How a control tower works: Moving planes on the ground

As passengers, we board the plane, get seated and play with our smartphones, patiently waiting for that moment when the plane pushes back. However, behind the scenes, there’s a lot of coordination with planes from around the world landing, departing, taxiing and just about to push back.

I recently visited the Los Angeles (LAX) control tower to learn how the puzzle pieces are coordinated to get the planes from the gate to the runway. The process is fascinating.

Getting clearance

Prior to an aircraft pushing back from the gate, LAX Tower must issue a clearance of the airline’s planned route and destination. 90% of commercial aircraft use a form of electronic “clearance delivery” which allows the controller and aircraft to communicate by computer. The tower can OK a requested route and the pilot can indicate compliance with the clearance with a click on their flight management computers. General-aviation aircraft (e.g. private jets) and many foreign carriers do not participate in this electronic system, so they will call up the tower on a special frequency, requesting clearance verbally. This clearance includes notice of the frequencies to monitor, initial projected direction of flight, altitude on departure and the confirmed routing.

The ramp tower: airline-controlled

Once the pilots have received this clearance, the aircraft will be given a time to push back from the gate. At this point in the process, the airlines deploy ground controllers of their own on the ramp to assist, rather than jam up the tower. These so-called “ramp towers” operate in non-movement areas. Although there is plenty of movement as planes are pushed back from the gate with tugs, it’s an area not under the control of Air Traffic Control (ATC.) At LAX, United, Delta, American and Alaska all control the movement on their own aircraft near the gate. This system makes sense; the tower controllers are quite far away from the action to be able to supervise aircraft pulling in and out of gates. And these non-movement areas are tight, even at large airports like LAX.

Once the plane is pushed back, the pilots will contact the LAX Tower’s ground controllers on one of a number of radio frequencies depending on where their aircraft is situated on the ramp.

Enter paper strips

Paper strips with information relating to Alaska Airlines flight 1232 from LAX to Chicago O’Hare. From left to right: flight number, aircraft type, a computer code (581), bar code to scan into the computer, special code to designate the flight (7212), departure time in Greenwich Mean Time (18:45 or 6:45p.m.), requested altitude (37,000 feet), airport of origin in four-letter code, route of flight and destination.

Up in the tower, the flight information is printed on a small strip of paper. The ground controllers organize the flights on these strips of paper like a puzzle. They’ll electronically scan a bar code on the strip, which loads the information on a screen in front of them. They shuffle strips on their desk to keep track of aircraft movements. It’s still decidedly low-tech, but a system that works. One controller will transfer responsibility for the aircraft along the chain, and the paper signifies that transfer.

Organizing the flights at the ground controller’s station.

The ground controller will assign a route for the aircraft to taxi, which depends on where the aircraft starts on the ramp, its wingspan, and where she’s heading. (You can follow along on your route, watching for the taxiway markings along the route.) Some aircraft, such as the Boeing 777-300ER, the A380 and the Boeing 747-8, are too large for some taxiways, so they have special taxi routes designated for them. This adds to the complexity of getting so many aircraft from the gate to the runway without clipping wings.

Sometimes, aircraft from a particular gate will request a route that requires them to cross to the other side of the field. At LAX, this takes place on taxiway Q and S (seen in the middle of the airport diagram above). In this case, a ground controller on one side of the tower will physically walk the flight strip over to his colleague on the opposite side of the cab, remaining at all times hooked in to their radio.

Quarter football

At LAX, the tower is in the middle of four sets of parallel runways. As the plane begins to taxi across the field to the other side of the airport, so goes the strip, as described above.

Once the aircraft is nearing a runway, the ground controller will physically pass the strip to the local, tower controller.

And by pass, I mean flick the strip down a long table to the local controller, like quarter football.

The Federal Aviation Administration is working on electronic paper strips, rolling out the transition from tower to tower over time. LAX is slated to go live with the system in 2021. But these paper slips have been tried and true for decades.

Finally, the local controller will issue the takeoff clearance to the pilots.

In the image above, American Airlines 4 (an A321T on the way to JFK) has pushed back, leaving the gate at 11:31 a.m. The American ramp tower will have controlled the movements of this aircraft to this point, after which the American pilot will call up the tower requesting taxi instructions.

Already on a taxiway and nose to nose, you’ll see Air Canada 573 (an Airbus A319 on the way to Vancouver) and Alaska 1899 (an Airbus A320 on the way to SFO). The Air Canada jet pushed back earlier than Alaska and has an earlier departure time; ground control called for it to taxi out with the Alaska plane following behind. Each plane departed on runway 24L, making a right turn northbound after takeoff.

Ground control is a highly coordinated, moving puzzle; this is how the puzzle is made.

Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand, and a marketing consultant to airlines, none of which appear in this story.

Midwest ATC Wins President’s Citation of Merit Award from ATCA

Midwest ATC’s team at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, was recently awarded the President’s Citation of Merit Award from the Air Traffic Control Association.   Midwest ATC Team Bagram serves the United States and NATO coalition forces under Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and Operation Resolute Support in a 24/365 combat environment. Our team members respond quickly to the dynamic operational tempo in the Southwest Asia AOR, and adapt and confront a variety of challenges each day.  The team’s superior performance is reflected in both Quality Assurance Evaluation inspections and customer comments received.  The team excels in the pursuit of excellence in safety and efficiency while controlling a wide variety of aircraft including military fixed and rotary wing, commercial air carrier and cargo, and UAVs, all the while managing multiple airfield construction projects without allowing disruption to the mission.

Best Airport/Transit/Award of Merit Excellence in Safety: Ellington Airport Air Traffic Control Tower and Utility Building

Ellington Airport Air Traffic Control Tower and Utility Building
Best Project and Award of Merit, Safety

Owner: Houston Airport System
Lead Design Firm/Civil Engineer/Structural Engineer: AECOM
General Contractor: Clark Construction Group LLC
MEP Engineer: VoltAir Consulting Engineers
Structural Engineer for Utility Building: Concept Engineers Inc.

An innovative plan for erecting structural steel improved safety, quality and scheduling on the Ellington Airport Air Traffic Control Tower and Utility Building project in Houston.

The tower is critical to military and aviation missions and activities at the Ellington Joint Reserve Base. The tower, built in 1955 was damaged by Hurricane Ike.

A key challenge was to erect the steel structure for the tower’s top level in a way that ensured safety and kept the project on schedule. The original plans called for the structure to go up within six weeks, but that time frame was shortened by unforeseen delays.

Working with the steel subcontractor, Clark Construction Group developed a plan to build the steel structure on site and on ground level and then lift it into place. Because the lift had to take place in a single try, the team relied on temporary steel bracing—along with extensive collaboration.

Adding to scheduling demands, federal, state and local aviation agencies required early entry into the tower during construction to install equipment. To make this possible, the project team completed equipment rooms early and commissioned power and communication systems ahead of schedule.

The concrete and steel structure is built to withstand extreme weather conditions and features hurricane-rated window systems, three separate IT rooms and a dedicated utility building with redundant emergency systems.

Over the course of 155,000 worker hours, the project team had zero lost-time incidents or recordables. The contractor took a culture-based approach to safety and implemented safety rubrics geared toward daily onsite safety.

The Dangers of a Rejected Takeoff

The pre-takeoff briefing in a transport category airplane always includes the flying pilot’s intentions should an emergency or anomaly occur during the takeoff roll. The reason to have all the duck’s in a row is that once the aircraft accelerates to decision speed, there are precious few seconds available for much thinking. Decision speed – V1 – is defined as the last chance to bring the airplane to a halt using reverse thrust and maximum braking and be certain it will remain on the hard surface.

Once acceleration continues beyond V1, short of extraordinary luck, the chances of halting the airplane on the runway are nil. The crew knows for certain they’re going off the end. The only unknown is how far because the aircraft manufacturer offers no stopping data based on higher speeds. The crew has essentially become test pilots. During initial and recurrent training, pilots do practice rejected takeoffs, of course, but usually under rather ideal conditions, with the instructor calling for the abort just prior to decision speed. Exercise complete.

In the real world, a rejected takeoff is not always so cut and dry, nor are crews always successful in handling this dangerous event. In the 2014 Gulfstream GIV accident in Bedford, Massachusetts, the crew’s complacency with the airplane made them feel comfortable skipping important items in the pre-takeoff checklist, in that case, a flight control check. Had they followed their company’s and Gulfstream’s standard operating procedure, one of the pilots would have moved the control wheel back and forth and left and right prior to taking the runway to ensure the flight controls were operating before they reached rotational speed. Had they followed SOPs, they’d also have realized the aircraft’s gust lock was still in place. But they didn’t.

When the 73,000-pound jet reached rotation speed, VR – about 100 knots that day – the flying pilot attempted to raise the nose of the Gulfstream, but the control wheel stubbornly refused to budge. The airplane continued accelerating for an additional 30 seconds and was estimated to be traveling at about 160 knots when it ran off the end of the runway and crashed with the crew unable to stop the airplane. All seven people aboard the Gulfstream died that day.

