Tower a pinnacle of support for fliers
By 2nd Lt. Nathan Broshear, 457th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs
/ Published April 03, 2003
OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM (AFPN) -- As B-52 Stratofortresses lift off from a deployed location, the last person to wish them well is not the commander or maintainers. It is Airman 1st Class Jeremy Beecher, an air traffic controller with the 457th Air Expeditionary Group.
Air traffic controllers direct all air and runway traffic. They are the last people to talk to an aircraft before it is passed on to other controllers along the route. In their perch high above the airfield here, controllers manage aircraft out to five miles and up to 3,000 feet.
Even with millions of dollars in hardware and countless lives at stake, Beecher is prepared for his work. On the first day of bombing against Iraq, he felt it was "just another day at the office."
Beecher emphasized the controllers are here to do a job: conduct airfield operations safely and efficiently.
"That duty stays the same whether it's training, combat or just someone passing through," Beecher explained.
According to Beecher, confidence is the most vital part of an air traffic controller's job.
"You have to be sure of your instructions. If you're not confident, aircrews will hear it in your voice," said Beecher. "Often, you're the only one they can talk to on the ground during emergency procedures. You have to project calm."
Airman Steve Haro, a deployed air traffic controller here, is excited about his role in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"It's a great feeling to be directly impacting the mission," Haro said. "Being deployed is an opportunity to contribute while getting experience at another airfield that's not your home station."
Operating in the European theater can present a unique set of challenges, explained Haro.
"Pilots from other countries sometimes have thick accents that make it hard to understand them on the radio. The key is to enunciate and speak slowly," Haro said. "Also you have to have a lot of patience."
As a vital link to the ground, controllers often find themselves assisting crews during in-flight emergencies.
Their "crash-phone," a large red phone mounted in the middle of the tower panel, automatically rings firefighters, medics, security forces and airfield staff in the case of an in-flight emergency.
"We can clear traffic to allow a plane to land without delay, direct fire and ambulance crews, and help aircrews with complex procedures," said Beecher.
Controllers can have two or three in-flight incidents a day and then go weeks without an occurrence. They rarely meet the people they help.
"We don't meet the aircrew very often," Beecher said. "There are a few pilots I recognize by their voice, yet we've never met."
Landing odd or notable aircraft can be memorable. Beecher once landed Air Force One. Haro had the opportunity to land a World War II-vintage B-25 bomber. Other deployed controllers recalled the day they landed a NASA Boeing 747 with a space shuttle mounted on top.
According to Beecher, working as an air traffic controller is one of the best enlisted jobs in the Air Force.
"The adrenaline makes the days go by quickly, and you've always got a great view of the airfield," he joked.
Beecher returns to his work with a smile as he looks toward the sky and greets his next customer.
"Inbound heavy, this is tower, welcome to my sky ..."