Inside the FAA’s air traffic control tower near LAX; video and pictures

It’s not always practical for air traffic controllers to learn on the job, especially at busy places like Los Angeles International Airport. So the Federal Aviation Administration has a bunch of remarkably realistic simulators for training.

This week, I visited the simulator near LAX with a group of high school students, many of whom want to be controllers. The kids were able to play air traffic controller for a few minutes, so they’re the rookies you see directing airplanes in the video above.

Here’s some of what I saw and learned in FAA’s simulator:

FAA LAX Simulator 1 (2)High resolution screens show a near perfect reproduction of Los Angeles International Airport from the vantage of the air traffic control tower. Here, you’re looking east, over Parking Garages 1 and 2. That’s Terminal 1 on the left. See the Southwest plane?

FAA LAX Simulator 2 (3)

With one click, trainers can turn day into night. They can also add any weather they want, including, amazingly, snow. The students enjoying watching snowflakes fall over Los Angeles. Actually, so did I.

FAA LAX Simulator 4 (2)

I’ve never been in a real control tower, but these work stations looked pretty accurate to me. I was told this as close to the real thing as you can get. 

FAA LAX Simulator 5

Above, an American Airlines plane sits at a Terminal 4 gate. Controllers direct real aircraft belonging to real airlines. The only discrepancy I noticed is that not all paint schemes are current. In the simulator, United aircraft had gray paint, a livery the airline has retired.

FAA LAX Simulator 6

In an area separate from the controllers, two workers play the role of airline pilots.  The man above listens to controller instructions and then acknowledges them using his headset – just as a pilot would do. With his mouse, he then moves the airplane accordingly on the giant screen.  Occasionally, this person purposely disregards the controller’s instruction. This is because pilots don’t always perfectly follow instructions.

FAA LAX Simulator 7 (2)

A final fun fact about air traffic control from James R. Robliotta, the site supervisor here and a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel. In the military, controllers always remind pilots to lower their landing gear before landing. That does not happen in commercial aviation, however. Pilots are on their own to make sure gear is down. 

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