New Airport Tower Towers Over Old Tower

Oct 31, 2011

There’s a new traffic-control tower at Memphis International Airport. Memphis is the busiest cargo airport in the country, and the 2nd busiest in the world. The tower’s function is to guide all of those cargo planes, as well as the passenger planes, in and out of the sky. The tower is 336 feet tall and it’s one of the tallest buildings in Memphis. From an airy room ringed with windows at the very top, air-traffic manager Michael Baker says, “The view from up here is like the Penthouse on the city of Memphis.”

You can see a lot of trees, a lot of sky, and, of course—runway. This is not the same as it was in the old tower. Baker points to a pair of airplane hangars surrounded by concrete that stretches beyond and around them in all directions, like two islands in a sea. 

“When we were in the other tower, we could not see the taxiway system behind it, or all that space out there where the airport has intentions of expanding one day,” he said.  

There’s a bunch of new equipment in the new tower. Including a screen that shows all the planes the controllers are guiding on and off the ground. In the old tower, the top-room controllers couldn’t look out and see all the runways and they didn’t have that screen. The controllers had to remember the positions of the planes they were guiding. They took notes on paper and mentally kept track of movement.

Baker is also proud of the controllers in the basement of the tower. Contrary to what you might think—the controllers at the top of the tower monitor planes that are on, or near, the ground and the controllers on the ground monitor planes that are in the air.

“Our airspace is anything that is within a 40 mile radius of the Memphis airport, and up to 16,000 feet,” Baker said.

But that huge, round airspace is divided up among the controllers. Think of it like a cake, with many layers, then the cake is sliced into pieces. Each basement-controller deals with a single layer of a single piece of that air.

The basement of the tower is dungeon-dark, except for the computer screens and buttons, and a glowing, plastic jack-o-lantern, there doesn’t seem to be a light on in the whole room.

“Before we received this state-of-the-art equipment, the equipment we had, you literally could not have lights on because it would wash the screen out,” Baker said.

Of course, all that old, light-sensitive equipment is long gone. Now, Baker says the lack of light is “cultural.”

“This is just what people like to do,” he said.

So, not everything has changed from the old tower to the new tower. Another thing that’s still the same—the tower’s function is still to guide planes safely and efficiently over and around  Memphis.