But while being a pilot is sure to make you at least one of the five coolest people at any party, no one thinks about the air traffic controller. And people totally should. The truth is, if you've ever flown in a plane, or stood in a place over which planes were flying, you have air traffic controllers to thank for not being killed in a biblical cataclysm. We talked to someone who spent six years as an Air Force air traffic controller, and he told us You probably think this is done by a series of computers inside the tower and the planes themselves, all working together to make sure the colored dots on the screens never touch.
Continue Reading Below Advertisement Yeah, let me give you an example of how it really works: It was early on in my career, while I was still in training. There are two different jobs in the tower -- I was being trained on ground control basically, in control of the non-runway parts of the airport , and another guy was being trained on local control the active runways.
To make sure things didn't crash into each other and explode, those two people have to talk to each other. So, it was the two of us trainees and the two controllers who were training us.
Continue Reading Below Advertisement A fuel truck called me on the radio, requesting to cross an active runway -- a routine request an air traffic controller gets several times a day.
Obviously, my next step was to ask local control if there were any planes coming. At the moment, they were too busy, so I told the fuel truck to hold tight for a moment. A few minutes later I asked again, and it sounded like this: Continue Reading Below "Ground, local permission to cross runway 22 with fuel truck," I said. This is a total catch-" "Don't you dare fucking say it. Had I given the fuel truck the go-ahead, it would've collided with the plane and created a Michael Bay Christmas card.
The voice in my headset? It wasn't the local controller -- it was the trainee. He just happened to remember the landing plane that his trainer had forgotten. Continue Reading Below Advertisement "But wait," you're hopefully thinking right now, "where was the radar, alarms, and all of the other safety gear intended to save us airline passengers from that kind of explosive human error? That's actually a radar facility, which tends to be miles even hundreds of miles from most of the airfields they service.
We had a radar screen in our tower, but by the time a plane descends to a certain altitude, that radar is spectacularly unreliable -- I'm using binoculars to see my aircraft at that point, and then I'm switching to the plain old naked eye once they're a bit closer to my airspace. It's always better to physically put eyes on something than rely on a piece of equipment to tell you where it is.
If the opposite were true, airplanes wouldn't even have windows. Continue Reading Below Continue Reading Below Advertisement As it turns out, a lot of what keeps you safe during a flight is only that -- a human being who is looking out of a window and figuring things out. Even though we had a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment sitting in the middle of the airfield, we as controllers were still trained as weather observers because if the machine fails, we can't tell all of the incoming planes, "Sorry, there's no weather right now, come back on Tuesday.
And we'd look at the observable distance to specific landmarks -- nearby buildings, water towers, cell towers -- to hammer out a figure for visibility. It doesn't get more low-tech than that, but we still had to know how to do it, in case our slick machines decided to betray us as they inevitably do.
Continue Reading Below Advertisement You know what else fails? Yep, literally the most important piece of technology we have will go out at any time without warning, and unfortunately, leaning out the window and shouting at planes is rarely effective.
So what do we do when the tower or an aircraft's radios fail? We bust out the light guns. Sadly, they're not the kind of light guns you play Lethal Enforcers with -- they're essentially spotlights with green and red retractable shades. If an aircraft is within my airspace and they've gone NORDO "no radio" , I simply aim the light gun at the cockpit from the tower and show the pilot a steady green light, which lets them know they're cleared to land.
If something wanders out onto the runway, I change the signal to a flashing red light, so they'll know the airport is unsafe. Again, the only way this could be more low-tech is if we sent Bruce Willis out onto the runway to frantically wave a pair of flares.
Alternating red and green means "reindeer in the sky. You need a fleshy sack of person sitting in the driver's seat to make sure the job is getting done, even if we have to resort to flashing lights and binoculars.