It stood tall, relentless as we stared awe struck ,sinking in its enormity . We, as in around twenty of us on our first day at IGI Airport in a foggy wintry morning in the NATS complex! The ATC tower was nothing like anything we had set our eyes on before, for most of us who came from different corners of the country and all small towners!
We stepped in with lots of pride, awe and really a mixed bag of feelings as one ponders a decade after. By this time we had a fairly good idea of what our job was going to be like after rigorous grilling sessions of six months in CATC but the sheer magnificence of the structure blew the arrogance out of the super smart among us even! For most of us seeing an airplane this close was something we never imagined we would be doing on a regular basis. Each departure and arrival was a manoeuvre of grace, technology all rolled into wonder and it did take time to sink in actually the planes listened to us! Years later I remember overhearing my juniors, actually one explaining another pointing to a jumbo waiting in a taxi track intersection...” Dekh bhai a rickshaw won’t stop in your mohalla no matter how you scream, here ek awaz doge, jumbo ruk padega.” I smiled in my chair, that was some synopsis of our job and funny it may sound ,actually holds true. Each word counts and counts dearly.
Before around fifteen years, when I joined Delhi airport, it was not such a complex mesh of taxiways and terminal buildings. Things were much simpler with one domestic and one international terminal and few taxiways connecting the main runway on domestic and international side. Tower position was a dreaded one with continuous arrival departures in a single runway and the quickening of heartbeat as an aircraft taking a tad longer to roll, arrival approaching and all so neatly visible most of the times. With the radar screen as aid, with various figures in display , controller making his decisions and sometimes the one and a half hour slot passed in a jiffy. Low cost airlines were mushrooming at that time, Air Deccan leading the band and traffic density gradually burgeoning. The single runway was unable to sustain the increasing load, and using existing converging secondary runway did not help much either. We were at the edge of our seats most of the time, waiting for the tail of arrival to steer clear of runway , read ‘ Cleared for take off’ , wait with bated breath till the aircraft is airborne and assuring the arriving aircraft runway will be vacant till she reaches final all the while...some conviction it requires really! Surface movement radar was not commissioned initially and the great foggy days of Delhi were dealt with much difficulty and the total chaos once the fog lifts with all airlines jostling for sequence! Remember one pilot shooting at me , ‘ Madam, are you allowing me to leave Delhi or not today!!’ Glad he imagined Madam was bestowed with so much brains and brawn!
With privatisation of the airport , like magic ,taxiways, new bays and an entire new runway sprung out of nowhere and we were floundering coping up with the changes and procedures induced by these rapid construction everywhere. The entire new group of bays, terminals and the slick swanky T3 (functional in 2010) the crafting of a new state of the art airport ,this tower witnessed it all. Change was so drastic and so overwhelming and so frequent that we stopped being perplexed and bowed down. Not that we had much of an option ! From the soft blue taxiway lights at lazy nights, mainly catering to few international departures and arrivals it turned into a busy airport with all the hustle bustle all 24/7 now with all sorts of lightings available , catering up to CAT III B arrivals ( RVR upto 50 metres) and LVTO departures. The number of movements increased drastically with many low cost carriers plunging into the field and aviation industry saw a major boom. The figures kept soaring, and the new runway south of airfield was constructed as if with a magic wand, to cater to the ever growing demand of flights ,to feed the hungry giant of development. Our tower witnessed in awe the new runway and the total 360 degree occupancy of controllers, more and more complicated taxiways and more SOP s to cope with it all! We were growing and how! Like all things that grow and flourish, the growth itself gets so gigantic, it consumes the agents which were the harbingers of change as a minuscule part of the system. So with new bays, new terminals, the epitaph of this tower was gradually being coined with the rapid construction of the grand new tower, taller ,mightier and in a few months seemed to stare down with amusement at its not-so-affluent counterpart.
We began working with Auto Track1, the automation system functional at IGI, and then upgraded to its advanced versions AT 2 and 3. With new radars installed, the entire system performed seamlessly and IGI was the airport yielding maximum daily and hourly movements.We were having over 1300 movements per day which by itself was an achievement. With all its glitches, the controllers, the system, the tower all worked in unison with a common goal and the output inspired to achieve more. But as they say nothing is more permanent than change. We were ushered into the tall, slick, gigantic new tower (DATS) and this new tower had a new automation system just to make our life a tad more tough, as if the ensuing change was not enough! We huffed and puffed and are still struggling to manage the entire traffic, to come to terms with this paradigm shift. The work we performed all these years suddenly threw more challenges and we are fighting as a team to achieve what we are supposed to.
' The old order changeth yielding place to the new!' Lord Tennyson could foresee it a century earlier so we just need to follow suit. On being asked by our GM , I said ' Sir we are trying to adjust our eyes in the new radar screen' , 'Yes' he had nodded, ' Fifteen years of habit won't wane off in a day'. Indeed it won't. Our 'old' workplace and consoles are deserted now, that which used to be the heart and soul of Delhi ATC lies barren, untouched, uncared for. Seniors fondly recall the old tower which was operational from 1999 (NATS ) and what a shifting it had been twenty years ago! The shift from procedural to radar environment, secondary radar firming its foothold over primary, the feeling of practically ' seeing' each aircraft as a firm beep in radar screen, the controlling took a massive leap from conjuring images in the head to blatantly reacting to things visible clearly with the minute details. Delhi ATC was almost at par with its international counterparts.
The NATS tower is etched in our heart and soul, the nooks and corners, the roof just beneath the tower area, where I had quietly watched many take offs and landings. Me and my friend had sneaked in to the roof to watch the Air Force One land in a misty morning and had waved to Barrack Obama silently!! Saw the first Airbus 380 land , witnessed so many storms , spent nights controlling and in the initial younger days, someone told me some prince landed from some middle east country, I had stretched my eyes for a glimpse... well , prince, really!!
Time to bid goodbye, to the place of work and worship with lots of memories, lots of love and tighten the seat belt for a tough road ahead. Shed off doubts and apprehensions and plunge in, like we always had and ensure perfect controlling in DATS. The Delhi ATC fraternity will wade through this tough time and emerge again confident, passionate and with a zeal to achieve more. Just a matter of time. With hopes high, aspirations galore, targeting high numbers as much as 1500 daily by next year, leap in hourly movements as well, we would be and still are a force within ourselves,striving for excellence and committed whole heartedly to assure the safety and security of the aircraft we provide service to and an asset to the organization we work for.
Till then from DATS to NATS... Goodbye...time to let go!