Who’s On First?


It was an IMC day with plenty of arrivals and departures taxing out. For a VFR tower like ours, IMC days are the easiest because the pattern is closed and it’s generally one in and one out. The TRACON was pushing metal all around. All air traffic was on IFR flight plans, so it was just a tad busier on our combined ground/clearance. I was working Tower and the controller working the combined ground and clearance was having a bad day.

There were over 15 flight plans, three of which had EDCTs and four that were waiting to taxi because the weather along their route suggested delaying the departure would be safer. Then we had six aircraft call to taxi at the same time. The Ground controller was getting flustered with everyone wanting out at the same time and even transmitting over each other. Any sense of FCFS was lost in the chaos. I tried to keep track of the traffic so I could get the releases in order. Ground ended up just giving them all taxi instructions and gave me all the flight progress strips at once, in no particular order.

The supervisor in the back just laughed while I tried to put them all in order based off what I could see. A couple minutes later they started arriving at the runway and calling, all out of order. The third pilot called first ready to go, then the second, then number five called and wanted to go from the intersection. While I inherited chaos from Ground, I was determined to sort it out and create a meaningful sequence for departure.

After they were all done stepping on each other and blocking each other to say, “Blocked,” I got to work. “Okay I understand everyone wants to go somewhere. First airplane holding short, say callsign.” Again, many called, trying to be first. After a beat a very calm voice called, “Tower, N12345. We’re ready, number one.”

After a short time, I had them all in order and I was obtaining releases from TRACON. They were all jets with one PC12, so at least mixing different performance wasn’t a problem. I started to get releases for the first few then requested the last ones. As the first two left and I was about to clear the third, number six called me. “Tower, we’re number last but we have an EDCT time of … now. Will we be able to get out?” I told them to standby as I looked at the strip—with the missing EDCT—while the sup continued chuckling, suggesting I get this release immediately.

Normally EDCTs are printed on the strips, but the EDCT became active after it printed and the Ground controller missed it in the confusion. I had four minutes left. Approach told me, “I’ll call ya back.” In the meantime, I held airplane three short. As the time grew near to launch airplane six, I asked if they could take an intersection departure since they couldn’t reach the end of the runway. They said yes and with two minutes remaining I got a release and cleared them from the intersection. Shortly after, all other airplanes left without incident.

It’s amazing how one little tiny detail changed the entire flow of everything, and it’s unfortunate that the other controller was having such a bad day. I also fly and feel the pilots’ pain when they are waiting to go and encounter us at less than our best. As it slowed down, I confirmed what I suspected about the weather, and why everyone was running to get out quick. There were two large cells developing and moving straight toward the airport. It was troubling that the pilot with the EDCT was apparently the first one to call for taxi as he wanted to get to the runway on time and not miss his EDCT. At least we were able to get him out during his window.


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