As you might know, I have been to the air traffic control tower at Frankfurt Airport last year to talk to the air traffic controllers and take some photos. Last month I decided it was again time to visit my colleagues from the other side of the radio! After being invited by the Head of FRA Tower Operations, I gladly took the opportunity to observe the air traffic controllers at work.
As always it had been great talking to them and exchanging views. While their job is very different from mine as a pilot, we usually have the same understanding of how things should be done, although with slightly diverse priorities. For an air traffic controller it is not only important to keep all aircraft safe from each other, but also to establish a smooth traffic flow. Any disruption to that flow of aircraft (like a go-around or a slow-moving aircraft) might have massive implications on their work. While this is less of a problem at smaller airports with a single runway, it certainly is at a big hub like Frankfurt!
There are three parallel runways with an east-west orientation (called 07/25 left, center and right) of which the northern strip (07L/25R) is only being used for landings. Additionally there is a fourth runway at the western edge of this arrangement (runway 18) that is nearly perpendicular to the first three and only to be used for take-offs. With aircraft approaching and departing from all directions, you can surely imagine that descend profiles of aircraft can not be ideal and level-offs have to be flown and speed restrictions be observed. Now add to that the fact that there are villages and cities all around the airport and therefore a lot of complaints about noise… This is why pilots have to adhere very strictly to their departure routes, of which some had to be designed in a way that they cross the other departure routes or incoming traffic. Aircraft departing on runway 25C will not only have to be coordinated with approaches to 25R and 25L, but also with departures from runway 18. One ATCO (air traffic control officer) will be assigned to runway 25R, one to runways 25L and 25C and another one to runway 18. All of them have to coordinate in case of traffic flow disruptions and of course there are also controllers for the apron and ramp (however those are seated in a different tower near the terminals).
Zero to hero
The work of an air traffic controller might look easy to a bystander, but they have to be alert at all times! In an instant you might have to go from zero to hero, e.g. when an aircraft has a technical problem or if somebody took a wrong turn and is just about to enter the runway with an aircraft on short final (there has been a spectacular video from Barcelona Airport with an Aerolineas Argentinas crossing the runway while a landing Boeing was just about to land).
Views from Frankfurt ATC tower
But once in a while my colleagues in the tower get to enjoy some great views of aircraft and the airport, too! Sunsets with the terminals below you or aircraft taking off on a clear winter day with snow all around are just some of the highlights… In fact, there is a very talented photographer working in the tower – Bjoern Schmitt’s photos can be seen on his website www.world-of-aviation.de and I definitely recommend to visit his page!
Here are a couple of photos I took, with more to follow in the blog later: