– Rosemarie John
Working in air traffic control (ATC) for more than a decade, air traffic controller Ben Ippolito explains that there’s more to ATC than just the tower at the airport.
“ATC can be broken into three categories – tower controllers, terminal area or approach controllers and en route controllers. Each category has a very important yet different function,” says Ben.
During times of peak air travel in Australia, there are about 500 airborne aircraft in controlled airspace, with safe operations falling to the highly skilled controllers at Airservices Australia.
Having previously worked in the Karratha tower, Ben explains that tower controllers are responsible for all aircraft and vehicle movements on taxiways, runways and in the immediate vicinity of the airport.
“There is something about clearing an aircraft to land and watching an aircraft arrive with your own eyes—you get an ‘I did that’ feeling (of course the pilots may disagree!).”
Ben, now an approach controller, explains that he works airspace that is usually 70-80 km from the main airport and up to 24,500 feet.
“En route controllers on the other hand are responsible for aircraft flying outside the terminal areas around capital city airports. They are responsible for the majority of air traffic over the Australian mainland and on oceanic routes within Australia’s flight information region.”
Speaking about his role as an approach controller, Ben says that he often finds himself telling people he works ‘radar’.
He explains that most travellers, frequent or not, are usually familiar with the Hollywood portrayal of the dark smoke-filled radar room with people talking what seems like a foreign language into a headset watching a few blips dance over a screen.
“It’s not quite as dramatic as that,” quips Ben.
“While air traffic controllers manage aircraft through all phases of flight, from gate to gate, my main role as an approach controller (other than maintaining separation between aircraft in controlled airspace) is to feed the arrivals into an orderly landing sequence for the tower. And to accept and process departures into an orderly sequence for the enroute controllers to be able to accept into their traffic patterns.”
In the Ops Room
Delivering services from 28 air traffic control towers, two major air traffic services centres and two terminal control units, Airservices is responsible for the airspace stretching in latitude from two degrees to 90 degrees south; and in longitude from 75 degrees to 163 degrees east.
This is an area of almost 20 million square nautical miles or 11% of the world’s airspace.
Coordinating the safe movements of aircraft daily from the Adelaide Terminal Control Unit (TCU), Ben further explains on his management of flow of aircraft arriving and departing to and from Adelaide Airport.
“We work closely with the towers in the Adelaide area (not just the Adelaide International Airport, but also at Parafield and RAAF base Edinburgh) and the enroute sectors in Barossa group. Since most aircraft will progress from a tower to the TCU to enroute and vice versa, we must work as a team.”
Imaging a puzzle, says Ben, and every controller is working a separate part of the puzzle but to achieve the same result – safe and efficient airspace use – and sometimes with different tools.
“For example, tower controllers can visually separate aircraft because they can see them out the window. The radar terminal area environment however can be very dynamic, I use terminal area radar (TAR) to achieve a higher flow of traffic instead.”
TAR relies on radio waves reflecting off metallic objects (primary radar) or transmissions from an on-board transponder (secondary radar) and is effective within a short range from the radar. Regardless of whether an aircraft has a transponder, TAR will detect an aircraft’s position and approximate airspeed. TARs are useful for detecting aircraft in controlled airspace close to the airports.
On the console
Australia’s airspace is broken down into a number of different classes. Depending on how far and how high an aircraft wants to fly, it will pass through different classes of airspace, in which different rules will apply to it.
Ben further explains that airspace is actively monitored and managed by air traffic controllers.
“Aircraft cannot enter the more restrictive classes of ‘controlled’ airspace without gaining clearance from an air traffic controller. Like most terminal areas, Adelaide controls out to approximately 80 kilometres from the Adelaide International Airport,” he says.
“And like most airports, the controlled airspace is akin to an upside-down wedding cake, with the tiers of controlled airspace getting lower to the ground the closer you get to the airport.”
Adelaide, Ben describes is a little different because Airservices also provides ATC for the restricted airspace attached to RAAF Base Edinburgh—home to 92 Wing’s 10 SQN and 11 SQN and the Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU).
“Depending on the requirements of these aircraft, my colleagues and I can also at times be responsible for restricted airspace within a 100 nm radius and up to 45,000 feet.”
