I learned to fly in California, at a small GA airport with a control tower. My first tower tour was during my private pilot training. I don’t remember the exact time line, but sometime after I soloed and before my check-ride, I climbed the many steps up to the top with my instructor to meet the local Air Traffic Controllers(ATC) and learn more about what they did, what they saw and what they expected of me as a pilot flying over their airspace. In those days my local tower still operated with little automation. Controllers looked out the windows with powerful binoculars to spot traffic and provide separation in the terminal area.
Since then, I have made the trip many times with other fellow pilots to learn the changing practices over time. I watched my local control tower upgrade from no automation to increasing automation, availability of radar service, and even the implementation of the Standard Terminal Area Replacement System (STARS) which provided them with latest automation software and computer screens that replaced the old scopes from the 70’s. While the binoculars are not gone and still used as needed, the latest automation provided additional information at their finger tips to not only help them in their jobs but also to better help pilots.
I think interaction with the ATC is such a key aspect of being a pilot. In my time, I have had many opportunities to not only visit the local control tower, but also interacted with the controllers at a personal level. Controllers seemed really interested in helping pilots understand what was expected of them. As a member of a very active 99s chapter, I have had occasion to organize or attend safety seminars that included ATC. Each year as airport day activities, we volunteered to enable the general public take Tower Tours in small groups. I have had numerous occasions to visit Terminal Radar Control and Center facilities to better understand the kind of support they provided to VFR pilots.
I almost took it for granted that private pilots visited control tower at their airport with their instructors to better understand the air traffic control aspect of flying. Just as I took it for granted, that an instructor hopped out of the aircraft and went up to the tower, while the student pilot taxied timidly off to conduct his/her solo flights.
So it came to me as a surprise, when I found out recently that instructors don’t necessary visit the tower, even though it exists at the airport. True it is not needed. A handheld radio will suffice. For some reason, I felt a little disappointed.
I have always been curious to see the faces behind the voices, to give a name and a face to the person I was talking to. While one trip might not do the trick, I am happy that after wondering about it, I finally made it up the tower to make some new friends in high places at my local airport.