Imagine managing an airspace which hosts up to 40,000 aircraft every year, with no radar assistance to show you exactly where every passing plane is.
That isn’t at Heathrow, at Gatwick or even at Prestwick – but the situation for air traffic control officers (ATCOs) at Dundee Airport, the busiest hub in the Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) network across Scotland.
Day-in, day-out, the airport’s team of ATCOs communicate with a wide range of aircraft passing through the airport, from commercial flights to business jets, enthusiasts to trainee pilots and even military planes.
Tim Gulson, senior ATCO, has spent nearly three decades safely guiding air traffic in and out of Dundee.
He gained his wings at Luton Airport in London in the 1980s, before working at Perth and then coming to the City of Discovery.
Tim explained that working in Dundee presents its own unique challenges: namely, the absence of radar.
Rather than relying on a screen to tell them what they need to know, ATCOs at Dundee have to build a mental radar of the airspace around the city.
“You need to be able to think in three dimensions to be an ATCO,” he explained.
“There’s a level of spatial awareness required too, and you need a bit of mathematics as you’ll be doing a lot of calculations too. There’s a lot to process.”
Despite advances in technology, the basics of air traffic control in Dundee have remained the same over the years – a case of if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
Flight plans are issued for the day, detailing departure and arrival times, exact routes and aircraft types and call signs.
As the tower communicates with incoming and outgoing flights, ATCOs maintain a desk-mounted board showing whether planes are arriving, departing and whether they are on the runway.
It’s a system used by air traffic teams across the globe, and gives ATCOs an immediate idea of the airport’s comings and goings.
While many of Dundee’s commercial flights have fallen by the wayside — shedding flights to Amsterdam and Jersey last year — the airport continues to be a buzzing hive of activity, all year round.
“What makes this place interesting is the diversity of the traffic that we deal with,” Tim continued.
“You can go from one flight coming in to three or four from Tayside Aviation going out, and we get a lot of business jets coming in.
“It’s all through the year as well — the hunting-shooting-fishing in the winter, and a little of that and the golf in the summer, so we’re always busy.”
Derrick Lang, airport manager, made no pretence about the fact interest in the airport from commercial carriers has waned.
But he argued the airport brings a lot to the city, for which it doesn’t always receive due credit.
He said: “I don’t think people realise what it brings to the local economy. You’ve got Tayside Aviation and the Air Cadets programme with the RAF, which sees six to eight students here for 46 weeks out of the year, spending money locally.
“We had pilots come in last night that are staying in a local hotel.
“We have businesses — multi-national businesses — using the airport frequently, because it is convenient for them. This is the gateway to golf in Scotland.
“Scheduled flights have struggled but they still provide a service to people in Dundee. What’s the alternative? Travelling to Edinburgh.
“It’s good to have the facility on your doorstep.”
Regardless of where the flights come from — whether a light aircraft, commercial plane, or multi-million pound private jet, the team always guarantees one thing.
“Everyone is a VIP,” Derrick said. “You get a personal service here, from the desk to the plane.”