NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Because of Nellis AFB’s unique mission within Air Combat Command, there are times when it feels as though there are more fighter jets streaking across the blue skies than there are birds.
As the home of prestigious air combat establishments like the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and Red Flag and Green Flag exercises, Nellis’ two runways are considered to be some the Air Force’s most active.
No small undertaking for the team of air traffic controllers tasked with ensuring the expeditious flow of traffic; all with the safety of air crews and pilots as the top priority.
As a 57th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control watch supervisor, Tech Sgt. Michelle Hughes oversees a team of controllers as they work together to organize the arrival and departure of a wide variety of aircraft with equally diverse missions. Another important aspect of her job however, is training the Air Force’s newest ATC apprentices in an environment that can be overwhelming.
“I like to say that we don’t really teach people air traffic control; we mold them into controllers,” said Hughes, who admits that Nellis can be a difficult first assignment for an Airman fresh out of technical training. “There’s some kind of natural talent that you have to have in order to do this job well.”
Even after completing the rigorous four-month air traffic control apprentice course at Keesler AFB, Miss., there’s no guarantee of success on the job. In fact, new controllers coming here can expect another year of grueling on-the-job training to get qualified to move aircraft, Hughes said. “Overall we have about an 80 percent wash-out rate.”
Hughes explains that the reasons behind the high wash-out rates stem from the high-stress nature of the job. An Airman who acquires and retains knowledge from tech school may still have difficulty applying and executing that knowledge in a real-world scenario.
“We’re still not able to really hone in on who fits the bill for this job and who doesn’t,” Hughes said.
For Nellis’ newest controllers, the odds placed against them are a huge motivational factor, helpful when expected to make quick decisions based on the airframe, weather conditions and mission objectives all under pressure.
“I’m almost through,” said Airman 1st Class Markanthony Diaz, 57th OSS air traffic control apprentice. In his final phase of training, Diaz is looking forward to taking his place among Nellis’ operational controllers. “It feels like a real accomplishment when you know you’ve done something not everybody else can do.”
Upon arrival at the tower, new apprentices begin “front load” training where they combine basic knowledge acquired in tech school with the unique challenges and procedures of their respective base, Hughes said. Following front load training, apprentices progress through phases to gain knowledge in various ATC positions such as flight data, ground control and local control. The end result is a new controller confident enough to advise pilots and ground crews through each phase of a flight.
Diaz’s fellow ATC apprentice Staff Sgt. Tavon Brown brings his own unique perspective into the ATC training atmosphere. As an F-22 Raptor crew chief here at Nellis, Brown witnessed how hectic the flightline can be on the ground-level.
“I wanted to try something different and see what I could do to expand my career in the Air Force,” Brown said. He later visited the tower and met with the people who had been calling all the shots. “Coming to Nellis [as an air traffic controller] was motivating because if I can say I worked Red Flag two or three times, I can pretty much work anywhere in the world,” Brown said. “It really opens up a lot of doors for you.”
As a result of recent budget constraints and the cancellation of the upcoming Red Flag exercise, air traffic at Nellis has decreased exponentially posing new challenges for supervisors responsible for training up new Airmen.
“Right now we’re only getting enough traffic for two local trainees and the rest of us are just waiting,” Diaz said.
The controllers are currently preparing for yet another reduction of flight hours coming June 1, which is expected to increase the length of apprentice upgrade training from the current 12 months to 18 months, Hughes said.
Despite the coming challenges, Nellis’ newest shot-callers remain determined to succeed.
“You have to have a lot of drive; I’m going to make it here,” said Diaz, who’s nearing the conclusion of training and will soon officially join the team in the tower. “This is my goal and I will achieve it.”