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Oshawa to ground control

A look inside the new $9 million NAV Canada tower now handling air traffic at Oshawa airport

The new NAV Canada tower at the Oshawa Executive Airport replaces the previous tower, which had been in use since 1968. (Photo by Dave Flaherty)

By Dave Flaherty/ The Oshawa Express

The security gates open, the red light changes to green for a few moments.

The rain is beating down in Oshawa and doesn’t seem to be ready to relent any time soon.

Outside the new NAV Canada control tower at the Oshawa Executive Airport looms a piece of Oshawa’s history, which will soon be no more.

After two years of construction, Oshawa’s air traffic controllers have moved into their new home. The new NAV Canada tower at 1000 Stevenson Road North commenced operation in June.

On Aug. 8, local media received a rare look inside the operations of the tower.

Jeff Wearn, site manager, says the new surroundings are a welcome change. NAV Canada’s previous tower was built half a century ago in 1968.

“This tower is much taller and gives us much better sightlines, much better floorplans, and much better controls,” he says.

Ron Singer, manager of media relations for NAV Canada, says the old tower reached the end of its usefulness.

“It came to the point where it was just not serviceable anymore. It made much more sense to build a new tower than to continue to pump money into an old building,” he explains.

The new tower in Oshawa is part of a larger plan by NAV Canada to modernize its facilities nationwide.

“We are investing more money into infrastructure. Our budget for capital projects has gone up,” Singer says.

NAV Canada invested approximately $9 million into the new tower.

A somewhat unknown fact is air traffic controllers are not airport employees.

“We are a separate entity from the airport. We are not a division of the airport; we are not a crown corporation,” Singer says. “NAV Canada is its own company, we own the building and the workers here are NAV Canada employees.”

So what is the role of air traffic controllers?

“Controllers are really responsible for ensuring aircraft move in a manner that is efficient, effective and totally safe,” Wearn says.

Over the past year, airport officials have heard their share of concerns from the community.

At a December 2017 town meeting, numerous city residents brought forth complaints about increased traffic and noise at the airport.

One resident explained low-flying planes are an ongoing disturbance for him and his wife, detailing how planes fly in barely above the 60-foot trees on his property.

In fact, he counted almost 50 planes in less than an hour one afternoon.

When similar concerns were brought up at a June meeting, airport manager Stephen Wilcox explained the all movement is under the authority of NAV Canada.

Wearn noted there are set standards and procedures which must be adhered to at every airport across the country.

“The operation is generally dictated by the weather,” he adds.

The Oshawa airport is somewhat unique in its closeness to residential neighbourhoods.

Wearn says NAV Canada and the airport have worked together to implement some procedures to “mitigate some of the noise issues.”

“We certainly want to be respectful of all elements of the community,” he says.

However, he reiterates NAV Canada’s primary role.

“Our responsibility is making sure aircraft fly in a way that is safe,” he says.

Ducking out of the tower’s main equipment room, insulation technologist supervisor Rene Sisman reveals some details about the project.

“We had the challenge of keeping the old tower running and building up the new one. Essentially, it’s like having two towers running side by side for quite a while,” he says.

While the majority of the equipment is the same, Sisman says they applied some upgrades.

For instance, the weather information display used by air traffic controllers has sustained a significant transformation.

“In the old tower, they used an old Environment Canada display built in the 1970s. It was kind of archaic,” Sisman says. “Now it’s a touchscreen version, it’s a little bit more robust and offers more flexibility and brightness control.”

In addition to newer equipment, Hearn says the “cab,” the space where the controllers work, is much more ergonomic and user-friendly.

The workspace in the former facility did not lend itself well to employees being able to move around easily, whereas the new stations provide a clearer and more direct view of the runway that is in use.