Sometimes, a little luck is available to a crew and passengers when things get ugly as they did during a real-world rejected takeoff last summer. The two ATP-rated pilots in the cockpit of a Cessna Citation 560 XL rejected their takeoff past VR on the 6020-foot long Runway 2 at the Oroville Municipal Airport (OVE), Oroville, California. The aircraft, destined for Portland, Oregon was operated as a Part 135 charter flight by Delta Private Jets about near midday in VFR weather conditions with two pilots and eight passengers in the cabin. What happened once the Citation took the runway is eerily similar to the experience of the Gulfstream crew at Bedford, except that the pilot flying called for the pre-takeoff checklist before launching.

The NTSB said, “Following the completion of the checklist, they initiated the takeoff and the non-flying pilot called ‘airspeed alive,’ V1, and VR. The pilot flying stated that ‘It was just a weird sensation,’ as he pulled the yoke back and the airplane didn’t lift off. The pilot flying further stated that he pulled the yoke back a second time and noticed no movement of the nose. Shortly after, the non-flying pilot called for an abort, and the pilot flying applied full thrust reversers and maximum braking.”

Prior to takeoff, the crew calculated their takeoff speeds and required runway distance should they begin the abort prior to V1. But the Citation was long past V1 when they tried to stop the airplane, so “the airplane exited the departure end of the runway, impacted a ditch, and skidded across a grass-covered area, where a post-impact fire ensued.” The aircraft came to rest nearly 2,000 feet beyond the departure end of the runway where the fire destroyed most of the airplane.

The good news about this rejected takeoff accident was that all 10 people on board escaped the burning airplane without a scratch. The cause behind the mechanical issues faced by the Citation pilot in California is still under investigation by the NTSB.

This story was updated at 8 pm EST on October 8, 2019.

By Rob Mark
October 8, 2019

Festival of flight celebrates aviation history

FAIRBORN — You can try out flight and drone simulators, experience virtual and augmented reality demonstrations, learn more about the Wright brothers and watch five aircraft flyovers at the inaugural Festival of Flight.

The free Festival of Flight will celebrate the importance of aviation in the Miami Valley 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5 in the Wright State University Nutter Center back parking area.

The festival will feature aviation-related educational experiences; flight-themed food and drinks; live band performances; a dedicated area with fun activities for children; Wright State soccer, volleyball and softball teams in action; exhibition games with a military veteran softball team and a vintage baseball game; and a haunted trail.

More information, including a schedule of activities, is available at

The festival will introduce attendees to many of the hidden gems of aviation-related resources in the Miami Valley. Much of the festival will focus on providing educational experiences for attendees, especially children.

The Dayton Regional STEM School has created a passport for school-aged kids to cover all the experiences the festival will offer. Students who complete the passport will receive prizes and potentially extra credit in their home school districts.

“What will set the Festival of Flight apart is the education component we plan to include in so many activities,” said Greg Scharer, executive director of alumni relations at Wright State. “The festival will focus on educating the community on all the resources we have in the area.”

The Aviation and Innovation Hangar will feature numerous hands-on and experiential activities. Nearly 30 Wright State, Air Force and community organizations will be on hand with innovative demonstrations and displays, giveaways, history lessons and fun activities.

Attendees can try out their flying skills on flight simulators provided by the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force and unmanned aerial systems simulators provide by Sinclair Community College.

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base will have numerous demonstrations at the festival. Participants can interact with several virtual reality simulations developed by the Air Force Research Lab Gaming Research Integration for Learning Laboratory. Participants can also try on compression shirts with wearable sensor technology that senses physiologic parameters in the Air Force 711th Performance Wing’s exhibit. The Air Force Research Lab will demonstrate technology that converts video into speech for some who is blind or for surveillance purposes.

Wright State innovators will be well-represented at the festival too.

Biomedical engineering graduate student Joshua Harris will display a robotic hand he created for his senior design project. Harris’ exhibit will also demonstrate the importance of troubleshooting and prototyping.

“These problem-solving skills are not only useful to engineers but can help anyone in any field to save money, test out ideas and learn more about their project goals and constraints,” he said.

Wright State’s Sensors and Signals Exploitation Lab will showcase live radar imaging by imagining small objects and even visitors. The lab will demonstrate how electromagnetic waves interact with people and objects and how radar systems are used in automotive systems for collision avoidance, air traffic control, weather and national defense.

Mechanical and materials engineering students will demonstrate an off-road vehicle they designed and built for an international collegiate competition.

Attendees can learn about next-generation DNA sequencing at the Wright State Center for Genomics Research’s booth.

The Advanced Visual Data Analysis group in the College of Engineering and Computer Science will showcase augmented reality technology that can be used for improving different types of surgical procedures.

Attendees can learn more about the Wilbur and Orville Wright by stopping by a display set up by Wright State’s Special Collections and Archives. The archives will display an exhibit on Wright Brothers School of Aviation and the Huffman Prairie Flying Field, including original film footage from various aviation collections for visitors to watch.

