A Helping Hand

When one controller is getting swamped, it’s common for coworkers pitch in to help, but you probably won't know they are there.


Earning a pilot’s certificate involves more than just regurgitating book knowledge. A potential pilot must confidently apply that information in a variety of intense scenarios, while exercising good judgment. Air traffic controller training follows a similar path. Both can be long, grueling roads, and those who come out the other end with a certification can take pride in their accomplishments.

There’s a difference, though, between confidence and bravado. Being an effective controller isn’t only about handling a certain number of airplanes. It also requires enough humility to know when you’ve been pushed past your limits. Also—equally as important as knowing when you’ve hit your limit—is recognizing when your coworker is hitting theirs, and being willing to do what you can to help.

With the efficient flow and overall safety of air traffic at stake, let’s explore what resources and techniques controllers use to prevent themselves and their coworkers from getting inundated.

Divide And Conquer

The most effective method for solving a problem is preventing its occurrence in the first place. Air traffic control facilities employ various traffic management tools to gauge when their airspace is going to get busy. Foresight allows early mitigation.

During early morning hours, an approach control could be worked by just one person, overseeing all sectors combined at one radar scope. A control tower might have only one person working Tower, Ground, and Clearance Delivery together. As the day progresses, though, controllers and supervisors monitor expected traffic levels and trends.

One useful tool is the Airport Arrival Demand Chart, which depicts how many arrivals are scheduled per hour. If the AADC indicates traffic is going to pick up significantly, we’ll have other controllers open additional sectors or tower positions. By the time those aircraft arrive on scene, the facility will be ready to handle the volume.

To see how busy an airport’s going to be in a particular hour, visit the FAA’s Airport Arrival Demand Chart at https://www.fly.faa.gov/aadc/. Per Chicago O’Hare’s AADC, their estimated arrival capacity is 100 per hour. Green hours are well within that capacity, while yellow (“Warning”) indicates it’s starting to push it. The red hour (“Alert”) is over-capacity, which may mean aircraft from that hour may spill over into the following hour…which is already yellow.

Of course, tools like the AADC only show scheduled arrival traffic, and assume each of those is a full-stop landing. I’ve often told my trainees, “The problem isn’t necessarily the number of airplanes. It’s what each airplane is doing.” What if a bunch of those arrivals want practice approaches? Maybe a flock of overflights show up too, requesting practice approaches here on their way somewhere else. They wouldn’t show up on the AADC. Then there’s the question of bad weather, which is decidedly unscheduled.

What if this happens when all sectors are already split off? Many ATC facilities have secondary, assistant positions. Approach controls call these positions Handoffs. Centers might have a couple variants. One is a Radar Assistant (commonly called a D-Side) who plugs in directly beside the R-Side (the main controller). Centers could also employ a Tracker, who acts as another set of eyes, overseeing the R- or D-Sides. Larger control towers can have a Cab Coordinator position whose job is to, well, coordinate among the tower positions and overlying radar facilities.

During high complexity periods, available controllers will be assigned to these assist positions, each with their own communication panels. Handoffs and D-Sides also have their own dedicated keyboards. While they’re monitoring the primary controller’s traffic and frequencies, they’re scanning for conflicts, making suggestions, making flight plan amendments, and coordinating with other sectors and facilities.

You’ll never hear these ATC versions of copilots on freq, but they are there, sharing the workload and taking on responsibility for your flight’s safe outcome. The latter is no joke; they really are putting their ticket on the line. If anything unfortunate happens and two airplanes get too close, they might be identified as “Controller B” in the incident reporting. Their role is to ensure that doesn’t happen. Getting them plugged in early and scanning for problems is key to achieving that.

Slow The Problem Down

In practice, unfortunately, sometimes we simply don’t have the time to split off a sector or grab an assistant. Rapidly evolving situations leave us working only with what we have on hand, trying to keep a bad situation from getting worse.

This past summer, I was working our West sector, vectoring aircraft to Runway 9. The East sector had been feeding me arrivals. Suddenly, a series of small but intense afternoon storms popped up around the airport. Simultaneously, the airport winds swung around hard, necessitating a sudden runway change to Runway 27.

This happened right in the middle of a large arrival rush. Normally, we don’t try to change runways until we have a lull in our traffic. The winds and weather weren’t giving us that opportunity. We already had a number of arrivals in our airspace, and more approaching the boundary.

As a pilot descending towards your destination, you’re expected to pre-brief your approach, verify the airport information, and set up your avionics with plenty of lead time. If ATC suddenly changes the runway and approach on you, when you’re only a few flying miles from the airport, now you’re rushing to get through all of these tasks again.

So it went for our East sector controller. He went from standard ops to scrambling. Many of his arrivals were high, as he was originally feeding them to me. Now he needed to slow them down, bend them back around to Runway 27, and get them down, but with enough time to get set up properly. Complicating matters, the storms were limiting his vectoring options, leaving him with deviating jets slithering everywhere, separated only by altitude.

Meanwhile, things were quiet on my West sector. All I had were a few jet arrivals, who already had the new ATIS. As mentioned, part of my job is recognizing when a colleague is getting hammered, and do what I can to alleviate that. Should I let my jets just keep running at 250 knots, straight into his angry beehive? Of course not.

