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Controllers keep air traffic in sync

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- Tech. Sgt. Mark Morrison scans the airfield at a forward-deployed location.  He is an air traffic controller with the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron and is deployed from the 46th Operations Support Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.  (U.S. Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Stefan Alford)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- Tech. Sgt. Mark Morrison scans the airfield at a forward-deployed location. He is an air traffic controller with the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron and is deployed from the 46th Operations Support Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Stefan Alford)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- Tech. Sgt. Mark Morrison monitors aircraft returning to a forward-deployed location following strike missions against targets in Iraq.  He is an air traffic controller with the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron and is deployed from the 46th Operations Support Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.  (U.S. Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Stefan Alford)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- Tech. Sgt. Mark Morrison monitors aircraft returning to a forward-deployed location following strike missions against targets in Iraq. He is an air traffic controller with the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron and is deployed from the 46th Operations Support Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Stefan Alford)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- Tech. Sgt. Mark Morrison (background) consults with Marine Corps Master Sgt. Keith Ercanbrack at a control console.  Morrison is the only Air Force air traffic controller in the all-Marine crew that monitors aircraft returning to forward-deployed location.  He is with the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron and deployed from the 46th Operations Support Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Stefan Alford)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- Tech. Sgt. Mark Morrison (background) consults with Marine Corps Master Sgt. Keith Ercanbrack at a control console. Morrison is the only Air Force air traffic controller in the all-Marine crew that monitors aircraft returning to forward-deployed location. He is with the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron and deployed from the 46th Operations Support Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Stefan Alford)

SAN ANTONIO -- Air traffic controllers have handled up to 1,600 sorties a day as the "shock and awe" air campaign continues and ground forces make a beeline for Baghdad.

The torrid pace shows no signs of slowing, said Tech. Sgt. Mark Morrison, a controller working at a forward-deployed location. He works in radar approach control and said the high workload keeps him and fellow controllers glued to their radar scopes.

But instead of griping, Morrison, of the 46th Operations Support Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., welcomes the chance to put his 14 years of air traffic control experience to the test.

"During the height of a recovery -- after a big mission -- I'd say we land 15 to 20 aircraft a minute," he said. "That's outrageous."

On a normal shift, he handles from 250 to 300 aircraft, but many times he works 15 to 20 landings at a time. The action comes in spurts, he said, with controllers launching or landing aircraft at a frenzied pace for an hour. Then, after a 25- to 30-minute lull, the pace picks up again.

"One day we handled more than 500 aircraft during one shift," he said.

Focus is the key to success at those critical times, Morrison said. But it comes easy to the controllers, who work with a sense of purpose. They know the consequences of a lapse of concentration.

"Our job is to get aircraft safely to whatever point allows them to complete their mission," he said. With television images of Marines and soldiers locked in combat with Iraqi forces fresh in their minds, there's no room for guesswork. When ground troops need air support it has to get there fast, he said. "That's an awesome responsibility."

Morrison deployed in March to work at the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, which flies F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs. Also flying with the wing are Marine Corps and British aircraft. Though at an Air Force base, Marines run the air traffic control tower. Navy controllers also work there.

No sweat, said Morrison, who is from Holbrook, Mass. The Marines and sailors are "top shelf."

The wing has its nine Air Force controllers in around-the-clock, 12-hour-shift rotation, said 1st Lt. David Heron. As the wing's chief of air traffic control liaison, Heron coordinates with the Marines and the host government's military. Some of his airmen also handle liaison duties.

"The Marines do most of the controlling," said Heron, deployed to the wing from the 86th Operations Support Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. "We interface with the Marines to make sure air traffic control remains in sync with the air wing's needs."

So far, so good, said Heron, who is from Altamont, N.Y. The Marines are "an unbelievable bunch of professionals" who train year-round for operations like Iraqi Freedom, he said.

"To watch the Marines come in, set up and operate has been incredible," he said.

Airmen, Marines and sailors have adapted to a workload that has tripled in the past three months, and worked through the huge buildup that brought thousands of troops to the base.

On top of that, the American controllers have taken over all air traffic control for the host government. Its controllers now do much of the liaison work, Heron said.

Morrison said sending planes out is the easy part, as the tower releases aircraft one at a time. They fly off in a "nice uniform flow," he said.

Controllers direct the aircraft through the "incredibly congested traffic around the air bases" then hand control of the aircraft to airborne warning and control aircraft circling around in the airspace between the bases and Iraqi targets.

The warplanes' return trip is another matter. The jets, minus their lethal loads of smart bombs and rockets, sometimes return in groups of four or five depending on their mission. And unlike at a stateside base -- where radar identifies aircraft by type and call sign -- aircraft here appear on radar screens only as a code.

Morrison said controllers must then identify the aircraft, separate them by altitude and give them a landing sequence. The amount of fuel the jets have helps determine that order.

"So bringing them in is like putting a new jigsaw puzzle together every single day," he said.

Heron can not wait until coalition forces take Baghdad. That is when the next phase of the controllers' work can start: directing the air bridge to sustain coalition forces and Iraqis alike.

"We can start the humanitarian relief," Heron said. "Then we can move on, past this conflict."

Morrison loves his job, especially the surprises and around-the-clock work. It is how he proves his worth to the war effort, how he does his part, he said. Still, the thought of the war ending so he can go home is always in the back of his mind.

"When we take Baghdad, Iraq will be free," he said. "Then we can go home."

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