The Wright State Research Institute will provide tours of its Mobile Test and Evaluation Center, a semi-trailer mobile test station for unmanned aerial vehicles.

Other displays and demonstrations will be offered by Argus Fitness, Bailey Bug, the International Women’s Air and Space Museum, Mile Two, Marxent, the Military Heritage Chapter of the League of WWI Aviation Historians and the Parachute Museum.

During the festival, the Wright State student marketing club will hold its annual Wright Brothers Day, which celebrates the anniversary of Wilbur Wright’s 39-minute flight on Huffman Prairie on Oct. 5, 1905. The flight demonstrated that the Wright brothers had advanced their design to the point of a practical airplane.

Attendees can also check out a half-scale model of the Wright “B” Flyer, a biplane designed by the Wright brothers in 1910.

Five flyovers are planned during the day:

– Fastrax Professional Skydiving Team at 10:50 a.m.

– WACO Air Museum’s YMF-5 at 12:25 p.m.

– Red Star flying team at 2:30 p.m.

– “Champaign Gal” B-25 World War II bomber at 4 p.m.

– World War I biplanes at 5:30 p.m.

Night Hawk Lives On

After months of effort, The War Zone has been making steady headway in obtaining new details about the status of the U.S. Air Force’s remaining F-117 Nighthawk stealth combat jets and their future fates, including that one is headed for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Still, it has long proven difficult to get any details about who is still flying at least some of these jets and why, which has long been one of the hottest topics of interest regarding these aircraft. Now we can confirm that the Air Force Test Center has been operating some of the Nighthawks to help out with the service’s research and development efforts.

How many of the 51 remaining F-117s out at the secretive Tonopah Test Range Airport are airworthy is “not for public release,” Air Force spokesperson Brian Brackens recently told The War Zone by Email. This is not necessarily surprising as the service often chooses not to disclose details about the availability rates for specific aircraft fleets or its overall force posture absent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. At the same time, it is hardly a secret that some Nighthawks are still flying despite a 2017 Congressional mandate to begin physically destroying the remaining examples. This same mandate rescinded a previous requirement for the Air Force to keep them all in what is known as “Type 1000” storage, which would have allowed personnel to relatively quickly return the aircraft to service, if necessary.

“On occasion, we [the Air Force] will fly certain aircraft to support limited research activities,” Brackens further explained to The War Zone. “Pilots from the Air Force Test Center” are behind the stick of the Nighthawks during those sorties, he added.

Since the Air Force officially retired the F-117s in 2008, there has been a relatively steady flow of pictures and video showing at least some of the aircraft still flying. Spotters have seen them in around the Nellis Range complex, wherein the Tonopah Test Range and its associated airport sit. Area 51 is also shielded, in part, from prying eyes in part by the Nellis Range and the Department of Energy’s adjacent Nevada National Security Site. They’ve also caught audio from some of the jets flying around Area 51’s highly restricted airspace, also known as “The Box” or “Dreamland,” and watched them zoom over the Mojave Desert in Southern California.

In that same period, there has been much discussion and speculation about what these Nighthawks are actually doing. This has included claims that some of the Air Force, or some other government agency, did reactivate a number of the aircraft and deploy them for combat operations in the Middle East. There is no evidence, of this, as The War Zone has previously explored in-depth, and we have also offered an equally detailed alternative explanation. In addition, FOIA requests we sent to U.S. Central Command, Air Force Material Command, the Air Force Safety Center and Hill Air Force Base, all turned up no records touching on the possible regeneration of the Nighthawks for combat missions.

It has always seemed more plausible that the Air Force, or even private contractors, would still be flying F-117s to support a variety of research and development and operational test and evaluation activities, relating to both other aircraft and ground-based systems. As The War Zone has pointed out on multiple occasions, the Nighthawk’s stealth and other capabilities, while still obscure to the public in many regards, are very much a known quantity within the Air Force.

So, while it remains unclear exactly what work specifically the aircraft are supporting from time to time, there are ideal test assets for a wide variety of projects, such as developing new radars or radar-absorbing materials, testing new or improved sensors, or evaluating the signatures of new or existing stealthy materials against potential threats. The stealthy F-117s could also be valuable as aggressors.

As we at The War Zone wrote earlier this year:

“We know for a fact that testing of advanced IRST systems is deeply underway. The F-15C/D and Super Hornet Forces are slated to get these sensors en masse soon. America’s enemies also use the technology for passive detection of airborne targets, which is totally immune to a stealthy plane’s small radar signature. In fact, we know an F-16 that flies test support out of Groom Lake/Area-51 is outfitted with the same IRST sensor intended for the Super Hornets and the Eagles. That aircraft was also caught on camera very near where the F-117 was, but it was blasting through “Star Wars Canyon.”

