Friday, June 14, 2013

Canberra's air traffic control: an eye on the sky ... It's a building that towers over the Canberra Airport, but what goes on at the top of the spiral staircase? (With Audio)

Canberra air traffic controllers 

Canberra air traffic controllers Iain Martin and colleague watching the skies
 (ABC Local: Kate Corbett)

14 June, 2013 4:02PM AEST

By Kate Corbett

On a quiet and drizzly day, I was escorted into the Canberra Airport Control Tower to see just what goes on behind the barbed wire fences and closed doors.

Emerging from the spiral staircase, it was pretty much as I expected: 360 degree views through sparkling clean windows, lots of buttons and flashing lights and a line up of men looking out into the distance.

But surprisingly, much of the equipment looked as if it had been around since the early 1970s.

There are several retro stand-up telephone receivers with long spiral chords hanging out of the desk, well-worn square buttons and a dated grey, blue and beige colour scheme.

Veteran controller Iain Martin says some of the equipment may be ageing but it still functions well, and he's particularly enamoured with the stand-up phones.

"They're perfect, they work for the job so why change them?"

Tower tour

Iain volunteered to show me around his workspace and he's well-equipped to do so, having worked as an air traffic controller for more than three decades.

Every day starts with a "brew" - a cup of tea or coffee. Iain offered one to me and each of his colleagues.

Then the real work begins - checking the log books and weather, listening in to the radios, doing the change-over with colleagues and so on.

Iain has a lot of stories.

"We've had camels out on the aerodrome," he laughed, describing one perculiar event that took place on the field that is now Canberra Airport.

"The RAAF guys, when this was a RAAF base, were coming back from the Sinai and the local jokers thought it would be great to bring a camel out for the troops returning. Unfortunately the camel didn't like the sound of jet engines. So the camel got loose on the aerodrome so the aerodrome was closed due to a camel."

Iain doesn't say he was on shift that day but he's certainly had some exciting moments on the job.

Problem solvers

The day I visited the control tower was wet, foggy and pretty quiet, but I did watch on as the air traffic controllers solved a problem very quickly and efficiently.

A small plane was on the runway ready to take off, at the same time a car wanted to cross the runway and a large Qantas jet was approaching for landing.

The small plane easily had time to take-off but suddenly had a minor problem and had to abort its plans.

Quickly, the three air traffic controllers went into action.

They directed the small plane off the runway, guided the jet into land and once the runway was clear, directed the car to drive over the runway.

A couple of minutes later the small plane had resolved its problem and was allowed back onto the runway for take-off.

It was a minor issue for the traffic controllers, but exciting for a novice watching on.

"You don't like excitement in this job, but I get absolute joy and pleasure out of it every day, just watching aircraft and being part of the industry - it's a fantastic industry," Iain told me.

Aircraft lovers

Tower manager Binh Huynh has been an air traffic controller since 1991 and he still loves it.

"The job itself is very challenging, it's always changing, it's different every day especially in the tower environment, and you look outside and it's a nice view."

Binh is obviously smitten by aircraft.

"That's the beauty of our job sometimes, we see quite a lot of aircraft and the military have some really nice aircraft - F18s and all that."

Surprisingly, he's never been a pilot himself and believes he's too old to learn now.

Safe industry

Iain had dreamed of becoming an air force pilot when he finished school but was told his eyesight was not good enough.

His father recommended he try air traffic control and he has never looked back.

Iain's witnessed many incidents in his 34 years on the job but still says he's bemused when he hears people get nervous flying.

"People don't understand how sophisticated, how regulated, how safe, how well-trained all aspects of aviation are," he adds.

"I love flying, especially when you're sitting in the back of an Airbus sipping a champagne going on holidays, that's fantastic - why wouldn't you?"