Air Traffic Controllers – Unsung Saviours of Souls [opinion]

MANY are the times people travel by air and apart from those with aerophobia-the fear of flying, journeying by air may be considered exciting, and memorable in most cases.

This is especially so when the flight is safe, with no major incidences and cause for alarm.

Aerophobia tends to receive more attention than most other phobias largely because air travel is often difficult to avoid, especially in the current global settings.

The inability to maintain emotional control when aloft may often prevent a person from going on vacations, visiting family and friends, and has potential to cripple the career of a businessperson by preventing them from traveling on related business.

As the total number of flights in the world rises, the absolute number of crashes rises as well, even though the over-all safety of air travel continues to improve.

Statistics on various forms of travel indicate that airplanes are safer than other common forms of travel per kilometre travelled.

In some cases, education can considerably diminish concern about physical safety.

Learning how aircrafts fly, how airliners are flown in practice and other aspects of aviation can reduce anxiety.

Zephenia Sholobela is the current executive secretary for the Guild of Air-Traffic Controllers of Zambia (GATCOZ).

He echoes sentiments that back air-transport as being one of the safest modes of travel.

He explains that one of the key factors that contribute to the safety of air-transport is the Air Traffic Control system.

Mr Sholobela explains that safety is the cornerstone of the air-traffic control and profession and aviation industry as a whole.

“Air traffic control has developed from the humblest beginning into a highly sophisticated and technology dependent occupations,” he said.

Even as the world is clearly on the edge of an even more dramatic leap of new technologies, many people remain unaware of just what an air traffic controller does.

They are also least aware, and a handful of people who comprehend just what is involved in keeping aircrafts safely apart but close enough so that they get to their destinations as efficiently as possible.

While flying as a passenger have you ever wondered how the pilot knows where he is goings? Probably, you felt unsettled as you thought of dozen or even hundreds of aero planes criss – crossing the skies at the same time, how do they keep from colliding? Such questions are natural for a traveller.

The captain or pilot in command of an aircraft is primarily responsible for the operation of an aircraft.

However, there are many occasions when he cannot see other aeroplanes flying around him and he is unaware of their presence.

For this reason, most nations including Zambia have an Air Traffic Control system, in which the ground-based worker, the air traffic controller, the person who controls the sky, keep track every phase of flights that operates under instrument flight rules.

The controller is basically the person who sits away from everybody in a little pressure cooker-like structure, otherwise referred to as the control tower.

Mr Sholobela explains that this person ensures the safety of millions of lives with the accuracy of voice, that over the years, all pilots have learned to trust even in the worst circumstances.

“The man who ensures the safety of many or million lives with the accuracy of his voice that through the years all pilots have learnt to trust in the worst circumstances, a voice that merits a lot of more recognition and appreciation than given at present.

Such is a voice that merits a lot of recognition and appreciation, it ensures that aircrafts are kept apart, a good 30 or so voices ring in his ears, pilots requesting and requiring instructions, while everybody is moving at high speed through a sky where nobody can be seen.

All converging or diverging from the same point and all hoping and praying the controller does not make a mistake and create a collision.

This is a kind of scenario where it is felt that for every 400 lives that a captain or pilot in command of a jetliner is responsible for, the controller carries 4,000 lives in the simple accurate command of his voice.

Mr Sholobela explains that air-traffic control specialists play a vital role in the safety of air traffic, with their first priority being the provision of separation between aircrafts.

Apart from providing safety they provide for expeditions and orderly flow of air traffic, thus in addition to helping avoid collisions, air traffic controllers assist in keeping planes moving.

“This means that while the pilot is attending to his cockpit instruments and duties, there are many ground based eyes and ears following the flight. The pilot regularly talks by radio not only to controllers at the departure and destination airports but also to those at several points in between,” Mr Sholobela explains.

Monitoring what the pilot cannot yet see is very important in the modern age of high speed jet aircrafts.

Imagine that two commercial jets on a head-on course, by the time the pilots spot each other with the naked eye, they may have only seconds to avoid impact.

It is air traffic control responsibility to prevent that situation from occurring, long before, the pilots see each other, they will have been given instructions to keep them at a safe distance apart.

In likening the air-traffic controller to a surgeon’s knowledge in precision, and yet without benefits of burying the mistakes, the controller has a quick thinking mind, with no privilege to pause even for a moment.

All his instructions to aircraft are recorded continuously on tape and instructional error is traceable to replay, a tremendous constraint on the individual, a disturbing yet necessary requirement that no other profession entails and other professionals have to contend with.

This makes the controller a man with the mission of responsibility, scrutinized constantly, functioning to standard of pin-point accuracy, yet so unrecognised in his own field of aviation.

The ground based directional radio transmitters provide signal to guide aircrafts, while the pilot has instruments that pick up signals from these transmitters and tell him exactly where he is.

Since the transmitters are located at specific points, aeroplanes fly from one point to another point until they reach their destinations. In effect, these navigational aids have created specific airways.

“Air traffic controllers track planes along these airways, and before departure, pilots are required to file flight plan that shows their intended route of flight.

The controller has a copy of what is called a flight progress strip which shows the intersection points on the airways.

When a pilot comes over those points, he has to report that information to the controller, then the controller will have a mental picture of the path of that air-craft.

To get those reports, the controller has another tool, and the pilot receives instructions to help keep a safe distance from other aircrafts. Controllers and pilots usually have a selection of radios and frequencies, should one fail, they can use another,” Mr Sholobela elaborates.

In avoiding dangers that result from miscommunication in the case of international flights where different languages are encountered, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) selected English as a common language in aviation world-wide.

Also since certain words, letters and numbers sound similar when spoken over the radio, air traffic controllers are taught to use standard phrase and pronunciation when giving instructions to pilots.

To take the level of safety one step further, pilots are asked to read back, or repeat certain instructions given by the controllers.

Plans are already being implemented to enhance the air traffic control system world-wide, the Earth-based navigation systems often require restricting aircraft to specific routes and altitudes.

In Zambia, GATCOZ is referred to as a Guild because it is a professional body that represents and promotes the interests of gallant men and women charged with the responsibility of providing Air Traffic Control Service in the Zambian aviation industry.

“As an aviation stake holder, the Guild would like to join the rest of Zambians in celebrating the country’s 50 years jubilee celebrations by urging all Zambians to reflect seriously on the importance of exploring other means of transportation or travelling”.

“Like a noble eagle in the sky, the Guild is urging all Zambians that as they celebrate 50 years of independence, they should rise from the ground and soar high or travel by air as a safest mode of transport man has ever thought of especially when air safety is guaranteed by Air Traffic Control”, Mr Sholobela explains.

As such, the next time one sits in an aircraft, it is important to bear in mind that the pilot is not the only one who knows the location of the aircraft at any given moment.

In fact, several others on the ground are working tirelessly to monitor the progression of the flight, in most cases, the air-traffic controller.

This explains the seemingly reduced rates of accidents for commercial flights, giving the passengers less reason for apprehension or aerophobia.

Source : The Times of Zambia

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