The Cap’n & the Controller—Part II

#blog #avgeek #aviation #ATC

Our story so far:

Blog buddy and Phoenix Air Traffic Controller Brian Bond contacted me via my Cap’n Aux Facebook page ( We quickly decided to trade tours of each other’s jobs.

Our planned adventure was twofold:
First, Brian would ride on my cockpit jumpseat during a live flight (see my previous post, Part I, here.)

Second, I would tour his ATC TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) facility, co-located with Phoenix Tower, in the heart of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.


I met Brian at the security guard booth for the Controller’s parking lot, in between Terminals 3 and 4.
KPHX Sky Harbor International Airport.

There, I went through their X-ray scanner and i.d. check. Security at this facility is even tighter than at TSA checkpoints!

Beginning Ops in 2007, this is PHX’s 4th and latest control tower. The previous tower (background) took over a year to tear down.

Out with the old, in with the new! 

From Wiki: The airport’s current 326-foot (99-meter) tall air traffic control tower began operations on January 14, 2007. The tower stands just east of the Terminal 3 parking garage, and also houses the Phoenix TRACON. This is Sky Harbor’s fourth control tower and is among the tallest control towers in North America.

Speaking of security, I was informed that no recorded media inside the facility would be allowed. I could only take photos of the view outside the Control Tower itself. Therefore, all interior photos below were from online sources. But I still got some great shots for you!

I snuck a pic in the john though. Ha, take that!
I’m such a rebel.

Our tour began at Level 2, PHX TRACON, which stands for Terminal Radar Approach Control. In short, Controllers here direct aircraft to and from Phoenix airspace. From there, they are often handed of to ARTCC, or Air Route Traffic Control Centers, which are regional facilities controlling multi-state air space. To the west, it’s Los Angeles Center; east: Albuquerque Center; north: Salt Lake Center; south into Mexico, Mazatlan Center.

Shot of Norcal TRACON, very similar to PHX TRACON.

Modern TRACONs are set up in a circle. The supervisors sit in the Center and help coordinate Departure and Approach controllers, and assist during emergencies. Even in today’s hi-tech age, a data runner stands by to physically hand-deliver some flight info to various controllers.

Departure and Approach controllers sit at scopes around the perimeter. Typically, there are several initial approach controllers, and one or two final controllers. But airports have rush hours, too, and during high volume times, staffing and sectors will increase.


Now, how does it all work? Let’s put it together.

Let’s say you’re Major Tom, a Cap’n for Oddity Airways . . .

Today you are operating Flight 123 from LAX to PHX. Your sequence of ATC facilities would go like this:
  1. Halfway to KPHX, Los Angeles Center hands you off to Albuquerque Center.
  2. Just after starting your downhill run into KPHX from cruise altitude, about 30 miles out, Albuquerque Center hands you off to Phoenix Approach Control.
  3. Somewhere within 10-15 miles or so of the airport, Phoenix Approach will hand you off to the Final Controller.
  4. Somewhere around 5-10 miles or so, the Final controller hands you off to Tower Control, who clears you to land.
  5. After pulling off the runway, Tower hands off Major Tom to Ground Control. (You saw that one coming, didn’t you!)
  6. Ground Control hands off Major Tom off to Ramp Control, (unless your circuit’s dead, and there’s something wrong! Can you hear me, Major Tom?)

When departing, you do the same thing in reverse!

Notice that, at all times during your flight, you are in “positive contact” with radar controllers who separate you from other aircraft. Except for a few spots in North America—mostly in Alaska, or enroute over the Pacific to Hawaii—you are always in “positive” radar and radio contact.

Unless, of course, you really are Major Tom, in which case you’re pretty much screwed. . .

 Some really cool radar scopey pics, of which I have no clue . . .

Phoenix TCA, “Class B” airspace—the area PHX TRACON controls:

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Next came our tour of Floor 20—that is, Phoenix Tower! I’ll let the pics speak for themselves: 

Stock pic of a modern Control Tower
. . . and my pics.
Above: looking East; Below: looking West
Here’s a YouTube vid of pics from the day before the tower’s opening.
Not much to add, but you can see a few more things here:


Just because it’s so fun, here’s astronaut Chris Hadfield singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity while “floating in his tin can”—in orbit on the ISS! (17.5 million hits? Man, wish MY vids got that many! Guess I gotta launch into orbit!):

Link to David Bowie’s original, 1969 video:

…and a link to Bowie’s “new, improved” version:


I’ve had a lot of great feedback from this 2-part series, and here’s a couple of the most fascinating questions:
What impressed or surprised you as you saw your job through the controller’s eyes, and as you toured the ATC facility? How do you think the experience will affect you going forward?”
Rick W.

Cap’n Aux:
From what I gathered, Brian really got a kick out of being in the cockpit with us! I imagine things moved pretty fast for him, because as a GA pilot, he’s used to flying planes going a fraction of the speed. Also, it was a hoot when he recognized a couple of the controllers on the radio. I was tempted to tell them we had him on board, but you can’t get too chatty on an open mike! 

Ultimately, while we had a blast, I think Brian is glad he took the career path he did. He still enjoys recreational flying, and knows that many airline pilots get “burned out” on the job.

My impressions are a bit tougher to nail down, as I have visited ATC and Tower facilities in the past–quite a long time ago, but no real surprises for me. I suppose what impressed me the most is the advancement in technology from the “old days.” The accuracy of the scopes, the information available, and the manipulations they can do are pretty incredible. Sort of like upgrading from a Commodore 64 to a Mac Pro!

Also, ATC is a very big, very dark, very silent room. Almost eerie that way. “Like a morgue,” as one reader put it. Still, as we walked around the perimeter, we could hear some bantering going on between controllers sitting next to each other. All in all, it seemed to be quite a casual and relaxed atmosphere for them.

Could I be comfy doing his job? Good question. We couldn’t  use the ATC simulators, which I was hoping to do, but I imagine I would have been every bit as overwhelmed as he would feel flying my sim!

How will this experience affect me, going forward? I certainly have been able to put a “human face” to the voices on the other side of the mike. I think it has left me with both a newfound respect for their jobs and challenges, and a willingness to be more “compliant” with their directives. Sometimes, we pilots feel as if the controller is “trying to fly the plane for us,” and it can get annoying. But I see that there are always reasons behind what they do—separation requirements, mostly, and we as pilots have to learn to NOT take it personally!

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