“The F-117 was designed specifically for reduced infrared signature. Its elaborate planar exhaust system spreads out and attenuates the jet’s twin GE-F404 engines’ thermal signature. This makes it a very attractive and challenging target for testing the abilities and limits of IRST sensors.

“New modular Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar systems are also being tested for a number of tactical jets and bombers, and the F-16, in particular. So the low-level profile the F-117s were flying, the location of the flights, and the positioning relationship with the F-16s makes near perfect sense in regards to air-to-air sensor testing. ”

There had already been compelling circumstantial evidence to support the idea that the F-117s that were still flying were doing so in a test or evaluation role. Notably, in July 2018, Youtube user ‘pdgls‘ uploaded an audio recording of radio chatter between a pair of Nighthawks and a KC-135R tanker, as well as controllers on the ground. The two jets flew orbits near Area 51 and appeared to be going through a variety of test points. You can read our full analysis of that event here.

The confirmation that some of the F-117s are supporting “limited research activities” might help explain pictures that emerged earlier this year of one of the jets flying with what either appears to be some of its radar-absorbent skin removed or modified in some fashion. Of course, this could also be related to the demilitarization process, which the remaining aircraft, including those getting transferred to museums, are already beginning to go through.

All this said, it remains curious how secretive the Air Force has been about the F-117s and their continued activities, despite the aircraft certainly not being camera shy. While we now that the Air Force Test Center (AFTC), headquartered at Edwards Air Force Base in California and previously known as the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC), has been supplying pilots when necessary, it remains unclear who exactly “owns” the Nighthawks and is managing this extended twilight period of their service lives. The F-117s do not appear in the inventory of aircraft under the management of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, which oversees the U.S. military’s principal aircraft boneyard.

By every indication, the F-117s remain highly controlled assets under the purview of AFTC. Brackens, the Air Force spokesperson, said that responses to our queries have come by way a “program office” handling the aircraft. This is almost certainly an entity within AFTC, known as the Specialized Management Office, and sometimes abbreviated AFFTC/SMO, which is located at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Based on responses to our FOIA requests, after the official retirement of the Nighthawks in 2008, this office took ownership of all of the program records from Air Combat Command.

Whether or not the airworthy F-117s are grouped together in a formal unit remains unclear. It is possible that they are simply attached to the detachments of the AFTC that are understood to manage operations at secretive facilities, including Tonopah and Area 51.

Whatever the case, the Air Force has said it is now moving closer to begin finally destroying the remaining F-117s for good, with the exception of those that are headed for public display. Now that we were finally able to get some information on the current state of the F-117 force and its activities, hopefully, more details will become available about the second lease on life that at least some of the aircraft have been enjoying for a number of years now.


10 things that happen before your plane can take off

One small step: Some aircraft have their own stairs and need little more than a portable step to fill the gap.

(CNN) — Sitting in the terminal building waiting to be called for our flight is a regular occurrence for most of us — but what’s really going on out there on the ramp while we’re inside staring at our phones?
The jet that will carry you to your destination has likely just arrived from somewhere else. When it lands, it’ll undergo a turnaround, changing from an arriving to a departing flight.
There are vehicles and people on the ramp, ready to get your flight back in the air quickly — after all, a plane doesn’t make money sitting on the ground.
Here are the 10 steps from arrival to take-off:

1. Parking the plane

As soon as a plane lands and clears the active runway, the pilots receive taxi instructions from ground controllers. Large airports can have complex and confusing taxiway layouts, while some airports simply have a runway and a ramp area.
Approaching the terminal, the pilots look for the flight’s assigned gate and watch for the ramp team leader to start waving illuminated, bright orange batons.
There could be a lead-in lighting system to help the pilots line up at the gate, or they might just follow the instructions from the ramp lead.
As the plane slows to a stop, the target for the nose wheel is a painted line on the ramp, matching the type of aircraft. That’ll put the plane in the right spot for the passenger boarding bridge.

2. Hooking up the plane

The plane’s engines provide thrust and electrical power while in flight, but all passenger planes have a small jet engine which generates electricity when the plane is parked — an Auxiliary Power Unit, or APU.
The APU is in the tail cone, and the pilots start it up to feed power to the plane’s systems.
But an APU uses costly fuel from the jet’s tanks, so many airports provide a ground power system, or there’s a generator cart parked at the gate. Once the plane’s access panel is opened and the connection is made with a heavy-duty cable and plug, the source of power is switched, and the engines are shut down.

