With the breakdown of NATS’ services on 6 September (these things are quickly forgotten) this piece by Jim Scott, Managing Director/Founder and Owner of Artemis Aerospace, looks at the crucial work of air traffic controllers and how they keep aircraft moving and skies safe.
If you have downloaded a flight radar app, you may have been astonished at the sheer number of aircraft criss-crossing the country. Zooming in to Heathrow or New York JFK, all you can see is a vast pile of teeny planes all seemingly jostling to get on or off the runway. It appears to be completely chaotic, but every single aircraft is on a precisely dictated flight path, and it is the work of air traffic controllers (ATCo) which will result in an untroubled journey and a safe landing.
The aim of air traffic control (ATC) is to move aircraft safely and efficiently through the airspace system, to maintain communication with the pilot and ensure compliance with aviation protocol. In the UK, 7,000 aircraft traverse the skies every day, and ATC services handle 2.5 million flights and 250 million passengers per year on commercial, leisure, cargo and military flights.
It is arguably one of the most responsible jobs anyone can undertake, with passenger safety depending on each decision. To become an ATCo you need to have good concentration, excellent verbal communication, problem-solving and decision-making skills and the ability to pay attention to detail and work well under pressure.
The route to becoming an ATCo involves rigorous study; to begin with, trainees spend a year at a specialist college learning about the theories and practicalities of the job. Modules include air navigation law, air safety management and weather studies as well as the complex rules and regulations of ATC. Having completed this, trainees can then specialise as one of three types of ATCo:
There are two types of airspace, controlled and uncontrolled. Surprisingly, the majority is uncontrolled and is used by recreational pilots and also some military flights; it is up to the pilots to avoid collisions. ATC services are provided in controlled airspace using radar and other surveillance systems to minimise delays and keep aircraft at a safe distance from each other.
Before take-off, a flight plan for each aircraft is filed with ATC so that every ATCo who oversees the flight knows the route and details of the flight. At this stage the pilot will be communicating with an ATCo in the airport control tower, who is responsible for it at this stage and who will give the pilot permission to take off. When an aircraft takes off it follows a SID (Standard Instrument Departure) route. This takes into consideration airspace management, noise abatement rules and obstacle avoidance.
As soon as the aeroplane has taken off, another ATCo takes over, usually from a control centre, who will track its journey through the airspace. Each ATCo has their own airspace, and when the aircraft leaves it, a handover is co-ordinated with the ATCo in charge of the next sector. If for any reason during the flight an aircraft has to deviate from its planned flight path, perhaps for weather conditions, the ATCo in charge will manage the route directly, a process which is known as vectoring.
During the descent, the aircraft joins a Standard Terminal Arrival Route (STAR) which manages all arrivals with maximum efficiency. ATCo’s are responsible for maintaining communication with the pilots at all times, and providing essential information such as altitude changes, speed adjustments, congestion over an airport, and anything which could jeopardise a safe landing. ATC operates 24 hours a day, every day of the year; there is never a time when controlled airspace is unmonitored.
In the event of an aviation emergency, the role of the ATCo is critical, providing assistance, direction and the co-ordination of contingency plans and other necessary responses. They help pilots with emergency procedures, set up route plans for emergency landings, organise the diversion of flights to other airports and keep the communication channels open. They may need to supply details of passenger medical issues, aircraft mechanical failure, the amount of fuel remaining if an aircraft has to be diverted further than the initial route plan, as well as organising any response on the ground such as fire engines or ambulances.
Working in ATC is a highly specialised career with extensive training and considerable responsibility. Regular breaks are carefully scheduled throughout a shift in order that concentration remains optimal; an essential part of a job where lives can be at stake.
It is due to the skills and aptitude of the ATCo’s that, unlike the road networks, the highways of the sky stay uncongested and as safe as possible. So, as you taxi down the runway and prepare for take-off on your next flight, you can be confident that they will be guiding your plane through each and every air mile.
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