The View From Above

Hello again guys, I found this interesting article on the internet and I guess it will bring sunshine in our smiles.

Saturday April 10, 2010

The view from above

Most people don’t give them a second thought, but air traffic controllers are among the people who ensure travellers reach their destinations safely. Like a game of chess, air traffic control is all about tactical manoeuvres and strategy, says a seasoned air traffic controller (ATC).

However, instead of starting with 16 chess pieces, a controller juggles with up to 35 aircraft at any one time. And rather than setting and achieving long-term goals like in chess, he focuses on where to place different planes in a limited time in a smooth sequence.

Magnificent  view of KLIA Air Traffic Control Tower at night.

View of KLIA Terminal 1.

The goal? To shepherd the planes safely to their destinations and to prevent an aerial pile-up. When a chess player loses, the result is dejection and a bruised ego, but when an ATC “loses”, many lives are lost.

Most of us take ATCs for granted. After all, how many of us would thank the ATCs when our flights arrive or depart punctually, or we arrive in one piece? The fact is, ATCs are like the pilot’s extra pair of eyes and brain. Using sophisticated radar systems that provide an overview of the airspace, ATCs can help pilots manage flight paths.

On the ground (airport), ATCs provide clearance for landing, taxing on the runway and parking at the gate.

KLIA Ground Tower

“When we are in the airspace, we can’t spot the other planes so we depend on the ATCs to give us advice,” says commercial pilot K. Abu Bakar, 35, who has been flying for 13 years.

“ATCs are like traffic policemen — they direct aircraft traffic and make sure aircraft are kept at a safe distance. The final responsibility lies with the pilot, especially during emergencies, and sometimes he may divert from the ATC’s instructions. But it’s safe to say ATCs and pilots play almost a 50-50 role in ensuring flight safety,” he adds.

One of the worst crashes in aviation history happened in 1996 in India when a language mix-up between pilots and ATCs resulted in a mid-air collision between a Kazakh Airways cargo plane and a Saudi Airways Boeing 747 with 350 fatalities.

In 2001 in Japan, confusing instructions from inexperienced ground controllers led to a near-collision between two jumbo jets. In 2006, a Nigerian airliner crashed, killing 96 passengers, because the pilot didn’t heed the advice of traffic controllers to wait out the stormy weather before taking off.

ATCs also play guardian angels to pilots in distress.

Klang Valley-based air traffic controller K. Mani Vannan, 31, recalls an accident when a trainee pilot got lost on his solo flight from Johor Baru to Malacca due to bad weather.
“He sounded terrified, and I don’t blame him because imagine yourself flying in between big clouds and not being able to see where you are,” says Mani.

The inexperienced pilot was flying using visual reference points and had no experience with instrument controls. An experienced pilot would have switched to instrument controls when visibility gets bad.

“His plane’s height was insufficient to be picked up by radar so he was instructed to climb higher,” says Mani. “Turned out he was almost 100km off route. We guided him back to the right path and he landed safely in Malacca.”

Malaysia’s civil aviation standard is, thankfully, on par with developed nations. Under the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), our air traffic management functions with clockwork precision and abides by standards drawn up by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

So far there hasn’t been any major accidents caused by the errors of ATCs.
How it works

In Malaysia, the Subang Air Traffic Control Centre handles all aircraft that criss-cross Peninsular Malaysia’s airspace, and the arrivals and departures at the numerous airports, including the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). In contrast, the KLIA Control Tower only handles arrivals and departures at KLIA.

“On average, we are talking about 30 aircraft an hour in just the approach landing area (40 miles radius prior to destination), and about 2,000 to 2,200 aircraft movements in a day,” says Subang-based Balasubramaniam Muttaya, director of Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Control Centre. He handles the Kuala Lumpur Flight Information Region (KL FIR).

Aircraft surveillance is done with radars strategically placed around the country. Outside these areas, aircraft are tracked using satellites. In addition, KLIA and Kuala Terengganu airports have state-of-the-art ground radars called MLAT (Multilateration) that track all the movement on airport grounds.

Say a pilot is flying from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Baru, he would put in a flight plan stating the route he’s taking, at what altitude and the emergency equipment he has onboard.

