Zelda's tower

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

The room began to shake.

Pens and pencils clattered along instrument panels as a dull roar drowned out all other sounds. Inside the room, a dark-haired woman stood motionless, watching the ground below from her lofty tower.

Her eyes followed as a B-52 Stratofortress sped past her window, its long wings wobbling, fighting against gravity to push the enormous hulk skyward. Still she watched, almost willing the beast to fly -- as the fire behind her eyes betrayed her calm exterior.

"It's unbelievable that you can take a piece of metal and have it fly," said Zelda Montoya, a retired chief master sergeant and current air traffic manager, as gravity finally gave way and the B-52 ascended into the clouds above Royal Air Force Fairford. "People dream of flying, but when you're in the sky, or you're in control and trying to make something work and come together, it's the most amazing feeling."

For 35 years, Montoya has stood in her tower, overlooking flightlines around the world and guiding aircraft to and from home. To her, the sky is not made up of fleecy clouds and endless expanses of blue, but rather lines, grids and waypoints.

"I see a map in the sky," Montoya said. "To see that huge piece of metal actually fly and cross the Atlantic, with its global reach, is such an incredible feeling that never goes away."

That intense love for aircraft did not begin the day Montoya enlisted. It began with a little girl who was fascinated with flight.

"When I was little, I was really amazed by helicopters," she said. "It just stuck with me. It's a love for airplanes."

From those humble beginnings, through her career as an Airman and beyond, Montoya was able to see the world from the window of her tower, watching as airpower developed from an abstract concept to a personal mantra.

"Airpower to me, is like having an aircraft depart from a flightline," Montoya said, motioning to her stomach with both hands. "You just feel it from the inside, and you know you're ready. You are out in front, ready anytime, anywhere."

As the air traffic manager at RAF Fairford, Montoya embodies that concept. She must be ready to turn the minimally staffed installation into a fully functional, active base within 48 hours. The critical capability at RAF Fairford offers a unique and strategic role in bomber contingency operations across Europe. It takes Montoya’s and a team of dedicated professionals’ intense focus and dedication to ensure the installation is able to support U.S. commitments to its allies and to enhance regional security.

"When you're in the control tower, you almost have a 3-D vision in your mind," she said. "It's basically having a plan A, plan B and plan C, and seeing everything in a very different light in order to make it all work."

Montoya said experience has taught her how to manage plan A, while simultaneously coordinating plan B and C in her head. It is a skill she eagerly imparts to Airmen.

"To pass on knowledge to younger Airmen is really a humbling experience," she said. "They want to learn, they want to know, and it's really important to pass that experience along. It keeps this passion within us, and keeps it alive."

Despite the stress often associated with managing aerial operations, Montoya said her fellow controllers are part of the reason she stayed in the career field as long as she has.

"The best tool is the controllers pulling together and relying heavily on one another," she said. "It's like a big family. We share the same experiences, the same feelings and we understand each other. I love them for who they are and what they do."

She paused, and looked out the window again, as a single tear welled up in her eye and trickled down her face.

"My worst day will be when I leave."