Groton air traffic control tower named 'facility of the year'

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Groton — At the air traffic control tower at Groton-New London Airport, there's a collective 163 years of experience.

The five air traffic controllers come from backgrounds in the Army and the Navy and at air traffic control towers in Boston and at Bradley International Airport, among other posts.

"We all have the same level of training, and it’s unique that we’re working together," Chet Moore, air traffic manager at Groton-New London Airport, said in a recent interview.

That level of experience means that they have seen every imaginable scenario — and if something new arises, they make sure to note and communicate it, he said.

At Groton-New London Airport, they see aircraft from 757s to large military transports, to small Cherokees and twin-engine Senecas. And on some occasions — as during an Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association fly-in last fall — they handle 200 planes arriving within a four-hour period. 

Moore credits the controllers and their efforts with earning the facility a recent award. The tower recently was named the 2017 Facility of the Year in the New England region by Midwest Air Traffic Control Service Inc., the company that runs the facility under government contract, Moore said. The award notes the employees' "Outstanding Service and Excellent Performance."

Inside the tower

Inside the roughly 47-foot-tall facility, with large windows overlooking the airport's runways, are radar and computers that Moore said the controllers are 100 percent familiar with, performing tasks over and over again.

On a morning earlier this month, Jeff Martin, air traffic control specialist at the airport, was directing air traffic. Computers at the facility provide the controllers with information, such as the weather, ground stops and expected departure clearance times at airports across the country.

In providing air traffic control services, the controllers' jobs include verifying flight routes are correct and issuing clearance to pilots.

"We have a route book that we look through and we check to make sure and then we issue the clearance to them," Moore said.

He said it's important for controllers to make pilots comfortable to fly here and speak to them in a professional and calm manner and for controllers to keep their eyes on the aircraft.

The controllers also make sure the weather is accurately recorded, which is important because it affects any flight, Moore said.

"Nothing stays the same, so that makes this job unique, because it changes constantly," he said.

The controllers are responsible for directing air traffic to and from the airport, which is located right at the edge of the Boston-New York airspace. When the controllers issue clearance to a pilot, they make sure the pilot reads it back verbatim to prevent any misinterpretation of directions, which could lead to an operational error, he explained. 

Moore said it's been at least 20 years since Groton-New London has had an "operational error" that caused a loss of separation, or when aircraft get too close to each other. He credits not only advancements in technology, but the experience and knowledge of the controllers.

Moore said Groton has had some bad accidents, all in bad weather. In the event of inclement conditions, he said he urges pilots to wait a couple of hours, or the next day, until the weather clears.

Besides providing air traffic control services, the controllers also look for animals that have made their way to the airport, such as geese, birds that might drop shells onto the runway, deer from Bluff Point, a fox, and every now and then, a couple of coyotes.

"We're always on a lookout for wildlife," Moore said. The controllers notify the state about the critters.

Air traffic controllers

Some of the controllers came to Groton-New London after reaching the Federal Aviation Administration's mandatory retirement age of 56. For Martin, 57, who came to Groton-New London after working at Bradley, the job is in many ways "getting back to your roots." He said he enjoys dealing with the people who fly in to the airport, from students to pilots of planes like the business jet Global Express.

Groton-New London Airport is also a good facility for many people to start their careers, Moore pointed out, and has provided a good learning experience for many who now work in the FAA.

Moore, 56, who has worked at the airport for 24 years and has a background in the Army, said he loves the job. His father was a controller in the Navy, so Moore said he practically grew up in air traffic control towers.

Moore, who was named air traffic control manager of the year by Midwest in 2009, said whoever sees the view from the tower wants to come here.

"We get to see the subs come in and out ... we can see boat races in the fall," he said. "We get such a variety of aircraft here because of our uniqueness with this approach that we have to the runway."

He said the employees get along well and provide a great service to the pilots, and he enjoys being at Groton-New London. Plus, over the years he has met a long list of famous people, including Frank Sinatra, Jay Leno, John Travolta, Sinbad, k.d. lang, Jerry Seinfeld, Aretha Franklin, Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Dominique Wilkins, Jon Bon Jovi, Leon Panetta, Madeleine Albright, Ash Carter, Harry Belafonte and Prince.

Moore offers tours of the facility to community members and students, including to Boy Scouts earning their aviation badges, students from Groton and New London trying to see if they are interested in a career in air traffic control, and cadets from the Coast Guard Academy.

"This is a great facility," Moore said. "It really is. We have a great relationship with the community."

He said when people ask for something, the facility typically tries to help them, if it can accommodate them, and he added, "I have a great group of guys."


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