HELENA – From more than nine stories above the Helena Regional Airport, the air traffic control tower crew watches the runways. Controllers are responsible for directing every plane, large or small, that lands or takes off there to the proper runway at the proper time.
“We basically have every facet of the aviation industry operating here, whether it’s commercial, private aircraft, military, firefighting operations, air ambulances – you name it,” said airport director Jeff Wadekamper. “We have a little bit of everything, and those all present unique challenges to the environment of controlling air traffic.”
Now, the crew is receiving a national honor for the work they’ve done over the last year. On Aug. 8, the Helena air traffic control tower was honored by the Federal Aviation Administration with the Outstanding Air Traffic Facility Award for small airports. It was selected from about 150 control towers for the honor.
William Zimmerman, the air traffic manager, said the award recognized Helena controllers for a number of challenges they overcame this year, including staff shortages, changes in management and the rush of firefighting aircraft they handled during last year’s record-breaking fire season.
At the height of last summer’s firefighting efforts, Zimmerman said the tower had to handle three times the traffic it usually has. He said, despite the extra stress, they maintained a strong safety record.
“You add all that fire traffic in there, and it really increases the activity, increases the complexity, and creates some pretty good challenges for those controllers to deal with, and they did an excellent job,” said Wadekamper.
The Helena tower crew includes about 12 controllers, two managers and two facilities technicians. From 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day, at least two controllers work in the tower cab, communicating with pilots. Zimmerman said the tower is one of just two remaining in the U.S. that does not use a local radar system.
Zimmerman said it’s a great honor for his crew to receive this type of honor. Now, the controllers will return to the daily work of keeping the airport running smoothly – especially as another fire season wears on.
“We’re ecstatic to see that the air traffic control tower got that award,” Wadekamper said. “Our congratulations to all the folks over there. I think it’s great that they got recognized.”