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Urban Explorer's Handbook 2006

Traffic Cops of the Air


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"X-ray clear to the Panama City airport. Hugo six ... maintain three thousand. Expect eight thousand. Within one, zero minutes. Departure control frequency one, two, eight point three, two scroll, three, three, one, two."

That's what an air traffic controller sounds like. What it means, we're not sure. None of the controllers at Concord Regional Airport were courteous enough to explain the details of their jobs (they also didn't want a frontal photo in the paper). Fortunately, aviation director Richard Lewis was able to supply a little information.

Large flight centers around the country direct an airplane's path when it's over their airspace. For instance, a flight from New York to Concord will go from New York's flight center to DC's. Then Charlotte will pick it up until it reaches Concord's small air space for the plane to land.

In the large flight centers, such as the Charlotte Douglas International Airport (which wouldn't give us any access), there is a hidden lair of air traffic controllers separated from the controllers up in the tower, whom Lewis calls "glamor controllers." In the windowless bottom level, air traffic controllers direct planes all over the Southeast. The most stressful part for these thankless screen watchers are "pushes," when planes line up in a seemingly endless stream.

The multi-colored blippy scope in Concord's tower is called a STARS unit. The new state-of-the-art equipment was provided free by the Federal Aviation Administration, and is more sophisticated than the old green de-brights. The PC-based STARS illustrates different intensities of weather problems and is generally user-friendlier.

The controllers, Lewis says, are "traffic cops with very expensive equipment."


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