and the pilots have a flight plan, so they know where to go, right? Sixty years ago that may have been possible, but it is certainly not anymore. The airspace is far too busy and the airplanes far too fast for pilots to go it alone these days.

Continue reading Beyond the Tower: The Controllers That Guide You the Rest of the Way on

Vancouver's Unique Tower dominates the airport skyline - Photo: Mal Muir |

Vancouver’s unique tower dominates the airport skyline – Photo: Mal Muir |

If you are a big AvGeek, then the chances are you have listed in on air traffic control (ATC) somehow.  Be it onboard a United flight using their famous Channel 9, listening online using LiveATC, or through a scanner while plane spotting, it’s a familiar sound.  But have you ever wondered what life is like from the other side of the microphone?  Wouldn’t it be great to see what an airport looks like from the top of the tower, or what it is like to work inside an area control center?  Recently Nav Canada gave me that exact opportunity at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) and I wanted to share.

Nav Canada, a not-for-profit private company, controls the airspace above Canada similar to the FAA in the United States.  Vancouver Tower stands tall above the airport at around 140m tall (460ft) and has 360-degree views of the entire area.  Although the day I visited the tower did not have the best weather (the cloud deck was really low, unfortunately) the view of the airport was still impressive.  On a clear day, you can see all the way to the mountains north of the city (towards Grouse) or down to Victoria in the south. But I was more there for the view inside than the clouds and mountains outside.

Hello? Is anyone there?! (yea, I know this is not a shot of DCA, but let's pretend)

Hello? Is anyone there?! (yea, I know this is not a shot of DCA, but let's pretend)

Being able to talk to the tower when you want to land at a large airport, just miles away from the nation’s capital, is a good thing. Not being able to talk to traffic control when two airliners are trying to land is not.

Early Wednesday morning, a United Airlines and an American Airlines flight were unable to reach the control tower at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington DC. After the American flight aborted their landing and circled the airport, both landed while talking to a regional tower and announcing their actions to any other aircraft that might be in the area.

There was only one controller on duty and federal investigators are seeing if that controller might have fallen asleep. Since this happened between midnight and 1am, there wasn’t much traffic, but it is still an unsafe situation. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has asked the FAA to require two controllers be on duty at DCA in the future.

To learn more and get quotes from an airline pilot, United Airlines, the FAA and others, check out my story on AOL Travel News.