Wichita Aero Club
January 9, 2018

Aviation from the Outside in the Air Capital

I will never forget the first time I turned the runway lights all the way up.

I sat in my tall chair up in the ATC tower and cranked those puppies to the max. I felt my eyes grow wide as the lights suddenly transformed from dim dots along a stretch of concrete into truly radiant signals against a black sky. That vibrant runway was beckoning to something far above. “Come on in. We’re ready for you.” I imagined a pilot coming in for landing, spotting my lights from miles away and feeling at ease because he knew exactly where to go. There was something magical about that – me being on the ground and the pilot being all the way up there. At the wee age of 9, I knew there was something special about aviation.

My dad had the coolest job in the whole world.

He was an air traffic controller at what was previously Mid-Continent Airport. My sister and I would fight over whose turn it was to go with him on a mid-shift. I was older, so I won that fight more often than she did. I had very important responsibilities on my shifts. You know, like clicking the clicker all the way up to 9999 while pretending to count how many planes flew in and out that night. Or writing ridiculously important notes on thin, flimsy strips of paper and sending them down the vacuum air tube into what I assumed was a super secret office where my intelligence would be translated and then immediately acted upon. I had my own headset; I listened intently to my dad talk to the pilots (very, very, very quickly) in a language I was convinced was not English.

September 11, 2001 changed all that of course, but my memories had already been set in stone.

Back then, to me, aviation (in its entirety) was ATC. And so aviation was absolutely fantastic. Walking up the narrow stairs to the tower to see my dad made me the most important girl in the world. And every time he took us into the TRACON and let us stand behind the controllers hard at work (after our eyes adjusted, that is), I was in complete awe of how everything worked together like fine-tuned gears to get airplanes up in the air and back down again without allowing a colossal disaster to take place.

As time would have it, though, I grew up and learned just how much more there was to aviation. Surprisingly, I don’t work directly in the industry. But everything about it still has that same magic. Selfishly, I wish my dad hadn’t retired so he could give my kids the inside scoop I was lucky enough to experience. And each time we’re in an airport, I point out all the things that I have so much appreciation for because of those experiences. Like how each tower looks a little different. Or how the ground crew uses signals to talk to the pilot. How every time we get off the plane a maintenance crew checks out all the parts (many of which were probably made right where we live!) to make sure it’s safe for the next group of people to fly. How certain airplanes are made for certain things (passengers vs packages). Or that I’m still not actually sure how our luggage ever successfully gets where it’s supposed to go.

Can I be honest with you?

I don’t have my pilot’s license, but as a grown woman I still stick my head out the window to watch a plane when it flies directly overhead. Proof of that eyes-turned-skyward spirit of aviation, I guess…

I gawk at a plane landing sideways on a windy day.

I make my husband pull the car over on a road trip to watch the T-birds practice in nearby airspace. Funny, though, I always seem to get something in my eye when they float in that flawless formation…

Number 4 on my bucket list is to attend NBAA.

When I was little I got a unique glimpse of the industry from the inside, and grew up in the Air Capital an aviation outsider. Maybe I missed a calling. Or maybe I was always supposed to admire instead of contribute. There’s a little bit of aviation in my blood, though, that much I’m sure of.

I genuinely hope it’s the same for everyone who grows up here, and that we find a way to pass it on, even from the outside.

Written by Kristin Wemmer