Graham Lewis in digital tower

Engineering the future

It’s been over a year since London City Airport successfully transitioned to a digital tower and began controlling flights from a brand-new operations room based in our Swanwick control centre… but how have our engineering teams adapted to supporting this new technology?

We recently spoke to Graham Lewis, Deputy Service Manager, Swanwick Engineering team, to find out.

How has the last year been for you and your team?

It’s been an interesting journey for us the last year. Before taking on the digital tower, we purely provided an engineering service for our internal colleagues at Swanwick, looking after London Area and London Terminal Control operations. Taking on engineering responsibility for the London City digital tower meant that as a team, we had to adapt and get used to providing an entire operational service for an external, airport customer based within Swanwick.

Unsurprisingly, our radar control centre at Swanwick has very different demands to the digital tower. Whilst time is always of the essence for engineering, it’s even more important when providing a service for an airport, where any downtime can cause an immediate and lasting impact. Whilst it’s certainly been a shift in mindset, I’m very proud at how the team has adapted to meeting the demands and ensuring the airport’s first year going digital has been a successful one.

Graham and some of his engineering team

Graham and some of his engineering team

Have there been any challenges that you didn’t expect to face?

Having an extra customer means ensuring we have the correct resources in place, meaning the right engineers with the right skills at the right times.

We’ve also had to learn a significant amount of airport terminology that we’ve never had exposure to before, as well as acquiring new equipment skills and learning how to work with the engineering team at the airport. Having the operation based across two locations – here at Swanwick and at the airport itself – has meant we’ve had to change our method of operations. It’s a new way of working for us but I think we are adjusting to it nicely.

Has anything been been easier than you expected?

The engineering team at London City has been so helpful which has made my job a lot easier – they are truly an amazing group of engineers and always happy to help, 24 hours, 7 days a week, whatever the weather – a shout out here goes to Assad, Stu, Mike and Vic who have been absolutely amazing at helping us with that transition.

Trying to deliver a remote digital tower whilst being physically remote and digital yourself did prove very difficult. It was peak pandemic whilst we were getting ready to deploy so we couldn’t even come onto site. It was quite an undertaking.

Graham testing the kit in 2019 before it went live

Graham testing the digital tower equipment in 2019 before it went live

On the flip side, having to adapt quickly and learning to deliver training remotely over video calls (which was brand new for us at the time) and change the way training was delivered has proved incredibly helpful and will no doubt be replicated in the future. A huge thanks here to the training team who helped make it possible.

Have there been any funny moments or surprises that you didn’t expect to happen?

It’s quite common to have birds perching on our physical towers because of the height of them– especially Heathrow etc. we would normally tap the glass to get them to leave but now we have to constantly remind ourselves that we can’t tap the screens to get birds to go away like we would in a normal tower.

Bird on the digital tower

A bird perching on the digital tower mast before bird protection was installed ahead of going live.

We have to clean the glass that protects the digital tower cameras every few weeks between flights and all the sudden you’ll see a huge face on the screen at Swanwick which really is a funny sight to see!

How are you planning for a hopefully busier summer?

We are mainly looking how we resource our operation and ensuring that everyone is as trained up as they can be to support the team and customer  for what will hopefully be a busy summer. We’ve had a good amount of time to settle in and are excited to provide the best possible service that we.

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