3. Connecting the air-con

The APU also energizes the plane’s climate control systems, hopefully keeping the cabin at a nice temperature while parked. Like ground power, some airports provide conditioned air through large-diameter flexible ducts that plug into a port on the belly of the plane.
Or you might see a truck-mounted unit doing the job, with a duct snaking to the plane. Large, wide-body aircraft need two air connections to keep the cabin comfortable.
4. De-planing
The passengers inside the plane have jumped up, and they’re waiting impatiently in the aisle to get off — right now.
If the gate is equipped, a passenger boarding bridge is positioned by the forward left-side doors.
Otherwise, truck- or cart-mounted stairs roll up, and passengers experience the excitement of walking down the stairs and onto the ramp, being able to look back at their aircraft.
Smaller regional jets and turboprops sit close to the ground, and have stairs built into the inside of the plane’s doors, with just a couple of steps to the ramp.

5. Unloading the luggage and cargo

On the right side of the plane, the ramp team has swung into action. After opening the doors to the baggage and cargo holds, a belt-loader or a pod-loader is positioned, depending on the aircraft.
“Rampie” is the industry term for airline employees who load and unload planes.
The rampie inside the belly of a single-aisle plane places each piece of luggage onto the belt, and their partner takes it off the belt and puts it into a baggage cart.
The carts head to the baggage room, and the luggage is dropped onto a conveyor, hopefully showing up on a carousel soon after you’ve arrived.
Wide-body planes carrying hundreds of passengers needed an efficient way of handling luggage and cargo, so baggage and cargo pods were developed back when jumbo jets first appeared.
Pods are filled with passengers’ bags, and handled by a purpose-built machine. One rampie can operate it, and make the pods dance on the loader’s platform or in a plane’s holds by activating powered wheels.

6. Stocking up with food

Catering trucks join the crowd outside the plane’s fuselage. Rising on a scissor lift, the truck’s box matches the height of the plane’s galley doors.
The catering crew replaces used galley carts with newly stocked ones, each cart coded for a specific location in the galleys.
To service the double-deck Airbus A380 mega-jet, catering trucks reach way up, to the upper galley doors.

7. Cleaning the toilets

Perhaps it’s not the most desirable ramp job, but somebody’s got to empty the plane’s lavatory holding tanks, and refill the fresh water system. Just like a recreational vehicle, this doesn’t happen during every stop.
Rampies position a truck- or cart-mounted tank and pump unit, and connect hoses to do the work.

8. Refueling

Like your car, a plane’s fuel tanks aren’t necessarily filled at every stop.
An airline’s operations team will have figured out how much fuel is needed for each leg of a plane’s daily routing, and when to refuel.
Big tanker trucks connect to the plane’s fuel system under the wing, or a pumper truck will hook up to a fuel hydrant in the ramp, then to the jet’s tanks, and pump away.

9. Pushback

Pushback is when an aircraft is pushed backwards away from the airport gate by vehicles called tugs or tractors.
Closer to departure, an aircraft tug will park right in front of the nose wheel.
The tug might be directly attached to the plane’s nose gear with a tow bar, or could be a “wheel-lift” tug. These tugs cradle the nose gear, then lift it up before moving the plane. That gives the tug driver control over the plane’s direction during pushback.
New taxi technologies are appearing, like pilot-controlled tugs, and electric motors mounted to the plane’s landing gear. Both promise to save fuel, and reduce airport noise.

10. Boarding and take-off

The crew has finished all the pre-flight preparations, the cabin door is closed, and you’re settled into your seat. Your journey begins with a gentle push, in reverse, and you’re anticipating the adventures to come.

Make sure you wave goodbye to the rampies — they’ve worked hard to get you on your way.

Flying into hurricanes: From the Navy to NOAA

HILTON HEAD, S.C. — Sam Urato was 5 years old when his family loaded into a station wagon and fled Hilton Head Island ahead of Hurricane Hugo.

This week, he’s headed in the opposite direction. He’s flying into the teeth of Hurricane Dorian.

Urato is a hurricane hunter.

He’s one of the select few who board NOAA airplanes that chase all the tropical storms and hurricanes that threaten the United States.

Urato is strapped down in the turboprop plane, along with everything from the laptops to the coffee pots, for a bumpy ride that few humans ever experience.

The plane grinds through the eye wall’s dangerous 200-mph winds to slice into the center of the hurricane, collecting the tracking data we see on TV as a “spaghetti model” or “cone of uncertainty.”

Urato is the navigator on a plane nicknamed “Kermit.” It’s his job to get it into the eye of the hurricane.

“It’s a small target,” he said this week between flights over the Atlantic Ocean out of St. Croix.

“Once you punch through the eye wall, it’s an intense feeling,” he said.

“When you think about how hard it is to get there, and how few people have ever been there, it’s unreal. The feeling is unexplainable.”

Urato was known on Hilton Head as an outstanding violinist, not a hurricane hunter.

He started taking violin lessons when he was 4, and was the longest-running student of the legendary Dorothy Mauney.

