June 19, 2019
It’s all about teamwork at Springbank Tower
“Everyone has a unique journey coming to NAV CANADA,” says Shamus Gordon, who has been Site Manager, Springbank Tower, for just over a year. One of the first things that impressed him about the team is that, no matter how heavy the workload, they all “pull together to ensure the airport functions as it should. They’re like a quiet, well-oiled machine trucking along – they’re true professionals.
“Despite whatever meddling I do as manager, they get the job done,” he adds with a laugh.
Gordon is responsible for two other sites: Yellowknife Tower and Yellowknife Flight Service Station. He calls Yellowknife home, and describes the commute to southern Alberta as painless: it’s a two-hour flight to Calgary International Airport and then a half-hour drive to the Springbank Tower.
What’s more, as an experienced controller, Gordon has taught the Visual Flight Rules (VFR) course – and other courses – to students. Sometimes he finds himself juggling the more operational side of his job and spending more time in the tower. It’s safe to say he leads by example.
Gordon has also taken a considerable amount of pilot training, earning a commercial pilot’s licence, and initially had thoughts of flying as a career. “But once I signed on with NAV CANADA almost 20 years ago, I was so impressed with the organization that I decided to stay, working at a number of towers across Canada and learning steadily as I moved through the Company,” he says.
“Here at Springbank, I know who our customers are. I was once that 18-year-old rookie pilot out on the tarmac, not sure whether to hit that talk button with my thumb or not, wondering exactly what the controllers are going to tell me, feeling a bit lost at sea. I’ve been there.”
The airport has two runways, and operates from 7 a.m. till 11 p.m. seven days a week. Located in the foothills of the Rockies, the airport is the closest certified aerodrome to Banff.
Though it is much less high-profile than its neighbouring airport in Calgary, Springbank is “consistently in the top 10 in Canada for traffic movements,” says Gordon. “This largely passes under the radar.” “Sometimes people think of us as just this little airport west of Calgary, but that is simply not correct,” he adds. “We are one of the busiest airports in Canada by traffic volume. The majority of our traffic is made up of flight training, both fixed wing and helicopter, and it’s important to recognize that that poses its own unique challenges, since most of the people are just learning to fly.”
Some of the airport’s traffic consists of companies ensuring that their pilots keep their licences up to date by taking what Gordon calls “a ride” every six months or a year, for example. That just adds to the traffic volume.
The Springbank team is understandably proud of the role they play in supporting student pilots as they learn how to fly, including how to communicate effectively on the radio using the correct terminology – basically what to do and how to stay safe in an airport’s operational environment.
“It’s this simple: when most people are learning something new, they need time to figure it all out. That’s just a normal part of the process,” says Gordon. “That means our team has to be super vigilant, making sure the trainee pilots are doing what their flight instructors have told them to do, that they’re in the right flight path and the right sequence.
“This is further complicated by the fact that they’re all flying in close proximity to one another. It’s a busy, complex piece of airspace.”
Springbank Tower provides a service that is very much complementary to Calgary Airport, as small-plane traffic can interfere with commercial traffic.
How it’s done
Gordon points out that the team works very closely with the flight schools. “They recognize that we are playing an important role in helping train their pilots. It’s definitely a collaboration,” he says.
“Sometimes, our controllers will correct the student, explaining what they did incorrectly and emphasizing the potential consequences of their mistake. Sometimes this happens when they’re in the air. Sometimes it’s a question of a phone call once the pilot is on the ground.”
Francis Delisle, a 24-year veteran of the Company, works as the Unit Operations Specialist (UOS) at Springbank Tower. When he started, he knew very little about the industry – he applied after seeing job openings for controllers listed n the newspaper and thought the work sounded interesting.
He too emphasizes the sheer volume of traffic that passes through the airport, and says “there’s a lot more criss-crossing in the air here than in other, more commercial airports. All the planes tend to go out at the same times every day, and they come back at the same times – which is our key operational challenge.
For example, the flight schools send a bunch of students out at 8 a.m., and they’re flying by 8:15. They do their training and they come back again by 9:30 a.m. or 9:45, so the flight schools are ready for the next booking time at 10 a.m. “We work in waves,” says Delisle.
