On November 5th, at approximately 7:30 am, I had the privilege of issuing the first IFR, taxi and take off clearance to an aircraft after opening the Red Deer Control Tower. This was a long time coming, the process was thrice delayed due to the COVID pandemic. Originally, it was slated to be opened in early spring of 2020.
How does NAVCANADA open a new Control Tower Facility? Well, first we were lucky in that there was an established FSS operating Airport Advisory there already, so that means there was a skilled group of local subject matter experts who could give us advise on how the traffic operates and how they dealt with it on a daily basis. Much of the behind the scenes paperwork (Unit Operations Manual, Inter Unit Agreements, Arrangements, etc..) was already done, just had to be adapted for ATC use with slight modifications, and those are a continuous work in progress as we change our processes to make YQF a more efficient unit.
Then we have to do personnel training, and this is where it gets interesting. Normally, when an experienced Controller moves to a new unit or specialty, they would go through the same process that a brand new trainee would go through, which would mean up to a week of airport specific ground school and so many days of on the job training (in the case of YQF it is 100 days) under the observation of an On The Job Instructor. We did not have that luxury. So NAVCANADA selected a core group of very experienced controllers. We each did the basic ground school, were given 24 hours observation watching the FSS operate the daily traffic, and then were given the keys to the building. Good Luck!
Imagine flying C172 only for 200 hours, getting your CPL, then be given the keys to a Bonanza, and told go take it for a flight without a check ride. You can do it, it would be uncomfortable, and as long as there were no emergencies during critical phases of flight, most pilots would be just fine. Eventually you would be comfortable flying the plane, and even able to deal with emergencies without too much problems. That is about as close as I can explain the feeling of talking to airplanes on that November 5.
Why did Red Deer change from an FSS to a Control Tower? Traffic. In 2018 the number of airport movements was over 75000, and it has just been getting busier and busier. YQF is home to 2 busy flight schools, Sky Wings and Montair, and a third one is coming starting this January. Montair and the new school, Canadian Aviation College (based out of Abbotsford), provide training for Asian Carriers. As the Chinese aviation market continues to expand, their need for pilots is exploding, and Alberta is a great place for Flight training. Red Deer Airport has two runways, 2 RNAV approaches(and 2 more to come), one of the few remaining NDB stand alone approaches, generally good weather, plenty of smaller airports to fly to and operate out of, and an experienced general aviation sector. YQF also has a helicopter base, 2 general aviation maintenance operators, and as well as an operations and maintenance base for Airspray and Buffalo Airways. 60000 movements is usually the standard for when a control tower is necessary, so it was a long time coming.
If you have flown into Red Deer previously, it was confusing. The CFS has a VFR Terminal Procedures Chart to help aid the FSS to guide the traffic, and they had a separate ground frequency, which were both fairly unique for an FSS. They were just really busy, and because of CARS, the FSS Specialists did not have the tools to fully make it an efficient flow of traffic. By opening the tower, we are able to run the traffic more efficiently than FSS could, so there will be fewer delays flying into and out of there.
We still have the VTPC, but generally do not use it; plan on being cleared direct to the circuit now instead of having to follow a pre determined routing(you may occasionally be cleared direct to a point listed on the VTPC for spacing, so keep it handy) Also, you will still be required to make a call out on the Common Traffic Frequency (122.875) approximately 25 miles from YQF and announce intentions (just like flying into the West Practice Area), then call the tower when 10-15 nm back.
One major safety upgrade happened about a year ago here, prior to the tower opening. YQF finally got RADAR Surveillance in the form of Multilateration. I won’t explain here what it is at this time, but it is basically RADAR. This alone helped the FSS safely operate the large amount of traffic by knowing the exact position of most of their traffic (quite a few airplanes flying around here without Mode C Transponders still). Up until then, YQF only had RADAR feeds from YEG and YYC, meaning that traffic was only visible on the RADAR screens from around 4000-5000 feet AGL and above, and that does not help out an Airport environment.
The Control Tower itself is the old FSS station, which is built into the main terminal. (If it wasn’t for COVID restrictions, I would invite every pilot who comes to Red Deer to come visit us, so keep that in mind for a year or two down the road). It is lacking in height, we can not physically see the threshold of Runway 17, so NAVCANADA has installed some very precise cameras to ensure that we have full sight of the controlled maneuvering surfaces at all times. If these cameras fail for some reason, we can still operate, its just that we would be adding in “We can not see the threshold of RWY 17 at this time, Cleared to Land Runway 17 (or 35) at your discretion”, so you would have to ensure the runway was clear at the time of your landing.
I will be down here temporarily for another 9 months or so, 8 of the FSS staff are going through Basic VFR Control school, and then will come back here to train and qualify. (A couple others are retiring and one is moving to Vancouver Island to work at Nanaimo). It is a fun change of pace, a little different scenery, and short enough of a posting (and close enough so I can come home and Instruct a bit on my days off) that my family won’t forget who I am. I hope to see more EFC airplanes flying through here soon!