Last year the Deer Lake Regional Airport saw almost 300,000 passengers departing and arriving on various flights. Each of those flights were guided in and helped along during takeoff by the flight service specialists manning the tower high above the airport.
Past a security camera setup, a steel spiral staircase leads you up to the structure up over the departures area with a view of pretty much everything on the airport property. Planes come, planes go and passenger activities takes place right in front of the tower. It’s almost a little scary to think how much power the flight services specialists have up in that small tower knowing how much can go wrong.
“It’s all about training,” said Karen James, supervisor. “Things don’t usually go wrong, but if they do we can always deal with it.”
The Deer Lake Regional Airport is staffed by six flight service specialists and a supervisor. Specialists provide pilots with flight information essential to aviation safety, such as runway and weather conditions, flight traffic conditions and anything else that may stand in the way of a safe landing. And recently, the staff at Deer Lake started providing the same service for the airport in St. Anthony using a series of webcams.
Specialist Quintin Dennis said there can be stress involved with the job, but the 20-year veteran said with a strong team behind him and the most updated equipment, they get past it.
During the interview, Dennis had just finished chatting with a pilot over the radio after a successful landing.
“I knew that guy years ago, sometimes it’s hard to put a face to the voice but he seemed to know me,” Dennis chuckled. “We’re able to talk to the pilots sometimes after their landing, it’s good.”
Nav Canada was privatized in the late 1990s to the chagrin of many who wondered if taking an organization that was responsible for public safety out of government control was wise. But James said looking back it was the best move to make.
“We are standardized with every other centre across the country, we have everything we need to do the job and when we need something it comes through very fast,” she said. “When we need technology upgrades they happen very quickly, and we are constantly training and retraining ... that’s mandatory for the job.”
During the slower travel times only two specialists man the tower, however, when the airport gets busy during the summer months additional staff will be added as required. They operate on a 24-hour rotation, seven days a week, and there’s not much room for error. A typical day could mean anything.
“There’s no standard day, if I come in at 8 a.m. and (Dennis) is leaving he’ll give me a full briefing,” said James. “He’ll tell me for both Deer Lake and St. Anthony the weather, the traffic, whether our equipment is normal, what are the runways like, what traffic is coming in, there’s a checklist to hand over power.”
Upon that handover, the person ready to start will begin, but only after the previous specialist knows all the information is understood by the person just starting.
“There can be stress involved, sure,” said James. “You never really know what may happen in this job from one day to the next, no two days are the same.”
Weather checks are mandatory, especially in this part of the world, and are done several times per shift. They have to co-ordinate with other airports sometimes as well, as the traffic patterns direct. As specialists get information about a plane approaching they take the information and write it out on paper strips so they know exactly what they are dealing with. The flight specialists then relay everything they have to the pilot and watch the plane land from the tower.
The Deer Lake Regional Airport has expanded its flight schedule in the past few years, with extra flights added from Air Canada, Westjet and Canadian North. However, the extra workload is welcome news to the tower staff.
“It was so gradual that we hardly noticed,” said Dennis. “It’s just something we accepted, plus any expansion they do is job security for us.”
Last year there were approximately 12 million aircraft movements associated with Nav Canada control centres across Canada, including takeoffs, landings and overflights in domestic airspace and international airspace assigned to Canadian control.