Downtown harbour tower keeps an eye on the sky

Dave Weston is used to people assuming he works in the wrong building. The 32-year-old supervisor of the Vancouver Harbour Air Control Tower says people often think the much larger Harbour Centre tower a few blocks away is where air traffic controllers keep a watchful eye on the skies directly above the city.

"It does look like an air control tower, but it is way too big," said Weston. "You need to be able to see in all directions, and obviously there is part of the building in the middle of that one."

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While the tower may be smaller and off the radar, it is actually the world's tallest air control facility, perched 142 metres above the ground on top of the 28-storey Granville Square building. The tiny, 12-sided glass tower overlooking Burrard Inlet offers 360degree views of airspace above Vancouver, which is crucial because - unlike with most of the Lower Mainland's air traffic - its controllers rely heavily on visual information to make decisions.

"When we can see everything, it is very easy to do your job. When we have lower clouds and visibility is more reduced, it becomes more of a challenge because when we can't see, when the pilots can't see, we have to put a lot more effort into keeping them apart and more pre-planning is required to make sure you don't have too many people in the air at the same time," Weston said. "We basically take over when the pilots can't see."

The centre, which is privately owned and operated by Nav Canada, is also one of the busiest control towers in the province, responsible on average for more than 50,000 individual flights per year in air space below 760 metres (2,500 feet) ranging between the North Shore to Point Grey and Burnaby. The majority of traffic comes from Harbour Air, which offers more than a dozen seaplane flights a day from Coal Harbour to Victoria and Nanaimo.

"For everything above that, right now there is somebody in Surrey in a very dark room controlling it," Weston said.

Andrew Worthington, a 42-year-old former golf pro, spent six years at CZVR, the Lower Mainland's busy air traffic control centre in Surrey, before jumping ship to the waterfront facility that only operates daily from 7 a.m. to sunset.

"They paid quite a bit more but this lifestyle is unbeatable," said Worthington, who now has a much shorter commute from his home in Kits. He said he and the other seven air traffic controllers (there are always two working at the same time) see a side of the city nobody else does.

"It was great when they did the fireworks on the barge, which is right below and we would just walk out on the roof," said Worthington. Seeing whales, eagles, rescue operations, boating mishaps, helicopter film shoots and the odd wedding banner proposal are among the reasons he traded a windowless bunker in the 'burbs for a bird's eye view.

"You pick your poison. Do you want to make more or do you want to be happy?"

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