Greetings From Chicago Center
My road trip (not flying) took me to the Quad Cities last month (Moline, Davenport, Rock Island, Bettendorf). My grandson,
Nathan, is an air traffic controller at Chicago Center. He heard that I was coming to Illinois and said that he could arrange a tour of Chicago Center, if I would like. How could I pass that up? So, he made the arrangements, and I set aside a day just for that.
Many people believe that the ATC Center is at the main airport within that Center, such as O’Hare Airport in Chicago, or Los Angeles Airport for LA Center. Not the case. The Center is located away from the airport in what looks like an industrial building. Chicago Center is actually located in Aurora, Illinois, about 40 miles from Chicago O’Hare Airport. The only indication that this building is different from other industrial buildings in the area is the number of antennas on and around the building, and there are NO radar antennas to be found. Aurora is about a 2 ½ hour drive from the Quad Cities.
Approach Control is located at the airport, or shared with another airport, such as the case with Tucson, where the approach control is actually located on Davis Monthan Air Force Base, only 4 miles away. Chicago Approach is located at O’Hare Airport.
The tour of the center begins with signing in at a security gate with a photo ID and going through a security check, similar to that at an airport before boarding a flight. Then my grandson took us into the building showing us the usual routine that the controllers follow before coming on duty. According to Nathan, about 400 people work in the facility, but only 256 of them are controllers. Security is everywhere. You need an ID badge, with code, to get into the building and then several other areas inside the building.
One of the first things that controllers do after signing in is to check a computer in what looks like a library full of computers. This will bring them up to date on any special events, NOTAMS, TFR’s, or other information they may need to know for their upcoming shift. The computer will also alert them to upcoming training events that they may need to attend.
Next, the controller will check the weather terminal. The NWS has a trained weather person on duty and will brief the controller on all weather anywhere in the country that may affect air traffic, so the controllers know what to expect. Flights that normally might be going through Indianapolis Center and Kansas City Center, may be requesting to go through Chicago Center to avoid weather along their usual route.
Chicago Center is divided into 8 sectors that are laid out, for the most part, in a North/South, East/West geography. The area that a Center will serve is not actually a square. You can find where the boundary lines are on your IFR Enroute charts. The actual control room is a very large, dimly lit room with 8 smaller sections, plus other functions and positions as well. There are no radar screens, since everything is displayed on a computer terminal.
A controller will usually work in only one sector, since it takes up to 6 months to be qualified in that sector. Coming on duty, a controller will sit or stand behind the controller working to get a view of the “big picture” before sitting down to relieve that controller. A controller should get a break about every 2 hours on duty, but due to the shortage of controllers, that does not always happen.
The process of becoming a controller is quite involved. You don’t need a college degree or a pilot’s license, although many controllers do have both. You will have to pass many tests after applying and there will be a lot of training, up to 4 years. The initial test will be on a computer and can take from 5 to 8 hours on a range of subjects such as math, analogies, computer “games,” and ATC scenarios. This test challenges ones memory, reasoning, decision making, prioritizing, and ability to read, understand, and apply a list of rules. Once accepted, you will spend up to 6 months at the Air Traffic Control Academy in Oklahoma City doing classroom training, computer based training, map (sectionals and IFR) training, and simulation training. The Center has a training facility that has simulators that are actually like the real positions the controllers will work. To work a sector, the controller has to know every airport, every intersection, and route and frequency used within that sector, and pass a test on that information.
If you remember, Chicago Center suffered a fire 3 years ago. The fire was caused by a contract employee, not a controller, that was unhappy about something. The fire shut down all communications and the building was evacuated. The NATCA produced a video about the fire and here is a link to view it. Some of the noise you hear at the beginning is the radios going off line. The voice you hear is the last controller to leave the building still handling traffic until he was forced to leave. As bad as that was, the Center was back up and running in just 17 days. The damage was confined to mostly communications cables, not to computers, and repairs were made in record time.
If you ever have the opportunity to go on a tour of any Air Traffic Control Center or Approach Control, I strongly recommend that you do. It will make flying more interesting to us as pilots to learn what is going on around that voice we hear coming into our airplanes. Be sure to check your Arizona Pilots Association website for seminars in your area. And, don’t forget to “Bring Your Wingman.”