Air Traffic Control Training Table




What do actual air traffic controllers use to practice actual air traffic control? Toys, naturally.

My wife and I picked up a recently discarded and gently used table.  We painted it up with some leftover paint, then mutually decided something had to be drawn on it. Since our "skillz of an artist" are somewhat lacking, I suggested we make a replica of my old practice ATC table - a ruler and some masking tape, we'll be just fine!

Step 1: Materials

  • Any old table (I used an IKEA Ingo table found at the dumpster, 30x46 inches)
  • paint
    • background color (white or green works well)
    • foreground color or colors (something that contrasts well with your background, I used dark green and black for taxiways/runways, and yellow and white paint pens for runway markings)
    • clear sealant (to protect your table)
  • tools
    • paint brush
    • square
    • notebook
    • tape measure
  • other
    • masking tape (I used 3/4", but any size should be fine)
    • scrap paper (we have ours delivered straight to our mailbox)

Step 2: Planning

You can freehand an airport if you like.You can also look up the approach plate of your favorite airport and modify it a bit to fit your table. I used KRCA for mine, which has one long runway and a simple taxi system.

Download the approach plate for your desired airport and decide which features you would like to keep, and how you would like to orient the runway on the table for best fit and asthetics. I chose to have the runway parallel with the edge of the table, as I think it will be easier to explain crosswind and downwind legs using this type of alignment.

Measure your table and draw a rectangle the same scale as your table. The scale I used was 1cm:2in, so the 46" side of my table becomes 23cm on paper, and the 30" side becomes 15cm.

Some of the airport's features are exaggerated so they will seem more to scale with the props. That is, to make the airplanes look proportional, you may need to widen the runway and taxiways. I used 4 inches for the runway, and 2 or 3 inches for taxiways, but a 3 inch runway would be fine for dollar store airplanes. 2 inches is stretching it a bit, I think, but it would still work if you want to fit a larger airport on the table.

If you like, you can draw your airport exactly to scale. Your airplanes will probably look very large unless you have an abnormally large table, or abnormally small planes.

Step 3: Base Coat

This is the background color of your airport. I used white, but any color would be fine. The one I used at work had a green background.  Really, it's up to you.

Just paint over the whole table, we'll paint the runway/taxiways over the top of it. I put a little over two coats of white on the table to make sure we couldn't see the wood grain beneath.  Save a bit of paint to touch up the background after the runway is painted on.  You know, just in case. 

Stay well ventilated, and use eye protection if you choose to strip an existing finish off!

Step 4: Outlines

Using a square, a ruler, a pencil, and whatever else you want to draw straight lines, sketch the outline of your runway onto the table. Don't worry about leaving marks, you will be painting over the pencil lines and can touch up the background.

Remember to use the same scale as you used in your model. You can use a protractor to get angles if you need them.

Step 5: Runways/Taxiways

I did this in two steps, one for each color.

Cover parts you don't want to get paint all over them with scrap paper and secure with masking tape. I found it easier to put too much tape on at first, then gently perforate it with a sharp knife and pull away the excess. It is much easier to get crisp corners that way.

Be sure to remove the masking tape once the paint sets! If you leave it on there for several days, you could get a sticky residue on your nice table.

If you like, add runway markings to your runway using mapping tools from google or bing.

Step 6: Sealant

Once you're ready, and the paint is good and dry, apply the sealant coat. Apply pretty liberally, and try not to brush too much.  I tried to make sure there was plenty covering the runway area, expecting the younger crew members to make carrier landings.

This coat is very important, as it will keep your paint from scraping off when practicing, or when spilling your coffee on it. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Step 7: Practice!

Most dollar stores and department stores carry small, die-cast metal airplanes for a dollar or two each. You can also try to find used ones at garage sales or on eBay.

Now you can either look up chapter 3 of your favorite version of the 7110.65, or just tune in to your local tower and repeat after them.

Side note: Some might say this is actually a Control Tower Operator Practice Table, but hey, it's still traffic in the air, right? Now if you'll excuse me, I have an approach gate key to track down.



    • Woodworking Contest

      Woodworking Contest
    • Fat Challenge

      Fat Challenge
    • Jewelry Challenge

      Jewelry Challenge

    12 Discussions


    6 years ago on Step 5

    I've always found airports to be fascinating places!! While I might not build something like this, it's EXTREMELY cool!!!!! 

    1 reply

    8 years ago on Introduction

    Looks nice! My flight club is currently rehabbing a neglected hanger that we leased cheap, I might suggest one of these for the flight planning room. It would be great for teaching student pilots airport operations as well.

    3 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks! Good luck with the rehab, Is "Restocking an Aircraft Hangar" an upcoming instructable? ;-)


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Oh, goodness, no. I'm guessing most of the steps are already on Ibles, though. We leased it as-was, which was as an engine repair/maintenance shop. Gutted the interior, framed in a classroom, planning room, kitchen, etc. We've been mooching a meeting room and keeping the airplanes in T-hangers, now we have a central spot for everything. Far too many steps for a coherent Instructable, though. ;)


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Good clean work! This would be a great way to teach students different procedures at controlled and uncontrolled airports! Maybe drawing a standard circuit (or pattern for the americans) for each runway would be a good idea (maybe not to scale tho). I know it would be a great asset to PPL, and IFR training, and a whole lot better than reading the CFS (sorry americans, i don't know your equivalent), for approach procedures. Now to get my flight school to build one.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    I was wondering if anyone would actually catch that! My original plan was to draw a giant Trogdor, but that would involve the dreaded curves of both an "S" and a "more different S", so it went with this instead. :-)


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Uncanny that this was posted. Last night the wife and I were watching The Taking of Pelham 123 (which we turned off after 15 minutes) and I made a comment about becoming an ATC. Yes, the movie was about a subway train, but their control center & interface reminded me of ATC stuff. She said "how do you think you would learn that" and I said "uh...lots of training??" but the thought of using models never came to mind. I was a dispatcher and then supervisor (now desk jockey) of an ambulance service that provides 911 coverage to 2 cities and 2 surrounding towns. When I was in the comms center we also covered 1 other local town and another distant city, so I was thinking I may have the nerve to handle ATC. How did you get into it, and how did you find it? T.V makes it out to be a horrific job, but the writers prolly never spent any time in 911 dispatch, taking calls from hysterical mothers of breathless babies or roof jumpers.

    1 reply

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    It's really not that bad over all, it really depends on where you work. There's always some level of stress - busy places don't leave room for error, and slow places you're fighting complacency. I've never experienced the overly busy side of things, though, so I'm probably understating it.

    There are several ways to get into ATC through the FAA or military routes. Not all that different from EMS work, it can be really slow, or it can be constant action, but either way you have to keep track of a lot of numbers.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Nice Job. I have used similar but simpler runways setups to teach take-off and land patterns to kid visiting the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Branch of the Smithsonian.