A Bird’s Eye View of a Few Big Birds

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On Tuesday night, I arrived all giddy at MSP Airport. I had a typical “kid in a candy store” expression plastered on my face, but this time it was amplified – my face legitimately hurt from smiling.

I wasn’t going to the dog park or the viewing area or the cemetery or the gold ramp, no… I was going to the Air Traffic Control tower. ATC has ALWAYS fascinated me… one of the first pieces I wrote for Aviation Queen was about the inner workings of air traffic control. And more recently I got to write a piece on the privatization debate for Airways.

Lucky me, one of the many connections I’ve made through Instagram was with an incredibly nice guy named Joe. He works as a controller in the MSP tower, and invited me to shadow him this past Tuesday evening. It was UNREAL. Seriously guys… unreal. Side note: Joe also loves cats – further proof that he’s a good guy.

He told me in advance that he would “put me to work” and I didn’t quite know what that meant. But one of the first things I did upon arrival was plop down in a chair in front of a computer and a machine that was cranking out flight strips. I placed the strips into their holders, went through the flights on the computer to send clearances and then went through them all again to record their gate numbers. Best part? I got to KEEP the strips from the Air France A340 and the Condor 767 – pretty sweet, huh?

We then went over to a different station and worked “ground” – I had a headset on and just listened to Joe interact with the pilots… clearing them for pushback or directing them to their runway for departure or to their gate for arrival. It was boatloads of fun. I wish I was back there right now.

THEN… I had the opportunity to go out on the “catwalk” – a full 360 deck that circles the tower. I got some amazing photos from up there and the view was just stunning. It was fairly close to sunset, so the lighting was beautiful. It was the cat’s meow. See what I did there?

Following my photo session, I got to hang around inside the cab for a bit more before we made our way down to TRACON.

I first learned about TRACON (terminal radar approach control) when I interviewed Jennah Perry earlier this year for my ATC story on Aviation Queen. Jenna is the Program Chair and Assistant Professor of Air Traffic Management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

TRACON is located in the lower level of the MSP tower and looked to me like something out of a movie. It was dark and a little eerie – with a number of computer screens displaying the radar. The screens were divided into 5-mile “rings” of the area surrounding MSP – really bringing to life the whole “invisible highways in the sky” concept.

Joe told me that back in the “old days” the controllers at the top would actually send the flight strips down to TRACON in a contraption similar to those bank tubes that go between the drive-thru lanes and the tellers inside the building. That’d sure be a sight to see, huh?

After the visit down to TRACON, my time was up. Two hours really *flies* by when you’re having fun. Before I knew it, my husband was pulling back into the parking lot to pick me up. I talked his ears off about how much fun I had for no less than two hours straight. It was perfect.

All in all, my visit Tuesday was an exciting, eye-opening experience. As always, I feel incredibly thankful to have been able to meet such a diverse group of aviation enthusiasts through social media… from pilots to mechanics, spotters to photographers, and now even a controller.

So, here’s to you Joe! Thanks for an AWESOME time.

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