Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Sky Watching: Vertical Surveillance in Civil Aviation

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Sky Watching: Vertical Surveillance in Civil Aviation

Article excerpt


Scholars have written extensively about vertical surveillance as an extension of aeriality. They have interrogated the aerial platform as a synoptic means to behold, control and wage war from above, and as a locus through which air power can be challenged from below. While this perspective highlights the complex reciprocities linking the sky and the earth, its focus remains fixated on aeriality's (in)capacities to render terrestrial life explicit and governable. As an inhabitable space, the sky is rarely considered as a target of rational knowing and control through vertical surveillance. This article examines the views generated in sky watching, or the tactical monitoring of airspaces in air traffic management (ATM), as a rejoinder. It examines ATM's methods of knowing the sky, its conservative logics in 'spacing' aircraft, and the assembling processes that geopolitically produce unequal surveillant orders. It argues that the sky, along with its visualisations, finds substance through particular technologies, calculations and expertise that repeatedly draw on the West's visual rationalities. While a 'benign' form of seeing/knowing in civil contexts, sky watching in ATM summons geopolitical power not through brute force, but by discerning which visions are 'acceptable' for the administration of aviation safety and airborne life.


Vertical surveillance, aeriality, air traffic management, geopolitics, aviation safety, aeromobilities


In July 2002, two airliners--a Bashkirian Airlines passenger Tupolev Tu-154M and a DHL Boeing 757-200 cargo jet--collided at 34,890 feet over Uberlingen, Germany at 21:35 hours. As the DHL's vertical stabiliser sheared through the Russian plane's fuselage, the mid-air violence left all 71 people onboard with no chance of survival. While the pilots of both aircraft failed to correctly follow the automated instructions from their traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS), Zurich-based air navigation service provider, Skyguide, had taken most of the blame for the accident, having failed in providing reliable air traffic surveillance services to the pilots. Not only was there just one controller on duty that night, he was also responsible for monitoring two workstations simultaneously, while several data processing and warning systems were suspended for computer modification works (Bundesstelle fur Flugunfalluntersuchung (BFU), 2004: 36-39). It was in this context of sub-optimal aerial watching that a significant airspace conflict could not be identified and resolved in time.

This article aims to unpack the principles of vertical surveillance in air traffic management (ATM), on which the fate of all aircraft daily hangs. While scholars are increasingly interested in the visual perspectives afforded by aeriality, or the condition of being airborne (Adey, 2010), seldom do they consider the prospects of the sky, itself, becoming an object of scrutiny, calculation and rational knowing for the purpose of occupation and indwelling (Connor, 2010). Unlike the majority of work that elucidates how the air-ground view has trained systematic ways of deciphering spaces, territories and their contents 'from above' (Adey et al, 2011; Gregory, 2011; Kaplan, 2006), research on surveillance in the other direction tends to focus less precisely on airborne intruders or the aesthetics of cosmic views 'from below' (Dunnett, 2012; Fritzsche, 1992; MacDonald, 2010; Williams, 2013), without so much evincing how the sky may, like the earth, be plumbed as an entity to be known and acted upon (see, however, Whitehead, 2009). Implicit in these writings is, then, a form of air-ground reciprocity that is highly asymmetric, with the air assumed to be that which organises knowledge, and is therefore able to subdue (Bishop, 2011); counter-gazes from the ground, in contrast, serve only to advance terrestrial projects and/or complicate this aerial power. …

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