Thursday, June 28, 2012

Cleared To Land

My recent visit to the Charlotte ATC* (air traffic control) facilities was something I have had on my wish list a long time. It was worth waiting for. I was given a complete tour, including the tower, radar facilities and even the simulation room. My host was Jim Koon, Air Traffic Control Specialist.
We started out on the lower levels, which included approach and departure control facilities. Walking into the dark radar room took a bit of adjustment because it was so dark. But once my eyes adapted to the low light level, I could take in the setting. There were many contollers seated in front of an individual radar display with others closely standing by or supervising.  I was advised that the radar systems had all been upgraded to digital, which explained why the details on the screens were so sharp. Each operator is responsible for a sector (like a piece of pie). I believe this is true for both approach and departure.  Each blip on a screen represents an airplane. The flight number or N number of the plane, its airspeed and altitude are noted under the blip. This allows the controller to keep a watchful eye on all the planes on his/her screen. This can be particularly important in the high density traffic areas, where a misunderstood ATC instruction could lead to a possible accident.   

As an example of this, I’ll relate an incident that I remember when I was inbound on an ILS in low IFR conditions. For some reason, I didn’t begin my descent at the proper time. The radar controller noted my altitude was too high for my location on the approach, so issued me a go around. I had overrun the outer marker, the point where I should have begun my descent. The controller alerted me to my error and saved a possible accident. Several years ago a local businessman’s twin turboprop crashed into a mountain as the pilot failed to initiate an approach at the proper time. They apparently were not communicating with an ATC facility, and so didn’t have anyone watching over them. Bad luck for them.

Well, back to the ATC facility. In the same area where all the radar operators were located, there was a giant map of the United States which displayed all incoming flights to the Charlotte area over the next eight or so hours. Way up in the right hand corner several overseas flights from Europe were posted, and on the left side some from California and Asia. This information is used for planning purposes.

Also downstairs was a simulator room where personnel are trained for the various positions. This was most impressive. All conditions of weather and lighting could be simulated. All the various instrument approaches could be simulated. Also landing and departure emergencies, such as an engine out etc. could be practiced. As a plus they are able to display the simulated views from the cockpit of a plane landing on any runway. This is a wonderful safe and effiecient way to train controllers for any eventuality.

My final visit was to the tower. We rode the elevator partway. Then it was up two flights of narrow stairs, like those found on Navy ships, and we were there. A large spacious area with 360 degree views of the airport and environs. There must have been a dozen or so operators, all with a specific area of responsibility. This of course includes:  handling all arriving and departing aircraft as well as taxiing aircraft and ancillary vehicles. Due to the large expanse of the airport, there are two fire department stations spaced on opposite sides of the airport.

Now that you have an idea what an ATC facility consists of, I am going to offer some advice to pilots as to what are the “extras” that ATC personnel can offer. While at the facility, I discussed at some length, the things that can be offered to a pilot with a problem. For example, let’s say that you have a low fuel indication. If you let the controller know in enough time he/she can offer you vectors to the nearest facility suitable for your plane to land on. Other inflight emergencies as: smoke in the cockpit, control or engine problems can be similarly handled. The key point here, is that the sooner you notify them, the sooner they can start to help. Frequently time is of the essence so don’t wait

Enjoy your flying, and if in doubt give a shout. Fly well and safely.

·         For a complete discussion of ATC, including things like aircraft call signs, various types of communication between aircraft and ATC etc. look at: Wikipedia Air Traffic Control.