Communicating Safely through the Clouds!
It’s finally time! Your bags are packed and safely secured away, seatbelt is on, and you’ve got your earphones ready to pop right in so you can close your eyes and drift off to sleep peacefully for the next few hours while you fly clear across the country. The typical nerves begin as the plane begins to slowly drive into its place on the runway. The pilot has just come on to ease any worries with the announcement of clear weather and smooth skies. Not to mention, you just turned on your Jhené Aiko playlist. And nothing bad can happen when you’re listening to Jhené.
Next stop… the clouds! But have you ever wondered, how it’s possible for planes to safely depart destinations one by one and arrive at the next safely? All in one playlist time?! It’s all done with the help of Air Traffic Control Towers (ATCTs)!
“The main goal of an air traffic controller is to ensure the safety of aircraft, pilots, flight attendants, and of course, the airline passengers. An air traffic controller will communicate with pilots throughout their entire flight, relaying information back and forth between incoming and outgoing flights.” as Sheffield, the School of Aeronautics stated.
Basically, it is the lighthouse of an airport that helps navigate traffic throughout the air. It assists communication between controllers in the Air Traffic Control Towers with clear bird’s-eye-views of runways and pilots flying in the sky. Air Traffic Control Towers help ensure the safety of lives by overlooking and directing the flight from takeoff, throughout the flight, and all the way to the landing process. These impressive structures constitute physical and technological support that affects the safety of the crew, passengers, and the plane itself.
Quick Air Traffic Control Towers’ History & Basics
In the 1920s, after the First World War ended, air transportation services began to grow and air control became necessary. To remedy this, the first Air Traffic Control Tower was created and introduced in Cleveland in 1930. The initial main method to control the airport environment was a visual observation from the tower. For this reason, Air Traffic Control Towers are multi-story slender structures, in order to deliver on this “bird’s eye view” effect.
The quality of the materials of the constructive elements of all airport buildings, including the Control Towers, are essential to ensure successful operation, durability, and protection of the structures against natural elements.
Materials such as wood or metal for the form-work; concrete and steel for the structure; and anti-reflective/anti-fog glass for the windows are the most suitable in construction. These materials are capable of supporting structural loads while also withstanding the external loads posed by several weather variables.
Generally, an elliptical-conical shape for the tower with a 360-degree panoramic view allows prime visualization of the tracks and runways. The visibility angles of the runway heads define the height of the Tower. The tallest Air Traffic Control Towers in the world is currently located at the New Bangkok International Airport in Thailand, standing at an impressive 132.2m high!
Flying through Florida
It is SHOCKING! to hear that according to, Florida Trippers, Florida has 131 public airports, 365 private airports, and 24 international airports. With that many airports, you’d think we wouldn’t have any room left for our beautiful tropical views, the epic city of Miami, and the most magical place on Earth- Disney World! It’s also become a startling realization every time I remember people have to actually FLY to Florida in order to experience the land of PURE BLISS in Disney World; Unless they’re taking a really long road-trip!
One of the closest options for airports in this scenario would be the Melbourne International Airport, in Florida. Ready for the exciting part?! This is where we come in!
Eastern Engineering Group – Here for Duty Captain!
Eastern Engineering Group was proud to be part of the team assembled by CTBX Aviation for the Air Traffic Control Towers project. The mission was to replace the old outdated one that no longer satisfied Melbourne International Airport’s standards. During a student initiative created by Eastern Engineering Group, students had the opportunity to interview the professionals involved on a structure of their choosing. FIU student, David Manosalva selected the ATCT, helping us gain some further insight on the structure. After an interview with Brian Lally, owner of CBTX Aviation, and our very own, Alexis Martinez, Director of the Structural Engineering Department, we learned some of the finer details of the ATCT’s well-thought-out and planned conception.
Out with the Old – In with the New!
Brian Lally has the extremely important job of traveling around America in order to survey and examine ATCT’s and decide whether or not they are up to code or need to be improved or replaced. In the case of the Melbourne International Airport, the ATCT previously standing was already over 50 years old. (The guidelines suggest a 20-year lifespan of ATCT’s just for a little perspective.) Since the construction of the original tower, the height requirements had changed, making the first tower too short by today’s standards as well.
The new Air Traffic Control Tower that Eastern Engineering Group and CTBX designed to replace the old tower stands twice as tall as the first. They equipped and built the new ATCT with state-of-the-art technology and new advances in-cab glazing. The structure was built up to the new and improved building codes to ensure safety. Regarding the new tower’s potential lifespan Mr. Lally stated, “In reality/practicality it will probably be another 50 years, with the potential to last 100!”
Even aesthetically pleasing to the eyes, the Air Traffic Control Tower was designed with illuminated sails on the sides of the building to represent Melbourne’s city logo, which was trimmed with LED lights that can change to different colors. Cue Empire State Building light-vibes, just here in Florida!
