Unit History: Air Traffic Control
Air traffic control (ATC) is a service provided by ground-based controllers who direct aircraft on the ground and in the air. A controller’s primary task is to separate certain aircraft — to prevent them from coming too close to each other by use of lateral, vertical and longitudinal separation. Secondary tasks include ensuring safe, orderly and expeditious flow of traffic and providing information to pilots, such as weather, navigation information and NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen).
In many countries, ATC services are provided throughout the majority of airspace, and its services are available to all users (private, military, and commercial). When controllers are responsible for separating some or all aircraft, such airspace is called "controlled airspace" in contrast to "uncontrolled airspace" where aircraft may fly without the use of the air traffic control system. Depending on the type of flight and the class of airspace, ATC may issue instructions that pilots are required to follow, or merely flight information (in some countries known as advisories) to assist pilots operating in the airspace. In all cases, however, the pilot in command has final responsibility for the safety of the flight, and may deviate from ATC instructions in an emergency. To ensure communication, all pilots and all controllers everywhere are required to be able to speak and understand English. While they may use any compatible language, English must be used if requested. The native language for the region is normally used.
The primary method of controlling the immediate airport environment is visual observation from the control tower. The tower is a tall, windowed structure located on the airport grounds. Aerodrome or Tower controllers are responsible for the separation and efficient movement of aircraft and vehicles operating on the taxiways and runways of the airport itself, and aircraft in the air near the airport, generally 2 to 5 nautical miles (3.7 to 9.2 km) depending on the airport procedures.
Radar displays are also available to controllers at some airports. Controllers may use a radar system called Secondary Surveillance Radar for airborne traffic approaching and departing. These displays include a map of the area, the position of various aircraft, and data tags that include aircraft identification, speed, heading, and other information described in local procedures.
The areas of responsibility for tower controllers fall into three general operational disciplines; Ground Control, Local or Air Control, and Clearance Delivery -- other categories, such as Apron Control or Ground Movement Planner, may exist at extremely busy airports. While each tower’s procedures will vary and while there may be multiple teams in larger towers that control multiple runways, the following provides a general concept of the delegation of responsibilities within the tower environment.
Ground Control (sometimes known as Ground Movement Control abbreviated to GMC or Surface Movement Control abbreviated to SMC) is responsible for the airport "maneuvering" areas, or areas not released to the airlines or other users. This generally includes all taxiways, holding areas, and some transitional aprons or intersections where aircraft arrive having vacated the runway and departure gates. Exact areas and control responsibilities are clearly defined in local documents and agreements at each airport. Any aircraft, vehicle, or person walking or working in these areas is required to have clearance from the ground controller. This is normally done via VHF radio, but there may be special cases where other processes are used. Most aircraft and airside vehicles have radios. Aircraft or vehicles without radios will communicate with the tower via aviation light signals or will be led by vehicles with radios. People working on the airport surface normally have a communications link through which they can reach or be reached by ground control,