Several weeks ago, I was invited to take part in a tour of the Northern California TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach CONtrol) Facility located in Mather, California. This was a joint tour that combined the Oakland Airport/Community Noise Forum and the San Francisco International Airport/Community Roundtable.
The facility has a high level of security as you might expect after 9-11. Picture identification had to be provided in advance of the tour for a background check and that same identification was checked again at the main gate before entry into the facility. As you might expect, cameras were not allowed inside the facility.
The actual working portion of the facility resembles a wheel with spokes. From the hub looking down each of the spokes was a walled corridor where monitors were lined up against both side walls which was where the Air Traffic Controllers were doing their respective jobs. Each Controller was responsible for certain areas of the airspace over Northern California. The lights were subdued and sound did not carry very far creating a calm and relaxed environment.
The main hub was a circular set of workstation monitors that housed the Traffic Management section whose job it was to monitor the big picture of what was coming into and going out of Northern California and ensured that the controllers did not become overloaded. There can be in excess of 5,500 aircraft in the air over the United States at one time.
I was able to stand behind one of the seated Controllers and watch her monitor and listen to her side of the communication with the pilots. Later, one of the supervisors came up to me and asked if I would like to listen in on both sides of the conversation. He reached overhead, flipped a few switches and handed me a telephone type receiver and for the next 15 minutes or so, I was able to listen to both sides of the communication and observe the specks on the monitor representing aircraft.
When an emergency occurs, such as a fire that incapacitates one center, operations can be switched to a second facility in the network.
It goes without saying that the air traffic control system is a 24/7 operation. When we fly from one destination to another, we often think about the pilot and co-pilot but seldom think about the Traffic Controllers and the job that they do to keep all of us safe. After going on the tour, I for one will have much more appreciation for the Air Traffic Control System and the dedicated people that make the system work.