Safety Happens on the Ground
By Lori Rice | Photo by Eric Francis
Steve McCoy is not a pilot (a disappointment to some when he tells them he works in aviation). But — unseen by many —the work he and others do on the ground is every bit as important to safety in the air as what is done by those in the cockpit.
“You get on a plane and the pilot says ‘Hello’ and that guy is the face of safety for that flight,” says McCoy, who graduated in 2003 from UNO’s Aviation Institute and works as an operation supervisor at Eppley Airfield. “And, ultimately, he is responsible for the safety of that flight.
“But what most people don’t see is that behind-the-scenes network of airline, airport and air traffic personnel that are all working in collaboration to ensure each flight is successful and safe.”
And, thanks to UNO’s Aviation Institute, a large measure of aviation safety is in the hands of UNO grads. The institute, established in 1990, offers a professional flight track for pilots and an air transportation administration track that prepares students for positions that function on land.
“The bulk of people working in aviation are not out there in aircraft as pilots,” says Dr. Scott Tarry, director of UNO’s Aviation Institute.
Tarry points to operations supervisors who care for runways, air traffic controllers who tell pilots what to do, and others who help control airline efficiency, scheduling and cost.
McCoy and 2009 UNO graduate Joe Rotterdam (both pictured, Rotterdam at left) are two of six operation supervisors at Eppley. They spend most of their days traversing the airfields and dealing with anything from tenant relations to airfield inspections.
“We wear so many different hats out there, take on so many different roles and responsibilities … at times we can be the face of the airport,” McCoy says. “We do a lot of things in this job, but safety is our core function.”
They handle issues such as making sure the airfield is clear of ice and snow, monitoring runway conditions, checking on lighting and other infrastructure that allows the airplanes to operate safely, and identifying possible wildlife hazards. They also coordinate efforts with on-site establishments, such as fire and rescue operations, in the event of an aircraft emergency.
“There can be a lot of pressure,” says Rotterdam, who graduated with an air transport and administration degree. “But you fall back on your training and everything comes back to you.”
Rigorous training also was critical to Jess Potthoff’s career after he graduated from UNO in 2007 with a degree in aviation administration. He has spent more than a year training to become an air traffic controller.
Potthoff works at a Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility (TRACON) in Bellevue where the controllers cover a 110-mile diameter of airspace that includes Omaha and Lincoln. The airspace is divided into several sectors, with each air traffic controller assigned a sector to monitor the planes’ altitude, speed and destination.
Potthoff coordinates landings and take-off efforts with other towers and controllers and communicates directly with pilots on issues related to weather, safety alerts and route information.
“You have to be 100-percent focused the whole time,” Potthoff says. “Whether you are talking to one airplane or 20 airplanes."
Part of the integrated network of safety systems and checks always has included the issue of security checkpoints prior to boarding a flight. The recent introduction of Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) — full body scans — has made national headlines due to what some perceive as its invasive nature.
“The airport security manager is going to be sitting there under fire,” says Patrick O’Neil, a faculty member in UNO’s Aviation Institute and a retired U.S. Navy aviator with nearly 27 years experience. “Airlines complain about potential delays at security checkpoints; at the same time the airport is responsible for properly screening people. It’s tricky. It’s a tough, tough environment.”
Michael Kudlacz, recently retired federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) of Nebraska, says that at the local level, passengers have been overwhelmingly supportive of the use of AITs. In place since June, less than 1 percent of passengers going through one of two AIT machines at Eppley have refused the scan.
“The TSA is always reviewing their procedures based on threats,” says Kudlacz, a former general with the U.S. Air Force who received his bachelor’s degree from UNO in 1971. “But when you have people hiding non-metallic explosives on their bodies, there has to be a way to find that. The AIT gives us the best opportunity to be thorough and find items like that."
All of these aviation posts, Terry says, are highly structured and regulated — and for good reason.
“It’s important to remember that the system is not just the people working for the airlines, or people working for the FAA, or people working at the airports,” Tarry says. “It’s all of them and a lot more. What you do in those positions is critical to the safe and efficient operation of our air transport system.”
O’Neil agrees. “It’s not only the pilot flying the aircraft,” he says, “but this whole supporting system of people and technology that is helping them get from point A to point B.”