Behind the scenes at Stansted Airport's control tower
Air traffic controllers have one of the most high pressure jobs in the world, but for those at Stansted Airport at least they also have one hell of a view.
The tallest office building in Essex (and before Heathrow’s new air traffic control tower was built, the tallest such tower in the UK) offers a spectacular 360-degree look at the surrounding countryside – as well as of Canary Wharf, the Shard and the Wembley arch.
On a clear day, with binoculars and if you know where to look, you can even see the Luton Airport control tower.
Unlike many office windows, the controllers at the top of the 63-metre high building are paid to look out of them, as well as monitoring a bank of screens in front of them.
“You never get bored of the view,” admits Martin Ruddy, tower manager.
While the idea of all-digital control towers comes ever-closer to reality, the windows are a big factor at Stansted. The controllers do look out of them, and every desk is also equipped with a pair of binoculars.
Though the controllers can – and do, for example when it is foggy – rely solely on the computer screens in front of them, visual watch is still the preferred method.
There is no ambient noise in the tower, a strange sensation for a building so close to a runway, but it allows controllers to concentrate. And while planes approach the runway at around 150mph, it appears almost slow from the lofty view of the tower.
The windows are so integral that they are due to be replaced in Spring 2018, a feat for some hardy souls with a head for heights.
While the work takes place the controllers will temporarily relocate to a small observation tower situated at the airport’s fire station, which is already fully equipped and acts as an emergency stand-by in the event of fire or other evacuation from the main tower.
As you would expect with such a critical function, where safety is of the utmost priority, the tower has multiple back-ups – uninterrupted power supplies, generators and batteries guarantee power, while each desk and controller in the room can do the work of any other in case one should fail. If everything goes down, pen and paper is still an option – “the problem is most of us have forgotten how to write,” jokes Dan Pryce, watch manager.
So just what do the air traffic controllers do at their desk?
“We can handle every type of aircraft which each has a different performance. It’s a ballet in the sky,” says Martin.
“Some people say we are the heart of the airport, but that’s the passenger terminal. We are more like the brain – every decision starts here.
“It is all about sequencing.”
But if the airspace is akin to a ballet, then the air traffic controllers are master choreographers. While technology is integral, there are so many variables only a human can bring it all together quickly and intuitively.
The team at Stansted are responsible for everything coming in and going out of the airport, for about three miles out. They also have to keep a tight rein on the ground vehicle movements as well, both planes taxiing and the numerous support vans and cars, and things such as the runway lights.
In any given shift there will be as standard two main controllers – one on air, one on ground – plus a supervisor, and a third assistant who monitors weather and other aspects, jumping into action if needed.
A second team of air traffic controllers based at Swanwick, Hampshire, manages the congested airspace over the South East – the A-roads, junctions and slip-roads of the sky – while a third level of controllers look after the motorways.
It is a 24/7 operation. Even on Christmas Day, the Stansted team has around 30 flights to look after, plus any emergency diversions that may come its way. At peak times (early morning and evenings at Stansted) it deals with 50 movements an hour – virtually one plane taking off or landing every minute, with up to 30 pilots speaking to you at once. On a busy summer day there will be 635 movements.
Training is intensive. Would-be recruits must pass psychometric testing and spend around four years in training, first at college before progressing onto a centre where they use localised simulators before going live at a desk. Even then they spend 300 hours with a supervisor plugged in next to them before going solo.
Many do not make it through the initial training. While 3,300 apply for a slot at college, only 15 (0.5%) make it through.
But while the training is crucial, the job is also intuitive.
“There is pressure, but it goes with the territory,” says Dan, from Sproughton. “It’s not a job you can take home with you either.
“The academic requirements are not too onerous, you don’t need a degree, but you do need that aptitude to judge speed, time and distance.
“You can be as educated as you like, but if you can shoot the gap at a roundabout you may be suited to this job.”
“Every day is different, the weather, the aircraft, change. But if you stick to the rules it works,” adds Martin.
Surprisingly you don’t need a head for heights.
“I have known one controller who suffered from vertigo,” said Dan. “He had to hold the bannister going up and didn’t go near the edge.”
Stansted, as well as being a busy passenger airport with nearing 26 million people passing through each year, also has a growing cargo terminal and a private jet area. With such facilities, it has often played host to the President of the United States, and is the go-to airport for planes which have been hijacked or have other security concerns.
While POTUS adds to the excitement in the tower – having a Secret Service agent oversee your work has to be a thrill – other emergencies are few and far between and more mundane, mostly handled by the police. The controllers will have a more active role if, say, a passenger on board a flight becomes unwell. In this case, they organise an ambulance to meet the plane on the ground and may even bump the flight up the queue.
“It’s all calm and collected – if you get too excited easily you probably would not make a good air traffic controller,” said Dan.
“The training just kicks in.”