You might say that Russ Adams, an air traffic controller at Reagan National Airport, spends a lot of his time thinking in 50-second increments.

That’s the amount of time it typically takes for an aircraft to fly over the landing threshold and exit the runway. It’s also about how long it takes an aircraft to add power, start rolling, and become airborne. 

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"When you're in the cabin you're looking out the window you see the traffic building, and maybe the departures on the ramp, lining up, taxiing out, heading towards your runways," Adams says.  "And maybe you're looking at the arrivals come in on the radar scope. And you notice that there are several. And you have to take those departures and fit them in between the arrivals. And that creates the stress. And it creates excitement."

You might call it a narrow window. Or perhaps even a close call. But Adams will tell you the definition of a close call is different for everyone.  Air traffic controllers work in the environment where the margin for error does exist, though that margin — about 6,000 feet or a little more than a mile between departing aircraft and arrivals to the runway — might make the average person uncomfortable.

"Since we do it every day, it's safe. The system operates safely," Adams said. "But there's not a lot of extra time. So where somebody might say it was a close call, we say we had an extra five seconds to meet our separation standard."

But anyone who's that’s been on a plane when it’s rerouted or circles the airport knows that scenarios do happen in the tower where an aircraft will not be able to land and be told to perform what's called ‘a go around.’ Technology influences those decisions, but so does the window. The window of the tower and the window of the airplane pilot.

It may seem a frightening concept. But for all the advancements, including some getting rolled out as part of the Federal Aviation Administration's Next Generation Air Traffic Transportation System, the people component won't go away.

"The computers are very helpful in accomplishing the task," Adams said. "But just the computers alone…it could be done, but it would not be nearly as smooth. In the tower cab, folks work as a team. The ground controller works with the local controller. They listen to one another while they're talking to airplanes. There you know what the task is and they're making the plans for their aircraft based on what aircraft that they're not responsible for yet are doing."

There are hard days, of course. Adams was on the job at Reagan the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, still able to see the smoke billowing from the Pentagon crash that from the plane crashed into the building, killeding all 64 people on board and 125 people in the building. As the months went by, DCA didn’t see much air traffic. The controllers didn't have a lot to do, which made the anguish of that day and the aftermath even more pronounced. Adams learned now to play the guitar.

At the same time, the job changed. Several security protocols were put in place to spot aircraft perhaps flying erratically, or not compliant with air traffic control instructions; to deal with an aircraft that may have been taken over. As Adams put it, "we paid more attention."

The truth is, the job isn't for everybody. Just observing the controllers made my heart beat faster, even as they collectively juggled military aircraft and crisscrossing commercial airliners arriving and departing in what appeared to my untrained eye to be synchronized chaos.

So it makes sense then that Adams describes air traffic controller as someone who that can be relaxed during those stressful situations, who that will be able to think of solutions to unusual problems that crop up; who that is quick witted and has a good enough sense of humor to laugh off mistakes — small mistakes, which do happen.

And what happens when he is a passenger stuck on a runway?

"I am not sympathetic at all," Adams said. "I want to pull my telephone out and call the tower and ask them why I'm not going."

Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.

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