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Why Pilots Should Visit Air Traffic Control

While flying a King Air F90 from Pensacola, Florida to Jonesboro, Arkansas with Rod Kellogg, a corporate pilot for the Shrimp Basket, I had my first real opportunity to handle en-route radio communications. The day was about to get a lot more interesting though, with a visit to two Memphis Air Traffic Control Facilities.

Swayne Martin

Sure, I had done cross country flights in rented Cessna 172s with VFR flight following, but this felt a lot more intense - being in a corporate King Air on a passenger-carrying flight. Along our route of flight, we were in contact with Atlanta, Houston, and Memphis Center. For the first time, I was exposed to relaying a message for ATC, helping another aircraft contact center control on the correct frequency. Little did I know, later that day I would meet the controller I helped out with the relay message.


Plan Ahead

After we landed in Jonesboro, Arkansas (KJBR), Rod and I drove an hour into Memphis, where there was a little more to do, for an overnight stay. As we drove, Rod had the great idea of calling both the Memphis ARTCC (Air Route Traffic Control Center) and Memphis Tower for tours. Dependent upon the state of national security, your status as a citizen, and the state of workload at ATC, to visit an ATC facility requires a prior arrangement. You cannot simply walk to the front door and expect to receive a tour - To see what their availability is, call beforehand to see if and when a tour might be available.

Fortunately, Memphis ATC wasn't too busy that afternoon, so we were permitted a visit - We suddenly had some exciting aviation plans for the day! A director of the Memphis Center greeted us on the phone and asked us to arrive at about 5:30pm in the afternoon; he gave us the address and told us that he'd give the guard station our names to avoid confusion. Upon calling Memphis Tower, they asked that we visit the next morning, a Tuesday, since FedEx doesn't fly on Mondays and the Memphis International Airport was extremely quiet that day. To be in the tower for a series of FedEx arrivals, they asked us to show up at about 8:30am. In short, making a visit to ATC well worth it, but does require prior arrangement. Plan ahead and call to see if and when they are available to give a tour.

Images below were not taken during our visit to Memphis as per FAA ATC regulations regarding photography.

Memphismegasite

ATC Background Information

Air traffic control in the United States is divided into two categories:

1) Airport Control: The areas of responsibility for Tower (TWR) controllers fall into three general operational disciplines; local control or air control, ground control, and flight data/clearance delivery. Many airports have a radar control facility that is associated with the airport, called TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) in the United States. While every airport varies, terminal controllers usually handle traffic in a 30-to-50-nautical-mile radius from the airport.

Flickr/NATS Press Office

2) En-Route, Center, Or Area Control: Airspace in the United States is divided into sections which are assigned an ATC control facility. En-route air traffic controllers issue clearances and instructions for airborne aircraft. En-route controllers also provide air traffic control services to many smaller airports around the country, including clearance off of the ground and clearance for approach to an airport. Controllers adhere to a set of separation standards that define the minimum distance allowed between aircraft. These distances vary depending on the equipment and procedures used in providing ATC services.

freqofnature

Memphis ARTCC: Learn How En-Route Control Centers Operate

After passing through screening at the guard gate and being issued FAA guest ID badges, we were taken into the central ARTCC room, a large room filled with row after row of radar pallets and computer screens. To the side, we noticed large wall-mounted TV monitors which were repeating loops of national weather, airport delays, and special notices. I had never visited an ARTCC before; seeing all of the ATC activity up-close and personal was exciting and gave me a new appreciation for the work that air traffic controllers do to manage and keep flights safe around the country.

Florida Transportation Today

Rod and I learned how the Memphis area of control had been divided into 6 smaller sectors, with each sector having its own spot in the room. A supervisor was stationed at the end-cap of each sector to monitor the overall flow and processing of air traffic made by controllers in his/her sector. In addition, each sector was divided into 3 altitude coverage zones: surface-24,000 feet, 25,000 feet-34,000 feet, and 35,000+ feet. In our case, we had flown the King Air through and contacted what Memphis Center calls their "Ole West" low-altitude sector earlier that day.

I was handed a plug-in phone to listen in on the communications that the controller I sat next to was handling. As flights came into the airspace or requested flight plans, slips were printed from the computer next to us with all of the flight information (including SQUAWK codes). Seeing ATC in this way from the other side of the radio was exciting and 100% different. I got a real sense for how controllers feel when two pilots are relaying communications at once, or how at a moments notice, a controller's job can become very busy with multiple aircraft requesting information or needing to be transferred to a different facility.

