Paine Field and beyond: Control tower has county’s ‘best view’

EVERETT — “We have the best view in Snohomish County,” said Jeannette Elkins, operational supervisor of the air traffic control tower at Paine Field.

We had just climbed 14 (or was it 15?) flights of stairs — the elevator was undergoing maintenance — to enter the “cab,” a round room where three controllers manage the movement of everything from jumbo jets to tiny, single-seat experimental airplanes and even pickup trucks at the airport. The big vertical tube supporting the cab isn’t wasted space, either. On the way up we passed one floor that holds the radios, another that holds a water pump and, on the fifth floor, Elkins’ office.

Inside the cab, it’s a gorgeous view, although it was somewhat muted by gray clouds on this day. The San Juan Islands were visible, and some blue sky poked through in spots.

“On a clear day, you can see Mount St. Helens,” said Elkins, who has worked at the tower since becoming a controller in 1993.

More important, of course, the tower affords a sweeping view of the county’s biggest economic engine, Paine Field — where Boeing builds its biggest jetliners and aerospace suppliers and service providers like Aviation Technical Services do business.

Paine Field’s tower is not the county’s highest point of elevation — bragging rights to that belong to Glacier Peak. But the tower wins the building-elevation prize. The 180-foot structure is perched atop Paine Field’s 600-foot-high plateau, giving it an edge over the 197-foot Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, which sits on lower-lying land.

Just after we entered the cab, a light twin-engine airplane turned off the runway onto a taxiway. A few seconds later, a gleaming 787 with Japan Airlines markings took off from the airport’s main 9,010-foot runway and sprayed standing water in a mini-rooster tail, like that of a hydroplane. It was headed east of the Cascades on a test flight.

Elkins introduced the controllers. Zack Lorden was “clearance delivery,” giving pilots information via radio on the route they would fly, and Shaun Van Auken was the “local controller,” orchestrating takeoffs and landings.

Along with a ground controller, who instructs taxiing airplanes and ground equipment, the team in the tower turns what could be chaos into a smooth operation. When it’s quiet, they combine positions to use fewer people, and when it’s very busy, they have two local controllers on duty.

On average, the tower handles about 120,000 takeoffs and landings a year, with a busy day logging 700 to 1,000 operations.

“Some of the busiest days are sunny days in the winter,” Elkins said. “No one’s flown for a while and you’ll see hangar doors popping open all over the airport.” She said busy days are her favorite, and the other controllers nodded in agreement.

Even with the marginal weather on this day, there was a beehive of activity. The Boeing Delivery Center is at the north end of the field, and jets of all sizes were sprawled around the ramp. Smoke spewed out the engines of a brand new 777 as a crew started them for the first time. Elkins said the smoke is normal. A Jet Blue Airbus, looking a bit like a tourist among the Boeing crowd, landed and taxied to a maintenance hangar next to the tower.

It takes a village to run an airport, and on this day a maintenance crew was working on the runway lights. On other days, a wildlife specialist might make the rounds to check on birds or deer that can create problems for aircraft, or National Weather Service personnel might be on site to maintain weather-observing equipment. Controllers also are trained weather observers, and they can estimate cloud heights and visibilities when the automated equipment isn’t working right.

For some, controlling airplanes is just a job, but Jason Cruz said, “If you love airplanes, it’s the best thing you can do. Many controllers just have a passion.”

Elkins is passionate about aviation as well – her husband is a controller, and they own a small airplane.

Freelance aviation writer Eileen Bjorkman has a doctorate in engineering and is a retired Air Force colonel who lives in Everett.

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