An insight into Newcastle Airport’s Air Traffic Control Tower

Samantha Robson, an air traffic control officer at Newcastle International Airport, shares an insight to the workings of one of the region’s busiest air traffic control towers

Opened in 2007, Newcastle International Airport’s £8.2 million air traffic control tower offers a familiar sight for passengers returning home from their travels and a striking welcome to those visiting the region. The 151ft tall structure, which stands at more than twice the height of the Angel of the North, was designed by Reid Architecture and uses a twisting latticework structure and concave sides. The tower boasts 360 degree views of Newcastle, the Tyne Valley, Northumberland and the coastline and was dubbed ‘the best office in the North East’ by air traffic controllers when it first opened.

Briefly, can you describe the team that work in the Air Traffic Control Tower?

A 37-strong team work at Newcastle International’s air traffic control tower; including 24 air traffic control officers (ATCO), 7 air traffic support officers (ATSO) and 6 air traffic engineers.

The ATCOs control the airspace around the airport, as well as guiding flights into, around and out of the airport safely from two primary positions; ’radar’ and ‘tower’. Put simply, ATCOs working in radar control the movement of aircraft within the airport’s airspace. ‘Playing a game of 3D chess’, they ensure all planes passing through the airspace are kept at a safe distance from each other, speaking to any aircraft flying at up to 19,000 ft. Those in the tower are responsible for guiding the planes in to land, around the airfield and back out again on departure.

The ATSOs are responsible for ensuring a smooth ground operation through stand planning, which is restricted by complicated rules to ensure domestic and international flights are in the correct place with a preference to keep coaching for passengers to a minimum. They also undergo weather observation at 30 minute intervals each day, producing weather reports and warnings for the airfield, conduct simulator training and support the ATCOs with tasks such as bookings, pilot emergency responses, liaising with contractors and works teams, reporting air bridge faults and much more.

The air traffic engineers are on hand 24 hours a day to carry out essential and vitally important maintenance of the tower. With hundreds of aircraft needing guiding in each day, it’s imperative that the multi-million pound tower is in top shape at all time.

How long have you been an ATCO at Newcastle Airport?

I’ve worked here for 13 years now, starting in the old tower which can be seen from the front of the airport. Initially I was trained to just work in the tower, before progressing to radar – a separate licence is needed for each role and not everyone chooses to be dual-qualified.

Before joining Newcastle Airport, I worked in the military which is particularly common among ATCOs. A lot of ATCOs at Newcastle are also ex-air traffic support officers (ATSO) or have worked in other areas of the airport. Movement and progression within the airport is definitely encouraged here.

What training is required to become an ATCO?

It takes around a year in to be fully trained to work in an air traffic control tower. Tower-specific training lasts around three months and radar-specific training around five. These timings can differ slightly, depending on the time of year; trainees need to experience with a certain amount of aircraft movements, which is made harder in the winter when the flying schedule is lighter. Once this training is complete, ATCOs need to also pass exams in the airport tower they’ll be working in and must refresh their training every year.

What is a typical day like for an ATCO?

Each day is different, which is one of the best parts of the job. Our shifts are usually eight hours long with a 30 minute break every two hours. We make sure as a team, we’re rotating the roles we’re playing throughout the day and so we can be up high in the tower guiding in an Emirates B777 one minute, and downstairs in radar chatting to an RAF pilot heading out to the coast the next. Given the nature of the role, it’s vital we’re well-rested. We work no more than six shifts in a row and are required to have at least 12 hours between each shift. If we work a night shift, we won’t work a day shift until 56 hours have passed.

What are the biggest challenges in your role?

One of the great challenges of both radar and tower is the pace at which everything moves. As an ATCO, you need to be a good multitasker; being able to answer the phones, speak to pilots, look at the monitors and organise the strips all at once can be tricky at first.

What makes a good ATCO?

Organisation is key and a good ACTO needs to be a planner to coordinate aircraft so everyone is in the right place at the right time. You also need to be confident in your decisions and know what you can and can’t do whilst remaining calm.

Being a real team player is important too. ATCOs lean on ATSOs a lot as their knowledge is so vast. At Newcastle, there’s a real family vibe amongst not only the teams in the tower, but across the whole airport. Everyone works really well together and has such pride in what they do. It’s a really great place to work.

Newcastle Airport