Inside a flight simulator at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in Queens. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal
It was my understanding that I was going to visit the control towers at both JFK and La Guardia airports on a single afternoon.
I’ve seen control towers on TV but never in real life—most memorably in that fine 1980 film “Airplane,” which seems to only improve with age. (“Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”)
Under the auspices of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs both Queens airports, I was to join students at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, across the street from La Guardia, and visit that airport’s control tower.
Then I was to head over to CUNY’s York College in Jamaica, which has an aviation management program, and, like Vaughn, has a partnership with the Port Authority. I’d be joining their students for a tour of JFK’s control tower.
“The future of our airport operations depend on the expertise of our next generation of aviation managers and leaders,” said Erica Dumas, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority.
I’m not sure at what point I realized my control tower visit wasn’t going to happen. But it was probably pretty soon after I arrived at Vaughn and was met by a welcoming committee.
Welcoming committees, unless you’re a head of state, are rarely a good thing. Precious time that could be spent reporting or, better yet, accumulating new experiences (for example, looking over a veteran flight controller’s shoulder) are occupied with introductions and interviewing everybody in the room so you don’t hurt anybody’s feelings.
Student Ryan Barren shows the simulator to Erica Dumas of the Port Authority. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal
Also, I was informed that Vaughn had its own control tower. Perhaps I’d misunderstood the invitation and they’d planned to show me their version all along.
I tried to stifle my disappointment and started interviewing several students handpicked by the school. Such as 21-year-old Yichuan Luo, who is also known as Edison.
His ambitions are more earthbound than I’d have expected of a student at an aviation school.
“Airport management,” he explained. “How to run an airport on a daily basis.”
“I’ve always been a traveler,” said Mr. Luo, explaining he is originally from Shanghai. “An airport is a familiar environment for me.”
In that case, I wondered whether he had a favorite airport?
“Hong Kong International,” he stated. He added, “Palm Springs International. It’s a very nice airport.”
What did he think of JFK?
“JFK has a very good AirTrain,” he said.
I’m not sure I’d agree. The last time I took it I’d been dropped off at the wrong terminal, boarded the AirTrain to reach the right one and found myself heading back to Manhattan.
No problem. I always try to leave enough time for just such eventualities and managed to make my flight.
Vaughn also has several flight simulators. If you’ve primed yourself for a trip to a control tower, a flight simulator is probably the next best thing.
The controls in hand. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal
Apparently, Vaughn has a regional jet simulator. Unfortunately, it was unavailable. I “flew” a propeller plane. One with dual controls, the second set operated by 22-year-old Ryan Barren, who already has his pilot’s license.
Mr. Barren claimed I was such a natural I wouldn’t have crashed, even if I’d been flying solo.
“I think you did great,” he said with impressive sincerity. “You’d have landed.”
The time had come to visit Vaughn’s “control tower.” I doubt it was more than three stories high, four max, and could reach the top either by stairs or elevator. (JFK’s is 320 feet, and said to be the world’s tallest.)
From the Vaughn tower, we had a stunning view of La Guardia’s Runway 4. But other than panoramic windows, it didn’t have much in common with a functioning control tower. No radar. No weather-monitoring equipment. No high-frequency radio transmitters.
This control tower was just an empty space.
“We have a scanner,” explained Dr. Maxine Lubner, the head of Vaughn’s aviation and management faculty. “Instructors will bring classes up here. You can see a tremendous amount of activity going on. Sometimes we have lunch functions.”
Our next stop was York College, which had no views to speak of.
“It’s an aviation management program,” someone told me. “Not a flying school.”
Nonetheless, a couple of students told me about one of the perks of attending York: they get to go on scavenger hunts at JFK in exchange for keeping the place tidy.
“We help them out” by picking up trash off the runways that could damage the planes, explained Yousef Almomani. “Normally cans. Soda and beer. We’ve done it at La Guardia as well.”
Shawn Ferguson, another student, said for excitement—though to me having jumbo jets taking off and landing over your head would be excitement enough—airport workers hide objects for the students to find.
“If you find it you get a plane ticket,” Ms. Ferguson explained.
It doesn’t look like I’ll ever get to see the inside of JFK’s control tower. But maybe I can sign up for a scavenger hunt.