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Keeping the sky safe: A visit to the airport tower in Charlottetown

The view from the tower: Meet some of the flight service specialists at the Charlottetown airport who ensure safe takeoffs and departures 24/7.

Flight service specialists make sure the 350K passengers arrive and depart safely

A flight service specialist in Charlottetown gives information to the pilot of a Jazz flight that's preparing to take off. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The view is fantastic from the top of the control tower at Charlottetown Airport. At eight storeys, it's one of the tallest buildings on P.E.I.

But the NAV CANADA flight service specialists who work in the tower don't usually have much time to enjoy the scenery. 

On their busiest day last summer, staff handled 120 arrivals and departures at Charlottetown airport, everything from jets to small planes.

NAV CANADA has flight service stations at 55 airports across the country, including Charlottetown. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The tower also handles all flights for the airport in Sydney,N.S, The Charlottetown crew is part of a network of operations at 55 airports across the country. They are all run by NAV CANADA , a private company, which manages the 18 million square kilometres of Canada's civil aviation airspace.

Cleared for take off. A view from the 90-ft tower at Charlottetown airport

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Cleared for take off. A view from the 90-ft tower at Charlottetown airport 0:58

The flight service specialists provide essential information to arriving and departing aircraft that last year carried 354,000 passengers. 

"We provide visibility, sky condition, whether or not there's precipitation falling, if it's rain, snow, drizzle," said flight service specialist Brian MacLean.

Flight service specialist Brian MacLean stands on an outside platform of the airport tower to point out an incoming flight. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The tower ensures the pilot of any aircraft within five nautical miles of the airport and up to a height of 3,000 feet (900 metres), receives the proper information.

"He can decide what runway he wants to land on or what runway he wants to depart on," said MacLean.

"If there's other aircraft in the area, we provide information based on the position of that aircraft to help each aircraft get each other in sight."

Even airport maintenance vehicles are monitored.

"They need permission to go on to the taxiways or the runway," he said. 

A Sunwing flight from the Caribbean arrives at Charlottetown Airport under the watchful eyes of flight service specialists. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The flight service specialists also keep a sharp eye out for birds that often get too close to the runways.

"Birds and aircraft are not a nice mix," said MacLean.

"If a seagull gets ingested into the engine, it causes a possible catastrophic damage …Everyone has seen the movie Sully where the Canada geese went into both engines of the Airbus down in New York, and basically landing in the Hudson River."

Two flight service specialists track a flight that's preparing to land at Charlottetown Airport. (Pat Martel/CBC)

A few moments later, a flight specialist spots some birds, just as a regional jet is about to take off. . 

"Jazz Flight 48, Charlottetown Radio. Just a heads up for you. I'm noticing three or four crows. They appear to be about 100 feet off the left edge of Runway 21."

"Excellent. Thanks very much for the heads up," the Jazz flight responds.

A bird's eye view from the tower at Charlottetown Airport. (Pat Martel/CBC)

If the flight service specialists see a large flock of seagull, they will advise the aircraft. 

"We'll try to get the maintenance people out beforehand to disperse the birds but if there was a large flock, they may delay their approach," said MacLean. 

Whether it's birds on the runway or bad weather, the job of the flight service specialist is to make sure pilots — who have the final say on take off and landing — have enough information to make the right decision.

About the Author

Pat Martel has worked with CBC P.E.I. for three decades, mostly with Island Morning where he was a writer-broadcaster and producer. He joined the web team recently to share his passion for great video. Pat also runs an adult coed soccer league in Stratford. He retired in Oct. 2019.

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