He became concertmaster of the Hilton Head Youth Orchestra. He earned scholarships and played first violin for orchestras at the University of Georgia and the University of South Carolina. Today, he plays for friends at weddings.

He also played football and baseball, and spent 11 years at Hilton Head Preparatory School before his senior year at Hilton Head Island High School.

Urato’s parents, Cosimo “Cos” and Debbie Urato, are best known for Fratello’s, the popular Italian restaurant the family operated for 28 years. They had three girls and a boy, and Debbie Urato is in her 41st year as a Montessori school teacher.

Urato said it took all the lessons he’s learned from his family to get into the eye of the storm this week.

“I grew up working in the family restaurant,” he said. “I learned to show up, leave the BS at the door and do your work. It taught me to deal with all kinds of people in all kinds of different ways if I wanted to make any money.

“And I learned from my mother as a teacher the value of an education, and studying.”

Also, he said, “Growing up with three sisters and sharing a bathroom will prepare you for anything.”

Urato earned his wings in the U.S. Navy.

He served on board the same plane as the NOAA Hurricane Hunters, the four-engine Lockheed WP-3D Orion. He made the inter-service transfer three years ago to NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center based in Lakeland, Florida.

He is a lieutenant commander in America’s little-known seventh uniform service. “There are 321 of us,” Urato said, “including 40 to 50 aviators.”

His plane was built in 1975 and has flown into more than 110 storms.

It is a “data-gathering platform sending off real-time data to modeling centers and research centers making hurricane forecasts,” he said.

The Kermit and sister plane “Miss Piggy” have Doplar radars on board, providing an MRI-like picture of the storm, vertically and horizontally, to forecasters.

The NOAA web site gives this glimpse into what the Hurricane Hunters do:

“To obtain the best possible data within the storm environment, crew members deploy expendable probes called GPS dropwindsondes through a launch tube in the aircraft. As they parachute to the sea below, the probes transmit pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction data back to the aircraft.

“After the dropsonde data is checked for accuracy, it is transmitted from the aircraft to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction and the National Hurricane Center for inclusion into global and hurricane models. The aircraft can also deploy airborne expendable bathythermographs, which measure ocean temperature as a function of depth.”

Urato said it’s ironic that his buddies ask him what the storm is going to do, but even though he is in the eye of the storm, he’s the last to know. They don’t interpret data; they collect it.

It’s tight quarters. Urato mostly stares at radar pictures. But he can look out the window and see the bright, peaceful eye of the storm with swirling clouds that make it look like he’s in a stadium. And he can celebrate within his tiny target, an almost walking-on-the-moon moment.

“It’s definitely nerve-racking,” Urato said. “Don’t let me tell you it’s not scary. It’s kind of like a roller coaster. You know it’s safe, but you still know you’re in for quite a ride. You never get numb to it.”

Plane contrails have been found to increase heat in the upper atmosphere.

When an aircraft passes by overhead, it sometimes leaves a trail. These white lines of cloud, marking the path of the flight, are known as contrails. But why do they leave them, what are they made of, and are they always the same? Let’s take a look.

What are contrails?

Contrails are literally tiny clouds. They are formed from water vapor which freezes around small particles from the aircraft exhaust. Some of the water vapor is from the air itself, whilst some comes from the aircraft’s own exhaust. Much like a car might make a little white cloud near its exhaust on a cold morning, a plane will often leave a trail if the conditions are right.

Exhaust from jet engines is pretty much all water vapor, although there can be trace content of sulfur oxides, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, unburnt fuel, soot and small particles of metal. These aerosols provide condensation sites for water vapor, as do any small particles in the air it is flying through.

Types of contrails

Although contrails are all made of the same things and created in the same manner, observant skywatchers will know that they don’t always behave the same. Some aircraft leave long, defined contrails that persist for several hours after the plane has passed; others leave very short trails that disappear fast. Why is this?

Well, it’s all to do with the air that the aircraft is passing through. Contrails are generally categorized into three groups; short-lived, persistent (non-spreading) and persistent (spreading).

  • Short-lived: These contrails are the smallest ones in the sky. They often look like a short white line following the aircraft’s path, like the tail of a comet. However, they often disappear almost as fast as the plane moves, often lasting no more than a few minutes. This is due to the plane passing through relatively dry air, with only a small amount of water content. As such, the ice that is formed soon becomes vapor again, and the contrail vanishes.
  • Persistent contrails (non-spreading): These are the long white lines that often crisscross the skies on a sunny day. They can remain for many hours after the aircraft has passed by, and generally stay fairly defined for some time. This means the plane is passing through very humid air, with lots of water vapor around.
  • Persistent contrails (spreading): Contrails that persist but don’t stay in a defined form, rather billow out into fuzzy lines, are known as spreading. These are the contrails that are of most concern to environmentalists, as they create man-made clouds that cover a wider area and are thought to be contributing to climate change.

