Inside the Heathrow control tower

Dusk view over airfield

Air traffic controllers Tony and Jules are part of the team which keeps flights moving safely at Heathrow. We asked their employer, the air traffic control service NATS, to tell us about life in the control tower at Britain’s busiest airport.

Words and pictures: NATS

Heathrow is the world’s busiest two-runway airport, operating at 98% capacity, with an incredible 78 million passengers passing through the terminals every year.

That’s in addition to the 1.7 million metric tonnes of cargo that travels. Sitting in the centre of it all is the air traffic control tower and the people inside, who handle around 1,350 aircraft every day.

In Series 4 of Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport, you’ll get a chance to meet two members of the team — Jules and Tony — as they grapple with the daily challenge of helping the airport to run safely and smoothly.

No two days are ever quite the same, and you’ll see the team deal with the vagaries of weather and wind direction, the choreography that goes into a runway inspection, impromptu helicopter arrivals and simply the sheer scale of the daily operation.

But above all that, we hope you’ll get a sense of the teamwork that makes it all possible.

Jules has been a controller for 32 years (27 at Heathrow) and sees the team around her as extended family. “It’s a demanding job”, she says, “so much so that it can take up to two years to ‘go solo’ as a Heathrow controller. But we all support each other enormously and I love just about every minute of it.

“I could not recommend it more highly to anyone as a career.”

Nobody in the world moves as many aircraft over two “strips of concrete” as the NATS team do at Heathrow, working in tandem alongside their radar controller colleagues at NATS’ Swanwick Control Centre in Hampshire.

The team understands the importance and significance of a fully functioning Heathrow, not just to the wider air traffic network across Europe but to UK plc as a piece of critical national infrastructure.

“You try to not think about it, just like you can’t constantly be aware of the hundreds of people that you’re helping to keep safe at any given moment,” says Tony. “But yes, at the end of the day everyone understands the privilege and responsibility that comes from working here.”

It probably helps that Tony and Jules have one of the best office windows in the world — the highest visual control room (VCR) in the country, 87 metres above the terminals and taxiways.

From the tower on a clear day, they have panoramic views of the London skyline, Windsor Castle, Wembley Stadium and more — not that there is much time to sit back and take them in.

Eighty-one airlines operate out of Heathrow’s four terminals, serving 204 destinations, with everything from the giant A380 through to the much smaller Dash 8 turboprop flying through the airport on a daily basis.

As you’ll see in the series, the environment in the tower is designed to be very calm, which enables the controllers to concentrate fully on the job in hand — although it’s not like working in a library.

Jules says: “We can still talk to each other, and in fact we need to. Having a good relationship with the rest of your team and the pilots on the other end of the radio is vital.

“The job is all about good communication, teamwork and the ability to deliver a plan, while also being ready with plan B and C just in case!”

You can find out more about becoming an air traffic controller on the NATS website at nats.aero/careers.

Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport

Series 4: Wednesdays on ITV1

The documentary cameras return for a behind-the-scenes look at the people who keep Heathrow running. Meet air traffic controllers, sanitation engineers, Border Force officers and front-line Passenger Experience Managers – and share their daily challenges in this ‘city within a city’ where no two days are alike. Tune in on Wednesdays from 2nd May.

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