With prior work experience in airport/airline ground handling to a job as a pilot and then as an air traffic controller, Ben brings a wealth of aviation experience to his role.
“My piloting career was very short, I accumulated just over 50 hours as a paid pilot. I was working for Sharp Aviation flying Cessna 172 and 177 aircraft on aerial photography jobs. The reason I left Sharp however is good news, I joined Airservices and the rest is history as they say.”
Ben believes his prior familiarity with ATC phraseology and talking on the radio helped him during his initial training.
“That advantage disappeared once we got to separating aircraft during training,” quips Ben.
Separation standards refer to the minimum distance apart that aircraft operating in controlled airspace and at airports with an operational control tower must be kept.
Different separation standards apply depending on whether aircraft are operating under IFR or VFR.
In Australia, aircraft flying in controlled airspace up to 29,000 feet must be separated by 1000 feet vertically unless they are separated horizontally.
Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RSVM) on the other hand allows aircraft equipped with modern altimeters and autopilot systems and flying between 29,000 and 41,000 feet be vertically separated by a minimum of 1000 feet rather than the standard 2000 feet.
“Being a pilot helped with my work as a controller. I was aware of how uncomfortable it can be to be left high on descent, or how hard it can be to spot traffic out the window. I also had a bit of sympathy for the first time student pilots because you know exactly how it was to be in their shoes.”
There are three types of position within a TCU – executive, flow and director.
Ben currently works the ‘executive’ position and is soon to be trained in the flow position. He explains that the executive position is the live tactical control of aircraft.
“I am actively working the aircraft to achieve the landing sequence and working the departures into the enroute airspace.”
“Whereas ‘flow’ is more of a planning position—working out an efficient landing sequence (applying the correct traffic priorities), assessing the impact of maintenance, airwork requests and weather on the terminal area.
“If I were to explain this using an analogy, ‘flow’ is the conductor of the symphony and the ‘executive’ controllers are the players of the instruments. Each element is very important in making the music sound good,” Ben adds.
For the love of it
“I’ve had an interest in aviation from an early age and was fairly set on being a pilot from about the time I left primary school. I’m not sure what inspired me exactly but it could have been a combination of the usual airshow/Top Gun type influences along with a few airport visits with my dad when I was a kid.”
“This was cemented when our family went on an international trip when I was in Year 9 and I boarded a United Airlines Boeing 747. I was 110% set on being a pilot from then on. The idea for ‘changing teams’ to ATC didn’t come until later.
Ben calls himself an aviation tragic – he eats, breathes and sleeps all things aviation.
“What I love most about working in air traffic control is that there are no two days that are the same. Actually, there are no two hours the same! Things are always changing and interesting,” Ben says.
Like any job, there are challenging moments.
“Sometimes, your plan doesn’t work out, you have an emergency aircraft or storms move in. The real challenge is in being resilient and working through the problems.”
Reflecting on his decade long career in ATC, Ben says that some of the biggest challenges he’s had have been from converting from enroute to tower and then tower to terminal/approach controlling.
“It was very hard work re-wiring my brain for a different style of ATC. However, like all good challenges there was a great reward in successfully conquering it. I leave the Ops Room knowing that we have delivered the safest service for the travelling public.”
Air traffic control requires shift work and to that, Ben says that there are pros and cons to it.
“The up side of it however is having days off mid-week. It’s great when you need a tradie to fix something at your house, you want to get to the post office or the bank, or treat yourself to an el-cheapo Tuesday movie ticket!”
Airservices often looks to hire experienced air traffic controllers and Ben says that he finds it great to work with experienced recruits.
“It’s interesting to see what prior experience they have and see how that translates into the way they work traffic. The learning isn’t always one way, you can pick up some tips from these ‘trainees’ who have often worked far different areas than you.”
As for our upcoming recruitment drive, Ben urges applicants to remember that they don’t have to be a math whiz or a physics pro to be an air traffic controller, all that is needed is dedication, resilience and love for the job.
“It’s a hard slog on course at the Learning Academy. You will struggle at some point of your journey to achieve the ratings required. But at the end of it all, it’s well worth sticking it out.”
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Rosemarie John is a Communications Officer at Airservices Australia. This story was supplied by Airservices Australia.