“The ATC will start to arrange the sequence of the planes that are flying from over 100 miles or more. He’ll instruct the pilots on who lands, who needs to hold up, lose time or depart later. We have a standard minimum of five nautical miles (9.6km) separation and 1,000ft (304m) vertical separation between two aircraft in a controlled airspace, and a three-nautical mile (5.5km) separation during approach landing,” says Balasubramaniam, who joined ATC fresh out of school and rose through the ranks.

Cruising at an average speed of 300 to 400 knots per hour (555.6kph to 740.8kph), a plane needs at least 8km to 16km to reduce its speed by 200 knots.

“You must think and act fast when sequencing the airplanes, otherwise traffic overtakes you,” explains Balasubramaniam.

The margin for error is so slim that it is considered unacceptable that planes be separated by 4.8 nautical miles, Balasubramaniam adds.

When a near-miss occurs, Balasubramaniam suspends the controller until the case is fully investigated. All radar information and communication between pilots and controllers are recorded. If the ATC is at fault, he or she will be suspended for four to five months and required to go for re-training.

“Of course, I must be fair to all sides. Sometimes it’s pilot error or even my fault, like when my instructions are not given properly,” says Balasubramaniam whose career spans 35 years.

“Touch wood but we have had no major crashes so far,” Balasubramaniam adds. “Most delays are caused by unpredictable weather and the scheduling by airlines during peak hours.”

Other factors include bad visibility during extreme weather, a wet and slippery runway, oil spillage on the ground and debris on the runway.
A common problem that ATCs encounter is language barrier. One of the most important criteria in becoming an ATC is proficiency in English, the common language in the aviation industry.

It’s no secret that an ATC’s job is one of the most stressful. But after 12 years, KLIA-based Suzana Sumanan, 43, has learned to take things in stride.

“At KLIA, we work in teams if there’s less traffic. If one person takes a break, the other takes over the controls,” says Suzana who is among the 24% of Malaysian ATCs who are women.

“We are only allowed a maximum of one hour to 1½ hours at the controls each time to avoid burnout. Then we rest for 30 minutes, get refreshed before returning to our shift.”
ATCs work six-hour shifts or 12-hour shifts, depending on their schedule. After each 12-hour shift, they get to take two days off. Sometimes, though, they are called back when someone goes on emergency leave.

“I think the recovery time is good enough. When I leave the building, I make sure I leave work behind,” says the mother of four kids who enjoys cooking for her family and watching TV to relax. “

“What’s important is that we follow procedure to the tee, are alert and aware of any new instructions like the closing of a runway.”

Balasubramaniam monitors his staff closely to ensure they don’t bring their personal problems to work.

“I’ll try to counsel them and find out what’s wrong,” says Balasubramaniam. “It’s important to have open communication.”

In his 30 years as an ATC, Nagayaindran S. Narayanan, 51, has seen it all.
He’ll never forget the sight of charred bodies being lugged out of the badly burnt international transfer corridor of Subang Terminal 1 in the 90s. He was the one who spotted the billowing smoke from the control tower and alerted the Airport Fire and Rescue services.

“I remember once rushing to Subang Airport for my afternoon shift to find the control tower looking like a mammoth pot sitting on a camp fire,” recalls Nagayaindran, now the principal assistant director of Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Control Centre. The October 1992 fire was caused by a disgruntled ATC.

“It was painful. It was my ‘home’ and a place I came not only to work, but to get my daily dose of excitement.”

Long-time ATCs like Nagayaindran will never forget the historical moment when KLIA started operations for the first time on June 30, 1998.

“Like flocks of migrating birds, the entire MAS fleet flew from Subang to KLIA,” says Nagayaindran.

“My colleagues and I cleared the aircraft to land for the first time in KLIA. It was a culmination of a meticulous plan initiated years before — the procurement of equipment, installation, training and the certification of ATCs were orchestrated to perfection.”

After three decades, Nagayaindran still gets a kick out of a day spent at the controls.

“Each day is never the same; one drama is different from the other. Even after so many years, the sight of these airplanes’ graceful performance is a sight to behold,” he admits.
“When you manage to squeeze the maximum number of planes safely through your chunk of airspace or runway, it gets your adrenaline pumping and it’s exhilarating!”