Every career in the Air Force contributes toward the overall mission to fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace. Air traffic controllers do their part through ensuring the safety of pilots and aircraft that go through their airspace by making quick decisions and monitoring different variables.
ATCs separate traffic by staying in communication with the pilots as they land and takeoff. They plot aircraft positions on radar equipment and compute aircraft speed, direction and altitude. ATCs also radio the pilots, constantly relaying flight and landing instructions, weather updates and safety information.
“I try to make things as easy as possible for the pilot,” said Staff Sgt. George Garrett, 56th Operations Support Squadron ATC at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. “They already have so much going on, my job is to make it as easy as possible for them to land and feel safe in their aircraft.”
More than 14 months of extensive training is needed to become an ATC. Brief introductions to the ATC operator course are performed during a four-month period at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. Once the ATC arrives at their first duty station, they focus their efforts and training on the basics of their environment. Day-to-day training involves reviewing binders and books of rules. After that, they work live traffic with an individual monitoring them.
Along with live training, an hour of aircraft simulation training is performed on a computer system. The aircraft’s characteristics in the simulations are exactly the same as how they ordinarily fly, helping the ATCs get familiar with unique scenarios that might happen.
The ATC tower is utilized by approximately four ATCs on shift to get visual observation on the aircraft in their airspace. There are more than five cubic miles of airspace that tower ATCs oversee. More than 74,000 total annual operations are conducted, which are aircraft that are controlled through the airspace.
ATCs are broken into two central sections, ones who control the air and ones who control the ground movement.
“When you are on the ground or are taking off, you are talking to the tower,” said Garrett. “As soon as you get into the clouds, that’s when you’re talking to radar approach control (RAPCON).”
More than 15 ATCs are on shift at a time at RAPCON. They are in communication with the pilots while they are in flight and when they start climbing to 6,000-plus feet. RAPCON ATCs sit in the low-light instrument flight rules room and use radar scopes, a screen with rings and dots on it, to identify where aircraft are in flight.
“Each little dot is an aircraft,” said Garrett. “The computer system is reading GPS on the aircraft and radars are instantaneously giving that information and putting it onto the radar scope so controllers can use it. That allows the RAPCON controllers, because they don’t have windows and can’t see the aircraft 16,000 feet in the air, to be able to have a picture of what’s going on.”
Due to the similar aircraft that reside at Luke, separation requirements permits the aircraft to be separated 4,000 to 6,000 feet while taking off and landing. If aircraft get too close to one another, ATCs promptly look for solutions to resolve the conflict.
“Our whole job is to see those conflicts miles and miles out,” said Garrett. “If a situation does arise, we take immediate action to correct them.”
Combined, the tower and RAPCON oversee more than 8,000 cubic miles of airspace. Due to the amount of airspace the ATCs have to cover, their job can be stressful at times. Although, that doesn’t hinder their performance of ensuring a safe flying environment in order to train the next generation of fighter pilots, according to Garrett.
“The Air Force’s operations include large amounts of flying missions,” said Airman 1st Class Sante Constantine, 56th OSS air traffic controller. “Our whole mission is flying and air power. If we didn’t have ATCs in the Air Force to keep the pilots safe, how would we fly?”
RAPCON and tower ATCs continue to ensure the safety of the pilots, aircraft, and civilians on the ground by staying vigilant and spotting complications well before they happen. They continuously perform their duties, even under dangerous or extreme conditions, including combat situations. The 56th OSS ATCs are trained to be prepared for any situation that comes their way.