ATC – The unheralded men who police the sky

The International Day of Air Traffic Controllers falls today


Mattala Airport

By Capt Elmo Jayawardena

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on a visit to Sri Lanka and on the 7th of September he joined President Mahinda Rajapakse to open a new stage in the Katunayake International Airport. A long time ago, 1939 to be precise, 40,000 coconut trees of a Negombo hamlet were felled and a clearing was made to build a runway. It was the ‘Rule Britannia’ era. Today that strip is a sophisticated International Airport with a monthly load of more than 500,000 passengers going to and fro.

Amidst the current celebrations with Japanese aid it would be fitting to go back and see what the path was like that transformed the coconut plot to a 3300 meter twin ILS equipped modern airfield? Who trudged the cumbersome path through 80 years with worn out feet to bring Katunayake to its present stage? These would be the men and women of the aviation fraternity who contributed with tremendous dedication and sacrifice spanning a period of eight tumultuous decades. It is they who brought the once- upon-a-time Dandu Monara nation to the high-tech sky of the twenty-first century. Among them notably were the tower men, the Air Traffic Controllers who became the ‘password’ for planes to get into the sky or come down from it.

The beginning of ATC was when rudimentarily controlled aeroplanes flew between Chennaiand Ratmalana. The pilot had no facilities to communicate. Let’s ponder how it happened.

The departing time was sent by Chennai in Morse-Code to Ratmalana and to two observers en-route. One of them stood on a beach, somewhere in the southern coastline of India. He was an Air Traffic Controller in the 1930s. His counterpart was on the other side of the Palk Strait. Once the departure time was given by Chennai the two men standing watch on the beach could calculate the time the aeroplane would fly over their heads. Both controllers watched the sky for a speck to appear and kept a listening ear for the sound of an aeroplane engine.

The pilots usually descended low, and even did a full 360 degree turn, to make sure the Robinson Crusoe on the beach spotted him.

On sighting, a flag was waved from the ground and the aeroplane continued on its journey. The Indian controller completed the procedure by noting the time and sending a Morse-Code message to Chennai, Ratmalana and his counter-part in Mannar. That way, he updated the flight-plan details of the over-flying aeroplane crossing the South Indian coast.The pilot saw another flag being waved at him from the Mannar beach and knew his navigation was ‘spot-on.’

At Ratmalana the aircraft flew a low visual circuit and was cleared to land by light signals emitted with an Aldis lamp. As for aircraft separations, there was nothing to separate. The Controller had no other aeroplanes in the entire sky. That was then.

Today at Katunayake the space between landing jets is 5 miles. The sky is filled and is getting more crowded by the day. Sophistication of air traffic control has permitted the increase of traffic to more than 5000 movements a month. The descendant of the flag waving Air Traffic Controller is now a competent professional trained to maintain the highest standards of sky safety. Yet, he is the unknown and unheralded numeral in the aviation equation. Let’s get to know more about him and what he does.

New recruits of ATC come armed with a BSc degree. Theory and practical training take close upon a year. In addition he/she needs to pass a stringent medical examination before they enter the first stage as an aerodrome controller to police the sky. Their competency is checked periodically and further training is given to obtain higher ratings to handle more complicated matters of flight control. The zenith would be to pass out as a RADAR controller doing precision work such as accurately bringing landing traffic to the extended centreline of a landing runway.

Let me now tell you what all this means to the pilot. Cloudless blue skies and calm winds are basically picnics to people who fly aeroplanes. Controlling too then becomes cup-cakes, only to separate the departing and arriving traffic, and for that work procedures are clearly laid down. It is when the weather gods go berserk that the cookie completely crumbles. Winds howl and rain sweeps the field and visibility diminishes to deterring the pilot from landing and the fuel needles start crawling to danger zones. It sure is nail biting time for the pilot. Aeroplanes ‘rock and roll’ in turbulence on a holding pattern, hovering to get a weather break to land. Streaks of lightening becomes frightening and exploding thunder sounds like close range cannon fire. The only comfort in this terrifying melee is the calm voice of the controller who has the sky in his control and gives explicit instructions to the pilots to fly keeping everyone safe. That is about bad weather flying when aeroplanes get hammered with thunderstorms.

I have been there many times, all over the world and have always been so very grateful to Air Traffic Controllers who patiently and professionally brought me to land in intense adverse weather. The trust pilots place on the controller at such times is wholesome. You fly his instructed headings, you descend to his cleared heights, reduce speed as he wants and fly according to the controller’s precise instruction in a zero visibility sky and hope to God he doesn’t make a mistake. And he doesn’t. When the chips are down and the weather Gods are angry, that’s when the Air Traffic Controllers become guardian angels. I wonder whether a single passenger realises the invaluable role he plays to bring that aeroplane down safely. I wonder too how many pilots give credit to the controllersfor the ‘unsung’ service they renderto ease the tension and stress that prevails in the cockpit at difficult and demanding times.

Let’s change gears and talk about a current controller and what he/she does. There are around 80 controllers attached to the Airport and Aviation Services who manage the three major airports in Sri Lanka, Katunayake, Mattala and Ratmalana. The Flight Information Region (FIR) that is controlled by Sri Lanka is from 9 degrees north to 4 degrees south laterally and 78 degrees east to 92 degrees east longitudally. In the same corridor the Air Traffic Control is also responsible for the all important aspects of Search and Rescue matters in the event of a crash. It is they who initiate the ‘trigger action’ to move matters to locate the fallen aeroplane.

Controllers now work on RADAR screens that show aeroplanes as luminous blips. For long range communications it is CPDLC, Controller Pilot Data Link Communications. The system works in conjunction with Automatic Dependent Surveillance (ADS) and when in closer range, it is direct Very High Frequency (VHF) two-way communication and guidance for the departure and arrival. RADAR control came in 1977 upgrading the aerodrome to a higher tier of international acceptance.

The history of the Sri Lankan controller commenced in 1949. Local cadets were selected and sent abroad for training. Till then it was the RAF that controlled the Sri Lankan sky. The first batch returned and set the foundation for others to follow. The ascent was slow to localise ATC as the ladders were held by colonial hands. As in most episodes of that era some of the rungs in the ladders were missing. Yet they managed and gradually progressed to take over control of the Sri Lankan sky expelling the expatriate. The training too became ‘home grown’ along with issuing of ratings which opened the ATC doors wide for the local controller to become the professional he is today.

Air Traffic Controllers have always been the unsung heroes of aviation. Cocooned in their isolated control rooms, they have been policing the sky, out of sight of the common aviation limelight. In the by-gone days, the controllers placed pins on a large map to depict aircraft in their FIR. Now they stare into large glass screens and follow the dots that represent aeroplanes. They’ve come a long way from standing on a beach and waving flags at a passing aeroplane.

The Controllers have certainly played a vital role in the nation’s aviation advancements. It is they who made the sky safe for the pilots to fly. I will always be grateful to them. The least I can do is to tell their story and make people understand their contribution to aviation at a time when aviation has come to the fore of celebration. Yes, the funding came from Canada and Japan and I know not from where else. For that we must be grateful and appreciate the generosities. But nothing could have been achieved without the human efforts of the ordinary, the sweat and tears and the commitments that never made the headlines. These need to be remembered, lest they be forgotten.




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