Columnists

August 6, 2009

A Rare Look Inside JFK Airport’s Control Tower

Photo by Luke Wasiak
Photo by Luke Wasiak
Queens office views don\'t get much better than this. (Photo by Luke Wasiak)

Queens office views don't get much better than this. (Photo by Luke Wasiak)

As long as I have lived under the approach paths of LaGuardia Airport in Queens, I have always looked up when an aircraft departing or on approach was caught by my sight or hearing. I remember always being excited when my father would drive me to JFK to pick up relatives or drop them off. JFK Airport has and continues to be a magical place for me ever since my father took me to Howard Beach on a summer evening years ago and witnessing an Alitalia 747 depart from 31L. Since my freshman year of high school, I have always aspired to become an air traffic controller. I became fascinated with the career by doing research, asking questions, and learning from several great websites such as this one. As I will start my freshman year at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology this September, I look toward a bright future and career.

Photo by Luke Wasiak

(Photo by Luke Wasiak)

I was able to get a tour of JFK Tower through one of the professors at Vaughn who worked many years at Kennedy Tower but now works at Westchester County Airport. After some waiting and patience, I was able to work out a date to tour the tower. The controller who would graciously be my tour guide was Tom who has been working at JFK tower for 13 years and previously worked several years at New York Center in Ronkonkoma, NY.

I became really excited the morning I woke up on Monday just waiting for the work day to end. I rushed from work home to drive to the nearest Dunkin Donuts to buy a dozen for the controllers. Afterwards, a quick drive down Woodhaven Blvd. and in no time I was in the Terminal Four parking garage. I took a few photos before I went into the terminal.

I met Tom near the airport’s chapels in the setting sun. After signing in and walking through a few security doors, we were on the elevator heading to the top. After we exited the elevator, Tom showed me the controller’s lounge which had a comfy leather couch, some controllers on break, and tasty snacks. Everyone was very friendly and happy especially to see me holding a box of doughnuts. Tom showed me a few other rooms until he headed up the stairs to a gorgeous view. Tom just finished eating his dinner so he introduced me to a few of the controllers which four of them working were Vaughn graduates! He also introduced me to the tower supervisor who made it all possible. All of the guys and gals were happy to see me and I felt very welcomed.

Photo by Luke Wasiak

(Photo by Luke Wasiak)

Soon, Tom and I dove into “pushing tin.” Tom got a briefing from the ground controller who was about to take a break about what runway configuration is currently being used, aircraft taxiing, and possible problems. Tom plugged himself in with his headset and reached for a “telephone” headset for me to plug into and listen. This is when the magic started to happen.

Tom did a outstanding job of handling ground control which is the hardest position in the tower. I really tried my best to follow what he did by looking at the ground radar screen and 360 around to see the actual aircraft taxing to depart runway 22R at the Charlie intersection or 31L at the Kilo-Kilo intersection. He also handled aircraft that just landed on 22L and gave instructions for the easy ones as taxing into a gate that was available to positioning a few Delta flights near the General Aviation Terminal to sit there and wait for a gate. Tom really did show he worked here for 13 years. He really did memorize every taxiway and gate at the airport. He also had to communicate and coordinate with the two tower controllers and clearance delivery/flight data. Flight strips were being passed/stacked around all over. Soon our shift at ground control ended and we relieved a nice gal controller to take over Local (tower) control by landing aircraft on 22L.

Photo by Luke Wasiak

(Photo by Luke Wasiak)

Tom again received a short briefing of the situation and then we plugged in again. Local control looked less hectic then ground control for sure. Tom again did an outstanding job of clearing aircraft to land, instructing them on what taxiways to enter after exiting the runway, ordering them to hold short, and communicating with ground and the other tower controller all at the same time. Talk about multi-tasking. Visibility was pretty good for the night and the winds were light from the west/southwest. Every controller had a funny/great personality attached to them from one veteran controller operating as tower instructing Tom to let aircraft cross the runway after the “Spaniard” (Iberia A346) departs to let the “Frenchman” (Air France 773) cross taxiway Juliet strait onto Alpha and monitor ground. One controller was singing tunes out loud and others cracked jokes.

The situation did grow serious, however, as an American Eagle E-135 operating as Flight 4756 announced to tower that it had a medical emergency. Immediately, the controllers worked as one team to handle the situation. The pilots on the flight gave information to Tom about the condition of the passenger (female, bleeding profusely from the nose at the back of the aircraft). Tom relayed this information to the tower supervisor who called for an ambulance to wait at the gate to treat the passenger. Departures on 22R were halted as the Embraer quickly taxied on Juliet, crossed the runway and straight into the ramp. Hopefully the passenger was alright.

As the evening wound down, traffic began to dwindle, but would would to pick up later. Before Tom’s work day ended at 10, I was able to take some not perfect but memorable photographs I will always treasure of the tower.

Goodnight, tall friend. Photo by Luke Wasiak

Goodnight, tall friend. (Photo by Luke Wasiak)

I thanked the supervisor again, and wished the controllers good night and enjoy the doughnuts as me and Tom headed down the stairs to the elevator. I thanked Tom for the wonderful opportunity and memorable experience in my young aviation life. As I walked across the bridge back into Terminal 4, I look back how far I have come since watching loud MD-80s fly over my house and looking up to now photographing them and touring a tower. I’m quite eager to start college since I have a passion for aviation and especially air traffic control. I have started teaching myself the basics of it and will continue further until I start taking ATC classes in my junior or senior year. Until then, I plan to see Tom every Tuesday morning after he finishes teaching his ATC class at Vaughn starting in September. Hopefully one day in the future, I will be able to plug in and say the magic words: “American 1234 heavy, cleared for takeoff runway 31L, wind is 290 @ 8”.


  • tinashe

    thanks so much luke, i am 16 with same ambitions and you have actually made me stick to the plan of becoming an airtraffic controller when i leave sixth form.

    magic word england 1234 heavy , cleared to takeoff runaway 33L, wind is 234@8″ i like that. lol

  • http://kvikkonkurrencer.dk konkurrencer

    Where abouts are you from? can’t tell from your use of english if its UK English or American English!

    • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/darlynp darlynp

      He's English, as per his use of the "sixth form" (a grade level in the UK) and "england" in his pseudo-ATC transmission.

  • http://kvikkonkurrencer.dk konkurrencer

    Where abouts are you from? can’t tell from your use of english if its UK English or American English!

    • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/darlynp darlynp

      He's English, as per his use of the "sixth form" (a grade level in the UK) and "england" in his pseudo-ATC transmission.

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