Lesson 99
3 March 1999

Visiting the RIC Control Tower

I visited the RIC control tower today.

The first place the guy took me was the radar room--or whatever they call it.  I didn't get the name.  It's where all the approach work goes on.  The dark background of this page is approximately the light level in the RIC radar room--after my eyes had adjusted to it!  The room is darker than a movie theater.  I was in there for at least five minutes before I could see to the far end of the room.  There were six big, round, flat, dim radar displays, about 20 inches in diameter, ancient looking things made of  plate glass.  The sweep would light up an object for a second or two and by the time it had swept around about 50 or 60 degrees, the object had faded away, even in that dark room.  Four of the radars were manned, and there were three other people in the room, besides us.  I think.  We were there for about 15 minutes, but my eyes never did get fully adjusted to the darkness.

I was astonished by the equipment--by how ancient it seemed.  The guy who was showing the place off said that Washington Center--one example he named--has newer equipment that works in almost normal room lighting.  This stuff, though--well, I could hardly believe it.  But I've gotten the impression that nearly all of the FAA's stuff is 35 or 40 years old.  Oh, the guy mentioned that until recently they'd been using some equipment that
had "CAA" labels on it.  Anyone starting today to design ATC equipment would begin with digital displays, not the old analog, sweep-oriented ones.  Instead of seeing the radar sweep around the screen as the antenna rotates, you'd see a "constant" display, as on your computer monitor.  It would still be updated only once per antenna rotation--because that's when the data would arrive--but the intensity of the image would be stable.  The guy said at one point that the RIC radar screens were light projected on ground glass.  That didn't register on me until later, but I think he was describing a rear-projection arrangement, using a relatively small tube placed some distance behind the displays.  That's why the displays looked like plate glass to me--they are plate glass, ground on the rear surface.  And that's why the room had to be so dark.  Jesus.

Up in the tower itself there were four guys--"tower" and ground, and two others--don't know exactly what they were doing.  A thunderstorm blew over while we were up there--winds 30, gusting 40 and more--so we had a good show.  For a few minutes the visibility went down to three-quarters of a mile, according to the "tower" guy.  (Damn, I forgot what term they use internally for that job.)  A 737 held at the end of the runway for about 10 minutes, waiting for it to blow past.

The guy showing the place off told me that they prefer VFR flights to request flight following, so they know who they are, where they're heading, and so on.  I'm not sure that all controllers feel that way--but I can see their point of view, especially after seeing the radar tracks for every airplane flying within 60 miles of RIC today.

He's evidently a supervisor of some kind.  Said he has a desk job and works the radar and tower only 4 hours a month now--so he probably was giving out the official position.  He also said something about how controllers will talk more clearly and slowly when they know a pilot is a student or low-time.  Well, in my limited experience--maybe they will.

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