Tower Power

By Tenley Ong

Wittman Regional Airport is a fairly quiet place for 51 weeks out of the year. But during one week in July, the Class D airspace becomes the World’s Busiest Control Tower for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.

This year, over 8,000 airplanes (yes, you read that right  — three zeros) had arrived before Monday morning. Thus, the control tower was even busier than the busiest, including Chicago O’Hare or Atlanta.

To manage the influx of traffic, it takes a village. The Oshkosh tower employs 64 hand-picked controllers for the event. Tony Molinaro, media relations manager for the FAA central service area, says they are the “best of the best controllers from around the country.” Jay McKinty, air traffic manager, adds they come from “San Francisco to Miami … and everywhere in between.”

Normally, the airport places one controller on departures and one on arrivals, with each focusing on one runway or airplane at a time. During AirVenture, the intensity of the job increases, when controllers land multiple airplanes on the runway at once. It is the ultimate privilege to join the team in the sky during this time.

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Tower Teamwork

The teams are split into groups of four, consisting of a team lead, one communicator talking to the pilot, and two spotters telling the communicator what to say (yes, two people talking in your ear at once!).

To be such a cohesive team, these groups must get along, both in the tower and on the ground, including off the clock. “The teams stay together the whole week. They get to know each other, they get to trust each other, they go to lunch together,” says Molinaro.

There are 16 teams, for a total of 64 controllers. Many people behind the scenes run the show, including 13 operations supervisors, four operations managers, multiple tech ops (also hand-picked for AirVenture), and volunteers.

There are two teams of four on the field and three teams of four in the tower, plus one temporary tower at Fond du Lac and one temporary trailer at Fisk. Departures are controlled from “moo-cows,” aka mobile communications, tall platforms on the runways.

Each runway has a set of three colored dots or squares. When multiple aircraft are landing, these dots indicate where to touch down. Copies of these symbols are displayed in the lower window panes of the tower for the controllers’ easy reference.

Best of the Best

Every year, the FAA asks qualified individuals from around the country to apply and join the Oshkosh tower for the week, resulting in about 120-130 applications. Every controller is a certified professional controller (CPC) and works an eight- to 10-hour shift during AirVenture.

Ideally, through a bidding process the controllers return every year, moving up and eventually becoming team leads. However, there is some turnover every year, leaving 16-17 positions open for rookies to apply.

Pilot Tips

Read the notice; listen to instructions. It makes the controllers’ jobs difficult when pilots don’t do what they’re told, as the process is always being refined.

The best time to fly into AirVenture is “early in the week and early in the day,” says McKinty, unless weather is bad in the morning or a runway closes. “Plan early, and plan for an alternate if necessary.” For example, five incidents on Sunday backed up traffic and caused pilots to fly 50-plus miles away and stay in holding patterns, with backups stretching to Portage.

So, next time you see someone in a pink shirt and socks, smile and thank them for everything they do.

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