Managing a Busy Airspace Without Radar

With a new abundance of radar certified controllers on the Expert Server, and consistent staffing of major hubs on the Training Server, controlling a busy airspace with tower alone has become a kind of lost art. While this can be seen as a positive, being that busy hubs are constantly staffed completely, reducing controller workload, it has also led to some controllers being overly reliant on radar frequencies. I believe that while radar control is a great help, it is also important to understand how to cope without the assistance of radar.

While I do know that ATC on the training server is less experienced (and in many cases, less skilled) than ES, most everyone could use a little refresher on using the tools at their disposal to make the most of a situation. In many cases, I will discuss various aspects of controlling that may not be familiar, or often heeded, by the typical TS pilot. While the extraction of these pilots is fairly simple on ES, I understand it can be more difficult to do so on the TS with the general lower quality of pilot. However, if you, as a controller, do everything in your power to provide quality service to pilots, whether TS or ES, you can walk away from the session feeling satisfied. It is a sad reality that ATC instructions on TS are often viewed as optional, even with an experienced controller at the helm.

I know I say that you should use the tools at your disposal to the best of your ability, and you should, however, there can, and will be cases where it just is not possible to execute quality service to pilots with just a tower frequency. I’m not encouraging anyone to pick up JFK with a flash flight inbound, only using a tower frequency. That is a death sentence. It is important to have skills in the utilization of tools and techniques, but there are anomalies when even the best cannot succeed without radar assistance. Before using any techniques detailed below in a busy airspace, it is important to develop your skills at smaller airports, to eventually build up to a larger hub.

Find a friend, or don’t
When it is busy, you must devote your attention to one frequency. Rather ironically, given the context of this post, I have entitled this section “Find a friend”. Obviously, if there is not a radar controller free, there likely won’t be a ground controller there to help out, but if there is, have him/her take ground. In any case, it is important to focus on one frequency. It is not feasible to control both tower and ground during busy times, as you will end up giving subpar service to both frequencies.

Get people out
Obviously, if it’s peak traffic, you’ll want to reduce your workload. The easiest way to do this is to reduce the departure line. But shouldn’t you be focusing on the inbounds alone and leave the departures until a quiet period? Well, if you leave departures hanging, chances are they will continue requesting takeoff. Really, you want to get them out of your hair as quickly as possible, so you can make more time to focus on inbounds. Once they have departed, you can devote your complete attention to the air, rather than having to repeat hold short commands.

When clearing people for takeoff, in busy situations, anticipation separation is key. In most cases (though there are some exceptions with GA aircraft and fighters), if the aircraft on takeoff roll has reached about 80-90 knots, it is safe to clear the next one holding short. By the time the second aircraft begins its takeoff roll, the first will already be airborne. Note that this rule does not apply to traffic waiting on the runway to takeoff – for these, you will need to wait until the aircraft ahead is airborne before clearing another one for takeoff. This line up and wait issue is why you should have aircraft hold short and then cleared for takeoff directly, rather than wasting an extra command with the line up and wait. The extra command takes precious seconds away from sequencing, and clearing aircraft.

Have a plan
This tip, while often overlooked by controllers, is by FAR the most important. If you’re jumping into a busy airspace without radar, you need to study the layout of the airport, and the situation into which you are entering. It can be appealing to open as quickly as possible, especially if another controller has just closed, but letting an airspace dissolve a little will not hurt, and a quick study of the runway layout will help in the long run.

Obviously, staring blankly at an airport diagram does about as much good as opening without doing any prep whatsoever. Let’s take a look, and make an example plan for KSEA.


As we are focusing on tower, we don't really need to look at the SIDs and STARs (though a quick scroll can't hurt), and the airport diagram will suffice for making a fairly basic plan. The first thing you should see are the three parallel runways. Really, we want to be using all of them in that case. Since nearly all the gates are on one side of the airport, we will likely use 16L for departures, because, as mentioned previously, we want to get them out as quickly as possible. With that, we will want to minimize arriving traffic to 16L as much as possible. Luckily, we have two more parallel runways to assist with landings, so we will be able to use those for the vast majority of landing aircraft. The runways can be easily assigned based on the directionality of the traffic.

The above example is really quite simple, and most would say that it is too simple. However, “simple” airport layouts are the foundation for delving deeper and generating plans for trickier ones. Parallel runways are some of the most prevalent layouts for busy airports worldwide, and learning to operate with them is crucial to advancing to more challenging layouts. There are many different ways of operating any airport, and creating plans for different airports in busy times is a skill garnered only by experience.

The most important aspect of any plan is flexibility. Chances are, not everything in your session will be just as you expect it. Sometimes, there will be an unexpected wave of inbounds, or a few light aircraft coming in. You need to have a plan that is fluid, so it can be manipulated to accommodate the worst of scenarios. Rigidity in one system is usually not a good idea, as if one cog in the system goes wrong, everything else can fall apart.

Back to basics!
Most controllers on IF generally focus on the “flashier” radar side, with long lines stretching for miles, and tower focusing on reducing a takeoff line and giving the occasional landing clearance. A more robust side, however, will come more in handy when dealing with a busy bravo, without your trusty approach controller. It is this robust side on which all IFATC are tested, being the issuing of pattern entries, sequences and only then a clearance being given. Sequencing can be an art, if you’re doing it right, otherwise it can be a mess.

While I won’t go into the basics of when to provide pattern entries and sequences (this is already covered in a host of other topics, and doing so would only degrade the overall focus of this one), they are fundamental to controlling. An efficient way of sequencing a busy airspace is to work from the inside out. Look at the airspace, then figure out who is first, second, third, etc. Working in this methodical fashion will ensure you maintain a “line” of aircraft in your mind, and each new one is adding to the length of the “line”. Trying to sequence randomly will confuse you, and may even confuse pilots. Do not focus on the blinking colors on the sidebar menu, doing so will only overwhelm you, and trying to select a tag from there is like playing whackamole. Instead, I suggest double tapping the aircraft on the map sequentially. This way, you are ensured precision when issuing commands. If you want to develop your sequencing skills, I highly recommend the exercises found in this topic.

A Quick Note for the Cops
I have intentionally placed this topic in ATC, rather than in #tutorials. The above are simply tips for people to use when they do jump into a busy airspace. So much in controlling is situational, I will not prescribe this topic as the only way to manage an airspace. As I stated in the topic itself, rigidity is not something to be rewarded, and a certain creativity is required in all aspects of controlling. These techniques are not set in stone by any means, and a little modification allows for further development of them. You have to make some mistakes to grow, and really, the only way to see something won’t work is to try it and fail. There is no magic wand that you can wave to solve problems, and trial-and-error is often the best way to see if something will work. With this, I encourage all of you to post your strategies below, as I’m sure some of you will have developed some interesting ones of which I have not even dreamed.


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