By Jeremy Miles
There’s an airliner approaching the busy Wessex International Airport. The control tower has been warned that there’s a bomb on board.
Instantly procedures swing into action. Emergency services are scrambled, the plane has to be landed with minimum risk to other traffic. Then, hopefully, the hundreds of passengers on board can be evacuated and the bomb made safe.
It’s nail-biting stuff but all in a day’s work for Britain’s air traffic controllers, the backroom boys and girls who ensure the safety of the staggering number aircraft flying in and out of the nation’s airports.
The bomb alert is an exercise and I am standing in a large room at Bournemouth Airport watching air traffic trainees deal with the crisis on computer screens that simulate those in a real control tower.
Wessex International is a fictitious location but familiar to generations of students who have trained at this near legendary College of Air Traffic Control. It’s a bit like the airport equivalent of TV's Holby General Hospital. Inreal life it would have been closed down years ago. There are bomb scares, terrorist alerts, fires, crashes and chemical spillages everyday.
The airliner carrying a bomb is just today’s little problem. Considering the potential for disaster there’s a remarkable sense of calm among the trainees. Phil Holt who has not only taught at the college since 2002 but actually trained there before embarking on a career as an operational controller at Heathrow, Edinburgh and Manchester looks on with pride.
“It’s just like the real thing,” he assures me. “Air Traffic Controllers need to be unflappable, methodical and focused. They also have to be team players who can multi-task and prioritise. No one gets flustered when something like this happens. They deal with it quietly and professionally and do everything possible to make sure there’s a positive outcome. It’s what the job is about.”
The college, which is run by NATS (formerly known as National Air Traffic Services), receives around 3,000 applications each year. This year it is only looking for 120 new entrants.
Needless to say standards are exacting. A lot of wannbe air traffic controllers are weeded out by the ongoing selection process. Those who make it join an elite who have been a vital part of aviation history since the first national air traffic control operation set up business above a London pub in the 1930s.
At the Bournemouth college which was originally established way back in 1949 there’s a tangible sense of an illustrious past. Tens of thousands of air traffic controllers from all over the world have trained on this site. But now an era is passing. The college will close its doors for a final time on August 5 and relocate to a site near Swanwick just outside Fareham.
Old hands like Phil, who at the age of 56 will be retiring in a few weeks, have seen massive changes in technology during their careers.
Reminiscing with another former senior staff tutor Howard “Ted” Tilly at his home just a mile or so from the Bournemouth Airport runway, Phil told me: ‘The equipment they have nowadays is incredible. They can simulate real situations with remarkable accuracy but fundamentally the procedures remain the same.
“We still train people to use light signals. It’s even part of the exam. The theory is that if everything went down they could still bring a plane in using signals from an Aldiss lamp.”
Ted, who was the college’s senior lecturer in Area Radar Control until he retired in 2002, can go one better. He remembers standing on the edge of an airfield teaching students to be human scarecrows by slowly flapping their arms up and down.
“If you do that no more than 20 times a minute then approaching flocks of birds think you’re a giant bird of pray and steer clear.” explained Ted. Whether it works or not remains debatable. All Ted got out of it was the nickname Bald Eagle.
The two old friends have a wealth of stories. There was the day an approaching plane had to be put on hold after a woman was spotted pushing a pram up Bournemouth’s main runway. Then there was the former Lancaster bomber pilot who did a double-take when, more than 20 year after the end of World War II, he found the freight plane he was flying suddenly joined by a Heinkel and three Spitfires. These ghosts from the past had strayed off course while making the film The Battle of Britain.
There have been tragedies too. Phil, an experienced pilot with nearly 1100 flying hours in his log book, describes the horror of seeing a good friend plunge 1800 feet to his death after his historic Mosquito aircraft got into difficulties and spiralled out of control. “It was awful,” says Phil. “In a case like that you know what’s going to happen but there’s absolutely nothing that you can do to help the poor guy. You just have to get the emergency services out there as quickly as possible.”
Despite occasional accidents Phil stresses that air traffic controllers play a vital role in maintaining the civil aviation world’s exemplary safety record.
To give an idea of the responsibilities of the job he tells me: “Imagine a football stadium with 45,000 people in it. Now imagine 40 of those football stadiums. That’s the number of people that are flying around Europe at peak times. Yet how often to you hear of a problem? We really can take our hats off to the guys doing the job.”
*The NATS College of Air Traffic Control at Bournemouth Airport finally closes on August 5 before relocating to its new home near Swanwick. Phil Holt is among staff members organising a private party on August 16 to say farewell to one era and to welcome in the next. They’re hoping to include a special fly-past by the Red Arrows.
Ironically the famous display team will be back in action in Bournemouth just a few days later when they will be a highlight of the Bournemouth Air Festival which takes place from August 18 - 21. For full details about the air festival go to www.bournemouthair.co.uk