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by Sharoon Sunny | 12-05-2020 | Personal Interest

Where have all the birds gone?

Sharoon Sunny

This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big and that was Van Gogh writing to his brother Theo, from France. Vincent Van Gogh’s depiction of the Starry Night from his window has become one of the most iconic images in the world. An inspiration for millions of people, this painting became a first in  developing an emotional language to awaken the night and the elements that surround it. 

I’m sure you’ve travelled to distant places where you’ve been awestruck by the sheer brilliance of the dotted sky; sometimes the brilliance seems to blend into the earth. The distant hard-edged specks smooth over and leave you with that feeling of endlessness.

Sometimes, inside this brilliance, a somewhat moving spec grabs your attention, and perhaps for a brief moment, you close your eyes to make a wish upon a shooting star only to realise that the moving spec was an aircraft on its way to some distant land. 

Just as Van Gogh looked out his window and created his masterpiece, yet another masterpiece is in creation every day in the world of air traffic control. Each time an ATC officer looks out his window, he sees hundreds of stars dotting his window screen except that these stars are pulsating on the radar screen.  With up to 500 landings and takeoffs, and 1600 overflights at any time, an ATC officer has to be an adept painter blending everything harmoniously. 

As an artist, several brushstrokes combine different colours to arrive at a particular hue.  An air traffic controller, much like the artist, guided by his radar systems and screens does the same. He/she listens to one aircraft, listens to another, and yet another, thinks what to do while watching the screen, entering data on the keyboard, replying to one, formulating a reply for the other, becomes a painter creating masterstrokes. To me, this is precision, science and art all coming together.

Why art in the middle of precise science, you ask?

Well, if you’ve participated in a Buddhist meditation session, you’ll instantly make the connection. The mind is full of constant chatter; the aim in meditation is to arrive at a zone where there is nothing but the sound of silence. All the people in this long, wide room lined with terminals and backlit maps of cities and flight paths are handling close to 500 movements’ (landings and takeoffs) and 1600 overflying on a single day. But when you enter this room, you begin to pinch yourself because ATC officers are the calmest and most collected group of people I’ve hung around. You’ve entered zone Zen…

Photo: Representation of active routes before COVID – 19

So, in the aftermath of the pandemic, it only seemed right to want to learn more about how air traffic control fared. My conversation with  Mekala Kishore Kumar, AGM (ATM) who mans a busy segment gave me a reason for pause. 

Few occupations in the world carry the level of challenges and constant associated risk than that of an air traffic controller. The hundreds of warriors who quietly battle this pandemic, do so without the clang and pop of media glare. One such team of staffers belong to the air traffic control. For the uninitiated,  ATC officers, man air traffic and the giant birds in the sky using sophisticated radar systems. Considered one of the most stressful and riskiest jobs in the world, ATCOs lives are truly unparalleled. I had the good fortune of being in their company during a training last year for certification as an aviation language interlocutor and assessor. 

Skydiving taught me a little something about altitude, tailwinds and headwinds. Little did I know then that sometime in the future, I’d be sitting plush with a group of seasoned officers who accomplish what seems like mission impossible.  

I say their lives are unparalleled because, in the middle of organised chaos, they keep their heads clear, chatter precise all matters related to traffic density, radars, flight zones, fallback systems, blips fly across the room without hindrances. There is zero room for errors. In a phantasmagorical way, these words now entered my vocabulary, which, hitherto involved conversations about syntax, semantics and language structures. 

If you’ve flown a few times, then you also know air traffic control is more than just the tower you see at any airport. There are different types of controllers based on skillsets and responsibilities. Tower controllers, based in a control tower at an airport are responsible for the safety and movement of aircraft around an airfield. Issuing clearances to take off and land and routing aircraft around the airfield, they ensure that aircraft taxi safely between runways, stands and other areas.  Area controllers, based at control centres manage aircraft at higher altitudes (usually 5000 ft. and above). They are responsible for aircraft in the climb, descent and en-route phases of the flight. They issue levels, headings and speeds to separate aircraft, within the sector of airspace that they manage. The third kind of controllers called Approach controllers, control aircraft approaching an airport putting them into the most efficient sequence to land. 

A visit to the tower, coupled with the experience of being in the middle of a typical workday with the ATC officers, was nothing short of breath-taking. Screens chock-a-block with tiny dots for aircraft that submerged the very screens they were on. Chatter, clicks, blips, instructions all seamlessly integrated and managed. Speedbird123 climb flight level 300. A routine day for ATM, looks somewhat like this:

Photo source: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/11/27/logicalis_air_traffic_contract/

Fast forward, post Corona times brings four or five flights to land and take off. Kishore Kumar, AGM (ATM)  says, I feel like this is a fairytale, a dream. Nothing in this is real. Our sophisticated systems are grounded, just like the giant birds. Mr. Kumar tells me it’s a feeling of going primitive, We feel the so-called strategies/ fall back systems have all time travelled to something like fifty years ago.

During regular operating workloads, the pilot does not utter anything until ATC instructs. We get 20 secs. windows to communicate between blips for instructions. It’s usually something like, Runway 27 right, line-up and wait. Turn left heading 250, descend flight level 120. Taxi to Gate 1 via Alpha, Alpha 1, Lima 3, cross runway 24, hold short Delta.” These are common messages, but there are far more complex instructions that the ATC has a window in which to communicate, and the communication isn’t with just one aircraft on one flight path. 