ATC-Network

Memphis ARTCC: Advice From Controllers

During our visit, I asked a number of controllers, "What actions do pilots take that frustrate you or make your job difficult?" Here's what I learned:

1) Controllers want to keep pilots safe: The #1 thing that bothers controllers is when pilots are taking risks that endanger themselves or the lives of people around them. One controller I spoke with said that she most often gets frustrated with pilots when they try to push the limits, flying VFR into IMC. In her days working in TRACON, she witnessed a number of crashes due to non-IFR rated pilots flying into IMC, against the instructions or advice from air traffic controllers.

Wired

Controllers told me that in an emergency, you should above all else, immediately focus on entering SQUAWK code 7700 (emergencies), for the controller's attention and assistance will immediately be turned to you. On the back end, upon seeing 7700, ATC has ways of handing off controller duties to others so they can focus on single aircraft - The attention of everyone in the room is on your aircraft once you SQUAWK 7700. Controllers I spoke with said SQUAWK 7700 even more effective than first trying to call approach for a "mayday" message, because it's fast and gives controllers an immediate notification of your emergency. As a pilot, know that controllers are trying to help you and keep you safe - It's their job to do just that.

keep-calm-o-matic

2) For pilots - Keep you communications precise: Controllers often manage dozens of aircraft across multiple frequencies. One controller asked me to give this message to pilots: "When you radio in an altitude change or heading change, think to yourself: 'How can I say this in the fewest number of words with the most precision?' Instead of rambling about needing clearer air or a better tailwind, just request the altitude or heading change. We're there to help you and will be all means assist the request if we're safely able to do so." Remember to empathize with the controller you're talking to and understand that you're probably not the only responsibility that the controller has to take care of.


Memphis Tower: See Airport Operations From A New Perspective

The next morning, we headed out to the Memphis International Airport (KMEM) for a visit to the airport's control tower. Once again, we passed through FAA security and were given guest ID badges. We were taken up the elevator into the control tower at 8:30am, just as a new round of FedEx flights began arriving. Never having been in a control tower, much less one at a large Class B airport, seeing a 315 ton FedEx MD11s approach and land right below us was incredible.

Memphis Daily News

The Memphis Tower is one of the best equipped air traffic control towers in the country. When KMEM gets busy, it gets busy VERY quickly and needs the ability to handle dozens of widebody aircraft arrivals within minutes as FedEx planes arrive throughout the day and night. Memphis has 4 runways and the ability to land/depart aircraft on adjacent, parallel runways due to systems like those found in airports such as San Francisco. We learned that Memphis was the trial airport for the "Wake Recategorization Program," which replaces the traditional maximum takeoff weight (MTOW)-based separation standard with a separation matrix based on wake vortex physics and aircraft dynamics parameters, namely wingspan, MTOW, final approach speed, and roll moment capability. In essence, this program gives controllers new radar separation requirements when dealing with different categories of aircraft approaching or departing an airport.

Flickr/Alan Wilson

With Delta Air Lines pulling out of Memphis as a hub location, the airport has seen a significant reduction in day-to-day traffic. When FedEx isn't in a push-mode, the Memphis Tower is quiet and welcomes general aviation pilots to come and even do touch-and-go landings around the pattern. Memphis has thus become one of the friendliest Class B airports to general aviation pilots. For private pilots to be flying around a Class B airport with heavy FedEx aircraft is an opportunity you shouldn't miss if you're in the area! Just call the tower beforehand; they'll appreciate you asking what the best time for touch-and-go landings would be.

Memphis Daily News

For the second time, I was handed a plug-in phone to listen to various tower frequencies as aircraft flew around the pattern, landed, departed, and taxied on the ground. My favorite part? - Hearing the controller next to me issue a directive such as, "FedEx 972 heavy cross Runway 27," listening to the pilot's response, and subsequently seeing the aircraft begin taxiing. It was like operating a life-size remote control airplane!

Flickr/Michael B.

Controllers Are Normal People

I know, it's a crazy concept - Controllers are just like you and me. I know it's backwards, but I had this idea in my head that controllers were extremely formal, government employees who didn't have much of a personality. And when you think about it, that's for a very simple reason - You rarely meet them in person! Until you go visit with ATC and learn about their end of the aviation management system, it's hard to empathize with the person on the other end of that microphone. Air traffic controllers aren't robots sitting inside a blacked-out room, they're moms and dads, young and old, wearing anything from a tee shirt and sweat pants, to a button-down and tie. Controllers are there to keep pilots safe; we should all appreciate what they do each and every day for us.

Entertainmesh

Always remember to plan ahead and call your local air traffic control facility before you make a visit; they may or may not be available to take you on a tour. If they're able to take you for a tour, it will be a great experience - I promise!

Do you know any air traffic controllers? Thank them in the comments below for helping pilots like you and me.


Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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