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Behind-the-scenes with air traffic controllers at the Ottawa International Airport


At this moment, thousands of airplanes are flying in the air and across the country, en route to various global destinations. The complex tasks and coordination to ensure each plane moves safely, on the ground and into the sky, belongs to air traffic controllers.

From taxi to take off, final approach and touchdown, any plane in motion at the Ottawa International Airport must first receive clearance from crewmembers in the Nav Canada air traffic control tower. 

Perched high above the runways at the Ottawa International Airport, and with a 360-degree view of the airfield and sky, air traffic controllers must track, verify and prioritize each aircraft's flight plan, which includes some of the smaller airports within the national capital region.

"The biggest part of our job is coordination," Ryan Lloyd, air traffic controller supervisor, says. "We are in charge of keeping the airplanes separated and safe here at the Ottawa Airport and everything that you see here for seven miles (11 km) up to 3,000 feet (912 metres) is our responsibility. Planes taking off, landing and anybody overflying the airport."

Air traffic controllers direct planes and work with pilots, operating all types of aircraft, to climb, turn, descend and move safely, whether on the ground or in the sky. 

In addition, any vehicle rolling along an active tarmac must contact ATC for approval.

Lloyd, with more than two decades of experience in air traffic control, points to some of the various 'stations' in the control centre, each with as many as four different displays. The stations provide necessary information on aircraft location, weather, flight plans, airspeed, cargo weights and radio communication frequencies.

"Our ground controller is responsible for all the vehicles on the ground, all the aircraft on the ground and getting people to and from the runways and the tower controller is responsible for all of the aircraft in the air, clearing the aircraft for departure. Anybody transiting the control zone, that’s us. If you are flying from Rockcliffe airport to Smiths Falls, you would be talking to us," says Lloyd, who, on Wednesday afternoon, points out a typical scenario with airplanes, which happens hundreds of times each day.

"Take this cargo jet on its way to Iqaluit today, our active runway is 3-2. So the ground controller is taxiing the aircraft out to the end of the runway and then he’s going to transfer communications to the tower controller who will fit him into his traffic of arrivals, departures, overflights and then he’ll give him a take-off clearance."

Meanwhile, a plane is landing, a military helicopter is hovering nearby, there are service trucks requesting to cross an active runway, as a Porter flight awaits instruction. This may seem like a chaotic situation to many, but not up in this tower. It was simple, organized and fluid.

This is all in a day's work.

Friday is the International Day of the Air Traffic Controller, and this rare, behind-the-scene look at how Nav Canada and its world-class technology operates its cross-country air navigation system is to highlight the hard work of air traffic controllers and increase awareness and understanding of their job and the unique challenges they face.

In an effort to fill the gap of shortages in air traffic control, Nav Canada will recruit more than 600 applicants over the next two years as traffic controllers and flight service specialists. Successful applicants receive a salary while training, which can take up to 27 months to complete and a course, which involves full-time classes, time in a simulator as well as on-the-job training. Top Stories

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