Island Air-Traffic Control

As we sat in the control tower, Michelle Meyers, the tower manager of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport, glanced out at the horizon and said, “All right, see this plane coming in?”

“Ah, no, I don’t.”

“Look low, just above the tree line; see it?” I walked over to the window. “Damn, Michelle, I don’t see a thing.”

Of course, by this time Michelle had already turned her attention to about fifty other things and I was left thinking to myself, I could never do this.

The fact is, air-traffic controllers must see things normal people don’t see, hear things they don’t hear, and sense things they don’t sense.

Or, as controller Bill Comacho says, “We have to be able to read people’s minds. Especially on the Vineyard.”

Managing air traffic on the Island can be a unique challenge. During the month of August there are as many as 9,600 departures and arrivals a month, sometimes as many as 40 an hour. On a busy weekend, the traffic rivals Logan International Airport in Boston.

Making matters even more complicated is the wide variety of planes that use the airport. In a metropolitan airport, you’re generally dealing with large commercial airliners. Here you get everything from 737s and big private jets down to little single-engine prop planes. Since these planes can have dramatically different air speeds, maintaining separation between them as they approach the field requires a deft hand.

And then there are the pilots. They range from highly skilled professionals to weekend flyers with relatively few hours, heading over to the Vineyard for what the flying community sometimes refers to as a “hundred-dollar hamburger.” Michelle says that all the Vineyard controllers come from a military background and are used to talking rapidly to experienced jet pilots. They must be sensitive to the fact that not all Vineyard pilots have ears that are as finely tuned as, say, a Navy jet-fighter pilot.

And of course the weather must be factored in as well. Fog can blanket the Island in a heartbeat. If planes don’t have at least three miles of separation when approaching the field, they must use IFR (instrument-flight rules). If a pilot is not instrument rated he must be detoured to another airport.

Ironically, as Bill Comacho says, “We love the bad weather, because it’s a lot simpler for us.” That’s because all IFR approaches are coordinated by Cape Approach at Otis Air Force Base. These planes then get “handed over” to the Vineyard tower for the final five-mile descent. Traffic is also monitored by Boston Center, which issues a paper “ticket” for every approaching IFR flight; Vineyard controllers post these on a board to help them organize the incoming traffic.

And last but not least there are the deer – they’ve been known to wander across the runway at inopportune moments. Which means the controller has to keep an eye on the sky, on the radar, and on the woods. That’s right: to be a good Vineyard air-traffic controller, you need a third eye.