Controllers step it up a notch during Northern Edge

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Every two years, the U.S. Pacific Command exercise Northern Edge brings nearly 150 aircraft together to hone pilots' aerial combat skills in Alaska.

The largest exercise in the state also brings additional challenges to the base's air traffic controllers.

The controllers must adapt to stressful situations spurred by the significant increase in traffic and ensure they constantly improve their coordination skills.

"It is a shock to your system, and you have to acclimate quickly," said Senior Airman Dana Carpio-Herrera, an air traffic controller with the 3rd Operations Support Squadron here.

A major stressor for controllers is the amount of time it takes to launch and land aircraft, said Airman Carpio-Herrera. Airmen in the tower spend nearly an hour-and-a-half twice a day launching the jets.

When the days flying scenarios are finished, aircraft return to base nearly simultaneously. Coordinating landings can be a difficult task, depending on how close the aircraft are relative to each other upon arrival.

There can be up to four planes returning at a time and another three some five to seven miles behind the first group, Airman Carpio-Herrera said. This doesn't allow Airmen much time to coordinate landings, so they have to know how to sequence the aircraft arrivals.

"I'm very proud when the whole team works together and everyone is doing well," said Master Sgt. Andrew Fraser, the 3rd OSS NCO in charge of standards and evaluations. "It makes me feel really good."

The Airmen work well together during a normal operations tempo, yet when their limits are pushed by the influx of aircraft, each controller's strengths and weaknesses are revealed, he added.

The air traffic controllers use Northern Edge as a training opportunity to help improve their weaknesses, Sergeant Fraser said. They do this by placing a more experienced controller with someone who may need assistance in a particular area. This helps the controller improve and build confidence in his or her abilities.

During tower operations, a ground controller and an air controller work together to ensure coordination for take-offs and landings are completed correctly, Airman Carpio-Herrera said. Each controller has to know what the other controllers are doing for things to go smoothly.

Training also ensures controllers can communicate properly with members of other military branches.

One main difference between the Navy and Air Force pilots is the landing procedures each follows.

Navy pilots have to be told when to break, meaning when they reach a certain point over the runway, controllers must tell them to turn, Airman Carpio-Herrera said. Air Force pilots turn at a certain point over the runway without direction from air controllers.

The Airmen enjoy working during Northern Edge, despite the added challenges, according to Airman Carpio-Herrera.

"I love Northern Edge because it keeps me busy and reminds me that what I'm doing is important," he said.

(Courtesy of Alaskan Command Public Affairs)