We saw the two most interesting parts of the tower. Ready for this? The bottom, and the top.
People in the bottom hang out in the dark staring at radar screens handling airplanes within a ~50 mile radius on approach or departure. People on top look outside and on more radar screens to handle ground control, clearance, takeoff, landing, etc. I'm familiar with all this as a pilot... when you leave your hangar you get a clearance, then talk to ground, who hands you off to "tower" (who I now know is sitting right next to him because they're all in the tower, but whatever) who clears you for takeoff, you fly for a while and get handed off to departure, then Kansas City center, then an approach, tower, and ground again.
Meeting air traffic controllers was a little creepy because they talk EXACTLY like they talk on the radios, maybe it's just my bias but I was struck by how fast the guy said everything, always very calmly, and no matter how many questions we asked he'd just start in on the answer with no "uh"s or "mm"s, just oddly efficient and to the point. And in the tower guys were talking constantly to each other, to the airplanes, to other people on the radio... they literally listen to airplanes with one ear and someone else (radar, center, etc) on the other. All communication in the calm radio ATC voice. They're incredibly busy all the time, completely tuned in, but we asked if it ever felt REALLY hectic and our guy just said hectic was sort of a "state of mind"... in other words, you just go with it. I did get the impression that the radar room gets more hectic though, tower gets to pass people off fairly early but radar will tell them "we're overwhelmed, stop departures for a minute" and everyone has to deal.
Wichita is a strange airport. It's surrounded by aviation companies running tests, service centers with all kinds of models, and commercial traffic. It's not like Chicago where they can tell little airplanes just to bug off because they're busy. There's no promise that everybody coming in can fly a certain airspeed. You'll get a fighter jet military trainer right behind a single engine propeller plane. And if you see a flight plan filed, it might not be a passenger jet full of people that must leave ON TIME, it could be a couple flight test pilots who'll leave whenever they feel like it. There's no schedule, no way to predict when things will be busy, nothing happens at the same time every day, and training and test flights have totally unpredictable paths.
I learned that air traffic controllers have to retire at age 56, which sucks and could really put us in a serious crunch in the next few years. The guys working there just shrugged and seemed to think that wasn't such a bad age to retire, the job was taxing with weird shifts that swing all the time and you have to be incredibly sharp and focused, but 56 doesn't sound so old to me (that's a sign I'm getting old) so I think it sounds a little rash. We're facing a shortage of controllers, but with things like mandatory furloughs for government sequestration, I bet there's an issue with attracting new talent. I also have a feeling that congress won't care until it's a dire and obvious issue, and then it really will be because it takes 3-5 years for someone to get up to speed on this job, every one of the people has to learn every one of the positions from clearance to departure and back again.
All the rooms were smaller than I thought they'd be, even the top of the tower, it just looks bigger from the ground. All the rooms were equipped with coffee machines and lots of mugs but that was the only "office-y" thing that I thought made it look like where I worked, other than that it was very different. We learned about the automatic systems of handoffs, how everyone works together... it's like a machine. Overall a very cool tour that I felt lucky to go on, it kinda made me miss flying but once I'm back up in the skies at least now I'll know who I'm talking to.