When there are three or four or five (planes), it gets complicated’: Jeff Griffith at Sydney’s Bankstown Airport.
As a young air-traffic controller, Jeff Griffith learned to work fast.
The year was 1969 and he was in the US Air Force operating a mobile radar unit at a major combat airbase at Phu Cat, at the height of the Vietnam War, often under mortar and rocket fire.
“When the airplanes were coming in over there, they didn’t stop. They were usually low on fuel, or had battle damage,” Mr Griffith said.
He went on to a top career with the US’s Federal Aviation Administration, including serving as chief controller at what was then the world’s busiest airport, Chicago’s O’Hare, and later deputy director of air traffic control.
Since leaving the FAA in 2002, Mr Griffith has been executive vice-president of the Washington Consulting Group, which provides air traffic control services in the US and internationally. In 1996, and again in 2003 and 2004, the federal government brought him to Australia to advise on how to introduce the American air traffic control system, in which commercial aircraft are always directed by air traffic controllers.
It never happened — to this day Australia has a hotchpotch system where some airports are designated to be under controlled airspace, and others are not.
This week The Weekend Australian brought Mr Griffith back to Australia and commissioned him to re-examine what had happened to airspace management after a gap of 11 years.
He flew in the cockpit of a Beechcraft Duchess light twin-engine aircraft flown by Sydney flying instructor Aminta Hennessy and in a Cessna Citation corporate jet flown by air charter operator Brad Edwards from Armidale, in northeast NSW.
As the aircraft flew around controlled airspace above 8500 feet and uncontrolled airspace below it at regional airports, Mr Griffith talked with the pilots and listened to their radio discussions with air traffic controllers and other pilots.
He is amazed that at an airport such as Ballina, in northern NSW, which has 435,000 passengers a year with big commercial airline traffic along with considerable general aviation, pilots on their landing approach must still talk to each other to work out where each one is and how to avoid crashing into each other.
In the US, they would be kept well separated by air traffic controllers almost right to the runway. “At these smaller airports with this uncontrolled airspace airplanes are flying in the clouds with no separation being provided by air traffic controllers, and that’s according to regulation,” Mr Griffith said. “That works with two airplanes, but when there are three or four or five, it gets complicated.
“At those kinds of airports in the US, we have controlled airspace down to 700 feet above the ground and we provide separation to aircraft all the way through their approach and landing.”
Another thing that astounds Mr Griffith is that, unlike the US, where airport ground staff including firefighters, aircraft mechanics, flying school instructors, and check-in staff use the Unicom radio service to advise pilots of local air traffic and weather, regulations here prohibit all but serving and former air traffic controllers from providing such information.
Ahead of a flight from Sydney’s Bankstown Airport to Bathurst, 200km to the west, Ms Hennessy rang a friend who runs a flying school at Bathurst.
“She said there’s a bit of fog around but it looked like the sun would come out and it would burn off,” Ms Hennessy said. “We could both be put in jail for that,” she added, a slight embellishment in that the penalty is a fine, but still it would have broken the rules.
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