Photo by Heather Middleton
By Maria-Jose Subiria
From approximately 398 feet above the ground, Eric Lewis views the fifth runway of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport from a radar screen.
The screen tells Lewis, a front line manager for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the Atlanta air traffic control tower, about pending aircraft arrivals through an electronic image of the airport's runways and aircraft locations, he said.
"When you see how the tower works with the radar facility ... it is really amazing how efficient the operation is," said Lewis, who has worked for the FAA for 15 years.
Lewis said that as a manager, he has operational and personnel responsibilities at the Atlanta air traffic control tower.
The operational aspects he oversees include ensuring air traffic controllers perform the safest and most efficient services for arriving and departing flights, monitoring the weather and air traffic flow, and accommodating the airport's inbound and outbound air traffic, he explained.
Typically, all five runways are in use around 10 a.m., at Hartsfield-Jackson, due to high air traffic volumes, said Lewis. During this time, if arrival traffic exceeds departure traffic, three runways may be assigned for arrivals, and the other two may be assigned for departures, he said.
"It is rare when there is an overlap with arriving and departing [flights] but it usually happens in the 10 o'clock hour," said Lewis, who has worked at the tower for two years.
When directing aircraft at the airport, Lewis said it is important to communicate with the Atlanta Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), in Peachtree City, particularly in bad weather or when there is an incident disrupting air traffic flow. Disruptions can be caused by a number of factors, including a disabled aircraft on a runway or an inbound emergency, he said.
Lewis said that once aircraft depart the airport, pilots are transferred to the Atlanta TRACON for further guidance.
"When the aircraft reach 14,000 feet, they are transferred to the Atlanta Center in Hampton, the en route facility," he added.
Lewis explained that the tower's various equipment allows him to direct aircraft in any weather. The equipment informs him of a storm's location, its forecast and how it will affect air traffic control operations.
Equipment like the Information Display System has a weather page with forecast information, explained Lewis. He also utilizes information from the National Weather Service, he said.
When searching weather information, Lewis said one of the most important things to know is the wind's speed, and the wind's change over time.
"Typically, we want [aircraft] to land into the wind, because when the wind is at their back pushing them... they are going to be [landing] fast," Lewis said.
In Atlanta, thunderstorms, tornadoes and fog are considered to be troublesome weather for the control tower, Lewis said .
"Sometimes pop-up thunderstorms appear [which] gives us more freedom to keep it moving," because the storm won't last a long time, he said.
Lewis said he uses the Airport Surface Detection Equipment, because at times, he encounters early-morning fog which blocks his view of the airport's five runways. Unlike the radar screen, the equipment shows Lewis a more detailed map of the airport's runways, and the aircrafts' locations, he said.
"I am fascinated by our ability to consistently meet our daily challenges of volume and weather and still move more aircraft than any tower in the world," said Lewis. "We are known around the country for our ability to make things work. The harmony between the TRACON and tower is something to see. It is a well-oiled machine that never stops. Our operation is truly the most efficient operation I've seen or been a part of in 15 years."
Lewis said his personnel responsibilities include overseeing eight air traffic controllers on his team, ensuring shifts are properly staffed, creating training assignments, approving leave requests and other managerial duties.
Lewis said he was born and raised in Morehead City, N.C.
Growing up, he said he always had an interest in aviation, and wanted to become a pilot.
A family friend, who is also a professor at Hampton University, in Hampton, Va., recommended Lewis attend the university, for its aviation program, Lewis said.
Lewis said he graduated from Hampton University with a bachelor's degree in aviation management in 1993.
He said his university was one of the first institutions of higher learning to develop an air traffic control program, and to be accepted by the FAA as a Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) school. Currently, there are 36 colleges with FAA CTI programs, he said.
"I'm doing what I have always wanted to do and what I love to do," he said. "This is what I studied in college and it is one of my passions. I attribute much of my professional and personal success to that very fact. It is truly a blessing to have been a controller for 15 years, yet feeling like I have not worked a single day. Enjoying each day that I've worked has been very rewarding."
He said he began his career as an air traffic controller in the tower at Riverside Municipal Airport, in Riverside, Calif., where he worked from 1995 to 1997. He transferred to the Washington Dulles International Airport tower, in Sterling, Va., and worked there from 1997 to 2001.
Lewis said he moved on to the Potomac Consolidated TRACON, in northern Virginia, from 2001 to 2006, and then traveled south to work at the Atlanta TRACON for 18 months, and was promoted to temporary front line manager. He then was transferred to the tower at Hartsfield-Jackson as front line manager in 2008.
Lewis said that during his spare time, he enjoys reading, playing basketball and spending time with his family.