Behind The Scenes: London Heathrow Airport Control Tower

by Continental Club on July 10, 2012

Standing 87 metres or 318 feet tall, few passengers travelling through London Heathrow Airport can miss the still relatively new control tower, which became operational in 2007.

Despite its almost omnipresence through the windows of terminal buildings and aircraft alike, it’s unsurprisingly somewhere that few outside the ranks of NATS (formerly National Air Traffic Services) employees and suppliers ever get to see from the inside out.

So the invitation to accompany a small group, hosted by British Airways, was accepted with lightning speed.

One of the many differences between the old and new Heathrow control towers is their position with regard to the airport’s security cordon. Whilst the old tower was accesible ‘landside,’ the new tower is ‘airside’ and therefore all employees and visitors must pass through security to access the facility.

Our tour therefore started at Terminal 5, nominally British Airways’ home at Heathrow, and in fact the very building which necessitated the construction of a new tower.

Once the plans for Heathrow’s then-newest terminal were signed off, it was clear that controllers in the existing tower would not be able to see the ends of the runways behind T5. The need for a new, much higher and more central tower was clear.

Having presented  credentials a week beforhand to to BAA, the airport’s operator, temporary passes were issued for the visit from the company’s reception on the corporate floors of T5. We then passed through a dedicated security screening system for airport staff, before re-emerging into the public departure lounge. Having made our way to Gate A10, unbeloved by regular travellers who will know that this is one of the terminal’s two ‘bus gates,’ we found a special service ready and waiting to carry us across the airfield to the tower, which soars above Terminal 3.

Additional NATS passes were issued upon arrival, before the group was welcomed into the three storey base building by Heathrow’s General Manager of Air Traffic Services.

The building houses support services for the tower, as well as meeting, training and conference rooms. The lobby area leaves visitors in little doubt of the building’s function, as a glazed roof skirts the tower’s core. Looking up reveals the 18 storey column marching skyward, as well as the cable stays that hold the whole construction with the steadiness demanded by the radar systems it contains.

The tower was designed by renowned architects the Richard Rogers Partnership, and the equally illustrious Arup were tasked with the engineering of the structure. The construction of the new tower, which would have obstructed sight-lines from the old tower, was in itself a challenge and was therefore undertaken off-site. The control room cone was manoeuvred into position across the runways on three 144-wheel remote-controlled flatbeds, taking two hours to make the journey across the tarmac one October night in 2004.

From the first floor conference room overlooking Terminal 3 and the jetties occupied by Virgin Atlantic, Air Canada, Iran Air and Egyptair amongst others, our host explained a little more about NATS, which is  a public private partnership between the Airline Group, a consortium of seven airlines holding 42%, NATS staff who hold 5%, Heathrow Airport operator BAA Limited with 4%, and the UK government which holds 49%, and a golden share.

The Airline Group is a consortium of seven airlines: Virgin Atlantic Airways Limited, Thomson Airways Limited, Thomas Cook Airlines Limited, Monarch Airlines Retirement Benefits Plan Limited, British Airways PLC, Easyjet Airline Company Limited and Lufthansa.

The presentation included an overview of some of the numbers which make Heathrow a place of superlatives; according to the latest Airports Council International, it’s the World’s busiest twin-runway airport, the World’s busiest airport by international passenger count, the World’s fourth busiest airport overall and, of course, the busiest airport in the UK by a very considerable margin. In 2011, an average of 1,305 daily aircraft movements totalled 476,197 movements for the year as a whole.

Every one of those movements is, of course, handled by controllers in the tower above, but some of the raw numbers (and their comparisons with other ‘hub’ airports in Western Europe) can tend to disguise the unique patterns of traffic that apply to London, and indeed to Heathrow, alone.

For example, more than one third of Heathrow’s traffic is transatlantic. A huge proportion of both inbound and outbound flights are therefore heading to or from almost exactly the same direction, creating very specific challenges in terms of, for want of a better word, queuing. No other European hub has such a dominant traffic flow. The fact that these flights are predominantly operated by wide-bodied ‘heavy’ aircraft further affects flows; bigger aircraft generate more wake turbulence and therefore increase the separation requirements between movements. Airports with a greater proportion of shorthaul routes operated by smaller aircraft can, to put it most simply, safely dispatch take-offs far closer together.