What planes don’t leave a contrail?

Sometimes, even in the same patch of sky, one plane will leave a trail and one will not. Why is this?

Planes with hotter engines are less likely to form contrails, as the heat of the exhaust prevents ice from forming. Modern planes with more efficient engines burn hotter, but use bypass air to cool the exhaust, making them more likely to leave contrails in a wider range of situations.

However, the simplest reason for whether a plane makes a contrail or not is down to the environment in which it is flying. When the plane is in wet air, it makes a contrail, when it’s not, it doesn’t. It’s really as simple as that.

You might wonder why you’re seeing two planes in the sky at the same time and one is leaving a long trail while the other is not. That’s because the planes are at different altitudes. One is flying in moist air, while the other is flying in drier conditions.

What else do you know about contrails? What else do you want to know? Let us know in the comments!


Easton Airport Day to showcase new ACE education program

We are proud of amazing Midwest ATC employees for “stepping up” to help this awesome ACE Program. The below testimonial is from the Airport Manager. Great job Team!

Hello Midwest Team,

I just wanted to let you all know that your team at Easton FCT has gone “above and beyond” to support our airport’s newly launched education program. I have attached a news article that ran in today’s local paper, the STAR DEMOCRAT. (

The whole tower team has been welcoming of tours for the students, but I want to commend Scott and Eloy especially, for volunteering many hours to teach students about Air Traffic Control. As a former controller and ATM, I know how valuable time is. For these gentlemen to volunteer to help our program is truly remarkable. I just wanted to share some good news.

Micah Risher

Airport Manager

Easton Airport (ESN)

EASTON — Although the Aviation Career Education program is barely off the ground, the sky’s the limit for local youth who want to explore the possibilities.

“Nobody else is doing this in the state,” said ACE organizer and Easton Airport Manager Micah Risher. Creating an education program was a top priority for him when he became the airport manager last year.

In just nine short months, kids have responded enthusiastically. During a 4-day summer drone camp, for instance, 32 kids participated. Risher hopes future classes will be just as successful.

Risher, who grew up in Trappe, graduated from Easton High School in 1993 and now lives in Easton. He wants to get “the community out to the airport,” and he wants the get kids excited about aviation.

“We have seen a steady decline in the industry,” Risher said. “One of my missions in October 2018 was to increase the educational outreach of the airport.”

The ACE program will be highlighted at Easton Airport Day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21.

The purpose of the ACE program is to provide students the opportunity to explore careers in the aerospace industry by introducing them to a variety of aviation-related career paths and providing resources and support to help them pursue a career in the aerospace industry.

ACE “loosely partners with the Federal Aviation Administration which provides support,” said Risher, who worked at FAA headquarters for four years. Funding for the Easton Airport ACE program is also supplied through a nonprofit managed by the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.

The program will promote interest in aviation careers by teaching safe operating principles, using leading edge technology and committing to the future of aviation in Talbot County. Specific careers emphasized in the program are air traffic control, piloting, drones and aviation mechanics, Risher said.

Easton Airport air traffic controller Eloy Reyes of Easton said he has found his 10-year career “extremely rewarding.”

“From my own personal perspective, not knowing anything about aviation — I thought air traffic controlling was for geniuses,” Reyes said. He discovered his career in the Air Force, and for those 10 years, he discovered that becoming an air traffic controller simply required good training and building a set of marketable skills.

“I love the ACE program and where (Risher) is going with it,” Reyes said. “I volunteered for it because it’s important for kids to know about the opportunities (in aviation).”

Risher also gained his skills in the armed forces, learning to become an air traffic controller in the Navy. “It was a great career path,” Risher said. “I grew up in Talbot County, but I didn’t know anything about aviation” even with an county-owned airport nearby.

Wanting to give back, Risher’s 25-year success as an air traffic controller led him to mentor a local high school junior who interned at the airport in July. He has “loved everything” about his experiences since joining ACE in February, local experts volunteered to teach the courses after school at the airport, Risher said.

Risher has big plans for the program. Already, the management offices have moved to the 3,200-foot former Med-Star hangar where there is “huge expanse of amazing space,” including training space, he said. Joining a library will be a flight simulator project Risher hopes to “get up and running in the winter.” He even has plans to build an air traffic control simulator. The next class is planned for October.

“We’re still exploring what the program could be,” Risher said. “It’s baby steps, but it’s really exciting.”

Airport Day visitors can stop by the ACE program tent to learn about the upcoming STEM Festival and Aviation Expo in October, and enter a raffle to raise funds to support the program.