Last week six lucky RB Group employees were invited to visit the air traffic control tower of the Rotterdam The Hague Airport.
Inner workings of an ATC: lots of communications
I was impressed by both the professionalism and extensiveness of the work done by the control tower crew: they do not only support the air traffic landing and taking off at the airport, but they also communicate and coordinate a lot more than that. This includes communication with:
- Ground crew that would like to head out to the runway / ramp for several reasons
- Maintenance crew working on sensors, radar equipment and such
- Radar control at other locations (like Schiphol Airport)
- Control towers at other locations
There’s a priority system in place as well:
The air traffic controllers need to adhere to these priorities to ensure a safe environment to work in for all people involved.
The backup ATC radar system
If the power was to be cut from the control tower or any other issues with the systems should arise, the airport has a backup system working live and real-time in the same building. This allows for a quick response to keep communications going with incoming and outgoing traffic.
Learning to communicate with a control tower
During the visit we learned that Lelystad Airport (a small airport in the province of Flevoland) is ‘uncontrolled’ – it does have a tower, but there’s no AFIS / ATC active. This means that when student pilots are doing their training flights, they sometimes fly to Rotterdam to practice their radio skills by hailing the control tower and doing landings and takeoffs on the designated runway.
Balancing traffic: a job of timing and coordination
With various types of flights coming in and leaving, it is a precision-type job to balance it all. At one moment, there could be a small single-engine plane leaving that has to take its time to get up to speed and altitude: right after, a commercial 737-800 would leave among the same path.
By delaying the 737 a little bit, the ATC gives the small plane some time to get away from the airport. Delaying is not a bad thing in this case, because otherwise, the 737 would have to adjust its path to avoid the smaller plane.
A delayed flight? Ask for a slot to take off sooner
Flights get delayed for various reasons. One reason would be that a so-called ‘slot’ is not available (anymore). This slot is a certain flight path in Europe for example. These slots are decided in Brussels by the Network Manager Operations Centre (NMOC) operated by Eurocontrol. Both airlines, as well as ATCs, are connected to the NMOC.
On beforehand, NMOC receives the flight plans for the flights and gives out slot times (often months in advance). It’s the airline’s and ATC’s job to do their best to use that slot. If a slot has become unavailable, yet the flight is ready for takeoff, the control tower can ask for a new slot on behalf of the flight, so they can take off earlier than the expected delayed time.
Life of an ATC at Rotterdam The Hague Airport: all about balance and checks
During the visit it became clear that air traffic controllers have a very important job: they are the police officers governing the traffic in and around the airport. Being behind the scenes showed that the staff is very professional and committed, and does a lot more communication than just with the pilots.
Many thanks to Mark for having us, and for his patience explaining everything!
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