GAC club member, Paul Diette gives a fascinating and detailed review of our recent visit to Heathrow Control Tower
In what's becoming an annual tradition, a small group of members of the Goodwood Aero Club, selected by lottery, were very fortunate to join a bespoke VIP guided tour of London Heathrow Airport's 285-foot-tall NATS control tower. But as we'll see, this was much more than a visit to the control tower; it was a tour de force hands-on orientation that explored the entire domain of NATS over London's complex and adjoining airspace and the highly-evolved processes that keep watch over the two busiest runways in the world.
After clearing the crew security checkpoint, our group of 12 were welcomed into a conference room with coffee, tea, and biscuits to enjoy an extensive brief from NATS team member, Adam Spink, ATC Operations Project Support. Adam used several detailed NATS PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos to explain the choreography that is a day-in-the-life of Heathrow, touching on everything from the government's 67-year-old verbal "Cranford Agreement", to the nuances of releasing jumbo jets for push back when the flight crew's native language is not English. We learned how Heathrow pioneered the use of runway headwind-coefficient "time-based" wake turbulence spacing to increase capacity, and how they model the landing performance of aircraft types and different carriers to increase runway landing capacity.
We then split into two groups of six, one group heading up to tour the legacy tower, the other group heading down to the basement to tour the brand-new state-of-the-art Digital Tower Research Laboratory developed for NATS by Searidge Technologies. This virtual tower-of-the-future uses a ring of 4K UHDTV cameras mounted around the outside perimeter of the physical control tower together with a sweeping panorama of portrait oriented 4K monitors in the virtual control room to provide an "augmented reality" view of Heathrow's airborne and ground traffic. Future upgrades will include multispectral cameras that can see through rain and fog. The screens display aircraft (and ground vehicles) with their individual RADAR and ADS-B data blocks, showing inbound aircraft well before they could be seen with the naked eye. Outlines of runways and taxiways are overlaid on the visual view. Each controller workstation features touchscreen displays along with traditional controller headsets. In addition to research and development work, the facility is used for controller familiarisation.
My group then headed up to tour the legacy control tower via an outer glass elevator that reveals the spectacular views at height one can enjoy from this unique vantage point. You cannot enter the actual NATS cab during operations, but we were instead allowed to enjoy a 360-degree panoramic viewing platform ringed with 40-foot tall perimeter glass windows that are shared with the cab located immediately above our heads. The views are breathtaking and we were blessed with perfect weather for our visit.
Our two groups returned to the conference room for sandwiches and tea, at which point Nadine D’Austin, Heathrow events and Tower Support Manager, surprised us with high-viz vests for a very unexpected bus tour throughout the ramp areas and underground tunnels of every terminal at Heathrow, including a drive by of "The Royal Suite". For those who want to know, the retired BA Concord is still there.
Thank you to everyone at Goodwood, Heathrow, and NATS for bringing us this wonderful aviation experience.