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.