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Air traffic controllers juggle lots of summer traffic at busy airport
Justin Myers. Photos by Janet Hefler
Directing occasional traffic tie-ups on the ground cannot compare to choreographing the arrivals and departures of 500 to 600 aircraft on a peak summer day, which can translate to a plane a minute on the runway. This summer, from May through August, the Island's sky police skillfully and safely handled a three-fold increase in aircraft traffic, compared to January through April.
Talking about their job, Michelle Meyers, tower manager, and air traffic controllers (ATCs) Bill Camacho, Justin Myers, Willie Evans, and Jason Barnes, describe it as one that demands constant mental juggling and hyper-vigilance, aided by instinct and honed by training.
On a visit by the Times to the control tower around 1 pm on Friday, Sept. 1, traffic on the airport runways kept up at a steady pace. Since the airport opened at 6 am, 170 planes had taken off or landed. By the airport's closing at 10 pm, Ms. Meyers predicted that number would rise to 500. Jets and small planes parked for the weekend would cover the entire aircraft parking area and spill over onto the grass beyond the end of the runway, she said.
The job involves teamwork, with each controller switching back and forth between jobs about every hour, Mr. Camacho explained. "We need people who work well together as a team, because at times we are so busy, we have to be able to almost read each other's minds, to anticipate what the other person will do."
Usually two controllers are on duty together, with one controller working both the ground control and flight data jobs, because the local air controller is too busy for administrative details.
"What makes that position challenging is the concentration of high-density jet traffic and light civilian aircraft," Mr. Camacho said. "We have to provide separation and figure out the characteristics of the aircraft, such as who's faster and who's slower. It's like a very complex video game in the sky."
Mr. Myers kept a close eye on air traffic in a 20-mile radius on the radar screen, as he also constantly scanned the airspace around him. Sometimes he stood, issuing his directives to pilots with accompanying arm waving and gestures as though conducting an aerial orchestra. Mr. Camacho, in contrast, remained seated, his instructions delivered at a rapid-fired pace.
The airport operates on Visual Flight Rules (VFR), which means that anyone can call in with a request to land from any direction, Mr. Camacho said. Unfortunately, as Ms. Meyers pointed out, some pilots seem to have a misconception about VFR and continue to depend on their instruments when they also should be watching out the window.
Bill Camacho, Michelle Meyers, and Justin Myers (from left) in the Martha's Vineyard Airport tower.
Every now and then in the tower an alarm beeped, which produced no sign of anxiety in the controllers. Mr. Myers explained that it alerts the controllers so they can warn pilots flying planes too low (below 400 feet) or too close to another plane. "Nine times out of ten, it's no big deal, because the pilots are flying under VFR and they see each other," Mr. Myers said.
As the afternoon went by and air traffic increased, the controllers faced a "knuckle sandwich," meaning that ATCs in Boston and Providence tried to hand off more traffic to the Vineyard as their numbers grew. Ms. Meyers said some pilots call from 28 miles away, handed off by Providence Airport. However, air traffic to the Vineyard can come from all directions, Mr. Camacho pointed out. "We have pilots call in and say, 'We're 30 minutes east,' without giving us more than that."
Adding to the airport's challenge are its two runways. Jets can only use the long runway, while small planes, depending on wind conditions, may be using the short runway that crosses it. The largest plane the longer runway can accommodate is a 727-200 series jet. Although most airports experience seasonal traffic increases, the difference at Martha's Vineyard Airport is dramatic. Last summer, for example, total airport operations from May though August represented about 67 percent of the year's total.
The controllers said the number of planes they can handle at one time varies, depending on the situation. "It's the level you're comfortable with," said Ms. Meyers. Not everyone can find a comfort level in the fast-paced Vineyard tower, however. One new controller walked away after only one day on the job, Mr. Camacho said.
Compared to his previous Air Force experience, Mr. Myers said, "I had never worked this many planes. I've talked to other ATCs who told me, if you can work here, you can work anywhere. I believe it."
The tower usually is staffed with four air traffic controllers (ATCs) in the winter and six in the summer, Ms. Meyers said. The airport contracts their services through their employer, Mid-West Air Traffic Controllers, based in Kansas City. All of them are military-trained ATCs.
After dealing with military pilots, adjusting to civilian pilots takes some getting used to, Mr. Camacho admitted. "We're used to the military environment, where everything is structured. You tell a military jet pilot he's cleared for take-off, and he's rolling."
Not so with some of the civilian pilots, especially the ones the controllers call the "Sunday flyers," who hop in their airplanes on the weekend to come to Martha's Vineyard. On one occasion, a pilot in a small plane about one mile from the airport veered off towards Katama, radioing in response to a puzzled ATC that he decided he wanted to do some sightseeing.
The Martha's Vineyard ATCs share many years of experience among them. After 20 years in the U.S. Navy as an ATC, Ms. Meyers received her first civilian assignment to Martha's Vineyard three years ago. Mr. Camacho has 29 years of experience as an ATC, after a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy and subsequent jobs in three civilian airports.
Mr. Camacho started work on the Vineyard as a seasonal ATC in the summer of 2004, and then stayed on as a year-round controller until now. A citizen of Spain, he plans to return home to Seville in October to spend the winter with his wife and children, and return next year for the summer. After finishing a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy as an ATC at the Key West Naval Air Station, Mr. Evans began work at the Vineyard tower as a full-time, year-round ATC in January. Handling the mix of jets and small planes at the Vineyard airport has been the biggest change for him after being a military ATC, he said.
Mr. Myers, a seasonal ATC from South Dakota, takes some good-natured ribbing as the only non-Navy trained controller in the group. Separating from the U.S. Air Force last January, he started working as a seasonal ATC on the Vineyard in May. He leaves at the end of October to rejoin his wife Holly, son and daughter at home in South Dakota, where he will be working as an ATC at Rapid City Regional Airport.
The new kid on the block, Mr. Barnes, started August 28 as a full-time ATC. After serving five and a half years as a U.S. Navy ATC, Mr. Barnes left the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, bringing his wife Lindsey to the Island, where she now works at Martha's Vineyard Co-Op Bank.
Mr. Barnes said that although the Martha's Vineyard Airport has less traffic than he dealt with at the naval air station, the mix of aircraft requires more coordination.
Recently, the ATC staff has undergone a major turnover. In mid-August, Anthony Newman, who was hired about the same time as Ms. Meyers three years ago, moved off-Island to pursue a master's degree. Two weeks ago, Ms. Meyers left to start a new job as an ATC for Air Australia at the Kona International Airport in Hawaii.
"I'll miss the people here, but I am not going to miss the 50 to 60 planes an hour," she said.