by Airman 1st Class Aaron J. Jenne
4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
3/19/2015 - SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- One shop at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, towers above the rest.
The 4th Operations Support Squadron Air Traffic Control tower is not
only the tallest building on the installation; it's physically the
highest point in Wayne County, North Carolina.
The 36 Airmen who call the tower home use a combination of training and teamwork to ensure aircraft take off and land safely.
With 360 degree visibility, Airmen constantly monitor the 5-mile-wide by
half-mile-tall airspace surrounding the base. In 2014, along with their
counterparts in Radar Approach Control, they monitored more than 94,000
aircraft operations, making Seymour Johnson AFB the third busiest
installation in Air Combat Command.
"I have an important job. Every day, lives are in my hands," said Senior
Airman Nicholas Randolph, 4th OSS air traffic controller. "Sometimes I
coordinate with upward of 15 aircraft at a time to make sure everyone
comes home. I need to make sure I'm following all the rules and
regulations of the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and local
operating instructions. Missing something could end in a catastrophe."
To mitigate the possibility of a disaster, air traffic controllers undergo extensive training before they ever climb the tower.
The air traffic control technical school at Keesler Air Force Base,
Mississippi, lasts three months and trains the Airmen on the basics of
Airman 1st Class Nicholas Gibbs, 4th OSS air traffic controller, said
technical school was rough, but his real training didn't begin until he
made it here.
"We don't get career development courses like all the other jobs," Gibbs
said. "When we get to our first base, we train for about a year,
becoming certified at every station. We take monthly tests to stay
current on ever-changing regulations even after we're certified. If we
ever make a mistake, we could be put back into training and have to
recertify. We're in a very strict career field."
The training doesn't end there.
Any time Airmen are assigned a permanent change of station or deploy,
they are trained all over again, Randolph said. FAA regulations may
remain the same, but local operating instructions and aircraft may be
"Here we have F-15s," Randolph said. "They all have the same paint job.
They all look the same. You have to look out the window and remember
which one each is - know what each is doing, and what each one wants.
It's kind of like a giant puzzle in the sky. You've got to figure out
how to make everything go together the best."
Randolph added that each airframe has its own specifications and
requirements that dictate runway and flight procedures. He said it
requires a lot of memorization, but if an Airman can't practically use
that knowledge on the spot, it does them little good.
This, Randolph said, is where things get really hectic.
"If you don't know the rules and regulations, obviously it's going to be
stressful," Randolph said. That can be said of any job though. As long
as you study and stay current on all the new information that comes out,
this job is not stressful."
According to Randolph, it all comes down to teamwork and communication.
"In the tower, everyone's always paying attention," Randolph said. "We
work as a team. I might be working a position by myself, but if I miss
something, one of my wingmen will spot it and tell me so I can fix it."
Randolph said the local control station is one of the most stressful,
yet coveted positions in the tower. When an Airman is selected for that
role, talking directly to the jets, the tower chief is placing trust in
that Airman, and to Randolph, the combination of stress and trust is
"When I'm selected for a stressful role, like working the local control
station, it means my supervisors trust me to do well," Randolph said.
"Knowing they trust me empowers me to excel in stressful situations. It
adds to the confidence I already have, and it makes me want to do
This station may place the Airman in direct contact with the jets in the
airspace, but talking to the aircraft isn't the tower's only
The tower coordinator and the flight data controller coordinate with
RAPCON, which monitors the airspace outside the scope of the tower, to
prepare the Airman at the local control station for incoming aircraft to
provide a seamless transition into the airspace.
Another station, called the ground control station, uses binoculars to
keep a watchful eye over the runway, coordinating with vehicles to make
sure the airstrip remains free of obstacles whenever a jet is due to
takeoff or land. They also constantly observe the surrounding area to
ensure no wildlife is present which could cause mishaps.
From their perch high above Seymour Johnson AFB, air traffic controllers
continue their mission. This group of highly skilled professionals uses
their training and experience to form a cohesive team, piecing together
the ever-changing puzzle of aircraft in the sky.