Sky’s the Limit for Local Air Traffic Controller
April 3, 2016
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  • Mike Scheiman can see for miles from his “office” east of Garden City.

    “We can see clearly to Holcomb,” he said, using the Sunflower plant as a landmark. “We can actually see further than that.”

    Scheiman’s office isn’t a typical one. It’s actually a five-story tower at the Garden City Regional Airport, where Scheiman has been the air traffic manager since the tower was built in 2000.

    In that time, he has seen a lot more than just the Sunflower plant.

    One of his more memorable experiences occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, after the terror attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., when all air traffic was directed to cease for several days, and several large passenger planes had to land at the local airport.

    “We had two Boeing 757s, one was a U.S. Airways and the other one was a United Airlines,” Scheiman said. “We also had an Air Canada Airbus that diverted in here, and then we also had a bunch of other smaller airplanes and corporate airplanes being diverted in here because all air traffic was stopped.”

    One of the main reasons Garden City’s airport was chosen for airplane diversions was because of the tower, which had been built just the year before.

    “We’re the only towered airport within several hundred miles. The closest one to the east would be Hutchinson, closest to the south would be Amarillo and the closest west would be Pueblo, so that’s why we get the emergency diverts and stuff that we do because we’re kind of out here in the middle,” Scheiman said.

    When most people think of flights coming in and out of the airport, Scheiman said, they usually think of the American Eagle flights that go to the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, but he said those only account for three flights a day.

    “We do, on average, about 70 operations a day,” Scheiman said.

    Those operations include corporate aircraft from companies like Target, Menards and Loves, and cross-country corporate aircraft, he said.

    “We’re kind of mid-America, so when they go coast to coast, they stop here for fuel,” he said.

    He said a lot of military training also takes place in and around the airport.

    “We do a lot of training flights from Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma. We also get Navy training flights from Corpus Christi, Texas, in the Navy base down there,” Scheiman said. “And we’ve had just about every kind of military plane in and out of here — F-18s, F-16s, V-22 Ospreys — and we’ve had C-130s from Peterson AFB in Colorado.”

    Blackhawks flying from Fort Riley to Fort Carson, Colo., or vice-versa, often stop at the airport to re-fuel, he said.

    Scheiman’s own background is military.

    Originally from Sacramento, Calif., he joined the Navy in 1981 so he could become an air traffic controller.

    After completing his training in Tennesee, Scheiman served as an air traffic controller for the Navy in California, Nevada and Alaska. He then worked in Wisconsin and Oklahoma for the Air National Guard before taking the air traffic control job in Garden City through Midwest Air Traffic Control, a private company contracted through the Federal Aviation Administration and the City of Garden City.

    The job requires him to multi-task, which he said can make it stressful at times.

    “The most challenging thing is being able to focus on a lot of different things at once,” Scheiman said. “You have to be able to hear different things. You have to be able to see different things. You have to be able to see how different airplanes are going to fit because they’re all different airspeeds and stuff. Some are jets, some are props. Some are big, some are small. Some are fast, some are slow.”

    Weather conditions, an aircraft’s turning rate, and an aircraft’s approach speed are all things that have to be taken into account when directing the air traffic, he said.

    “It’s kind of like conducting an orchestra or a ballet. A lot of it is timing. You have to make sure that you’re not turning someone too soon. You don’t want to turn them too late, so then someone else is delayed,” he said. “So it’s getting the timing down right. That’s probably the most difficult part.”

    Rachelle Powell, director of Garden City Regional Airport, said Scheiman is invaluable.

    “The job of air traffic controllers is to protect all of the incoming and outgoing aircraft and the passengers on board,” Powell said, adding that without Scheiman’s watchful eye, it would be dangerous for airplanes to fly in and out of the airport.

    Scheiman’s aeronautical gene was passed to his oldest son, Zach Scheiman, who recently began working for his dad as an air traffic controller.

    “He’s been up here for a little over a year now, since he got out of the Air Force,” Scheiman said.

    Scheiman’s other son, 10-year-old Sabian, sometimes joins his father in the tower, too, but it isn’t clear if he’s caught the aviation bug yet.

    “It’s a little early to tell,” Scheiman said.