Controllers top gun in the tower
As planes take off and land at the Lake Tahoe Airport, a lone air traffic controller instructs pilots on wind speed, dew point, temperature and density altitude.
In the thin air of the mountains, flying at Lake Tahoe proves to be more challenging than most places and the proof lies in the surrounding mountains and at the bottom of the lake where, through the years, planes have fallen victim to the conditions.
Modern day commercial and private jet airplanes are more capable of handling the environment than the single engine propeller planes.
“I think you need to be a little experienced to come here,” said Marc Murphy, an air traffic controller at Lake Tahoe since December. Murphy spent eight years in San Diego working for the Navy, the last five as a controller.
The runway is about 8,400 feet long, longer than most, but then again, when the air is thin, it is harder to take off – especially in a tail wind.
The airport averages 30,000 aircraft operations per year – or take offs and landings. Shifts for air traffic controllers average a little more than six hours, which is good because with only one controller in the tower mental alertness is paramount. There is little room for error.
“You can kill people just by messing up a few numbers,” Murphy said.
For air traffic controllers, the ability to deal well with pressure is more than an asset, it is a requirement.
“I always say most controllers wouldn’t do the job if they couldn’t handle stress, and if they can’t handle stress, they probably wouldn’t last too long,” said tower manager Jake Horner.
A veteran air traffic controller, Horner worked for three years in the Air Force and spent more than 20 years as a controller for the Federal Aviation Association. He retired from the FAA in 1994, and has been a controller in South Lake Tahoe on and off for the last nine years.
Ask Horner what he thinks of Hollywood’s portrayal of air traffic controllers and he will probably try to hold back a grin.
“It’s pretty sad,” he said.
While the Lake Tahoe Airport only averages 85 flights per day, sometimes the traffic comes in bulk.
“If it gets busy, you have to work through it,” Murphy said.
But there are situations, such as during the Celebrity Golf Tournament and the Lake Tahoe Air Show, when two controllers are necessary.
The Lake Tahoe Airport does not have radar, so controllers rely on the coordinates dictated by the pilots, who call in on the tower frequency. Experts in the surrounding area and equipped with binoculars, the controllers use a combination of knowledge and skill to guide pilots.
Of course in the winter when visibility can be extremely low, binoculars have little value and pilots and controllers must rely exclusively on flight instrument navigation. Winter storms can dictate whether or not the airport even operates. Some days plows clear the runway for half the day, eliminating the viability of the facility until well into the afternoon.
In addition military aircraft, charter planes, private planes and commercial planes use the airport. Everything from single and twin engine Cessnas to Leer jets, Gulf Streams, DC 9’s and helicopters pass through.
The air space is divided in sections that in simplest terms look like a gigantic upside down wedding cake. The Lake Tahoe tower controls a 5-mile radius of airspace that extends 2,500 feet into the sky.
Controllers works in conjunction with Oakland Center, an air traffic control center that helps navigate en route traffic in half of California and half of Nevada. Reno Approach Control is another control center, which is smaller than the Oakland facility.
As pilots fly through different sections of air space they are “handed off” to the various towers.
All pilots file flight plans in advance, so each air traffic control facility knows exactly when the planes are supposed taking off , where they are going and when they are landing.
In addition, every time a plane using instrument flight navigation takes off from the Lake Tahoe airport, the controllers call Oakland Center to clear the departure.
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