Auckland's air traffic controllers need a keen eye and the ability to stay calm and collected in all situations.

Whether at work or in his own time, Steve Vaughan spends much of his life watching for the safety of others.

One of a select band of air traffic controllers responsible for the survival of tens of thousands of passengers touching down or taking off at Auckland Airport each day, the 36-year-old father of three young children also chairs the Mairangi Bay Surf Lifesaving Club and its volunteer coast watchers between shifts at the airport's main control tower.

Both roles demand a keen eye and ability to stay calm and collected in all situations, while communicating effectively with others, attributes to be honoured at airports around the world tomorrow on International Day of the Air Traffic Controller.

Mr Vaughan is one of 24 controllers on the Airways Corporation's round-the-clock tower roster, on which they oversee from 33m above the runway up to 44 landings and departures an hour, sometimes totalling more than 500 daily movements.


The roster allows for three controllers to keep constant watch over the airfield and the skies above it by day, and two by night.

Their immediate responsibility extends up to 28km east and west of the airport, beyond which Christchurch-based radar controllers ensure aircraft maintain separation distances.

But the tower controllers also provide en route weather information to departing aircraft, and ground movements along taxiways between the airport's runway and passenger gates require constant juggling.

Apart from a brisk breeze, the weather on the ground is settled when the Herald spends an hour in the tower on Tuesday afternoon, with a light overcast sky allowing visibility back to the city.

But departing pilots are being warned of severe turbulence below 10,000ft (3048m) over much of the North Island, meaning passengers will have to keep seat belts on.

Mr Vaughan will spend the first part of his seven-and-a-half-hour afternoon shift on "delivery" duties - clearing aircraft for departure and dispensing weather information, before swapping seats with colleagues for stints as ground controller and then aerodrome controller.

"I love my job - absolutely no day in air traffic control is the same."

It turns out to be a quiet hour, the only slight drama provided by construction work on one of the two main taxiways, cramping aircraft ground movements and testing the controllers' skills at communicating with pilots of various nationalities.

Although they each have radar screens, those are to cross-reference what they see through the tower's panoramic windows, such as a mere speck over Mangere Bridge that Mr Vaughan quickly identifies as a police helicopter.

Tiny commuter planes slipping out of a multitude of gates are slotted for takeoff amid an undisturbed flow dominated by Air New Zealand 737s.

But dwarfing all will be two of the world's largest passenger jets, 489-seat Airbus A380s arriving from Australia at 1.45pm and 2pm.

With their 79.75m wingspan, the Emirates-owned double-deckers create their own separation "issues" for the controllers, requiring them to ensure other aircraft keep an extra distance from them while taxiing around the airport.

Although the first great white airborne whale lands gracefully enough, after aerodrome controller Bruce Postles checks through his binoculars that its undercarriage is down, it faces a difficult squeeze past the construction barriers, from which ground controller Jodi Walters has ensured workers have kept well back.

The exercise demonstrates a seamless transfer of duties between the three controllers, and proof of Mr Vaughan's claim that even at quiet times there is scarcely a dull moment in a job he cherishes for its variety and challenges.

Auckland Airport
38 to 40 average hourly air movements, up to a maximum of 44
450 to 500 daily movements
13m plus annual passengers