Real-time air traffic map courtesy FlightRadar24.com
Almost without fail, the question I get immediately following, “What do you do?” is, “Oh, 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 “controllers 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, “Cleared 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.