I pulled my jets back to 180 knots and bent them away from East’s airspace. Meanwhile, East slowly hammered his swarm of airplanes into a cohesive line. Once it was clear which one was the tip of his flying snake’s tail, I lined up my jets, and vectored them to fall in behind it. All I did was a little bit of work, and it gave him time to catch his breath. I know he would’ve done the same for me if the situation had been reversed.

In The Weeds

It’s small gestures like the above that can make all the difference in ATC. A controller could be on the verge of drowning, barely keeping ahead of the traffic. They’re just one more airplane or just one more landline call from going under, from missing something important. A helping hand can drag him back to the surface.

There was one day when many of our airports were ground-stopped by our overlying center, who’d been swamped with weather. Aircraft were lining up, unable to depart. I was working West, dealing with some practice approaches at satellite airports, overflights, and feeding arrivals to East.

Suddenly, Center called the towers and let everyone go. It was like popping a cork off a shaken champagne bottle. Within two minutes, three different towers simultaneously launched streams of aircraft at minimum separation into my airspace. Despite coming off from different airports, many of these aircraft needed to go out the same “gate,” requiring me to organize them into a single flow.

At first, I was keeping up. However, between my large volume of departures, and the other traffic I was already handling, I was quickly running out of space. I also had Center repeatedly calling me on the landline, requesting special headings and altitudes for certain aircraft. In the midst of this, one of my departures didn’t turn when instructed. Now he was out of position, underneath and conflicting with my arrivals. Of course, I had to vector every other departure to follow him.

I knew I was starting to fall behind. The pragmatist in me knew things were going to get worse before they got better. Time to call in support—my pride could take a backseat to the mission at hand.

A Lifeline On The Landlines

I looked over my shoulder. One of my buddies had just walked into the radar room, looking for a duty assignment. “Hey, man,” I said, “I need a second pair of eyes over here.” He immediately grabbed his headset, plugged in to the West Handoff position, and asked what I needed. “Can you answer the landlines, and get these two towers…” (I pointed at two of our satellite airports) “…to stop departures?”

What might not be obvious to pilots is that controllers aren’t just talking to aircraft. We typically have a number of landlines from other facilities, plus lines to other sectors or positions in our own house. When I’m trying to work traffic, I could have multiple controllers calling me with requests or information. While they’re important, it also gets distracting and time-consuming fielding those calls while trying to work my traffic.

By tasking my friend with that coordination, it gave me time to right my ship and furiously vector my traffic into order. As I built some more breathing room, my friend would call one of the two stopped towers and release another departure. Occasionally, he’d also point to aircraft on my scope and offer input. “You can descend that guy now.” “He’s past the traffic. You can climb him and switch him.” “Center wants that guy on a 270 heading.”

With his help, I was able to focus on the most critical tasks and get caught up. His scan also helped me resolve a few conflicts before they became serious. The airplanes never have heard his voice, but they sure experienced the results of his work. I know I was certainly grateful.

It was a prime example of the teamwork that goes on behind the scenes. You might only hear one voice in busy airspace, but there’s often more than one set of eyes watching out for you.

Watching Each Other’s Backs

One of my coworkers tells a story of his time in the U.S. Air Force. A brand new trainee was up in their base’s tower for the first time. They had F-16 fighters in the pattern, doing touch and goes.

As he relates it, suddenly Mr. New Guy pointed and said, “Uh, is that supposed to happen?” Everyone else in the tower looked. The pilots of one of the F-16Ds had ejected, after taking a bird strike to their engine on the upwind climb. Two parachutes drifted down. The damaged, pilotless Viper continued to fly for a few miles, before smashing into an empty field and exploding. The base rescue teams were dispatched; both pilots survived without injury.

That, right there, is the embodiment of an ATC maxim: “If you see something, say something.” It doesn’t matter where you stand in the pecking order. If something doesn’t look right—even if you’re looking with inexperienced eyes and aren’t sure exactly what it is you’re seeing—tell someone else, so they can examine it further.

A good scan is just part of any aviation activity, beginning with pilots scanning their instruments and the world outside it. Controllers examine their traffic and their own airspace, figuring out potential conflicts. With any takeoff or landing clearance, comes a tower controller’s visual runway scan. A radar climb or descent instruction is typically preceded by a scan of the airspace ahead, ensuring there’s no crossing or unidentified VFR traffic at a conflicting altitude.

However, we don’t just watch our own stuff. We can typically see well into neighboring airspace. There’s no fence that hides our coworkers’ traffic from view, and, when we have time, we scan their traffic too. For instance, a busy controller beside me might miss that an unidentified VFR target has suddenly turned and is climbing into his downwind. I could lean over to him, tap the target on his scope, and say, “Hey, watch this guy.”

Likewise, I could have an IFR overflight who’s getting close to another unidentified VFR. I’ll call the traffic. My IFR pilot spots the VFR and determines it’ll be no factor.

From beside me, though, I’ll hear, “Hey, N123AB’s got traffic ahead and to his left.” My coworker doesn’t know I’ve already resolved it. I could be a snappy, prideful jerk and say, “Yeah, yeah, man, I know….” Or, I could respond the better way: “Much appreciated. He’s got him in sight. Thanks for looking out.” He’s got my back, and I’ll do the same for him.

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of IFR magazine.

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