Another Day in ATC Paradise — "The World's Busiest Tower"
Imagine that your employer offered to send you to a little Wisconsin town for a week, dump a huge pile of work on you, and in return issue you a special hot-pink shirt. Would you go for it? Well, FAA air traffic controllers compete for the chance to come work the Oshkosh tower during AirVenture every summer, and they have to be booted out after six years to make room for the newbies who want their go. These people agreed to let AVweb's news writer Kim Broadwell into the tower last week, and he was brave enough to enter their workspace. Here's his report.
"Bonanza On Final — Land On The Green Dot" (Not On The Skyhawk) ...
It's 10 a.m. Friday, the fog is lifting, and the field has just gone VFR. A dozen pink-shirted controllers in the tower cab are choreographing a dance designed to make order from the weather chaos wrought by a pesky low pressure system hanging in lower Michigan. Welcome to the Oshkosh tower, which for one week of the year becomes the world's busiest. By Friday 8 p.m. this week the tower had already seen 10,742 operations since the previous Sunday morning. "Everything depends on the weather, of course," explained John Mullen. He's both the Milwaukee tower manager and a regional manager for the FAA. "When the field is IFR, the best we can do is probably under 20 IFR ops an hour. We can't do simultaneous IFR approaches."
At the time he spoke, there were 20 or more aircraft in the area on IFR flight plans holding to get into OSH. Bad weather here and elsewhere in the U.S. may have been converting many flyers to drivers, or stay-at-homes, since by last year this time the tower had recorded 20,217 operations. Given good weather, the tower can top 6,000 operations in one day, which usually comes on the Sunday before the end of AirVenture. "There are FAA separation rules, and then there are special Oshkosh rules," said Mullen. It's quite a sight to stand at the departure end of the active and see three planes lined on up final, virtually on top of each other — all aiming for different-colored touch-down points on the same runway. Monitoring the tower frequency, it often sounds like a high-speed auctioneer at work.
When the airport is open, at any time there are eight or more pink-shirted controllers outside on the field directing traffic. Runway responsibilities are shared between the tower and the outside controllers located at two Mobile Operations and Communications Workstations (MOOCOWs). The itinerant MOOCOW handles arrival and departure separation for Runway 9/27, and Runway 18/36 is handled by the Fly-By MOOCOW team. The tower crew is responsible for sequencing and separation of arrivals. The temporary ground station at Fisk, seven miles to the southwest, lines up aircraft and aims them at OSH. The tower has no terminal radar, but can get a regional radar feed.
...The Pink Badge Of Courage
The FAA has staffed a tower at the EAA Oshkosh event since the 1960s. "Around November, we send out solicitations to FAA facilities around the Great Lakes Region for volunteers to work the next year," Mullen said. "Out of 130 responses this year, 64 controllers and 10 supervisors were selected for the team." It's quite an experience and point of pride to work AirVenture, and Mullen pointed out, "Everyone knows our hot-pink shirts and hats — the controllers are the only ones on the field that get to wear them." A spokesman for the New Piper Company told AVweb that the pink shirts inadvertently worn by Piper sales staff on Friday were actually "watermelon," and will not be seen again at AirVenture since Piper changes its shirt color every day. Fortunately, Piper personnel accidentally gesticulating to taxiing aircraft did not cause any incidents.
Controllers can only work Oshkosh for a total of six years, to allow others a chance for this popular and challenging temporary duty assignment. Even after their six years are up, AirVenture veterans still return to share the camaraderie at the FAA's pre-event cookout on Saturday. "Slots are filled by seniority," Mullen said, "so even the rookies here have eight to ten years experience as a Certified Professional Controller." The tower at Oshkosh is normally staffed by contract non-federal controllers, and Mullen said they are integrated right into the FAA team during Oshkosh without any problems. "They're the ones that open and close the tower for us," Mullen said, "and are part of the teams we set up."
The controllers who come to work here take the assignment very seriously. They have a study package and test to complete prior to their arrival, and actually become qualified as proficient to work the OSH area just as they are qualified for their home tower. "Controllers who come here end up as qualified to work their own facility, OSH, and Fond du Lac tower," said Mullen. On the Saturday before the convention starts, there is a training and review session for this season's controllers. That's all the on-site training they get before their baptism-by-fire.
...Things Are Different Here...
To accommodate the volume of traffic, ATC procedures at the OSH tower during AirVenture are unlike any other facility. In addition to reduced arrival and departure separation standards, the operational philosophy in the tower is also different. "Normally, a controller works on his own. Here, we work in four-person teams that stay together for the entire convention week. The team works together on a shift and takes breaks together," Mullen said. There is usually one "rookie" (first year here), one "limited" (second year), and at least two "veterans" with three years or more experience at the EAA AirVenture on each team. They work a regular week: eight-hour shifts, and two days off while on OSH duty.
A team controller working OSH must learn to trust and coordinate with his or her teammates in a new way. There are usually two spotters, with one controller working pilots on the tower frequency. The controller with the microphone must accept, and quickly relay to a pilot, the instructions the spotters are giving him, without necessarily having a view of the "big picture" at any given moment. In the usual tower environment, an individual controller has the responsibility for his position and makes the decisions.
...About Those 100 Mooneys...
When the Mooney Caravan and its flights of 12 start showing up, or 90 Bonanzas to Oshkosh appear on the horizon, these are not surprises to the tower crew. Group fly-ins and warbird formation arrivals are all coordinated in advance for months with the FAA. When afternoon EAA airshow time arrives, the tower and the airport are officially closed, and the control of the airshow is transferred down to the Air Boss at "Rooftop" down on the flight line next to Runway 18/36. When the airshow is over, the tower re-opens, and when the ATIS is turned on it's a signal that the field is open again. For an hour after the airshow, heavy demand means that only departures are allowed. There are not supposed to be any airport operations between 8 p.m. and 6 in the morning. "It's just too dark to safely allow anyone to taxi around with this many people on the field," explained Mullen.
...What The Future Will Hold
The Wittman Regional Airport has plans to construct a new tower to be opened by 2003. The present tower, built in the late '50s, was actually moved from a site across the field in the mid-'60s. The new tower process is in "site selection" right now, so the current tower will have to continue to do its yearly stint as the world's busiest tower for at least two more years. One certainty is that we will all continue to owe a debt of gratitude to the controllers who volunteer for service during AirVenture — we'd all be driving if they weren't here.