WATCHING THE SKIES

by Edward Wilkinson Latham

Porter Airlines

Reporter Magazine-Issue 10

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Safely guiding an incredible 12 million aircraft through Canadian airspace each year, we meet the people who keep their eyes on the skies to bring us back down to earth.

Granted, pilots are the brave few, the honourable helmsmen at the controls and sole operators of the seat-belt sign; yet the individuals who keep the skies safe and orderly and guide aircraft smoothly from A to B are the unsung guardians within air-traffic control. In Canada, we are fortunate to have one of the very best civil air navigation services in the world. Nav Canada is responsible for the safe and efficient movement of an astonishing 12 million aircraft a year in Canadian airspace. The privately-owned nonprofit corporation is a global leader in providing aeronautical technological solutions and a wealth of information services to its clients; airlines know they wouldn’t be airborne if it weren’t for Nav Canada, which has one of the best records for service and safety in the business. Before Porter, Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport had a relatively basic navigation landing system, not befitting larger aircraft such as Porter’s fleet of ultra-quiet and fuel-efficient Bombardier Q400s. An instrument landing system (ILS) was required, a ground-based beam that provides horizontal and vertical guidance for aircraft approach and landing.

Stevens of Nav Canada was the site manager of the project. He admits that while Nav Canada has installed equipment in all manner of environments, from airports to rugged mountaintops and deep valley floors, Toronto City Airport presented a number of unique considerations, which he illustrates by pointing out the elevated 360-degree view from the control tower.

“The downtown skyscrapers, the islands, the residents and the water around us are certainly some of the distinctive characteristics of this airport, as is the Hearn Stack,” says Stevens, indicating the 700-foot-plus smokestack some distance to the east. He explains that one of the initial problems of installing the ILS on the island was that there was simply not enough land; from a technological point of view, the glide path angle for approach fell outside the standard ILS design. The assembled team of Nav Canada engineers started with theory on paper, followed by 3D computer simulation; then they mounted a glide path antenna on the back of a truck and had a Nav Canada flight inspection aircraft fly some experimental approaches. After rigorous risk analysis the results met with the approval of the International Civil Aviation Organization and Transport Canada. As Stevens explains, “Aircraft now descend to Toronto City Airport on a steeper 4.8 degree glide- path angle, rather than the standard three degrees. This keeps the aircraft higher for longer, avoids landmarks and significantly reduces the noise footprint over the islands and lakeshore.” Positioned in, on and around the tower are other instruments that aid air-traffic control, such as an automated weather observing system that measures everything from temperature and air pressure to dew point and cloud height. There is also a visual approach guidance system, not found at most airports these days, which is a system of flashing strobes to the left and right side of the runway. As Stevens puts it, “Nav Canada prides itself on exceeding official safety recommendations.” Geneviève Machin is the site manager for Toronto City Airport and is responsible for the smooth operation of the tower. “On any given weekday, there may be 110 flight movements through the control zone, so we usually have two controllers with a third station available. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ll get until you get it, so we always have a plan A, B and C in place.

The radar is a support tool, and much of the work is in skillfully maintaining good visuals. “This city presents a lot of opportunity for sightseeing,” explains Stevens, “plus there are always aircraft up there monitoring road traffic, or there are military movements, or MEDEVAC helicopters crossing back and forth. We get about 40,000 movements a year transiting this zone along the shoreline.”

On this particular day, Nav Canada controller Greg Goleski is manning the radar, attentively watching the displays. Stevens familiarizes me with the many colours and shapes on the radar: the long blue squiggly line is the shoreline, yellow circles and shapes mark zones, and red markers designate hospital helipads and landmarks such as the CN Tower. Stevens’s shift partner Alison MacIntyre is the eyes on the ground today, watching the runways while also checking digital feeds from four cameras positioned around the airfield, along with satellite imagery monitoring boats and ferries across the water. “My primary job is looking out of the window. These cameras really help us in poor visibility situations and with the monitoring of vessels on the water. The marine exclusion zone is marked with buoys and the satellite imagery; here shows it as a yellow line,” she says pointing to the screen. “If anything enters this zone the line turns red. Often it can be kayakers and rowers pushed into the area by the wind, or a Jet Ski cutting a corner, but if a tall ship strays accidentally into the area then we are immediately alerted.”

For workers in such an apparently high-stress job, both MacIntyre and Stevens seem calm and relaxed as they methodically and attentively perform the duties at hand. “Nav Canada takes candidates straight from high school,” explains Stevens. “There really is no degree that can prepare someone for a job in air-traffic control, but we rigorously test for certain personality types and characteristics we are looking for, because by the end of training we may have invested up to a quarter of a million dollars in that person.” Considering the esteemed safety record Nav Canada maintains, and its continual advancements in aviation technology, most air travellers would agree that this is money well spent.