August 27, 2013 12:20 pm
Updated: August 27, 2013 3:26 pm

Winnipeggers keep Canada’s skies safe

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WINNIPEG — Every year about 3.5 million passengers make their way through Winnipeg’s Richardson International Airport.

August is the airport’s busiest month, with almost 11,000 travellers passing through each day. The August monthly average is 335,620.

Many people board their planes without ever knowing what goes on to make sure their takeoff or landing is safe.

The Winnipeg control tower has been around since 1940. While it has state-of-the-art technology now, it wasn’t always that way.

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“When they first put the control tower here in Winnipeg, there was no radar and most of the aircraft didn’t have radios, so they were using a light gun,” said Terry Ferguson, the tower manager with Nav Canada. “If it was green, you were supposed to land, and if it was red, you don’t.”

Air traffic controllers in the tower guide planes once they’re within 12 miles or 19.3 kilometres of the airport.

When a plane ventures beyond that radius, its directions come from a highly secure Nav Canada building tucked away on Moray Street.

“Winnipeg area control looks after a large area of air space, from 120 miles (193 kilometres) east of Thunder Bay along the Canadian border to the Saskatchewan/Alberta border across to Thompson,” said Gord Kempe, a supervisor with Nav Canada.

Winnipeg is home to one of seven area control centres across the country.

Controllers here handle 500,000 aircraft a year.

“One of the big things I had to overcome in training is tuning everything else out, and I remember my training and I had no concept of conversations going on around me,” said Theresa Green, who is responsible for Saskatchewan airspace at an altitude of 29,000 feet and higher.

She makes sure massive international jets stay safely apart.

“English is the universal language for air traffic control. Pilots have to speak English to me, but for a lot of them, English is their second or third language,” said Green. “There is a bit of a language barrier and it is just a difference of speaking a little slower, listening a little harder to be understood and understand them.”

There are around 150 controllers who work at the centre in Winnipeg. They get breaks every hour, there is a gym on site and healthy food is served in the cafeteria. An occupational health nurse is also on staff to make sure everyone is at the top of their game.

“Staring at the screen and hunched over the a computer, everything gets physically tiring, too,” said Green.

Nothing compares to the one day people who work at the centre will never forget.

“Sept. 11, 2001, I was an air traffic control job instructor,” said Steve Molloy. “I had been working with a trainee when some coworkers came in to mention what they had seen on TV, that there was a plane that hit the World Trade Center.”

Airspace was shut down. Controllers at the centre in Winnipeg frantically diverted and landed planes in three provinces.

“Within about an hour and a half, hundreds of airplanes we would work during a day were gone,” Molloy recalled. “The most interesting day for me was Sept. 12. I was scheduled to work during the day, and I think we had two or three flights going up to northern Manitoba to fly medevac emergencies and a couple of F-18 military jets and that was it. It was very bizarre.”

Getting all those planes flying again was also quite the challenge.

“In general, we know what is happening and we control situations and we foresee what is going to happen to keep airplanes apart. That was very, very much a game changer that day for all of us,” Molloy said.

While security protocols became stricter, the job of air traffic controllers stayed essentially the same.

They keep the skies safe for everyone.

The Winnipeg Airports Authority has posted its historical passenger statistics here (pdf).

© 2013 Shaw Media

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