As a nod to the passing of a part of their history, the team at San Francisco International held an invitational day at the old control tower. Rob Edgcumbe headed along for GAR to see what was going on.
San Francisco International (SFO) is undergoing a significant rebuilding program. The old terminal elements are being progressively torn down and replaced with new structures more suited to the needs of a modern airport and the airlines that serve it. They will also provide a greater level of capacity and accommodate the needs of the latest security requirements. All of this has to be undertaken while the airport continues to operate on a daily basis.
Aside from the terminal updates, the airport is taking the opportunity to update the tower facilities. The old tower that has served for so many years has been replaced by a modern tower installation. Not only does it provide modern facilities but it is built higher to give a better view across the whole airfield. The new tower has been under construction for a while but, now that it has been commissioned, the old tower is redundant. It will be torn down as part of the redevelopment of the terminals.
The public relations team at the airport decided to make available one last chance for people to experience the old tower before it disappears. They held a day when people could apply to have a half hour session in the tower to see the airport in operation. The space was relatively limited so the attendance was rationed. All of the available slots were quickly signed up. Whether people wanted to see the tower for themselves or take the chance to photograph operations from a unique location, they got a chance to have a unique view of the airport – a view that will soon be gone.
Much of the equipment from the old control stations has now been ripped out. However, the fixtures are still in place looking rather forlorn with gaping holes where once displays were located. The new tower has been equipped with the latest technologies so what will be done with the salvaged equipment is hard to imagine. However, the shells of the workstations stand as mute testament to years of service in keeping SFO moving – something that the local weather often makes a touch tricky.
It is amazing to see just how extensively the operating areas of the airport can be seen from the tower. The airport has grown a lot since the tower was built but it still provides a view of all that is going on. The new tower, though, is considerably higher and it will provide a superior vantage point to the controllers that are charged with keeping everything moving at this vital hub. They will be able to accommodate the proposed redevelopments of the airport infrastructure while still having a commanding view of all that goes on beneath them.
On the day of the visit, operations were a little different from normal. Strong winds from the south meant that reversed operations were in effect. Arrivals were coming in over the bay onto the 19 runways while departures were heading out from the 10 runways. Normally arrivals are on the 28s with most departures (except the heaviest jets) going from the 01s. This actually meant that the jets were better positioned for the visitors to the tower. All photographs were through the glass which is both tinted and thick. However, it was possible to get some different shots.
The southerly winds also were bringing in a fair bit of cloud cover. Periodically, the sun would break through to illuminate the airport but, for much of the time, it was overcast. Visibility was good though so it was possible to watch the operations on the ramps for various airlines. Virgin America and American Airlines were right under the tower and were busily turning their Airbus narrowbody fleets. United, for whom SFO is a major hub, were moving a cross section of their fleet. Airbus and Boeing narrowbodies were on the move while the widebodies were preparing for a wave of departures to Europe.
The United maintenance facilities were also clear to see with the soon to be retired 747-400s joined by 787s and one of the airline’s first 777-300ERs which will shortly enter service. SFO is a popular international destination with many overseas airlines serving it exemplified by a Lufthansa A380 that arrived in the middle of the day.
Demolition of the tower will commence shortly. Other work areas could be clearly seen with many buildings already gone and others in the process of being torn down. Apparently, when the new construction is completed, there will be an observation deck for visitors on top of one of the terminals. With so many viewing spaces having been closed in recent years, it is good to know that a major airport is going to encourage people to come and watch the planes again.
The author would like to thank the public relations team at SFO for arranging the visits and engaging with the local community.
I remember going to the old, old SF airport in the 1950s. Passengers and visitors alike could come all the way into the building, although we used to go outside to the viewing deck to watch the planes take off and land. My father occasionally was sent on a business trip, usually flying in what was called a “Super Connie” (the plane with the 3 tail rudders, or whatever they are called. This was in the pre-jet era).