Saturday, April 19, 2008

Tower Visit

It was a rare quiet night at Buttonville airport. Only two planes doing the circuits, but the two pilots kept thing interesting with one making a position report with a different call sign (me) and the other overshooting the landings (we later found out she was practicing night overshoots). As I tried to remember how to land the Cessna (“are you going to put in flaps?” “Oops, forgot about those”), my instructor chatted with the controller. One thing after another led to the invite to visit the tower to the crews of both planes. We accepted the invite, finished circuits, tied down the planes, piled into my instructor’s car and soon were driving the labyrinth of back roads that apparently let to the tower as we were soon walking up the stairs.

I never got a chance to visit the old tower that was in the same building as the flight school, so had nothing to compare it to, but the new state-of-the-art modular tower was impressive. State of the art, because it is very recent. Modular, because it can be disassembled and shipped elsewhere in case Buttonville ever closes up. It sits in a better position compared to the old tower as controllers have unobstructed views of both runways and most of the taxiways and apron.
The tower had several floors. Second floor housed what could be defined as a typical apartment. It had a rest room (with a couch for sleeping), a rec room with some machines, washroom and shower, computer station and a complete kitchen. The purpose of all that was to make sure controllers could relax when they had an ‘off’ time during their shift. I did not write down the details, so won’t quote exact numbers but in a typical shift, the controllers would have several on and off periods and, having the facilities on site, meant they do not have to leave the facility. Sometimes the controllers get to work a shift that ends late at night and the next shift starts early in the morning, so they can just stay and sleep right there.

But the main attraction of the tower was of course the command post. It occupied the top floor, had a circular layout and wraparound windows so that controllers could see everyone over and around the field.

One controller was at work monitoring both ground and tower frequencies while the other showed us around. The lighting in the tower was at minimum intensity to make sure that occupants preserved their night vision. All the instruments (and there were quite a few) were dimmed as well.

The off-duty controller showed us the radar data on the computer and how it worked. Using radar computer at the other end of the room (away from working controller), we were shown how to turn on the different layers (altitude slices) and how much traffic that adds. I was very impressed with how much information could be on a radar. Given YKZ’s proximity to YYZ (Toronto Pearson), radar showed a lot of Air Canada traffic, their call signs, altitudes and destinations. We later turned all extra layers off and saw the visual take off of a small plane from our field and then his appearance on a radar.

We then went away from the high tech and looked at the brilliant low tech solution designed to track all the airplanes in the circuit and coming in. That solution involved rectangular metal plates were sliding up and down inside the box with the name of the plane written on then in erasable markers. Once the plane first contacts the ground, it gets its own rectangle that gets into one of two boxes depending on whether or not plane was intending to do circuits or go away from the zone. More over, all the airplanes in the circuits would be stacked inside the box in the order in which they are cleared to land. Very neat!

Afterwards, we spent what seemed like a few minutes chatting about controllers' pet peeves (misreporting a reporting point, stepping in the middle of others’ conversations, ignoring busy frequency and talking too much were among the “favorites”) and listening to stories.

Time flew by and soon I discovered we’ve been in the tower for over an hour and it was time to go home, which I did, reluctantly. It was a very worthwhile visit for me. I now understand much better “how it works” and hopefully won’t be annoying controllers too much in the future.