Photo by David
Fisk Approach Control rookie Bill Gibbs (far right) spots incoming
aircraft, and Ray Thyfault (standing) supervises one of the 16
crews that will rotate through Fisk during AirVenture.
July 27, 2009 - Oshkosh, Wisconsin - Early
Sunday morning, on a grassy hillside in the little hamlet of Fisk,
Wisconsin, a few miles south of Oshkosh’s Wittman Field, it’s
relatively quiet at the “busiest little approach control in the world.”
Low-hanging clouds have slowed the normally busy pace of incoming
But shortly the clouds lift and it doesn’t
take long for the arrivals to start rolling in.
Under the special notice to airmen (NOTAM)
procedures for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, almost all aircraft arriving under
visual flight rules begin their approach over the city of Ripon, 16 air
miles to the southwest. After following the railroad tracks from Ripon,
they arrive at Fisk in single file, half a mile apart. The Fisk
controllers ensure proper spacing and direct each aircraft to a specific
runway before handing them off to the Oshkosh tower.
The most common “issue,” says Fisk
Approach Control Supervisor Ray Thyfault, is incoming aircraft getting “bunched
up.” Thyfault is one of two supervisors at Fisk, each supervising
four-person teams. A 17-year veteran of air traffic control at AirVenture,
he works the rest of the year as a tower controller at Kalamazoo/Battle
Creek International Airport (KAZO) in Michigan.
Among the pilots arriving at Oshkosh, there is
a wide range of abilities and anxiety levels, he says, but all the pilots
are eager to cooperate.
Having two active runways (18/36 and 9/27)
solves most of the problems, allowing the controllers to split the
incoming queue or divert a faster aircraft that might have trouble holding
the NOTAM’s 90-knot approach speed.
Fisk Approach Control began operating on
Friday, July 24, and continues through Sunday, August 2.
Sixteen four-person teams will rotate through
Fisk control during AirVenture, each pulling a half-day shift. Each team
has a communicator and three spotters who identify incoming aircraft by
color and type—there’s no time for niceties like N numbers. At any
given time, they might be shepherding a dozen or more aircraft toward
Massed arrivals only add to the fun.
During AirVenture, the FAA’s pink-shirted
controllers also rotate through the Oshkosh tower, the temporary tower at
Fond du Lac airport, and the Mobile Communications Workstations abeam each
of the active runways— those open trailers controllers affectionately
Bill Gibbs is a controller at Crystal Airport
(KMIC) in Minnesota, but this year he’s a first-timer at Fisk. He says
one can’t really prepare for working at Fisk because it is so different
from working a normal tower.
“We’re so used to controlling everything
and seeing everything,” he says. “But here, we only get a part of the
picture.” Add the sheer volume of aircraft and, for a Fisk rookie, it’s
a little bit “outside my comfort zone,” he says.
Two controllers on each team must have at
least three years of experience at Fisk, and the third member, at least
two years, so rookies get eased into the job by Fisk veterans. Still, says
Gibbs, it is a kind of “trial by fire.”
It’s also fun to watch. “We’ll get
dozens of visitors here during the week,” says Thyfault. If you do
visit, he asked that you limit your stay to 30 minutes and that you don’t
talk to the controllers unless they approach you.
To visit Fisk control, take Highway 44 south
and turn north on Fisk Road (County FF). Then prepare to be amazed. As
Thyfault says, “It’s quite a show!”