News & Politics

Up In the Air

A look inside the air traffic control tower simulator at Reagan National Airport.

Photograph by Ron Blunt.

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Air-traffic controllers have one of the most stressful jobs on the planet. Navigating packed jetliners through crowded skies, heeding wind and weather dangers, maintaining a hectic schedule of takeoffs and landings—they’re all in a day’s work. So new recruits at Reagan National Airport spend 80 hours cutting their teeth on the simulator shown here, a few hundred feet below the real thing, before they can direct their first real flights.

Instructors can plug in almost any variable an air-traffic controller can face—snow, sleet, moonless nights, even the dreaded round-the-clock traffic of the holiday season. The wraparound screens project a perfectly to-scale computer model of the airport tower and surrounding region, simulating each step of the job, from taxiing to takeoff.

Every airport is unique, but Reagan National “is from a different era,” says Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Paul Takemoto. Built in 1941, it’s particularly small—a narrow corridor of open airspace above the Potomac River and just three short runways that intersect to form a complex traffic pattern. Add in security restrictions over the nation’s capital and you’ve got a training tool put to good use.

This article appears in the March 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

Staff Writer

Michael J. Gaynor has written about fake Navy SEALs, a town without cell phones, his Russian spy landlord, and many more weird and fascinating stories for the Washingtonian. He lives in DC, where his landlord is no longer a Russian spy.