On a busy day, they might have 95 movements one hour while the next hour might have 30 movements, the next 80, the next 40, and then 105. For newcomers to the tower, that means they have to hit the ground running, “just because that’s how our traffic cycles,” Delisle adds.
Like Gordon, Delisle is always willing to roll up his sleeves and to help out the other controllers as needed. He truly enjoys the “act of providing a control service. It’s different every day and it can be really fun when it’s super busy,” he says.
He likens it in a way to playing a video game: “It’s a juggling act making all the pieces fit together. I can truly say that each and every member of the control team here loves it and they’re very good at it. I’m lucky enough to work with a group of great people.”
Controller Leslie Payette has been with NAV CANADA since 2010 when she came to Springbank straight out of VFR training. She has a varied background: Payette first got her BA in botany, and later worked as a flight attendant. “Not exactly a natural career progression, I know,” she says with a laugh. “But I’ve never regretted it. I love my job.”
She points out that one of the challenges faced in Springbank is managing traffic given the frequent chinooks, which can sweep in and change the weather in what seems like minutes. In Canada, the chinook belt lies almost exclusively within southern and central Alberta.
“One day, for example, we will have winds gusting up to 45 knots an hour, and then the next day it’s calm and quiet, actually fairly warm,” she says. “Air traffic is of course very weather dependent, so it definitely keeps you on your toes!”
During the busiest parts of the day, Springbank Tower is staffed by a ground controller, and an inner and outer controller. This necessitates a great deal of communication. “We do a rotation where we come to work and we cycle through the various positions throughout the day — ground, inner and outer,” says Payette.
At Springbank, the inner tower position controls the circuit traffic (flight training aircraft) on the active runway and up to 5,000 feet (1000AGL). The outer controller focuses on itinerant and helicopter traffic (there are two helicopter pads, and the helicopters also use the taxiways when it’s really busy) up to 5,500 feet (1500AGL) — the altitude at which the inbound planes come in. They also work the non-circuit side of the control zone. The purpose is to keep the helicopter traffic separate from the fixed wing traffic, and to integrate itinerant aircraft into the circuit as efficiently as possible.
Two of Leslie’s fellow tower controllers are Matt Wang, a Calgary native, and David Hartwick. While Wang is a relative newcomer to the team (he joined in October 2017), Hartwick has been with the Company for more than 20 years.
They both bring their particular styles and skills to the role, and echo Leslie in emphasizing the amount of teamwork and clear communication needed to keep operations running smoothly in such a challenging environment.
Hartwick describes working in the tower as being “part of a feeder program into the world of Canadian aviation: In essence, it’s a foot in the door for new pilots – some of whom may go on to fly the big commercial aircraft. That’s why we spend as much time as we can helping coach the new students: we think it’s an important role and we’re proud to be part of it.”
The tower has also over the years seen its fair share of controller trainees being readied to assume control of the operational reins.
Hartwick reinforces the importance of keeping a sense of perspective while on the job, and he personally displays a keen wit. For example, to paraphrase something he has shared on his LinkedIn page, he says:
“I am passionate about making a difference in the world, and changing people’s lives. I am active in my community and support many good causes — one of which is supporting community advocacy and engagement for Alberta’s largest community association, which represents over 58,000 people. And sometimes I work.”
And work he does. “I like that it makes me think. One of the most important things working in this industry is that you have to believe in yourself: there’s a lot to take on fast in this job, but the training NAV CANADA gives is pretty thorough.
“It’s a rewarding career in a number of ways,” he adds. “For me one of the biggest advantages is that you don’t take your work home with you at the end of the day. I get to spend time with my family,” says Hartwick.
“And it frees up my time to focus on another of my passions, which is volunteering and giving back. I want to act as a catalyst for positive change: I am trying to change the world for the better one person at a time. After all, we all need help sometimes. I want to be there to give it.”
When asked what he would tell would-be controllers about the job, Wang looks back on his own recent training. He stresses the importance of knowing you’re in for a lot of good-old-fashioned hard work. You’ll also need to memorize a staggering amount of information until you know it cold, and practice as much as possible.
“After all, if you’ve got planes approaching, you simply have to know your stuff,” says Wang. “You’re not about to ask the pilots to keep their aircraft in the air until you get your act together.”