Contrary to popular belief, I actually have an extraordinarily dull job. I am 100% governed by rules, regulations, procedures, instructions and agreements which prescribe every little thing air traffic controllers do, every single day. These nuts and bolts are set in stone and we absolutely cannot deviate from them. And that’s cool, coz it keeps the skies safe.
The over-riding big-cheese of all our commandments is the International Civil Aviation Organisation, also known as ICAO (pronounced eye-KAY-oh). Following the airborne mayhem of World War II, a bunch of governments realised they needed to get their shit together and regulate air safety. ICAO was born in 1947, after 52 countries put aside their differences and signed the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation. I’m pretty sure they cracked a bottle of champagne afterwards.
ICAO regulates the entire global air navigation system, and oversees its massive growth. It’s a big job and they’ve published a veritable encyclopaedia of compliance documents and annexes. For instance, one of their fascinating tomes which dictates how I do my job is ICAO Doc 4444 PANS-ATM (Procedures for Navigation Services – Air Traffic Management). This 466 page beauty talks about all sorts of interesting things pertaining to ATC and, as an ATC Examiner, I refer to this document at least once a week. I look up things like the reporting of operational and meteorological information to pilots, wake turbulence categories, separation standards, runway selection, flight priorities, surveillance system capabilities, flight information and alerting services, coordination between agencies and units, standard phraseologies and how to deal with certain emergency situations. They cover a lot of topics, but ICAO actually paint in very broad brushstrokes. They don’t want to have to deal with the minutiae of every single situation, so they leave more specific instructions up to each state’s regulator.
To that end, in Australia you guys have the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), the USA has the FAA, and in the UAE we have the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA). Each of these bodies follows the general rules that ICAO have set up and then, in addition to that, impose their own, more particular, local legislations known as Civil Aviation Regulations (CARs). The GCAA CARs mandate how all the ATC units in the UAE operate, including personnel requirements, training, contingency plans, coordination requirements, accident reporting, incident reporting and occurrence reporting, radio and telephone procedures, Safety Management System (SMS) requirements, management of fatigue related safety risks, licensing and currency requirements, low visibility operations and English language proficiency. It also delves deeper into the nitty gritty of separation standards and emergency handling.
Next, in the hierarchy of documents, we have the Manual of Air Traffic Services (MATS). This is a unit specific document detailing the finer points of how I do my job, day-to-day. My tower’s MATS is 270 pages long and I know it by heart. I kinda have to. That’s my job.
OK, so far I’ve talked a lot about documents and not a lot about air shows. What gives? I will explain, but first have a squiz at these amazing photos taken at recent air shows.
So, way back at the turn of the century I spent twelve months studying how to be an air traffic controller. This was followed by intense on-the-job, local training at each facility I’ve worked at since. The end-goal of all this training? To keep ‘em separated, people!!! The aircraft in the photos above are NOT separated. Not by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not by any internationally recognised separation standard, of which there are many. They are not longitudinally separated, laterally separated, vertically separated, deemed separated, or geographically separated. At all!!!!! Some people might argue that they are visually separated, but I’d argue back that they are not. And I would win that argument.
What I’m saying is that over the years I’ve honed a very precise set of skills designed to prevent aircraft from doing shit like this, whether it’s deliberate or not. And I simply cannot switch that off.
In reality, the aerobatic portion of air shows is just a small part of why they exist. They’re mostly about displaying cool new aircraft to businesses, airlines, governments and obscenely rich individuals who want to buy them. And I’ve got absolutely nothing against that. The flying display, however, is really just the grandstanding part of that – hey, check out the size of my….. fighter jet. Look how quickly I can make it go up. And yes, even I get sucked into how cool it is when an A350 banks into a split-ass 90º turn straight off the runway.
It’s absolutely impressive. But if an aircraft did that on a normal day at work, I’d be pushing the crash alarm button and getting the airport fire service out there lickety-split. Because that bitch’d be about to crash. Because that’s not what passenger aircraft are designed to do. They are designed to take-off, climb, cruise, turn, descend and land within very tight parameters. And I am designed to keep it that way.
But hey, you might ask, what about the F/A-18s and F-16s? These planes are kinda designed to fly upside down. And sideways. And in crazy vertical spirals. Shut up, I don’t care. Yes, it’s extremely fucking cool, I cannot deny that. But I still don’t like it. My brain has been conditioned to freak out at these antics and I kinda feel like everyone in aviation should feel the same way. But as it turns out, I’m actually an anomaly in my industry. Most ATCs love this stuff. Go figure. Look, I honestly do admire the hell out of the rockstar pilots that do these crazy manoeuvres, and I’m not ashamed to admit to fawning over the Australian Air Force Roulettes team when they landed at Albury airport while I was training there, back in the day. And OK, I do get a thrill when Al Fursan, the UAE’s air demonstration team, buzz the tower when I clear them to transit my control zone. But air show displays? I don’t like the risk involved. And it is risky.
My first exposure to an air show was in 1988 when Air France Flight 296 crashed at the Habsheim air show in France. I was 17 and it would be another nine years before I even got the twitch to be an air traffic controller. But I will never forget watching this A320, full of passengers, fly what seemed like a totally controlled trajectory right into a forest, before crashing into flames. It shocked me, and it actually still traumatises me to watch that video.
There was a whole debate afterwards about what caused the crash but what struck me most was how unnecessary it was. Miraculously just three of the 136 people on board died, but sadly two of them were children who had won their tickets in a raffle. Jackpot?? I don’t think so.
Since becoming an air traffic controller I’ve learned that the A320 air show accident was not an isolated incident. Even though air shows are touted as “mostly” safe, accidents and crashes do happen. Ever since the Wright brothers’ revolutionary first flight in 1903, there have been 684 aircraft accidents at air shows, sometimes involving multiple aircraft and sometimes actually killing spectators. And the statistics are not going down. There have been 79 accidents in the last ten years alone. So why are we still having aerobatic displays at air shows? Why do we pressure our very best pilots to push the limits of aircraft? For a quick sale? I’m sorry, but that’s simply not good enough for me.