Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Up in the tower

This morning I had an opportunity to go on a tour of the control tower at Dayton International Airport. I certainly did not pass it up! A local group of pilots organized it and, through the magic of email and Facebook, I found myself on the visitor list when I arrived at the airport.

Dayton's new control tower opened in 2011

Dayton used to house a TRACON in addition to the tower, however approach was moved to Columbus when the new tower opened a couple years ago. It's still weird to call Columbus Approach for flight following over downtown Dayton but I'm slowly getting used to it. That meant no tour of a radar room this morning. Thankfully, I saw an impressive one before when I visited Cleveland Center in 2009.

We met with Sean, one of the supervisors, and he started the morning with a Powerpoint presentation. It had a great animation of the progression of an example flight. Once the pilots contact clearance, ground, and then tower for takeoff there are a series of handoffs to get into "the system" and out of the local area. The presentation illustrated how all flights leaving Dayton's airspace (which is a roughly 60-mile radius around DAY up to 10,000 feet) have to leave out of a series of gates - basically, three or four sections on the radar scope - to get passed onto Cleveland or Indianapolis Center.

It's 255 feet tall and covered in over 1,000 glass panels

After a really nice Q&A down in the main building, we hopped the elevator up to the top of the tower in two groups. First stop was two stories below the cab; they have a nice little break room for when the controllers don't want to come all the way back down. That's where I snapped the photo below - above that level, no phones are allowed.

They've got quite the view of the airfield up there!

Next up was the equipment room. Really just a bunch of switches, electrical panels, and computers. I also noticed a bank of CD-R drives where they record all the ATC communications. Sean mentioned all the backup systems in place. There are three generators in total (along with batteries) at the airport ready to take over if power is ever lost - one for the tower, another for the approach lighting, and one for the airport itself. The FAA manages the first two while the city of Dayton manages the latter.

Finally, we climbed one final set of stairs and found ourselves in the tower cab. It's quite expansive and the view is awesome, as you would probably expect. There are computer stations all the way around, each with a specific purpose, plus two displays showing the local approach radar. Usually there are two controllers - one handles clearance and ground, and the other handles local (i.e. tower / the runways) operations.

The airport wasn't super busy but a number of flights arrived and departed while we were up there. One of the controllers also recorded an updated ATIS broadcast. Right before we left, the visibility improved and the airport went VFR; I heard the other controller call Columbus Approach and let them know. Both Sean and the controllers on duty answered questions and pointed things out to everyone in the group.

Eventually we had to come back downstairs and we finished with a final Q&A and a couple entertaining ATC stories from Sean. It was really interesting to look out on the airport from the controller's perspective. It was also quite interesting to see all the technology they have in place - radar, windshear detection, even a link into the national NEXRAD system that can track dust particles in the air to report winds aloft anywhere they desire. Pretty cool stuff.

If you ever have a chance to take a tower tour yourself, I highly recommend it!


  1. That's really cool, Steve. When I was in ground school through Duncan Aviation in 2000, we toured the tower and radar room at AZO. It was very interesting and I learned a lot that stuck with me, but I bet doing a tour now would be much more meaningful to me than it was when I had zero time in my logbook. Did you learn anything on the tour that surprised you or was something that you did not previously know?

    1. Hmm, honestly the NEXRAD thing was pretty interesting. I guess it's sensitive enough to track dust particles anywhere in the atmosphere. So they have a composite from all the radars around the country, which they can dial into any specific point. So, in Dayton for example, they can call up the winds at 10,000 feet in the corners of their airspace so they know what groundspeeds to expect when they assign airspeeds to the inbound traffic. Pretty slick!