Today I took a tour of the Northern California TRACON facility in Mather, California. TRACON is an acronym for Terminal Radar Approach CONtrol. It is usually located within the vicinity of an airport. Typically, the TRACON controls aircraft approaching and departing between 5 and 50 miles of the airport. Radar equipment allows an air traffic controller to “see” the aircraft even at that distance. In Canada, Approach Control is either called Arrival or Terminal. If you want to learn more about TRACON, check out this article on Wikipedia.

Cameras are not allowed inside the facility, but they have some photos posted on their FAA web site. Although, their pictures really suck. I did find an excellent picture of the Potomac TRACON facility in Vint Hill, Virginia. Norcal TRACON is a newer facility but looks very similiar.

One of the differences in the Norcal facility is how the controllers workstations are laid out. In the above picture, the Potomac controllers all work at the ring of workstations along the outside wall. At Norcal, they have separate corridors that break off into their own sections. It looks more like a wheel and spoke type setup if you were looking down on the facility rather than just a circle. Each section is responsible for certain areas of airspace over northern California.

The central area is the Traffic Management section. That’s where the facility traffic managers work. Their job is to look at the bigger picture; what traffic is coming into northern California, and what’s going out. It’s their job to ensure their controllers don’t get overloaded. Every two hours the FAA has a conference call with all of the TRACON and Center facilities across the country. Also, representatives from each of the airlines participate on these calls. What do they talk about? Well, if Chicago O’Hare was just snowed in and incoming aircraft cannot land there, they have to re-route traffic. Obviously, that is going to have an impact on a lot of surrounding airports. It’s traffic managements job to negotiate how much traffic their controllers and airports can handle.

It’s a pretty awesome facility. Seeing the operation at the other end of my microphone transmission was indeed a treat. I’ve always appreciated the wonderful controllers we have in this part of the country, and meeting them today only helped solidify that opinion. The air traffic control system is a complex, multi-faceted machine. One that is run by politics, commerical airlines, general aviation, and business. With so many influences you’d think that the whole system would be a mess. However, after my visit today I can’t stress enough at how well and efficient the machine runs. While we were looking at the scopes today, at that very instance in time, there were 5,709 aircraft in-flight over the United States. Actually, there were more than that. They only show the ones that have filed a flight plan. A very large portion of GA (General Aviation) don’t file flight plans because they are not mandatory. It would be fair to say that another 1,000 aircraft were not being displayed on their scopes. Amazing. I have a lot of respect for these people who make a living at “Pushing Tin” as they call it.

My thanks to Gary and Leslie from Norcal TRACON for the tour and even greater respect for the people that take care of me in the air.

About the author

Terry Blanchard

I'm the Vice President of Engineering at Readdle, ex-Apple, design evangelist, drummer, and gadget junkie extraordinaire.

15 thoughts on “NORCAL TRACON Tour”

  1. Terry,

    I’ve been searching for a phone number for Mather TRACON tours and can’t find one anywhere on the web, not even at the FAA website. Your links above to the FAA site are no longer good. They must have moved the pages you referred to.

    Any idea how to contact that facility? I’d appreciate the help. Thanks.

    Todd Quam

  2. I too would appreciate a contact number. I would like to tour this facility as well.

    Surprisingly hard to Google it…

    Thanks in advance if you can dig it up!

    Ryan Field

  3. Hello Terry,

    My name is Cassandra Mortimer and I am contacting you on behalf of Pearson Custom Publishing. We are interested in reprinting one of the images on this page. Please contact me either by phone (617-671-3374) or email to discuss the origins of the image and whom I should send an official permissions request letter.

    Thank you so much for your time, I look forward to hearing from you.


  4. You definitely should. The people at this facility are fantastic, they love bringing pilots and enthusiasts alike through their beautiful facility. It’s also very humbling to see and meet the people on the other side of the radio.

  5. Hi Terry–I’m a retired atc. nice story. I’m helping a rotary in the sacramento area who’s looking to get a coontroller to speak to their club. Do you have any contacts at NoCal that I could reach out to and invite them to do a presentation soon?
    Mike Smithson

  6. Hi Mike!

    I don’t have a contact name for you, but I do know they’re pretty open to doing these kinds of presentations. The best I can offer is their phone number, (916) 366-4001.

    Good luck and thanks for reading!

    // Terry.

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