Barbara Standing and Terre Gorham 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Fasten your seat belts, put your tray tables in the upright position, and turn off all cell phones because the Memphis International Airport is ready for takeoff. As big as the Delta/Northwest merger was, the new $250 million construction project under way that includes a $61 million state-of-the-art air traffic control tower is jumbo. Downtowner Drew Buckman is an air traffic controller who flies high inside the mysterious world of traffic control at the world’s busiest cargo airport. At 28 years old, Buckman is a seasoned vet. He was on the path to becoming a pilot when Sept. 11 toppled the commercial aviation industry along with his dream. He decided to deviate from his own flight plan to pursue a career in the control tower instead. “You have three types of air traffic controllers: tower, center, and TRACON,” explains Buckman, who works at Memphis Center Control. “The three ATC groups rule distinct, separate parts of the sky and work in completely different facilities. Although it would be impossible to identify the three types of controllers in a lineup, the job responsibilities and housing are easily recognized.” For tower controllers, the sky is their limit. They handle all airport traffic on the ground, handing off aircraft to the TRACON — terminal radar approach control — almost immediately after departure. TRACON is responsible for the aircraft on radar within a 40-nautical-mile Radius of Memphis, up to 16,000 feet. The center controllers take over after that, responsible for a wide swath of higher altitude airspace extending over parts of TN, MS, AR, AL, MO, and KY. Center facilities are not necessarily located on the airport field but are usually nearby. The center facility — in complete contrast to the tower structure — is often an unimpressive, office park–type building, squatting in the shadow of the highly visible architectural wonder of the control tower. At Memphis International, the center building is located at 3229 Democrat. Center controllers don’t even need a window view onto the runway field because they are focused on aircraft at higher altitudes on monochromatic radar screens. But the mundane exterior of the Memphis center building belies the critical work happening inside: directing approximately 1,000 aircraft operations per day. Imagine the very early hours of the morning when, along with the nocturnal animals, air cargo traffic roams the land. A Los Angeles freeway at rush hour is a good comparison to the number of aircraft waiting to take off and land in the dark hours at MEM. Patience and skill are two primary traits required to organize airplanes into chronological parade order. Threatening weather, a pilot’s bad attitude, or a mechanical problem only increase the challenging task at hand for the air traffic controller. For the 16th consecutive year, the Memphis International Airport retained its title as the world’s largest cargo airport, handling nearly four million tons of cargo during 2007. May 2009 saw 28,485 takeoffs and landings, including all-cargo aircraft, passenger airliners, general aviation airplanes, commuters, and military flights. Each group has a variety of speed and altitude limitations that must be choreographed by air traffic controllers. Every situation must be handled expeditiously, with each controller adapting quickly to the constant ebb and flow of nonstop traffic in the air as well as on the airport taxiways and runways. A welcome reprieve for the Memphis ATC will be the new control tower scheduled to open late next year, part of the airport’s two-phase, $81 million construction and renovation project. Increased visibility of airborne traffic patterns, a view of all airport surfaces, and improved radar Equipment will increase the overall functionality of the airport’s heartbeat. But as all airline passengers know, even beautiful control towers can emit a very unattractive transmission: flight delay. “The two most common reasons for delays are a line of weather somewhere in the country or a high volume of aircraft in a particular area,” says Buckman. “A line of weather can stretch across multiple states, disallowing flights to enter from a path normally used or shutting down the area completely and diverting air traffic.” When such an event happens, it stalls the entire flow process and puts a strain on the system. The aircraft that passengers are waiting for in Memphis to take them to Florida or California could be arriving from New York or Ohio, so what affects cities elsewhere can affect Memphis. Delays can be minutes or hours and, unfortunately, can change multiple times. But that’s all in a day’s work for the air traffic control team, a group of level-headed people in Memphis, who — in addition to other education and training requirements — train for at least two-and-a-half years in their facility before being certified to control aircraft. Working eight-hour, rotating shifts — days, evenings, and overnights — five days a week, every controller has seen his share of tense situations — which is where those years of training pay off big. Buckman remembers the time when he was talking to a small general aviation airplane heading north. “I called extreme weather ahead, about 40 miles,” Buckman recalls. “General aviation aircraft usually don’t have weather radar on board to see this. The pilot nervously asked for vectors around the weather, and by the tone of his voice, I knew I needed to deal with him immediately — not just because of the weather danger but also because of the pilot’s lack of experience in a small airplane with no onboard weather radar. “The pilot requested an immediate landing, and we set about coordinating it,” Buckman continues. “But it became harder and harder to communicate with the pilot, who had a lot more on his mind than just the radio. I finally talked him down to a landing at the Carol County, TN, airport. I eventually lost him on radar and radio because the aircraft had entered an uncontrolled radar area, but I had told the pilot to call Flight Service when he landed.” The satisfaction Buckman receives is that of any skilled professional. “It’s always a challenge when people rely on you,” he says. “Most people don’t even know we’re there, and we don’t ask for any credit. But when I go home each day and know I helped keep millions of people safe who fly daily, it’s been a good day.”
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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