You might have spotted the Heathrow air traffic control tower on TV recently in the BBC’s new show – ‘The Airport: Back in the Skies’. Presented by the original 90’s ‘Airport’ series star Jeremy Spake, the five-part documentary series looks at how the aviation industry at Britain’s busiest airport managed through the most challenging time in its history.

Jeremy’s new series is on BBC One on Monday evenings over the next few weeks. It was filmed over four months late in the pandemic and looks behind the scenes of major moments including the British Airways and Virgin Atlantic dual take-off signalling the reopening of travel to the United States and the Christmas getaway last year.

In November, we had the privilege of hosting Jeremy at the Heathrow tower for a day. Having watched him on TV when he worked at the airport in the 90’s, it was great to talk to such a knowledgeable ambassador for aviation about how we managed the pandemic and how we’re getting ready to manage increasing numbers of flights. Naturally, we put him through his paces on the simulator where we’ve been keeping our skills honed and he was impressive, though there might have been a few delays if it was for real!

I’ve been a controller at Heathrow Airport for 12 years and, along with my colleagues, we are responsible for all departing and landing aircraft at Heathrow, as well as all the traffic taxiing or towing on the ground. We’ve had an 87-metre-high unobstructed view of how the industry has coped, adapted and bounced back since.

Jeremy being put through his paces on the tower simulator.

Walking to the tower through Terminal 3, when it was closed at the height of the pandemic and controlling a fraction of the 1300 aircraft we usually see every day, felt like we were in ghost town. Arrivals halls where you would normally have the buzz of families and friends reuniting, were empty. Aircraft were just repatriation or cargo flights as the industry adapted to the domestic and global needs at the time. Lifeline services including urgent PPE were being brought in from China and flights to keep aircraft airworthy were replacing passenger flights. It was a tense period, but as controllers we had to keep aircraft moving safely and be ready for an increase in traffic when it happened. Needless to say, we couldn’t wait for things to get back to normal again.

We are finally seeing the traffic come back. The tarmac at Heathrow is whirring up with stands full of aircraft ready to take passengers off and away on their much anticipated travels. Terminal 3 has reopened, shops and restaurants are alive again and the excitement of getting away safely is back.

I always wanted to be a controller and we train for high workloads and thrive in that environment. Finishing work after a busy session managing a decent number of aircraft is a great feeling so it’s a welcome return of a reassuringly hectic shift now and nice to look over an airport full of activity again.

If you’d like to see how Jeremy got on and catch a glimpse into working at the tower, tune in to BBC One on Monday 23 May at 10.40pm or catch up on BBC iPlayer here.


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