By Tania Moffat (photos by NAV CANADA)
The view from the NAV CANADA airport control tower at Winnipeg Richardson International Airport is truly breathtaking. It’s an exciting place to work and observe the dramatic and intense prairie skies. Many controllers look forward to greeting the 360 degree view as they begin their shift. Sprawled behind them is a stunning view of the city, and ahead a web of runways, open sky, and prairie as far as the eye can see.
As a conductor of the ground and skies surrounding the airport, they are part of a highly specialized team that controls the movement and synchronization of the players before them. Like any great score, the rhythm ebbs and flows. Slower periods are commanded almost casually, while rising crescendos of movements increase their adrenaline as they conduct with purpose, anticipating and planning ahead at a rapid pace.
Orchestrating the rapid movements of each landing and takeoff while simultaneously directing service vehicles and moving aircraft over the web of concrete on the ground below is a challenging endeavour. These “conductors” are air traffic controllers and they are the masters of all movement in the air within their designated airspace and on the ground.
Three controllers overlook the runways with a supervisor in the fourth seat behind them. Each has a very specific job to do, and must work in harmony with each other and with another group of area controllers located in a separate building. They relay information about aircraft moving into their airspace to keep traffic flowing safely and efficiently.
Controllers go through intense training to develop their skills and learn how to use the sophisticated systems and technology that assists them. The EXCDS Computer System, created by NAV CANADA and used throughout the world, provides electronic flight strips on touch-screen displays. It is an essential tool used to share information among controllers while tracking the movement of aircraft and vehicles.
Commanding the tower
The controller in charge of clearance delivery sits either on the right or left side of the tower, switching seats with the tower controller depending on the runway in use. Their role is to coordinate all routes, provide aircraft with their initial clearance, and enter them into NAV CANADA’s computer system, EXCDS. They will do other coordinating as required to assist the tower position.
The ground controller, seated in the middle, is responsible for getting aircraft to the threshold of the runway as well as coordinating all vehicles using the roadways, runways, or the airfield itself. ASDE, the airport surface detection equipment (the spinning yellow arm on top of the tower), is a critical tool used by ground controllers. It is especially useful when there is heavy fog, snow, or rain hampering views from the tower, as it allows controllers to “see” every vehicle on the ground.
During a snowstorm, a run-of-the-mill occurrence during Winnipeg winters, the ground position can become quite hectic. The conga line of snowplows have to clear the runway, sometimes in between each takeoff and landing, and controllers need to be aware of de-icing time limits, as well as the time it takes each aircraft to reach the end of the runway. It can take aircraft up to 10 minutes to reach the threshold of the runway, which is two miles out, when ground traffic and weather are good.
The tower position, seated nearest to the threshold of the runway in use, controls all aircraft in the airspace. They are responsible for all takeoffs and landings, both runways, and any aircraft operating within their airspace. All inbound flights appear on the arrivals panel when they reach the 50 nautical mile perimeter of the airport. Working in the tower requires skilled employees capable of multi-tasking and thinking on their feet. There is no room for error; you can’t tell a plane to stop in mid-air.
Radar screens, used by all controllers, provide information on where aircraft are in the airspace above and surrounding the airport.
In order to remain alert, all personnel working the tower, including the supervisor, take regular breaks and rotate through the various positions during their eight-hour shift.
Communication is critical
Precise, rapid-fire commands are given and confirmed; voices constantly crack over the open inbound radio frequency. The language that is spoken is like a song, letters transposed into words to avoid confusion are spoken with clarity and authority. As an observer, it is magical, like the rush one feels when viewing any powerful performance – an appreciation for the skills required and awe at seeing it so seamlessly executed. Like conducting a symphony, it requires a degree of sophistication and seriousness of purpose.
Winnipeg Richardson International Airport is a complex airport and providing air traffic control services here requires attention to the different types of aircraft that use our airport. The presence of a military base on the aerodrome makes operations here unique. Passenger airlines, cargo planes, military aircraft, pilots in training, and small commuter jets all vie for use of the runways. This separates Winnipeg from other larger airports where traffic consists mainly of passenger airlines and the types of aircraft flown are more consistent. While other airports may have air traffic volumes that exceed those of Winnipeg, the diversity of aircraft flown here can add complexity to the job of providing air traffic control.
But for many of those in the Winnipeg Tower, this diversity is what makes the job interesting: watching alpha jets fly patterns or do touch-and-goes between flights adds some spice to the day.
Confusing? Not really, because everyone has a precise role to play as part of the whole. Departing aircrafts on a flight plan will first speak with the clearance delivery person, who will pass them to ground. Ground will guide the plane safely to the threshold of the runway. Tower will then take over clearing the takeoff and remaining in contact until the plane has exited their airspace.
The flight is then handed off to their area controller colleague, who will change as the flight progresses. Once the flight nears its destination, the area controller will hand it off to the new tower controller, and when the plane is safely on the ground, ground control will direct them to their gate. Whew – that’s a lot of controllers ensuring your flight leaves and arrives safely!