So, don’t you think this is truly exceptional? Doesn’t it conjure up an image of a symphony? Much like how the conductor waves his baton in the air, except instead of musical notes coming together, the ATC officer orchestrates his baton to bring all aircraft together in a manner where they remain 10 nautical miles apart without getting on a collision path. 

Mr. Kumar tells me how a few nights ago, an aircraft flying a distance of 4000 km towards the Indian airspace with no chatter, blips, no traffic seemed like a space vessel.  We get just enough time to relay instructions. Just no space to connect on a personal level. Can you imagine what it’s like out there? One pilot, risking life and limb to deliver cargo, flying solo and feeling like a blip? Just the stars and the vision of clear skies with other celestial bodies. I wonder what goes on in the pilots head. He must feel anxious for there is this surreal kind of calm. The silence is deafening, knowing it’s just him,  and “George” with the nearest soul on the other side of a COM1 or COM2 radio. 

“Space is full of wonder. Especially if it’s between your ears.”

For us, there is more time between transmissions. The necessity to communicate in short, hurried bursts is no longer an urgency since there is more time between transmissions. We are acute listeners, it’s a professional hazard, but having time this way, it’s genuinely otherworldly, almost like a miracle. 

The upshot of the time we’ve had these past few weeks has undoubtedly been the time we get with our families. Full thumbs-up. A carom board that was bought and then tucked away behind a cupboard somewhere has resurfaced to become the most sought after place after the dining table. Although time seems to be unlimited, strangely enough, all of us have routines and timetables. Takes me back to my summer days when my father used to regiment us into “productive” summer holidays by sticking a timetable on our almirahs. Homemade food is served up like clockwork—no room for junk or ordered food. I feel grateful that I can eat, sleep, wake and go for my scheduled work. After we have finished our duty, we have to self-quarantine for 14 days before we can get back on the floor. 

Days before Corona, stories were plentiful about aircraft, zones, airspaces; they were endless. The stories would have us erupt in riotous laughter; infectious laughter. Corona has rendered that mirth hollow. We had at least two dozen people manning different zones, but now its scarcely manned. 

Man needs work, you know. Only when the birds fly, do we make money. When K said this, I wondered what the real birds felt. I remember watching from the tower as a flight began its descent for touch down. The landing gear was down, and in the few seconds before it went into the locked position, a flock of birds swiftly flew by. I sucked a whole lot of air in wondering what would happen if either the flock or the craft miss-timed their landing or departure. I suppose, today while the freedom for one set of birds is welcoming and unparalleled, the other kind of mechanical birds are far from happy for not being able to fly. I wonder if that makes for some poetic justice? 

Throughout this conversation, with Mr. Kumar in a faraway place, and yours truly planted in her seat in Bengaluru, the enthusiasm in Ks voice comes through distinctly. Almost as if the lockdown will be lifted if that enthusiasm continued. 

The longer airports function minimally, and liners remain grounded, several challenges begin to raise their heads–ensuring pilots, engineers, controllers and several allied aviation fraternity licences remain valid during the downturn and then to be ready to support the recovery without buckling is no easy task. This means asking controllers, engineers – as designated key workers – to come into work, something that exposes them and their families to risk. They go into work and return home, praying they haven’t contracted something dangerous.

I remember sitting through a presentation where all of us were given the lowdown on how air traffic management (dynamic, integrated management of air traffic and airspace ATS, ASM and ATFM) worked. At the end of the presentation, the feeling of real respect and admiration surged, and in spite of myself, I stood up and gave these gentlemen a standing ovation for the number of times they brought me home safely, without a hitch, and all along, remained quietly in the background. There is no swashbuckling or shenanigans, just a simple orchestration of a beautiful medley where 10 nautical miles apart  becomes their singular chorus across the skies. 

Do you want real-day heroes for your kids? Do you want action figures for your children to hold? Submit a petition to Marvel and DC to create stories around these real-world superheroes, so your children learn to respect what it means to work like superman, but to do it away from the spotlight. To never claim fame when they risk life and limb to ensure you reach home safely after every journey across the sky; to learn how to remain calm in the most adverse of situations; to respect human life irrespective of your origin.

Yes, doctors, nurses and the entire medical fraternity have undoubtedly become front-line warriors, but for these warriors to be able to suit up and go out into battle, there is a crew that’s working at a relentless pace in the background to ensure our most valued soldiers have their protective gear to take this virus headon, and these suits and other related equipment are brought to borderlines with the help of these brave and talented officers at ATC.

This post is dedicated to all my ATC officer friends who work tirelessly ensuring our country and its people remain safe. While the Indian Air Force remains the first line of defence, ATC officers continue to hold ground and hold strong as the second line even during these difficult pandemic times. 

Respect. 

ATC Tower

Photo Source: Faiz Malkani

*Note: All views expressed here are solely mine and do not represent the opinions of any entity whatsoever with which I have been ,am now or will be associated. 

Sharoon Sunny is a language expert, educator and trainer. She can be reached here: [email protected]

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