Wing and a Prayer - The Air Traffic Controller Series Primer

By Alex Connolly 11 Apr 2016 0

Not far from where I'm tapping this out sits Kagoshima Airport, or KOJ in the old ITAC parlance. Perched on a plateau north of its namesake city, Kagoshima Airport has serviced the prefecture since 1972; both a domestic hub and regional international gateway to and from Japan's southern-most mainland capital. Moreover, KOJ also offers access to the southern Satsunan archipelago; a chain of populated islands running in a gentle arc from the southern cape to Okinawa.

KOJ

Fleets of Dash 8s and Saab 340s buzz between KOJ and the seven major islands, essential in ferrying commuters and supplies above the equally busy sea lanes. I love watching these turbo-props thrum up from the south, coursing over the bay on their approach vector. Regional services buzzing between the larger arrivals; arrivals on the split-flap sporting prestigious designations like ITM and HND. You won't see a 737 service KUM or KXX or RNJ. But the rugged props do.

The administration behind these routes that rightly fascinate. Systems often taken for granted at best, entirely forgotten at worst. Twelve-thousand commercial aircraft coursing the stratosphere; ascending, cruising, descending, at peak global operations. There’s a large-scale, heavy-duty responsibility about air traffic control; the grandeur of aviation on a marvelous size. The romance of these majestic machines and their human cargo, from the smallest of turbo-props to the graceful lumber of the largest airliner. But it’s not just the machines, it’s the logistics. That’s the series' most poignant depiction. Air traffic control is a mechanically magnificent thing to simulate.

The binding force is a network of communication relays and eyes in the tower.

Kyoto-based TechnoBrain have made much of their business around the art of pushing tin. Formed in 1989 as the software division of tech conglomerate Eye Inventions, 1994 saw TechnoBrain break away from the parent company. Founded by former special adviser to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Gotaro Sameshima and staffed primarily by programmers and specialists in aeronautical training software, TechnoBrain worked increasingly as a software service provider for the Japanese aviation industry. Alongside that, they developed their first commercial game, which released in July of 1998. Boku wa Kōkū Kanseikan -- I want to be an Air Traffic Controller -- was born.

ATC1

In Air Traffic Controller, a player is handed a variety of schedules and scenarios; an upward swing of busyness, where inbound and outbound aircraft must be guided carefully and economically through actions for score. The faster you process air traffic, the lower commuter and staff stress and the higher the score. Stages are time-restricted, so you don’t have the luxury — nor should you — of lacing everything on the inbound into a holding pattern overhead just to make delegation of ground traffic easier. This is a delicate, fastidious balancing act, and until you’ve actually played a few rounds and understand the logistics of managing the flow of air traffic, you’d be excused in thinking it’s just a case of quick clickery.

The franchise, and you’ll find with all other ATC simulators worth their salt, are about communication. Communication between the various controllers and aircraft is the pivotal consideration. Here, pilots must make requests to the various controllers and have the controllers verify the request before an order is acted upon. Not only that, but communication between parties isn’t instantaneous. There are only so many audio channels and operators on a particular controller band. The strategy is making executive decisions towards which aircraft or operation receives attention in the queue.

To get an aircraft off the ground, there has to be flight confirmation by Delivery Control, rechecked by the flight crew. After flight path clearance and SID selection, Ground Control is then contacted to initiate the aircraft’s readiness for pushback clearance, runway selection and taxiing permission. Thereafter, an aircraft might have to contact Ground Control if they require to cross a runway. Then, once they have arrived at a specified runway, Ground Control is handed off to Tower Control for takeoff. Once takeoff has been made, communication is switched to Departure Control and then handed off to another control out of airport airspace. Imagine a slightly more complicated scenario in reverse for landing aircraft, which includes inbound flight path selection, speed adjustment and Approach confirmation.

ATC2

Now imagine all that, times ten, with consideration being paid towards flight vectors, headwinds, taxi and apron congestion, the aforementioned radio communication congestion with the very real requirement for flight staff to repeat directions for verification. Pilots can also make executive decisions to abort landings and circle for another run if conditions are adverse. There are scenarios involving birdstrikes, atmospheric phenomena like inbound typhoons and fog, human elements such as passenger illness delaying flights and a raft of other situationally-specific occurrences that not just mean disrupted schedules, but endanger aircraft on and above the ground. 

Much like Koei's effervescent airline management simulation Aerobiz, TechnoBrain's original Air Traffic Controller was a peppy depiction. No cumbersome UI to parse, no arcane menu constructs to delve within. The debut title had a fixed isometric camera overlooking various abstractions of Japan's airports, with approach and departure vectors translucently suspended above the maps and a single communication band. The debut effort featured cutesy airframes and stubby runways; deformation that continued in the follow-up that released in 2000. Air Traffic Controller 2 featured fully-rendered models of aircraft and airports, offering different camera options and allowing players to snap to aircraft in the air as well as on the ground, illustrating distance and altitude in a clearer way than its predecessor.

In 2008, Air Traffic Controller 3 arrived, and was the first and only PC version see localisation in the West. However, akin to Artdink's modern A-Train series, licensing affected overseas use of Japanese carriers, leaving players in the West to deal with generic replacement carriers like BLU and RED in place of JAL and ANA. Copies were limited and outrageously priced, leading to the rise of cracked and translated versions of the Japanese original. Originals that retained the liveries and airline titles, as well as offering access to the plethora of expansions that never saw localisation. At the time, and given the relative niche, the cost of overseas licensing outweighed the benefits and sandblasting official logos from the tails was the best of both worlds.

ATC3

The Japan-only expansions filled out BigWing's conservative content, much in the same way Air Traffic Controller 2's expansions had done. Expansions like Naha's ramrod strip, shared by the JSDAF, made for interesting juggling in Blue Corridor. Though showcased in the earlier ATC outings, Kagoshima's Islandline pack rendered Mizobe as well as the seven other airports in the southern island chain, plus the inherent weather requirements and dangers. Air Traffic Controller 3 remains the only iteration to include an airport outside of Japanese territory, serving up Hong Kong's iconic Kai Tak with its own expansion. Others included a celebratory Boeing 787 pack and limited edition JAL add-ons.  

While not a huge departure from prior installments, TechnoBrain released Air Traffic Controller 4 in September of 2015. Haneda featured as it often did, updated with crisp visuals and flowing traffic to include the 2010 runway D extension. The interface was less-cluttered and allowed for an easier snap-to-aircraft view, letting players click on control overlays, radar trackers or simply the aircraft's information bar if toggled. Flight scheduling was internally supported, as was events like headwinds forcing open runways to switch mid-session. Small but pleasant additions, looking smart and offering a decent variety of congestion with each mission.

The series has also received a fair number of down-ports to handhelds over the years, as well as the original enjoying a mobile version. Unfortunately, like most of this series, inherent licensing costs seem to prohibit all but the most fleeting Western releases. Beyond Air Traffic Chaos and Haneda Hero on the Nintendo DS and Playstation Portable respectively, most of the console games remain on the Japanese side of the language barrier. 

ATC4

The options for people wanting to play any of the Air Traffic Controller franchise in the West are limited at best, especially on PC. Nothing else quite strikes the same balance of accessibility and commitment to shunting and lacing. We're either inundated with Airport Madness clones or left picking over ultra-dry but accomplished simulations like Global ATC Simulator or ATC2. For the sake of the series, let's hope that future Western localisations are a landing clearance TechnoBrain approves.

Tags: Simulation

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