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FAA in Hampton keeps planes flying high

By Jason A. Smith

jsmith@henryherald.com

Each year, millions of people fly in and out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the world. Some people may not know, however, that flights out of the facility and numerous others are monitored in Henry County.

The Federal Aviation Administration's Air Route Traffic Control Center is located on Woolsey Road in Hampton. Air traffic controllers at the center oversee take-offs and landings at airports in Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.

The facility, which is active 24 hours a day, is one of 20 such facilities in the continental United States. Others are located in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, though none are located in major cities, for safety purposes.

Shelby Pennix is the Air Traffic Manager for the Atlanta facility, which was first built in 1960. He says the process of monitoring flight plans has changed dramatically since the FAA was formed 50 years ago.

"When we started controlling airplanes, we used flags [to do so]," Pennix says. "After World War II, we began using radar to separate airplanes. As time has gone on, the equipment we use for communications and radar, has improved immensely."

Air traffic controllers at the Hampton location are able to monitor flights from ground level up to 60,000 feet, far exceeding the capabilities of places like Hartsfield-Jackson. Approach-control personnel typically cover planes 10-14,000 feet in the air.

Pennix says because of the nature of such responsibilities, security is a major concern for the 520 people working at the FAA center, 440 of whom are air traffic controllers. "Most people don't know we're here, because you don't see us," he says. "We have no windows in our radar room. "If we had some type of terrorist attack, it could shut down the busiest airport in the country [Hartsfield-Jackson] ... not to mention we're working airplanes coming out of Florida going to Chicago."

Will Cliatt is the operations manager for the facility, where he constantly keeps an eye on radar displays for flights in the air. Cliatt, who worked at the airport for 24 years before coming to the Hampton facility in 2006, says his job is "sometimes hectic," but not to the degree sometimes portrayed in movies and on television.

Still, Cliatt says certain unpredictable elements often make life interesting for him and his co-workers. "There's not a cookie-cutter approach to every day," he says. "There's always something different - maybe the wind, maybe the weather."

Mack Horton, the facility's traffic management coordinator, is responsible for maintaining an even flow of traffic on runways in the region during a given time frame. He says in optimal conditions, planes can land at Hartsfield-Jackson at a rate of 126 aircraft per hour, adding adverse weather conditions can drop that figure to 104. "The difference is the amount of separation [we] are able to use between each airplane ... depending on visibility."

In the control room, controllers' duties are divided into sectors, each overseeing a different area in the region by keeping watch over radar screens in a darkly-lit area of the center. Pennix says 15-20 people are responsible for different portions of a flight's journey from one airport to another.

In addition to watching over flight plans, the center provides training for people pursuing careers as air traffic controllers. Jim Lange, a controller working for Washington Consulting Group, supervises the instruction of 111 people at the facility, and says strict guidelines are enforced to ensure the education of his students, and the safety of the public. "In the training area, everything is done on a simulated basis," says Lange. "The students are not actually controlling flight plans."

Delfina Wisniewska, 23, of Stockbridge, is in the midst of training to become an air traffic controller. Wisniewska, who attended Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Fla., says she enjoys the atmosphere inherent in controlling flight plans.

She adds that the training she has received at the facility in Henry, has been valuable in helping her to achieve her ambitions. "It's very one-on-one," Wisniewska says. "We get a lot of personal attention for whatever we need help with. There's always somebody to help you."

Prospective controllers must begin their careers prior to their 31st birthday, and cannot remain in that position after turning 56 without obtaining a waiver.

The control center is adjacent to one of two locations nationwide that are part of the National Aviation Data Information Network (NADIN). That facility, along with one in Salt Lake City, Utah, processes flight plans across the country. The local NADIN facility was the site of a communications glitch that wreaked havoc on flight plans in the region last Tuesday afternoon.

Kathleen Bergen, communications manager for FAA's southern region, blamed the snafu on a "corrupted software file," which caused the computer system to go down. Although the delays caused by the incident did not affect overall operations at the traffic center, Bergen says they did present certain problems. "The backup system kicked in, but ... the Salt Lake system had backlogs and was not able to process the flight plans as quickly as it normally would," she says. "As a result, we had to hold planes on the ground until their flight plans could be filed, and they could take off."

Bergen says bringing the NADIN location back to a state of full operation took approximately five hours. She says such incidents are "very rare," adding that staff members at the FAA facility are currently evaluating their practices, in an effort to prevent such cases in the future.

For more information about the FAA and its flight-plan procedures and related programs, visit www.faa.gov.