Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Up in the Air: New Control Tower at Memphis International Airport

Posted by on Wed, Oct 19, 2011 at 11:57 PM

Air traffic controllers like it when they're busy, and the rest of us should like it when they're busy too because planes equals dollars in our struggling aerotropolis.

On Thursday, the new 336-foot-tall, $72 million Memphis air traffic control tower will be dedicated. The Flyer got a sneak peak on Wednesday, and the first thing that struck me was (duh) how much taller the new one is than the old one right next to it.

From a distance and even from up close they look about the same height. But the old one, built in 1977, is only 125 feet tall (at left in photo). Fooled me. Guess it's just as well I'm not directing air traffic.

The people who do that stressful job have moved into some state-of-the-art new digs. Even in daytime, the top of the tower is dark and the computer screens jump out (the blinds were opened for our photos). At mid-morning Wednesday, there were three controllers and one supervisor working. That is a small complement because that is not a busy time. At peak traffic periods, there are eight controllers and a supervisor. Thanks to Delta and FedEx, there are four or five such periods every 24 hours, making Memphis the 22nd busiest tower in the country.

"I don't think there is any person in this building who would trade this job for any other job on the planet," said Michael Baker, air traffic manager for the tower and a former air-traffic controller. "Most people aspire to come to the busier facilities."

Controllers are responsible for air space within a 40-mile radius and below 16,000 feet. They track planes visually and on computers as they approach and depart from the three north-south and one east-west runways. The busiest hours are from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. when FedEx has 170 arrivals. There are multiple back-ups for computers in the tower and in the radar room in the even-darker basement, which employees call the "Star Wars Room."

"At zero visibility we will still run airplanes," said Baker. "The system is designed to land traffic regardless of weather."

Should you be considering a career change, air traffic controllers must be hired before they are 31 and must retire when they are 56. The 40 hours a week are irregular. "A couple evenings, a couple days, and a midnight," says front line manager Sean Rhone. There are 32 colleges with Federal Aviation Administration-accredited programs. The only one in Tennessee is at Middle Tennessee State. You get six to eight months training. You need a Type A personality, an outgoing nature, and good judgment. The demographics of air-traffic control reflects the Memphis area.

And you need steady nerves. Like baseball umpires and undercover cops, air-traffic controllers don't want to make the news. "Events" are generally not good.

"Decision-making is the most important skill," says Baker, in what seems like an understatement.

Michael Baker
  • Michael Baker
The new tower took three years to construct and equip. Towers are built to last at least 30 years. There are smaller towers at the airport that control traffic on the ramps at Delta and FedEx, but the main tower controls all commercial, private, and passenger air traffic as well as taxiing on the runways.

It will take six weeks to take down the old one, starting in November, section by section, using cranes and saws, not dynamite.

Combined with the new parking structure under construction, the airport is undergoing a building boom at the same time that Delta is cutting flights and office vacancies around the airport are plentiful. Dedications, accolade, and aspirations aside, the heart of our aerotropolis is under-capacity for the time being. FedEx is a great cushion, but an uptick in passenger planes would be welcomed by all, including the men and women in the top of that tower.

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