Meet Farah Adam

Ormoc Airport's One Woman Show

12 December 2013

Air traffic controller Farah Adam jots down some notes in between guiding aircraft landing and taking off from Ormoc City airport. (photo by Tony Ahn for
Much has been said in praise and gratitude, and rightly so, for the disaster response and relief workers who rushed in to help the communities devastated by super typhoon Yolanda.

But there are those, too, whose work, while mostly unnoticed, is indispensable to ensuring the relief missions even take place at all.

Meet Farah Adam.

Farah is an air traffic controller with the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines, and she was responsible for establishing flight operations in Ormoc City, allowing aircraft to bring in relief supplies, equipment and personnel and fly out refugees and relief workers rotating out.

In her mid-thirties, married with two kids, and a swimming and running enthusiast, Farah arrived in Ormoc on November 21.

The Ormoc airport has not been in commercial service since 2009.

Farah set herself up in a small office with a single window facing the airstrip and a radio set that had been brought in.

This, essentially, was the control tower.

Normally, airports have one or more controllers handling approach and departure, bent over radar screens in what is known as the Terminal Radar Approach Control Room.

There are other controllers who manage ground operations, deciding where an aircraft should taxi and park after landing, and which plane is to take off and when.

And then there are the ground marshals who manually signal the aircraft with orange wands.

They all communicate with each other to make operations as smooth and safe as possible.

In Farah’s case, she handled approach, departure, and ground operations all at the same time -- and with no radar.

When I first saw her in Ormoc on November 25, she was glued wide-eyed to her window, watching the sky for a Royal Australian Air Force C-130 that was preparing to land.

There were two in the air at the time.

With pencil in one hand and radio microphone in the other, she issued clearances in response to requests from the aircraft, moving swiftly from one activity to another: watching the sky, talking on the radio, poring over charts and other papers.

She had no radio to communicate with the ground marshals directing the aircraft.

Instead, she turned to a man standing in the doorway and said: “Can you ask the ground crew to direct this landing aircraft to park on the south end? And would you mind asking if they can unload it?”

She explained to "They're with the RAAF and this isn't one of their aircraft, but there's no one else to unload it, so I have to ask a favor."

Later, finding no available runner at the door, Farah dropped her mike and sprinted outside herself as a C-130 touched down to talk to the ground marshals directly.

Then she sprinted back inside to monitor the radio.

This was her job from sunrise to sunset every day.

“We’re unconventional, but we’re safe,” she said with a smile when she finally got a moment to speak to

“I arrived on November 21. As per Atty. Gonzalez, our Air Traffic Services Head, I was tasked to establish an Ormoc flight service station to provide safe, efficient, orderly, and expeditious air traffic service, and to coordinate with the US forces and other contingents for the allocation and division of labor, as well as reiterating the role and mandate of CAAP in providing safe Philippine skies.” got another chance to talk to her, by phone this time, when she returned to Ormoc for a five-day rotation.

"It was beneficial to be deployed here because it is really fulfilling," she said. "We made a small contribution, by sending supplies in and sending refugees out, and negotiating with various carriers to get them taken onward to Manila and Cebu, as well as get disaster relief workers ferried out who were going home. I'm on my second cycle here and I'm not regretting it."

Indeed, while disaster response and relief workers get the lion’s share of the gratitude and praise for their tireless work, there are others - pilots, drivers, ground crew, air traffic controllers and many others - whose work helps facilitate the missions of all other disaster relief agencies.

Meet Farah Adam, air controller and post-Yolanda heroine.

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