Cayman Islands Airports Authority Operations Manager Rob Harris pulls out a large sheet of paper resembling a map of a major city, showing dozens of different colored lines running in multiple directions.
“Most people look up at the sky and see it as a big, wide-open space. Not to us. We think of it as – these are all roads in the sky. That’s us, and there are a lot of confluence points that meet,” he said from the fourth floor of the Owen Roberts International Airport air traffic control tower, gesturing to various spots on the map. “Everything going to South America from the north, a lot of time is routed through us. This is where the Miami traffic comes from.”
Mr. Harris’ map shows the 10,000 square miles of airspace his air traffic controllers are responsible for monitoring.
With more than 34,000 flights coming through the territory each year, the job of a Cayman air traffic controller is a demanding one – made even more so because Cayman airports do not use radar, unlike their counterparts in Jamaica, Cuba and other nearby countries. So instead of being able to look at the “fishbowl” radar monitor to see exactly where planes are, air traffic controllers must guide planes in and out the old-fashioned way: by using speed and distance to estimate arrival times, according to Mr. Harris.
To do that, communication is key.
Near the cricket pitch at the end of the Owen Roberts International Airport runway sits a group of orange antennas known as a “Doppler VOR” navigation system. Pilots use this facility to determine their distance from the runway. They communicate their information to the air traffic control tower, and controllers then use that information to calculate when a plane will land.
Mr. Harris said air traffic controllers generally work in pairs during busy hours, with one monitoring everything from the runway to the altitude of 1,500 feet, and the other responsible for planes between 1,500-24,500 feet high – Jamaica monitors the airspace above that altitude.
As Mr. Harris explained the process to this reporter, air traffic controllers chattered in the background, relaying directions to inbound and outbound flights.
“November 207 Whiskey Yankee … Descend to altitude 4,000 feet,” Air traffic controller Bobby Boggess radioed an incoming flight, pausing before adding, “November 207 Whiskey Yankee, keep your speed up as best as you can for me.”
To the untrained ear, Mr. Boggess’ directions may sound like unintelligible jargon. But several minutes later, a small, one-engine Cessna 206 landed smoothly on the Owen Roberts International Airport runway. Another air traffic controller watched the Cessna to make sure it was off the runway before another flight could take off, while Mr. Boggess continued to communicate with other planes in the sky.
Mr. Harris said the two controllers must work in tandem to ensure that flights do not conflict with each other.
“[Mr. Boggess’ partner] is trying to figure out where [Mr. Boggess’] airplanes are up in the sky. She’s trying to figure out if she has enough time to squeeze that airplane back out on the runway before the next arrival comes in. This is the choreography we’re doing,” Mr. Harris said. “In her mind, she’s got her three minutes to get that airplane to the end of the runway to take off before it’s too close to the American [Airlines flight] right behind him.”
Air traffic controllers not only have to communicate with pilots, but also with other airports, coordinating with them so they know when planes from Cayman will be entering their airspace, and vice versa.
“Think of it as a relay race, when you’re passing a baton. So you’re taking the aircraft and passing it to Kingston or Havana, and they’re passing it to the next guys, and so on and so on,” Mr. Boggess said.
All that manual communication between Cayman’s air traffic controllers, pilots, and other airports leaves plenty of room for error. However, the quality of Cayman’s staff makes human error a very rare occurrence, according to Mr. Harris.
“I have no problem saying that we have the best-trained air traffic controllers in the region. Our standard is a lot higher than other places,” he said. “If you come here on a Saturday, you’ll hear us saying, ‘What are you doing, Havana? You have radar; how can I be doing this better than you?’ Their estimates will be up to seven minutes off sometimes.”
The rare errors that do happen are usually because of incorrect information given by the operators of the aircraft, and Cayman deals with pilots ranging from seasoned commercial jet pilots to rank novices.
“Movies like ‘Top Gun’ portray pilots as very bright people, but sometimes they can’t find themselves,” Mr. Harris said.