The new Air Traffic Control Tower took 6 months to design and get approval after the completion of extensive checks and reviews. 3 months after the completion of the designs, the ATCT took 18 months worth of construction time. Due to size and safety measures, it was necessary to strategically schedule each trade to work on their part of the construction, such as plumbers, electricians, etc.
Triple Component Knock-out!
All in all, the structure is an 8-story building with a 25′ x 25′ footprint. The structural framing and foundation include walls and floor systems for 7 levels and a structural steel cab that goes on the top. There are 3 different components of the tower; The first being the foundation which is a 50′ x 50′ shallow mat foundation. The second being the pre-cast walls, which the team puts together like legos. The foundation assembled with the precast walls and work on connections.
One of the challenges of the project was determining how many sleeves would be necessary to make the wall to foundation connections possible and secure. Another challenge was connecting the precast walls and casting plate foundations with the sleeves. Finally, placed on the top of the structure, the third component is the cab. Now I know I mentioned the Empire State Building before, but I’m obviously not talking about putting a yellow taxi cab on the top of a building in order to see planes better.
So WHAT am I talking about?!
In this case, a “cab” refers to the structural steel section of the pre-assembled building for the project at a different location. It was then lifted and attached onto the precast walls with a giant crane! (Check out the pictures, it’s quite an impressive sight!) The cab was specially designed with only 4 columns, which is only HALF of that which is typical for a 500-600 sqft Air Traffic Control Towers. This 4-column design allows for even more visibility for the controllers working the tower. One column in particular, Alexis designed even smaller for Mr. Lally, to prevent it from blocking the view. This created a high-visibility, fishbowl effect using a material called “butt-glazed laminated glass.”
Overcoming the Challenges
One challenge was the design of the cab itself. The project design consisted of only 4 columns, mentioned the director of our Structural Engineering Department, Mr. Martinez. It was critical because the roof framing needed to be precisely lined up and supported on the 4 main columns. The columns follow that shape of the cab itself, meaning they are not perfectly straight, adding yet another element to overcome. The first 3 feet are vertical, where they then tilt outwards by 15 degrees, and continue up to the roof with 10-foot windows.
This is all completely aside from the fact that these columns were also hollow, in order to run conduit through them. Mr. Martinez was able to design welded connections to beams in order to not cut off any pathways. They were then able to run conduit through the columns, and provided small openings at the base of the cab for the cables to come out of. (Brilliant, Mr. Martinez!! Now if I could only figure out how to hide the cables in my home that easily). Due to the openings, it was necessary to add plates to reinforce the columns and make-up for any stiffness lost.
Preliminary checks were also difficult, due to the small footprint and tall size of the structure. With this shape, you can run into dynamic responses caused by wind; and the structure needs to be designed capable of handling those strong wind impacts, Mr. Martinez reminds us.
In the sight selection process for the Air Traffic Control Tower, the structural engineers determined that the new ATCT would block the view of the old tower; thus, the structure was constructed 200 feet away. The selection was done using a 3D simulation process, using software called “Sketch-Up”, that according to Mr. Lally as well our EEG intern, David Manosalva, is user-friendly, and even imports terrain from Google Earth. Aside from height requirements, in the time between the construction of the old tower and the design of the new tower; airspace controls and classifications according to the FAA hadn’t changed; deeming this to still be the primal location, even after comparing it to 9 others. (The FAA stands for Federal Aviation Administration, which is a governmental body of the US with powers to regulate all aspects of civil aviation.)
Working Overnight – The Show Must Go On!
The FAA also determines if the electronics and radars used at old towers get transferred to new towers or if new equipment is required. In the case of the Melbourne International Airport’s ATCT, the items were to be transferred leaving an extra challenge for a business that only closes for 8 hours overnight.
The old Air Traffic Control Tower was still functioning at the time the new tower was being built. But due to lower levels of traffic, Melbourne International Airport is not 24 hours like many others. This left for the 8-hour window used to transfer any materials from the old ATCT over to the new.
18 months later, and just like that Melbourne International Airport had a brand new Air Traffic Control Tower. The final project was completed safely, successfully, and within its $6million dollar budget! Thanks to brilliantly skilled experts, like Mr. Lally and Mr. Martinez, we have the opportunity to hop on a plane and know we can safely arrive at our desired location using ATCT’s to help guide the way. All that’s left to do is; pop in those earphones, turn on that Jhené Aiko playlist, and wait for the flight attendant to offer you a beverage. Enjoy your flight!
(A BIG thank you to Mr. Brian Lally and Alexis Martinez for taking the time out of their busy schedules to interview with our intern, David. And a shout-out to you as well, David Manosalva. May you continue on with your passion for structural engineering and best of luck at all your pursuits in the future!)