I’ve got a thing for ATC towers. Who doesn’t, right? They’ve got the best view in the world! I’ve been staring longingly up at the tower at my airport since I started working there, wishing that I could get inside. I think they are aware of this because they keep adding more and more “no trespassing” signs along the fence.
Taking the hint, I’ve turned my attention elsewhere. There are three other towers under the jurisdiction of the airport authority, and I’ve visited all three. I’ve also managed a visit to the ramp tower at CLT. And earlier this year I reached the pinnacle of my tower-visiting career by spending time in the tower at Oshkosh during Airventure. It was amazing!
But… there’s still that tower at work. The one I park next to every day. The one whose controllers I listen to all the time. I’ve heard them handle emergencies and bad weather and single runway ops. Heck, I’ve even spoken to them when I helped on the deice pad. I feel like I know these people! I’m their biggest fan! And yet, this tower has remained out of reach…
Oh yes, you read that correctly! I FINALLY got inside the tower and let me tell you – it was AWESOME! Ready for pics? OK, here you go!
Yeah, that’s it. Sorry. We weren’t allowed to take photos. We weren’t even allowed to have our phones on. So the pics in this post are from other towers. You’ll still get an idea of what it was like though.
First stop was the cab. Wow. Just… wow! No other way to describe it! The view was spectacular. The planes look so small from up there! Getting to see the airport from that vantage point was both incredible and informative. For example, I learned that the tower does not have a good view of the deice pad because it is hidden by the terminal building. I didn’t realize that before.
The flight activity was fairly light during our visit, however the airport was on single-runway ops at the time, which is always fun to watch. We got an overview of the different tower positions, then we got to chat with the clearance controller for a bit who told us about the position and what it does. He showed us the flight strips and explained how to read them. I noticed that the “Bird Stike” box on his computer screen was lit up red. He said there had been a bird strike earlier that morning. (It is migration season so there is increased bird activity right now.)
All too soon our cab visit ended and as you might expect, I REALLY didn’t want to leave. I was prepared with a whole list of reasons why they should let me stay:
- I’ll wash the windows
- I’ll fetch coffee and snacks
- I won’t get in the way
- I promise not to unplug anything
However, before I could start begging and pleading, the ATC folks quite wisely tempted me with an offer I couldn’t refuse: a visit to the radar room. Sweet! I’ve always wanted to visit a TRACON!
The first thing I noticed when I entered the room was that it is dark. Really dark. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust. When they did, I saw lots of computer stations. The controllers who work here not only handle approach and departure for my airport, but they handle all the traffic below 10,000 feet for most of the state. (There apparently used to be two TRACONS that got combined into one, which is why they cover so much territory.)
We got to spend time with two controllers who were handling the airspace right around the airport. Their manager explained what they were doing and helped us to understand the information on the radar screens. One of the controllers got a call from the tower at the cargo airport with a heads up that two military tankers were about to take off. Sure enough they popped up onto the screen a few moments later. I was a bit alarmed to see that their targets were both flashing red. The controller explained that flashing red means the airplanes are too close together. If they had been civilian flights then he would have had to act quickly to separate them. However, military flights handle their own separation, so in this case it was OK.
There was definitely a different vibe in the TRACON vs. the cab. In the TRACON the focus is entirely on the computer screens. The controllers have a lot of airspace to manage and the atmosphere felt a little more intense. In the cab the focus is on the world outside the windows. The most important thing, however, is how it all fits together to keep things running smoothly and safely.
I would have happily stayed all day, but after a few more minutes it was time for us to go. Wow! What an epic visit! I still gaze longingly up at the tower, but now it’s with a better understanding of what’s going on in there. Oh – and the window washing and snacks thing? I’m still available. Any time. Seriously.