The airport operations manager illustrated his point by telling a story from his days as an air traffic controller, when he had to deal with a “really wealthy doctor” who bought his own plane but was an inexperienced pilot.
The doctor was landing in Cayman, and “he said he had the runway in sight,” Mr. Harris said. “But about 45 seconds later, he said, ‘I don’t think that’s the runway because I see cars.’”
With no radar, Mr. Harris began to worry for the pilot. Thankfully, the pilot finally reported that he saw cruise ships in George Town harbor. Mr. Harris was then able to guide the doctor toward the airport.
“It was like, ‘Yeah, take a left; two stoplights and you’re at the airport,” Mr. Harris joked.
While Mr. Harris’ story may have an element of levity, other incidents in Cayman have been far more serious.
On March 22, 2015, for instance, two aircraft came within a minute of colliding due to reasons that still have not been made public.
In that incident, a Houston-bound United Airlines flight 1495 waited at the top of the runway for clearance to take off as Cayman Airways flight KX505 from Chicago, arriving early, descended over the Cayman Islands Hospital in the final stages of its landing approach, according to Compass archives.
At the last minute, the KX505 pulled up, moving away over Bodden Town. After circling for a second approach, KX505 again approached the runway, landing without incident. The UA flight, cleared to resume its activities, returned to the runway, departing at 4:55 p.m.
According to a statement issued at the time by the Cayman Islands Air Traffic Controllers Association, the approaching Cayman Airways flight had turned into its final glide path “sooner than expected.”
“Aircraft are separated within the Cayman Islands airspace using procedural control techniques, as opposed to radar. This form of separation is heavily dependent upon accurate position reports from pilots,” the air traffic controllers’ statement said. “The report received by the inbound-flight crew indicated that the spacing was considerably more than adequate for an aircraft to enter the runway and depart safely without imposing a delay upon the arriving aircraft, and the controller granted permission for the departing aircraft to enter the runway for departure.”
The Cayman Islands Airports Authority also issued a statement on the “occurrence” and said safety was never jeopardized. The Civil Aviation Authority, which is responsible for investigating such incidents, said at the time that it endorsed the statement issued by the CIAA.
Mr. Harris did not speak about that close call, but his statements suggest that radar would help prevent such incidents because air traffic controllers would be able to monitor the speed and location of airplanes instead of relying on information provided by pilots.
Radar would also likely help Cayman’s airports maintain a smoother schedule by eliminating some of the guesswork that goes into calculating when planes will land – guesswork that can lead to delays, according to Mr. Harris.
“Right now, based on the flight path where this guy departed, he was doing 140 knots,” Mr. Harris said, referencing an incoming flight. “But maybe he’s doing 127. That’s a huge difference in calculating his rate of closure to the airport. But radar would give you that information right off the bat.”
An unexpected tailwind or crosswind that affects an aircraft’s speed could impact its landing time by as much as 45 seconds, he said. While that may not sound like much, it makes a huge difference when planes are landing every three minutes during the high hours.
“If you’ve anticipated that the plane would arrive 45 seconds sooner, you might have brought a jet in too close, and now you’ve screwed up and he’s gotta go loop around again. And that delay to the second airplane gets transposed to everybody else,” Mr. Harris explained. “That’s why radar would be a much more efficient tool on the arrival side because it takes out some of the guesswork.”
Still, when Cayman airports are eventually equipped with radar, local air traffic controllers will likely miss the times when they directed thousands of planes manually. Mr. Harris said his staff is comprised of “alpha males” and “alpha females” who are fiercely proud of being some of the best air traffic controllers in the region.
Mr. Boggess agreed.
“I will be a little sad [when the radar is installed],” he said. “You remember the part in ‘Star Wars’ where Luke [Skywalker] is flying down the corridor of the Death Star with his fighter? And he turns off the scope because he heard, ‘Luke, use the Force.’ That’s exactly what we’re doing – the scope is the radar.”