If it's true that AirVenture is the most popular airshow in the world, it's also true that it's the Olympics of air traffic control. For a few days in July, OSH tower moves more traffic than any other airport in the world. And just like the Olympics, not everyone gets a gold medal.
When an F-16 ran off the end of runway 36 Thursday morning, the tower had to go with the flow, which is to say switch flows, handling arrivals and departures from a single runway27. This is the proverbial five pounds of mushrooms into a three-pound bag and although they pulled it off with aplomb, it wasn't without a few warts.
I happened to be flying a Remos demo at the time and we were arriving back into OSH from the north on what's known as the Prison Arrival, which transitions over a local state prison to the downwind for 27. As you can hear on the audio in the companion video, the arrival controller was stepping all over himself handling the traffic but the reality
there wasn't really much of it. Fisk arrivals had been shut down, but they were stitching arrivals and departures off 27 and there were a bunch of them.
My friend Denny Cunninghama former O'Hare tower and ground controller with years of OSH experienceonce wrote that if perfect sequencing and separation is a controller's work product, frequency time is his workbench. This leads to two schools of thought. When it's hyper busy, a controller needs all the frequency time he can get and if he doesn't unkey, he'll have it all. Or he can leave some frequency time in reserve with minimal transmissions and hope the pilots don't park on the mic key. (They weren't on Thursday.)
Our guy handling 27 seemed to be of the first school. At one point, he announced that he was going to unkey for any incoming transmissions, then talked for another 15 seconds before he did it. When the tower is this busy, the blather about "nice job" and "thanks for padding our traffic count" really ought to go. At one point, he spanked an airplane for not replyingspending five or six seconds doing thatthen another few seconds telling the same pilot "it's okay
nice job." When we landed, he said "when you get it under control, exit right at Bravo 2." And here I thought we were under control for the entire flight. "Right at Bravo" would have been crisper and would have saved some seconds.
When a controller gets this manic and talks so unnecessarily fast with too many words, pilots miss transmissions, they get confused and nervous and there's just no time for them to query or even do basic position reporting. So the net result of all that hyper-fast verbiage: Less communication and less margin for building a good sequence. It's far better to just slow down a beat and let the pilots do their thing, which they usually will. Repeating a directive three times in 10 seconds won't make the airplane comply any faster, but it will distract pilots from trying to comply in the first place.
None of this amounts to a complaint, by the way, nor an insinuation that OSH tower wasn't doing extraordinary work, because it certainly was. But if an old OSH head was giving this controller a tape talk, I suspect he would make some of the same points. And maybe that's the difference between a silver medal and a gold.
One other point: If you're the type of pilot who likes to file IFR to go to the bathroom and you savor the warm embrace of ATC, how about not doing that at OSH in the middle of AirVenture. The place ain't built for that and you're not getting a shred of separation from several thousand VFR airplanes all coverging on one tiny speck in southeast Wisconsin. It'll just make things easier for everyone.