Up up and away – the other Tower

Pictured in the control tower L-R: Air Traffic Control Assistant (ATC) Alan Rutter, ATC Ian Stapleton, ATC Supervisor Adrian Smith and ATC Trainee Neil Hodgson.  PIC BY ROB LOCK 5-12-2012
Pictured in the control tower L-R: Air Traffic Control Assistant (ATC) Alan Rutter, ATC Ian Stapleton, ATC Supervisor Adrian Smith and ATC Trainee Neil Hodgson. PIC BY ROB LOCK 5-12-2012
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Venture within Blackpool’s air traffic control tower and you half expect to bump into Biggles.

It’s a gloriously old world period piece in terms of civil aviation at one of Britain’s oldest – arguably the oldest – airfields.

The very first organised flying meet in Britain was held here back at the turn of the century. The last century.

That’s according to deputy senior air traffic controller Adrian Smith. He’s a flying instructor and has just qualified to train other flying instructors. He admits his spirits are highest at altitude. “My wife hates flying,” he admits. “So I compensate.”

At a more down to earth level he’s worked in air traffic for 39 years – from the days when officers would be waved through security checks with barely more than a passing glance at their pass. Now they’re subject to the same stringent checks as the rest of us – passing through the staff-only section of the airport to go air-side.

It can be a time consuming process – it took us about half an hour thanks to being held up by a member of ground staff who had tried drifting through with a large bottle of screen cleaner in his luggage. And a can of coke.

Air traffic administrator Michelle Heginbotham admits she now subsists on tiny pots of Petit Filou – the only yoghurt small enough to pass through security.

She previously worked as a civil servant, an executive officer, before winning a link scheme involving six schools out of Montgomery High School.

“I still have to pinch myself to believe I’m working here,” she admits. “It’s an extension of what I did before, the skills transfer, but 100 people applied for the job when it was advertised 15 months ago.”

Now she’s there for keeps, she hopes. “They made me so welcome. It feels like an extended family. The location lends itself to that.

“Sometimes when you’re fog bound it’s quite eery here but on other days you can see for miles. The hardest thing is learning all the acronyms - we all speak in initials here.”

It’s a crisp sunny winter’s day for our visit – one of 30 organised in recent weeks for pilots and others interested in what happens behind the scenes at the distinctive air traffic control tower.

“Visibility is wonderful. You can see Snowdon on a clear day from here.

It’s the variety of aircraft here which makes life so interesting for air traffic controllers, radar controllers and the boffins below who keep the elderly station ticking over.

And, incidentally some of the circuitry boxes engineers John Payne and Brendan Caine work on look like period pieces. Built to last.

“Until we can’t get the spare parts,” says Brendan ruefully. They must be doing something right. The whole station comes up for Civil Aviation Authority audit soon - and usually passes with flying colours.

Radar controller (and trainee air traffic controller) Chris Watts adds: “A lot of people think this is a sleepy little airport once the Jet2 flights have gone but it’s anything but.”

The radar screen underlines the point. All the multi-coloured blips indicating aircraft, wind farms, and more.

Small wonder Chinese lanterns, mass balloon launches and migrating geese can play havoc with systems here. The airport’s resident falconer is out and about daily, with the airport slap bang on the migration route of wintering geese, the neighbouring farmlands, full of rotting crops, damaged by relentless rain, a magnet for the hungry birds.

Chris is in constant contact with pilots, and uses colour coded flight strips to keep tabs on movements. The team direct the movement of aircraft en route or at the airport, or over flying the air space. They instruct pilots to climb or descend and allocate the final cruising level. They provide information about weather conditions and handle the unexpected - aircraft diverted because of poor weather elsewhere or other issues.

The magic’s in the mix. Helicopters to the rigs, air ambulance, daily dealings with counterparts at Warton for Typhoons over-flying air space, RAF bases, air show stars, Red Arrows dropping in.

There are the private jets for local tycoons, light aircraft for associated flying schools, aerobatics, commercial services, And the big boys, Jet2 and co, and other operators, Isle of Man, other routes.

It’s unregulated air space which makes it open to all comers rather than a dreary litany of scheduled services. ATC assistant Alan Rutter says even the tower is unusual in that it faces south, not north, a legacy of the positioning of the old runway. It now has four – capable of handling anything up from a tiny Chipmunk to a hefty 757.

We’re on a routine runway inspection checking for debris, loose stones. “I once found an exhaust out here,” says Alan.

He’s a pilot himself and admits there are days he itches to escape the tower and get up and away. “We have some of the best flying conditions in the country,” he concludes. “Blackpool’s hard to beat.”