Recently, I visited the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control Tower at LAX. Below is some of what I learned.
Special thanks to controller Michael Foote for spending far more time than he needed to making sure I understood the basics of ATC. All photographs by your blogger.
Check back soon for post No. 2 – with video.
This monitor shows planes approaching LAX at midday, a particularly slow time. “This basically is giving us an idea of where the volume is coming from,” he said. “It’s a timeline of aircraft that will be coming into the airport.” Foote said that during busier times, the screen is packed with planes. Each ring represents about 20 miles, he said.
You’re looking directly west from the air traffic control tower. As you can see, taxiing airplanes disappear from view when they go behind the new Tom Bradley International Airport, with its tiered roof. Controllers must rely on pilot position reports and technology, such as ground radar, to track planes. They have line of sight to everywhere else on the airfield.
These are called “flight strips,” and they help controllers monitor each flight. A different controller monitors each departure at every stage, and when controllers hand off a plane to a colleague, they literally walk the flight strips over to the next station. It’s relatively low-tech, but Foote said the system works well. “It’s actually fairly efficient,” he told me. “It’s so deeply ingrained in our culture. I think people are just now getting to understand the idea that there might be a better way of doing it.”
These are set tracks used by flights to Hawaii. “Right now we use 3 miles of separation between aircraft because when you go out over the ocean there’s no radar. ” Foote said. That is expected to change eventually, which would give greater freedom to pilots crossing oceans.. “It’s not the world’s most efficient system,” Foote said. “But when they get the GPS stuff up and running, that’s going to be make a big difference in peoples’ lives.
This is another map of air traffic near the airport. LAX is in the middle of the monitor, and if you look carefully, you can see the airfield’s two sets of parallel runways inside the center-most circle. (They are depicted with lines.) The squiggly line in the lower left area of the map is the Pacific Ocean shoreline.