From a dark windowless room beneath the air control tower, the 56th Operations Support Squadron radar approach control team vigilantly monitors the airspace around Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
As Luke fighter pilots take to the skies, the RAPCON team coordinates and monitors the flight paths of military and civilian aircraft surrounding 8,000 cubic miles of airspace outside Lukeís local area.
In simple terms, we make sure pilots get from point A to point B without flying into another aircraftís flight path,î said Senior Airman Kristen McQueen, 56th OSS air traffic control specialist.
While the air traffic controllers in the tower monitor 5 miles out for landing and takeoff, the rest of the airspace is left for the RAPCON team.
This monitoring requires constant communication with Phoenix approach controllers as well as other airports and aircraft training centers across multiple states surrounding Arizona. This high volume of air traffic makes the Luke RAPCON team the 10th busiest controllers in the Air Force.
It’s like playing 3-D chess,î said Senior Airman Tyler Turnbull, 56th OSS air traffic control specialist. ìBefore we make a decision, we have to factor in every aircraft that might conflict with the next aircraftís line of flight in the future. We have to stay focused and plan multiple steps in advance.
While this job may be a daunting task to some, monitoring radar and coordinating aircraft is a team effort, with every Airman playing a specific role in the mission.
Anytime an approach control Airman is watching the scope, there’s a team backing them up,î said McQueen. There’s a person to their left called the ëassistí who’s there for anything the approach control needs. Behind the assist is the coordinator, who stays in contact with the tower for back-up. Behind all of them is the ëwatch supervisor, ready to back up the whole room. We have to have each other’s backs in that room at all times.
The RAPCON team is always on call for weekend flights and big events that require a large number of departures, keeping military and civilian passengers safe. Though it can often be a highly demanding job, Senior Airman Anderson expresses his feeling of working while under pressure.
One thing I love is the intensity of the job,î said Senior Airman Nicholas Anderson, 56th OSS air traffic control specialist. We have to stay vigilant at all times. You’ll be staring at the radar, tracking multiple aircraft, calculating multiple flight paths, and communicating with multiple pilots and controllers. Next thing you know, hours have flown by.
Many moving parts are required for the U.S. Air Forceís largest fighter wing to continue fulfilling the mission. RAPCON plays a key role in that mission, being the eyes of our fighters while they train to be the world’s greatest fighter pilots and combat ready Airmen.