For as long as I can remember I have always dreamed of going up into an ATC tower. I park in the shadow of one every day and I often find myself gazing up at it and thinking about all the activity going on up there, not to mention the amazing view! So you can imagine my surprise and giddy delight when I got to visit not one but TWO ATC towers (at two different airports) in the last month.
The passenger airport where I work has a lovely tower that was built just a few years ago. Wisely, they don’t allow me anywhere near it. Fortunately, the old tower still exists and is currently used in the winter for snow ops. As part of the deice pad control training I’m currently undergoing, I was given the opportunity to visit the tower to get a better view of the deicing area. Getting into the tower involves either riding up in the world’s tiniest elevator, or walking up roughly a million stairs. I chose the elevator. When the doors opened, the view that awaited me was worth every claustrophobic moment.
My first thought was that I am moving my desk to the tower ASAP, crazy tiny elevator be damned! Being able to see pretty much the entire airport was simply spectacular. But then it was pointed out to me that there is no longer any AC in the tower which makes it unbearable in the summer. Neither is there any heat. The snow team uses portable heaters to stay warm during snow events.
Once I was able to tear myself away from the amazing view out the window I was struck by size of the cab. It wasn’t tiny but it didn’t feel as big as I had thought it would. I tried to visualize all the ATC equipment that would have been in there. I suspect it was a bit crowded. The snow team’s equipment consists of some hand-held radios and a couple of laptops. There’s more than enough room for that as well as every single item currently crammed into my cubicle.
The Cargo Tower
As excited as I was about visiting the snow tower, I was completely beside myself when I found out my department would be getting a tour of the brand-new ATC tower at the cargo airport. Construction was completed this past spring. The old tower had been built in the 50s when the cargo airport was still an Air Force Base. There was no elevator. To get to the top controllers had to climb stairs most of the way, and then climb ladders the final two floors. Once the new tower was ready it took 6 hours of cautious and steady work to transition over.
We began our tour on the 5th floor in the snow ops room. In the same way that Ops uses the Snow Tower at the pax airport, they will use this room to coordinate activities during snow events. The view is pretty spectacular but not nearly as awesome as our next stop – the top!
We were greeted by the two controllers on duty. They are both contractors – one a retired Marine, the other retired FAA. They explained the basics about what they do and showed us some of the equipment – the radar, the AWOS display, the flight strips, etc. They talked about what it was like working in the old tower and how they assisted in the set-up of the new tower.
Then they answered questions. I asked about approach control – I suspected that it is located at the pax airport and I was right. I asked about the airspace – the pax airport is Class C. The cargo airport, however, is Class D (as are the other two airports in the area, including our GA airport). I asked about what kind of traffic they typically handle. Obviously there are lots of cargo planes flying in, but I found out that on nice days they see a lot of GA planes as well. Apparently the two 12,000 foot runways are great places to practice touch-and-goes.
After answering questions the controllers asked if we’d like to go out on the catwalk that surrounds the cab. Would I? Oh hell YES! Coolest walk-around EVER! Thanks to low cloud cover and the fact that most cargo activity happens at night, there were no planes in the pattern while I was out there. That’s probably a good thing. If there had been they’d have had one heck of a hard time getting me back inside.
Eventually I did (reluctantly) go back in. We spent a few more minutes chatting with the controllers. It turns out the one who is retired from the FAA used to work at the pax airport. He started in the old tower (the snow tower) then moved to the new one. This means he has worked at all four towers at both airports. To my surprise, he spoke quite fondly of the snow tower. He said that the new tower is nice, but it’s somewhat sterile. The old tower felt more comfortable. I completely agree. And I’m still thinking about relocating my desk in there. Or maybe I’ll move to this cute little room at the cargo airport. The view is still great, the HVAC is better and the elevator is substantially less terrifying.