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Give air traffic controllers a rest
by Larry Wilson
Apr 19, 2011 | 797 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Our country is in an absolute dither because a handful of air traffic controllers have been caught napping on the job. Off with their heads! The cry has reverberated across the country as if it were a scene out of “A Tale of Two Cities” and the women knitting were witness to the entire performance.

The average American citizen is so unaware of the realities of our aviation world — short of the pat down they undergo at the airport en route to visit grandma — that it is an embarrassment to admit.

When an airplane is loaded and ready to leave the terminal on its first flight of the day, many things have happened before the plane pulls away from the gate. Not only has the plane been refueled, cleaned inside, restocked with peanuts, preflighted by the crew and its flight plan filed with the FAA, but the passengers have all been screened to ascertain they weren’t some weirdo carrying explosives either on their person or in their baggage.

The pilot doesn’t just kick the tire and light the fire. He must first get clearance from ground control to pull away from the gate and is told in English, which is the universal language accepted worldwide for aviation, how to proceed to get in line for takeoff. Once the pilot gets to the takeoff position, he or she calls the control tower for permission to take off as well as instructions on what to do once in the air. After takeoff, the pilot contacts departure control, which guides the aircraft on its flight through the use of radar. Periodically, departure control will require the aircraft to respond to various communications as the flight proceeds. Departure control guarantees every aircraft a three-mile clearance in front and in back of their flight as well as 1,000-foot clearance above and below.

Along the flight path, aircraft follow highways in the sky called Victor Highways, which are paths created by variable omni range antennas (VORs), which emit a certain frequency radio wave that is a magnetic measurement 360 degrees around and confirmed by a Morse code three-letter identifier. VORs are located every 40 miles along a flight route. The public might see a white building on the runway that looks like it has an old-fashioned milk bottle on top of it. That is a VOR. Some are even co-located at airports. We have a VOR on a mountain top just east of Reno and there is another very famous one out near Hazen just east of Fernley. If you ever watch aircraft flying east of Reno and you see one turn left or right for some unknown reason it probably means that they turned onto the Victor Highway to take them to Boise, Seattle, Denver, etc. and are following the heading being transmitted from the Hazen VOR.

When the aircraft gets closer to its destination, departure control will hand the aircraft off to the approach control people who will control the aircraft until it is time to turn the aircraft over to the tower people at the destination. At that point in the flight, the tower will tell the aircraft which runway to land on, altimeter setting and wind direction. Upon landing, the aircraft is told by the tower to contact ground control, which will tell the aircraft which taxiway to use and which gate to park at to unload its passengers.  

In preparation for their flight, pilots will consult the aerdrome directory to ascertain the current situation at their departure airport and at their arrival airport. Things such as which runways are under construction and are closed are just some of the pertinent information the pilot needs to know. In addition, the pilot checks the weather along the flight path and at the arrival airport, they look at the log book on the aircraft to determine if there might be some mechanical problem that would preclude flying that airplane. The pilot will also check their various maps to make sure they are current.

Many small or under-used airports either don’t have a control tower or the tower is closed for whatever reason from time to time, so pilots have been trained as to what actions to take in order to land at those kinds of airports safely should that happen.

In the case of the napping controllers, I think they should be reprimanded unless their job performance has been substandard before, but I think they should not lose their jobs over this. The air traffic control scheduling and manpower requirements should be changed to allow adequate rest for controllers as well as adequate personnel in the control areas to maintain the tremendous safety our airways have exhibited the past few years.

Larry Wilson is a 50-year resident of Sparks and a retired elementary school teacher. He can be reached at
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