A Life in the Day of an Air Traffic Controller
It’s 4 am; it’s dark; the alarm clock has shattered the pre-dawn peace for the second time and you know that it is not going to get any easier to get up. Coffee needs to be consumed soon to ease the pain of getting the brain and body into gear for another day in Air Traffic Control.
Shift work doesn’t get any easier as you get older and the lack of daylight saving in Queensland means the schedules are an hour earlier. It will soon be six o’clock in Sydney and the traffic is beginning to rumble.
You arrive in the fluoro-lit ops room: it’s daytime 24 hours a day. You notice your workmates also begin to arrive. You make a quick stop at the pre-briefing station, rubbing your eyes as you concentrate on what has changed and what the weather and NOTAMS are saying.
You grab your headset and get over to the console to relieve the night-shift – and you notice he is looking worse than you’re feeling!
He gives you the handover, explaining that you have un-forecast fog rolling through the Hunter Valley and that Sydney’s forecast fog has also arrived. You flinch, as you have been here before. His briefing is tight and concise but pregnant with meaning: it will be a busy, unpredictable morning.
As he stands up, you plug in you hear the first morning call – a Jetstar A320 wanting the latest weather reports and advising that the RWY in Williamtown (WLM) is too fogged in to depart.
It’s now 5.59 am. Sydney is removing the noise abatement procedures and the first international aircraft from Los Angeles is commencing approach for landing. You glance at the electronic sequencing tool, located on your radar display and you notice already that the numbers are in the yellow – holding – it will be a very interesting morning.
Ten minutes have passed, the first three aircraft have gone around and the holding patterns are getting full. The delays are now in the 20-odd minutes range and the word is departures out of Brisbane and Melbourne have been stopped.
The controller next to you calls for the supervisor and announces that the United flight from San Francisco is diverting to Brisbane. The supervisor quickly lets the Brisbane flow controller know and the aircraft diverts, making operational decisions based on company fuel requirements and the amount of holding that is in place.
Over the next hour or so there is a hive of activity as controllers in aisle three of the Brisbane Air Traffic Services Centre do what they love doing: making it happen.
As the weather begins to clear, aircraft begin to land. The local fog through the Hunter Valley rises, also allowing aircraft to approach the airport.
Movements begin to rise, peaking at the maximum allowable capacities at Australia’s busiest airport.
As the queue shortens and movements return to normal, you get ready to venture to the cafeteria. Next stop, a short black and a bacon-and-egg sandwich.
Enjoying your breakfast, you also discuss the Wallabies’ latest loss with a workmate then stroll upstairs into the ops room. Those 30 minutes have gone too fast and it is time to begin the next slice of your day.
Your experience tells you that when there are significant delays for arrivals into Sydney, there will be a large exodus of aircraft not too soon after. You prepare yourself for another busy period.
RAAF Williamtown (WLM) ATC call you and advise that they will be doing extensive flying ops today and their airspace will commence operations in 30 minutes. You see this nearly every weekday but the delays into and out from WLM will mean a significant arrival and departure push.
An hour passes: you have survived the arrivals and departure flights into WLM and you notice how many aircraft are taxiing in Sydney. You wish that your break could begin now but it won’t come for another hour.
Mentally, you begin to scan the departing order, looking at the different aircraft and the possibilities for concern. You notice a pair of Westwinds departing Nowra and flying in standard military formation to tow targets for the FA-18s to practice their ‘I’m switching to guns’. You begin to plan the mix of traffic and how this will unfold.
One thing all controllers learn is that while planning is important, all the preparation in the world sometimes won’t prevent difficult situations approaching very fast from a direction you just can’t foresee. Departure orders (faster following), overflying military traffic, airspace corridor requests and possible air-to-air refuelling operations all pose problems that need resolving.
Priorities are important, airlines have tight schedules, highlighted safety trends require extra vigilance and you apply all you have learned, second-guessing pilot requests and planning for as many scenarios as possible.
Your shift comes to an end and, as always, the morning has passed quickly. You have forgotten how tired you should feel but you know it will hit you soon.
It’s 11am and as you hand over your shift to your work colleague, you can’t help but tell him: “You should have been here this morning.” He smiles.
You can’t help feeling quietly proud of what you have achieved. You leave quickly, knowing how important sleep will be, as you will back at 10pm tonight for the nightshift.
And as you drive out of the car park, you relax as you replay your day, looking forward to the next shift, the next challenge.
This is why you like this job so much.