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Leaning airport tower may be last of its kind

The new Airways air traffic control tower at Rongotai may be the last such physical structure built in New Zealand.

Photos by Mark Cubey

The $20.18 million tower opened on Thursday after a two-and-a-half year build by Hawkins Construction. It has been built to meet 100 per cent of the building code for a structure of its importance, with thirteen base isolators installed within its foundations to provide a high level of resilience against earthquakes. It is one of New Zealand’s first buildings constructed to withstand a tsunami.

The tower design, by Studio Pacific architects, has the tower “leaning” into the prevailing northerly. This was also important for Airways.

“Our air traffic control towers are icons of New Zealand’s aviation industry,” said Airways CEO Graeme Sumner, “and one of our most tangible and visible representations of the work we do every day keeping our skies safe.”

Yet this kind of structure, with 360-degree views of the airfield from a 32 metre height for the 22 controllers supporting more than 97,000 flights that arrive and depart Wellington Airport each year, is on the way out.

Aitrways will soon be using digital tower technology, which allows air traffic controllers to direct traffic from a remote location, watching live footage of the airfield from high-definition video cameras. This is enhanced by surveillance sensors, flight data and augmented reality overlays, providing controllers with a panoramic view of the airfield in more detail than is possible with the human eye.

“We’re confident that digital towers technology now has the capability to provide greater aviation safety, resiliency and the option to provide extended levels of services to New Zealand’s regions,” said Sumner.

“Invercargill will be the first airport to launch a digital tower in 2020 and a contingency digital tower will also be in place in Auckland by 2020.”

However the old Wellington airport tower, which had been operating for 61 years from its Tirangi Road site, needed to be replaced before digital technology had advanced sufficiently to meet the immediate ongoing needs of the airport.

“As we look to the future of a more digitally driven way of delivering air traffic control, it’s fitting that one of the last of these physical towers to be built will be our most distinctive.” said Sumner.

Airways are completing final training and checks before controllers begin managing live traffic from the tower on Sunday.