Military News

Friday, March 20, 2015

Training, teamwork help air traffic controllers handle stress of mission

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 the trade.

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 different.

"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 empowering.

"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 better."

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 responsibility.

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.

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