Working in the tower

The highest authorities

One plane wants to land quickly, another is in a hurry to take off, and the third needs to slow down on final approach: It's all in a day's work for Mathias Andlinger. In the tower, looking down on the airport from a height of over 70 meters, he works with his German Air Traffic Control (DFS) colleagues to keep plenty of distance between the numbers on the radar screens. But unlike the Pacman game characters they might resemble, the numbers here represent real objects moving at different speeds: arriving, departing and taxiing aircraft.

Safety is their top priority

Another key difference: the controllers can't use a joystick to move the objects around. Instead, along with the flight timetable, weather and radar data on the screen, they mainly use their eyes, their ability to visualize and of course their voices. Most of the time several controllers are speaking at once, but it is neither loud nor hectic at the top of the tower. You only hear what they're saying when you move closer – but as an outsider, you won't understand much: "November Four" refers to one of the northern bridges between the ramp and the taxiway system, "Alpha" and "Bravo" for the taxiways to and from the runway.

The atmosphere of quiet concentration, the NATO alphabet and other specialized words and phrases are typical of working life in Munich Airport's 78-meter high tower. That also a+B9pplies to the weather observers on level 92. Now on duty is Achim Wildenauer, a specialist with the German Weather Service (DWD). The screens here display a different specialized language: the data on wind speed, cloud cover, visibility and other flight-related meteorological information gathered from 32 sensors all around the airport.

Who works where in the tower?

  • Air traffic control:

In the daytime, one aerodrome controller and one taxiing controller for each runway, two aerodrome coordinators and a supervisor work simultaneously at the top level of the tower. Their work begins when an aircraft is still about 18 kilometers from the runway, and ends when a departing aircraft turns onto its flight path after takeoff.

  • Weather observation:

The tower office of the German Weather Service (DWD) is staffed by one meteorologist at all times. They take turns working 12-hour shifts, relaying key weather observations and data as a weather report every 30 minutes. When unusual developments are anticipated, the specialist calls the DWD weather advisor in the office in the Munich Airport Center.

  • Ramp control:

Two controllers per shift are responsible for traffic to and from the taxiway bridges on the western ramps. Four other controllers stationed in the smaller satellite tower handle traffic on the eastern ramp areas around Terminal 2 and the satellite terminal.

They almost never see each other - but still they work hand in hand

In the tower, Achim Wildenauer sits between DFS and the airport's ramp controllers. Their staff do not see one another in everyday operations, but are always working hand in hand. Before pilots leave the ground in Munich, they've heard at least four different voices from the tower on their headsets. First: an aerodrome coordinator with DFS, who checks whether the aircraft is on the flight schedule and its scheduled departure time is still valid before giving clearance for the route and permission to start the engines. Then the pilot switches frequency and is heard by the ramp controllers, 10 meters lower down in the tower.

Here, on level 90, two employees control the traffic on the western ramps. The pilot, who previously spoke to the aerodrome coordinator and now wants to leave the park position, says "ready for pushback". At the same time, two other aircraft are requesting clearance.

This calls for the utmost concentration. One plane has to taxi to the southern runway and the one next to it to the northern runway, while an aircraft that has just landed is taxiing toward the terminal building. The ramp controller has to decide instantly in which order to direct the aircraft and how to route them. Because: »Flight operations not only have to be safe, but also orderly and quick,« explains Jens Bartels, a ramp control manager. As soon as the pilot reaches one of the bridges to the taxiway, the next instruction comes to change frequency. Now DFS is in charge again, and Mathias Andlinger's voice is on the pilot's headset. As a supervisor, he is actually positioned in the middle of the glass turret, maintaining contact to the DFS central office and other authorities. But now he is standing in for a colleague who is heading off for the mandatory break taken once every two hours. Andlinger takes over the position of the taxiing controller who guides the aircraft along the taxiways to the runway. "You are number two behind an Embraer Jet," he tells the pilot, explaining the departure sequence. This is not based solely on who has been waiting longest. It also depends on such factors as visibility, the next approaching aircraft and how fast a plane can take off. Moreover, two aircraft on the same flight path need to maintain a greater distance. It can sometimes make sense, therefore, to let another plane take off in between. »Our goal is to get the traffic airborne as quickly as possible", says Andlinger.

They guide more than 1,000 aircraft per day.

He has now handed the pilot over to the next frequency: the aerodrome controller. She is sitting to his left and is responsible for traffic taking off and landing. She presses the transmission button and says, »Cleared for immediate takeoff.« There's no time to lose, as the next plane is about to land.

She has already contacted the next plane, now about 18 kilometers from the airport, informed the crew of the wind speed and direction and ordered them to reduce the approach speed. The new arrival can now be slotted seamlessly into the big Pacman game – a game that involves 1,000 aircraft every day at Munich Airport.

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