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Up Close To the Clouds: Visiting Perhaps the Most Beautiful Tower in Germany

15.05.2019

The fog slowly starts to lift and the perspective from the 16-sided turret of the BER control tower suddenly shifts, revealing the capital city’s future main airport with the runways at its feet, the TV Tower at Alexanderplatz greeting it to the north, and to the south the Cargolifter hangar can be spotted just 50 kilometres away in Brandt. In short, it’s a breath-taking panorama.

Years of Experience in Flight Control

“There’s a beautiful view up there, yet our core task consists of the safe, smooth, and orderly processing of flight traffic,” says Hans Niebergall. The 54-year-old BER Tower Head has been responsible for events at the Schönefeld control tower for over seven years. Born in the Palatinate region and now commuting between Berlin and Hamburg, the trained computer scientist and father of two daughters looks back on a rich wealth of experience in the sector: To begin with, the former Bundeswehr officer kept himself busy with stays abroad in the USA and Belgium as a software developer until he transferred to the company headquarters of the German Air Navigation Services (DFS) in Langen 25 years ago. Little by little, he rose through the ranks at DFS from developer to the local Tower Head of a 100-strong team.

In Starting Position for BER

Up Close To the Clouds

Since its induction on the 25th of March 2012, the extremely distinctive tower, standing 72 metres tall as the second tallest control tower in Germany, has been steering events on location above and below the clouds. “We’re now in our eighth year and have corrected all start-up problems – all systems are go for BER,” assures Niebergall. Since 2012, he and his team have been using their time and continually been fine tuning technology and procedures. “But the conditions at this very prosperous location have also changed enormously: The target number of flight movements seven years ago came to 240,000. In the meantime, when BER goes into full operation in the coming year, we expect more than 300,000 movements. In implementing these, there are completely different parameters to pay attention to – but which we have adapted to,” the Tower Head is already looking ahead to the coming year.

Air Traffic Controllers in Demand like Top Athletes

Up Close To the Clouds

The approximately 2,000 air traffic controllers working at German airports are generally responsible for maintaining and guiding airplanes inside a specific airspace. By instructing aircraft with regard to their direction and height, they lead them onto concrete tracks and also mind particularly that the predetermined routes are adhered to. The air traffic controllers working in the tower in particular have a view of the taxiing planes and furthermore give clearance for take-off and landing. This is all coupled with great stress and demands consequent breaks and time to rest. “One shift lasts eight and a half hours, however, only two hours are worked at a time, after which there’s a break of at least 30 minutes,” reports Niebergall. Since stress relief works differently for everyone, there are several opportunities at the BER tower for treating yourself with necessary peace of body and mind. “We’ve set up our own gym and chill-out areas, because ultimately air traffic controllers are like top athletes: they need to have the means available to take care of traffic safety with maximum concentration, but also have techniques on hand to be able to unwind during breaks,” says Niebergall. For each shift, there are three air traffic controllers at work in the turret. Junior air traffic controllers are wanted across Germany, however, the training requires high entry qualifications. In addition to highly developed language skills in English, the language of air traffic, visual thinking and the ability to multitask pose a tall hurdle for many applicants. Yet after successfully ending the 3-year training, applicants are attracted by a transfer to DFS alongside a relatively high base salary.

BER Flight Routes

BER’s pre-determined flight routes from 2012 have been judicially approved, with one exception being the northern circuit of Blankenfelde-Mahlow. There is an alternative suggestion for this area, which, given a fixed and exact opening date for BER, the Federal Supervisory Office for Air Traffic Control will assess. “Right now, we are assessing to what extent the predetermined routes are compatible with parameters which have since changed, for example with regards to the continued use of the current Schönefeld terminal. This validation is taking place at the moment, and to this end we hope to be able to provide more information as the year goes on,” says Niebergall, summarising the development. Once again, the fog slowly descends; Niebergall looks to his Lego replica of the tower and emphasises again just how hopeful he is for the opening of BER in the coming year: “BER has to be launched, otherwise I’d have been chasing after a shadow for a decade. Neither I nor my team fancy that.”

This interview was conducted by Christian Franzke

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