There might not be any scheduled flights at Heathrow after 11.30pm, but that doesn’t mean the tower’s air traffic controllers have a chance to put their feet up. In fact the airport is almost as busy at night as it is in the day, with the race on to be ready for the next day’s first flight.

I caught up with NATS air traffic controller Ady Dolan, one of the stars of this week’s episode of Skies Above Britain, to find out more about working at Heathrow after dark.

“A night shift starts at 10pm when your first job is to safely manage the last few flights of the day and check on the night’s maintenance schedule. The Airside Works department are understandably keen to have every available minute, so if the flight schedule allows we’ll release one of the runways to them from around 10.30pm.”

With the airport scheduled to 98% of capacity, there’s precious little chance for any routine maintenance to the runways or taxiways during the day, so apart from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day there is some form of work going on every single night.

“Watching a team of 100 people with heavy machinery dig up, level, resurface and paint 30-40 metres of runway in a night and for it to be ready to use again at 6am is incredible,” says Ady. The tower keeps in close touch with the works team throughout the night to be sure the airport is going to be ready for the morning – something that also includes having to check for roosting birds, which love the warmth of the airfield lights.

Beyond the regular works going on, much of the night is spent getting aircraft where they need to be for the morning. “It feels a bit like tidying away all the toys after my children have gone to bed as we try and set the airport up for the best possible start to the next day. There’s lots of towing to coordinate as aircraft change stands or go to maintenance, and with some taxiways closed you sometimes have to come up with quite creative routes.”

While the last commercial flight out of Heathrow – usual a DHL cargo flight – leaves at 11.30pm, that doesn’t mean the skies are always totally empty. “Providing a period of quiet for local communities is really important, but we do get occasional visitors.”

The Metropolitan police helicopter is quite regularly in the Heathrow area, while organ transplant flights – which are exempt from any flight quotas – can also use the airport at night. “Around twice a year we also have a specially equipped Beech 200 fly in to help calibrate the Instrument Landing System. It’s a vital piece of equipment that’s used very intensively every day, so its needs to be accurate.”

And as if that wasn’t enough, every month the team decamps to the NATS back-up tower facility at an undisclosed location near the airport. “Thankfully we’ve never had to use it in anger, but each month for around an hour at night we’ll manage the entire operation from the back-up facility. It’s a good chance for us to test our processes and the kit.”

So while there is clearly plenty to do, does the novelty of a night shift at the world’s busiest dual runway airport ever lose its appeal? “Nothing beats watching the sun rise from 87 metres up,” says Ady. “It’s the best job in the world.”

If you want to follow Ady and become an air traffic controller, we’re taking applications right now.


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Alan C Mitchell

Fascinating article – I am impressed!


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