EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - Air traffic controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration's Atlantic City Control Tower are just hours away from what is by far their busiest day of the year.
When the Atlantic City Airshow kicks off at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, controllers stationed at the tower off Tilton Road at the William J. Hughes Technical Center will be responsible for ensuring that nothing enters the five-mile radius of airspace needed for the show. Otherwise, planes could risk a collision.
A temporary flight restriction, or TFR, goes into effect at 10 a.m. Wednesday. The restriction extends to the close of the show at 5 p.m. The same restrictions are in effect today (Tuesday) for airshow practice, which engages about 70 percent of the show's total acts.
"There's a lot of stress, as there is with any job. We have to make sure it's a safe experience for the performers and safe for the spectators on the ground," said John Bradley, air traffic manager at the tower. "Once an act penetrates the restricted airspace, they're not looking out for anything else. It's expected to be clear."
Bradley declined to say how many air traffic controllers work in the tower on show day, but the staff is no larger than any other day of the year, he said during a tour of the 125-foot tower on Monday.
Recently, the show has gone off without any violations. In one of the first few years of the show, however, a plane took off from Bader Field in Atlantic City and entered the restricted space, causing the show to come to halt, Bradley said. Bader Field shut down in 2006.
Patrick Ream, a staff specialist at the control tower, is stationed on the Boardwalk, not far from airshow boss David Schultz's side. He communicates directly with the tower and can relay messages to Schultz - something that wasn't done during the first few years of the show.
"It's a more effective way to communicate because we all speak the same language," said Ream, who has worked all of the airshows.
On the day of the show, air traffic controllers will sit in front of radar screens, showing a neon green circle to mark the restricted airspace, which during the time of the show is controlled solely by Schultz. The controllers will be looking for any aircrafts that appear to be approaching the circle. If a plane enters, a controller will contact Schultz's team to stop the show.
"Typically, it's not that they're going in to a space intentionally; it's that they're unaware," Bradley said. "But it still causes the same reaction."
Another set of controllers based at the top of tower will be charged with coordinating the departures and landings of the team. About 70 percent of the show's acts will depart from Atlantic City International Airport on the day of the show. The other 30 percent are coming from sites including Dover Air Force Base, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and the Millville Airport, Schultz said.
The acts leaving from Atlantic City International with the help of the local controllers include the show's headline act, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, as well as the U.S. Army Golden Knights and the Geico Skytypers.
"The guys up here are doing the same thing they're doing any other day. It requires a lot of concentration," Bradley said. "But we enjoy what we do, especially during the airshow. We're all aviation enthusiasts here."