An American Airlines plane takes off from the L.F. Wade International Airport, as seen from the Air Traffic Control Tower. *Photo by Kageaki Smith
An American Airlines plane takes off from the L.F. Wade International Airport, as seen from the Air Traffic Control Tower. *Photo by Kageaki Smith

FRIDAY, SEPT. 28: Perched high above the L.F. Wade airstrip in St David’s, a small team of specialists faces a daunting task each day.

There are just six air traffic controllers in Bermuda and few would stop to think about these four men and two woman as they rumble along the airport tarmac.

But they are responsible for ensuring that every one of the 12,000 to 14,000 arrivals and departures that take place each year run safely and smoothly.

It is not a job for the faint-hearted.

Mark Bourne, Air Traffic Control (ATC) service manager, says: “You have to communicate well and be calm under pressure.

“It is a constant test of your mental alertness and it’s not just about speaking to pilots and relaying weather and runway information.

“These days we have to be aware of much more; from the migratory habits of the local birds to the presence of foreign objects on the runway.”

The once-bright pink Air Traffic Control Tower was built in the 1950’s when the Americans ran the airbase.

But it has continued to be the ATC headquarters even after the airfield passed back to Government in 1995.

Supervisor Patricia Peets was part of that first team of local air traffic controllers that took over from their American colleagues more than 17 years ago.

She told the Bermuda Sun: “A lot has changed since those days.

“The equipment is more modern and reliable, and we do more safety audits, too.

“I started in April 1995 and we had a couple of months where we worked side by side with the Americans.

“And then in June they moved out and left it to us.

“It was a bittersweet moment for the controllers. I remember the last guy taking off his headset and saying ‘it’s over to you now’.”

These days 60 per cent of the aircrafts coming into LF Wade are either scheduled or unscheduled commercial flights.

Around 38 per cent of the traffic is general aviation such as private jets, while the rest is military aircraft like the RAF Tornadoes that recently visited the island.

The Bermuda controllers work closely with the New York Area Route Control Centre on Long Island to ensure incoming and outgoing flights are furnished with all the information they need.

And they usually take over from their American colleagues once the aircraft gets to within 20 miles of the island.

Mr Bourne added: “Once the responsibility of control is handed over to Bermuda Tower, the controller will ensure the arriving aircraft maintains a safe separation with other aircraft landing at or departing at L.F. Wade.

“The Bermuda Tower controller will provide the pilots of the aircraft with the landing runway information, weather information at the airfield and any pertinent airfield information and ensure the safety of the aircraft is maintained until that aircraft lands and parks on the apron.”

Last year the controllers dealt with nine planes that were forced to divert to L.F. Wade due to a passenger requiring medical assistance. There were also seven flights diverted due to onboard malfunctions or problems.

So far this year the Bermuda Tower has handled seven medical diversions and a mechanical diversion.

It is manned between 7am and 11pm, seven days a week.

The six-strong team works shifts of four days on, two days off, but they are also on call 24/7.

It has been a few years since they were called in out of hours, but whenever the British Airways flight is delayed passed 11pm they’ll remain in the tower until it has safely departed.

It’s lucky there’s also a mini-kitchen in the tower.

Mr Bourne added: “We are always on hand to provide passing planes with up-to-date weather information.

“But since this became an automated loop service in 2008 that all aircraft can receive we don’t get many of those calls these days.

“In many ways we are the last people that people think about at the airport, but if we are not being thought about that means we are doing our job well.

“We have a good safety record and all of our controllers are capable of handling complex situations.”