Without a fundamental shift in global demand to and from London then, this is a little-discussed issue which would not be affected from an ATC point of view, were Heathrow to lose its hub status in favour of the variously-discussed future possibilities of new airports in the Thames Estuary or elsewhere.

To the main event though, and the ascent to the tower itself. It’s a two-stage process, first to the upper level of the skirt building, and from there into a lift which rises through the core of the tower to a terrace level just below the controllers’ dais.

The view is, by the standards of almost any observer, quite unique and extends for tens of miles around. For anyone with even a passing interest in airports, airlines and aircraft, the vista is little short of sensational – both in terms of the sheer amount of activity visible, and also the unusal perspectives that such a vantage point offers to those of us used to being in the terminal or on the aircraft.

From the detail of the comings and goings of individual aircraft, to the view across the 1,227 hectares of the airfield in its entirety, both the scale and the complexity of the operation are laid out beneath and far away into the distance.

Looking South, the piers of Terminal 3 face across Runway 27L to the Cargo Area.

Moving clockwise, the view to the far end of 27L takes in the Southern extremities of the B & C satellites of Terminal 5 and, on this occasion, a glimpse of British Airways Airbus A319 G-EUPC Firefly, the aircraft which brought the Olympic flame to the United Kingdom on 18th May 2012.

Looking due West from the tower, the complete T5 campus is laid out in panorama, with the view taking in Windsor Castle amongst other landmarks – the castle sitting atop the slightly darker ‘mound’ just to the right and above the main T5 building, immediately behind the Queen Mother Reservoir.

Turning slightly towards the North, two Qantas Airbus A380s are seen side-by-side on remote stands next to the Fuel Farm which stands (at least temporarily) in the way of developing a T5 ‘D’ satellite building and ultimately linking T5 to T3 with the underground Track Transit System that currently shuttles passengers between T5A and T5C.

Scanning further to the right, runway 27R is the focus, with one of BA’s 747-400s about to provide that odd experience of looking down on an aircraft that’s in-flight.

Moving further around, the piers of the North side of Terminal 3, and then on to Terminal 1, hove into view.

Onward, looking East North East, aircraft line up for Runway 27R, alongside the hangars of Heathrow’s engineering facilities. Providing the backdrop is the giant arch of Wembley’s new stadium, giving way to the City of London and the towers of Canary Wharf in the far distance.

In the foreground, clear for controllers to see, are the operations of Terminals 1 and 3, as well as the buildings of the new Terminal 2 moving towards completion before their very eyes – buildings which despite their bulk have been carefully designed and orientated to maintain those all-important sight-lines.

The dais is a place of uncommon calm; even the ‘one and a half times a day’ incidence of an aircraft go-around is dealt with in the most measured of tones; guidance delivered to other affected aircraft on approach in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone which never betrays the mere seconds’ notice that is the catalyst of such instructions.

Of course, the strict selection procedures and intensive training programmes to which the controllers are all subjected are further augmented by technology which has seen the traditional paper slips stacked in racks on consoles consigned to the history books.

Today, large screens with clear displays and touch-sensitivity are employed to improve safety and increase ease-of-use.

Not only do screens display aircraft positions on the ground and in the air, they are also employed to control systems such as Heathrow’s taxiway lighting system, which is used to guide individual aircraft to specific stands – all by means of lighting up pathways unique to the aircraft that the route has been programmed for.

The dais is on two levels, with the upper level constituting the crow’s nest with a 360-degree view from each of the hot seats.

Once such heady heights had been reached on our tour, there was an opportunity to take in some of the finer details of the building and its surroundings, from a hint of the heritage of at least one employee…..

….to some of the architectural and structural details….

….and the unique framing of otherwise familiar subjects that the building affords….

….before we returned to ground level and took one last look skyward from a vantage point few others have access to – and one that we ourselves are unlikely to have the chance to visit again.

Continental Club visited London Heathrow Airport as the guest of British Airways and NATS.

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2 comments

A great blog with some insitful and intriguing information. Thanks continental club!

by Adam on July 10, 2012 at 3:44 PM. Reply #

[…] wasn’t long until we were onboard and taxiing; no dilly-dallying at dawn – past the control tower that we’ve been up before – and out to the end of the […]

by British Airways Day Trips | Continental Club Blog on October 27, 2014 at 9:06 AM. Reply #

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