Country's air traffic control ready for anything

The ATCs did their best when trying, in vain eventually, to save a UPS flight from crashing in Dubai. Still they keep looking for new ways to make the nation's skies a safer place.

ABU DHABI // When the pilots of United Parcel Service Flight 6 reported smoke in their cockpit shortly after 7.15pm on September 30, the air traffic control team at the Sheikh Zayed Air Navigation Centre knew this was precisely the crisis they had trained for.

The operations room was cleared of non-essential staff and three controllers took over management of flight controls; one to focus on the stricken Boeing 747-400 cargo jet, one to liaise with emergency crews and one to navigate all other air traffic.

Controllers tried to stay in contact with the pilot as they co-ordinated an emergency landing at the nearest airport, routed nearby aircraft out of the way and alerted emergency teams on the ground.

For 27 chilling minutes, the three-man team battled to help the pilots regain control of the 178-tonne aircraft, as the choking black smoke filled the cockpit, obscuring the pilots' view of the controls.

The plane was heading for Dubai International's 12L runway to make an emergency landing but was too high on the approach and passed over the airport before making a tight turn.

Controllers lost radar contact with the aircraft moments later at 7.42pm and it crashed into an unpopulated area between Emirates Road and Al Ain Highway.

"Obviously it is very upsetting to lose any aircraft. We were disappointed. It was very hard. Circumstances like this can affect the psychology of the controllers involved, so we have to ensure they are supported and given proper counselling," said Hassan Karam, the director of air navigation services at the centre.

"We investigated our procedures to see if there was anything we could have done to avoid the incident, but ultimately, we know we did eveything we could."

It is a high-stress job and the 26 controllers who work at the centre (which is next to Etihad Airways' headquarters opposite Al Raha Mall) undergo rigorous psychometric testing to establish whether they are suited to the role.

"Some people for example don't have the three-dimensional thinking," Mr Karam said. "Some people, when under panic, they don't know their left from right. This is important because when the controller tells the pilot to take left, he will take a left."

As the UAE has expanded rapidly, the number of flights through the nation's airspace has increased, boosting the workload of the air traffic control team.

Currently more than 1,800 flights a day pass through the centre's airspace, with each aircraft spending an average of about 20 minutes under control of the UAE air tower. That is an increase of around 12 per cent compared to 2009, when there were about 1,590 flights per day.

The controllers work in three eight-hour shifts each day, with breaks built in. Emiratis are required to have a high-school diploma and are then trained as controllers until they qualify for an Air Traffic Control licence. Many spend time working and learning at control centres overseas to gain experience.

Expatriate workers are required to be licensed and have at least five years of experience. They are trained on the centre's equipment before starting work.

"This is one of the most interesting times of the year, as the weather starts to cool down, planes can fly higher and there is more air activity," said Saqr al Marashoa, an air traffic control officer from Abu Dhabi.

Case in point: earlier in the week, controllers had to change the routes of some flights during the morning rush hours from 8am to 11am after thunderstorms swept into the Gulf region.

"There is no routine in this job - every day is different," he said.

He said one of the pleasures of the job was interacting with different cultures, but that can be challenging, as pilots, although required to speak English, all have different accents.

"The air traffic language is English, and we speak through airline terminology but sometimes it can be unclear what the pilot is trying to say," Mr al Marashoa said.

He said in those instances, he can ask a colleague to listen and help.

Next year the centre plans to become the first operations room in the Middle East to employ a Flight Management System message service, allowing controllers to send written instructions to pilots, such as course headings and changes in altitude, freeing up radio communications for more crucial exchanges.

The technology is already used by several air traffic control centres in Europe and around 90 per cent of airlines are equipped with the system.

Before the centre opened, all air navigation activities were controlled at the General Civil Aviation Authority headquarters in Abu Dhabi.

The modern centre has state-of-the-art communications and control equipment and is connected to an identical facility next door that can be used in an emergency.

"We can log on from here. We don't even have to move to the other centre," said Abdulla al Hashimi, the manager of air traffic control operations at the centre. "Imagine if a car crashed into the emergency centre and broke everything - we can still access the system from here."

An example of the technological advantages of the centre can be seen in its newly installed navigation system, called RNAV 1.

Using the previous RNAV 5 system, flights could deviate by as much as five nautical miles from their assigned flight path but with the new system, flights can stray only one nautical mile off course before the system alerts a controller.

The new system has helped increase the number of UAE air traffic routes from 25 to 38.

The centre was honoured last week during the Sheikh Khalifa Government Excellence awards for adding RNAV1. The centre essentially tracks every flight - commercial, private, cargo and military - that passes over the UAE.

As Mr al Hashimi explained that, a warning light began to blink on the monitor.A plane flying over Al Ain was illuminated in red as it slowly moved across the desert.

"This is a warning that the plane is approaching a restricted military area," Mr al Hashimi said, then quickly added: "But this is a training plane and they have permission to fly over that area."

The controllers in the centre went back to the business of guiding scores of aircraft through the UAE's crowded skies.