Saturday, April 11, 2009

Kandahar air-traffic controllers brace for doubling flights at busy airport

Alex Marsha loves sailing but these days he's keeping his eyes on the sky.

As manager of air-traffic control, he's getting ready to cope with an expected doubling of the volume of flights into Kandahar airport.

"We'll have to talk faster," Marsha said in an interview.

Last month, the airport recorded the largest number of flights in a month since it opened in 2005. Air-traffic controllers handled 20,000 flights, up from the average of 16,000.

It means an aircraft took off or landed in Kandahar every four minutes in March.

Marsha pointed out the airport, which sits in the middle of the desert, is handling a volume of flights equivalent to one-third of those landing at London's Heathrow airport.

Kandahar is best known to Canadians as the base for its troops in Afghanistan. It is one of the busiest of the 15 U.S. military airbases and it surpasses all the bases of Britain's Royal Air Force.

The numbers speak for themselves: between 2005 and 2008, traffic on the single runway more than doubled, going from 74,000 to 187,000 operations per year.

The increase in activity expected this year is attributed to the arrival of U.S. military reinforcements and also the deployment of more aircraft from other coalition countries, including Canada.

The Canadian Forces recently added Chinook and Griffon helicopters to their arsenal in Kandahar. The Americans are expected to post the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade to the airfield.

Marsha, from South Carolina, leads a team of more than two dozen U.S. military controllers. He has been in Kandahar for four years. There are yachting magazines on his desk and he has a boat back home, although he is now far from any sea.

He says the volume of traffic is not as challenging as the variety.

At any given time, day or night, there are military aircraft, fighters, cargo planes, helicopters and civilian aircraft, each with its own characteristics which have to be handled to maintain a smooth-flowing system.

"A traditional civil airport, you basically have an arrival flow where everybody is conducting a straight-in approach," Marsha explained.

"The problem here is you have so many military aircraft that are flying tactically," he said.

"They are using different procedures other than just getting on final (approach) like you'd see at a typical airport where everybody is lined up nice and pretty, everybody is spaced out and they're doing relatively the same air speeds. When they get on the ground, they all exit at predictably the same spot."

"Here you don't have that. You've got such a wide and diverse type of aircraft that operate here. You have to check each one individually and assist them to get from point A to point B."

Another hurdle is language. Only 25 per cent of the pilots who use Kandahar use English as a first language.

"We've got Dutch, French, the Belgians, even the British," he said. "And most big cargo aircraft are flown by former Soviet Union air crews. Their accents are very hard, very heavy. They have passable English for air traffic control purposes."

It's not uncommon for chatter between the plane and the tower to slow down. Communications are often repeated for clarity. Afghan military helicopter pilots don't speak English so that entails special precautions.

Marsha added that Kandahar is in a war zone, meaning military flights get priority.

A new control tower is being built to cope with the increased activity; there will be more controllers and more space to park aircraft.

Currently, the tower is a stack of shipping containers topped by a glassed-in enclosure large enough to accommodate two or three people.

Two are on duty at all times and a third will be added later this year. All get special training for the kind of work done at the base.

"The job is not for everybody, I'll give you that," says Marsha, who puts aside his paperwork once a week for a stint in the tower.

"It is as much an exciting job as a rewarding job. Air-traffic control is one of those jobs that, at the end of your day, you can go home and feel that you accomplished something."

See also:

airBaltic to increase flights and capacity between Lithuania and Latvia

Airline making the flights right connections

New Non-Stop Flights from the US to South Africa