While flying from Laconia Municipal Airport in Laconia, New Hampshire with Randy Longchamps, A Gold Seal Career Flight Instructor and co-owner from ACCELERATED FLIGHT TRAINING ACADEMY, I had my first real opportunity to handle en-route radio communications. The day was about to get a lot more interesting though, with a visit to Manchester New Hampshire Control Tower.

Sure, I had done cross country flights in rented Cessna 172s with VFR flight following, but this felt a lot more intense – being on IFR flight plan in actual IMC conditions for the first time, I was exposed to relaying a message for ATC, helping another aircraft contact center control on the correct frequency. Little did I know, later that day I would meet the controller I helped out with the relay message.

ATC Background Information

Air traffic control in the United States is divided into two categories:

1) Airport Control: The areas of responsibility for Tower (TWR) controllers fall into three general operational disciplines; local control or air control, ground control, and flight data/clearance delivery. Many airports have a radar control facility that is associated with the airport, called TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) in the United States. While every airport varies, terminal controllers usually handle traffic in a 30-to-50-nautical-mile radius from the airport.

2) En-Route, Center, Or Area Control: Airspace in the United States is divided into sections which are assigned an ATC control facility. En-route air traffic controllers issue clearances and instructions for airborne aircraft. En-route controllers also provide air traffic control services to many smaller airports around the country, including clearance off of the ground and clearance for approach to an airport. Controllers adhere to a set of separation standards that define the minimum distance allowed between aircraft. These distances vary depending on the equipment and procedures used in providing ATC services. 

Plan Ahead

After we landed in Manchester New Hampshire (KMHT), Randy and I headed to the Tower for our tour. Depending upon the state of national security, your status as a citizen, and the state of workload at ATC, to visit an ATC facility requires a prior arrangement. You cannot simply walk to the front door and expect to receive a tour – To see what their availability is, call beforehand to see if and when a tour might be available.

Fortunately, KMHT Tower wasn’t too busy that afternoon, so we were permitted a visit – We suddenly had some exciting aviation plans for the day! Upon calling KMHT Tower, we were escorted up into the tower. In short, making a visit to ATC is well worth it, but does require prior arrangement. Plan ahead and call to see if and when they are available to give a tour. We talked with the tower manager for about 15-20 minutes then went up to the main control tower room. There we met two controllers, one in charge of ground communications (for taxiing) and another that handled takeoff and approach clearances. I was amazed at how open they were to sharing with me what they do. They spent time explaining how they can read their radar scope and learn the location, altitude and speed of an aircraft.

The controllers walked me through some more of their many duties in addition to managing traffic, such as recording the ATIS weather report (Automatic Terminal Information Service) used prior to taking off. This helped me put in perspective some their responsibilities other than simply managing aircraft flow. So pilots, be patient when the control tower takes a moment or two to get back to you.

One of the most interesting things I learned was that some facility are privately managed. The government started privatizing smaller towers in order to save money. The FAA will not hire Air Traffic Controllers over the age of 32. So, retired military controllers do not have the opportunity to work for the FAA towers. But since the move to privatize towers many of them have found employment with small to mid-size towers.

For those non-pilots reading this blog, you can listen to what pilot-to-tower communication is like at some of the busiest airports in the country from these two sites: www.LiveATC.com and www.4VFR.com

All-in-all it was an eye-opening experience that I recommend every pilot take advantage of. In departing, the controllers continually expressed that I should encourage other pilots to take the tour. So, get out there and learn more about your fellow airport inhabitants.