By Joe Earle
On this bright, sunny afternoon, the view from the control tower at DeKalb Peachtree Airport looked spectacular.
Stone Mountain rose to the southeast. Kennesaw Mountain loomed to the northwest. The towers of Midtown, Buckhead and Sandy Springs sparkled in the late spring heat. “When it’s very clear, you can see the North Georgia mountains,” said Crystal Berry, one of four traffic controllers working in the tower that day. “It’s crazy.”
But Berry and her fellow controllers had little time to admire the view. They had work to do. Some scanned distant clouds for the small dark specks that signified approaching flying machines. Others watched the pavement below the 135-foot-tall tower as jets fired up and crept toward takeoff and student pilots practiced landings and takeoffs in small prop planes.
There were plenty of airplanes to hold their attention. There usually are. DeKalb Peachtree – perhaps better known simply as “PDK” – is Georgia’s second-busiest airport, after Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which happens to be the busiest airport in the world. From 400 to 500 airplanes fly to or from PDK every day. “We’re busier than Savannah,” Air Traffic Manager Bonita Martin said.
Martin oversees 23 employees, 19 of them controllers, who keep the PDK tower operating from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays and from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. on weekends. She knows the job. She started working in air traffic control when she was a college student in Alabama and has logged 27 years with the Federal Aviation Administration. What she doesn’t do is fly airplanes. She’s had people offer to teach her, but said, “I’d rather stay on the ground.”
Up in the tower, Berry talked over her headset to pilots in the air. Controller Bernadette Walker talked to pilots on the ground, guiding them from runway to hangar or from taxiway to takeoff, and Noel Kirby, who lives nearby in Brookhaven, checked each pilot’s pre-filed flight plan.
Kirby took a computer printout identifying each flight and placed it onto a plastic stick that was sized so a controller easily could hold it in one hand. The sticks passed from controller to controller as each plane moved through the system from air to ground or ground to air.
Despite the pace of the work, everyone seemed comfortably at ease. Dress was casual: Berry’s blouse showed a tattoo; Walker wore a sweater to ward off the air conditioning. Conversation regularly disappeared into a jumble of radio call letters used to identify planes.
“Do you have a three bravo bravo niner?” Walker asked at one point.
“Yes I do,” Berry replied. “Go fish.”
From time to time, a touch of gossip joined the brief conversations. “We had Kenny Chesney in here earlier,” Walker said.
At another point, Kirby recalled that an even bigger celebrity – or at least the celebrity’s personal airplane — recently had passed beneath the PDK tower’s big glass windows.
“Oprah was here yesterday,” he said.
“She must have spent the night,” Walker replied. “She flew out this morning.”
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