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Air traffic controllers bring order to England skies

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Christine Halan
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Air traffic controllers with the 100th Operations Support Squadron sit high above the flightline at all times, acting as the eyes and ears on the ground for those in the skies above.

Senior Airman Drew Kalina, A 100th OSS air traffic controller, is one of many service members who provide pilots a safe and expeditious service.

Those on the night shift don't have the advantage of daylight that others working the day shift may take for granted. Daylight provides ATCs the ability to see aircraft much further away, whereas the nightshift team has to rely on radar to aid them in bringing pilots safely to the ground.

"In terms of sequencing and keeping the aircraft separated, it's a little more challenging,” Kalina said. “We have a radar display in the tower which pinpoints their exact location, as well as providing the exact mileage and altitudes, and that helps. If our radar isn't working, we coordinate with RAF Lakenheath radar approach control, which controls about 60 miles of airspace; they tell us how far out the aircraft is. That's the biggest different at night time -- just knowing where your aircraft are."

The tower manages about a 3-mile radius of airspace up to 2,000 feet. It's the responsibility of those in the tower, via radio contact, to assist in directing the aircraft from their parking spots, taxiing them out to the runway and ensuring they arrive and depart safely.

"We provide order to chaos in the skies," Kalina continued. "Many people don't realize there is a lot of aircraft flying overhead all the time, especially in England. It's such a small place, but the volume of traffic is enormous."

From their "eyes in the sky," the controllers see the bigger picture of both the airfield and the skies, and use that information to safely allow the pilots to get on with their mission quickly and efficiently.

"The ATC has the bird's eye view of what's going on, so pilots listen to and trust us, because we know what we're doing," Kalina said. "We're very well-trained up here."

Training is a never-ending process for these Airmen and they must undergo a specific amount of training before actually taking on ATC responsibilities at their new base, regardless of their rank. Much of their training is undertaken at their duty station, and when leaving from one base to another, the controllers are required to be recertified all over again. The training, which is vital as they constantly handle different types of aircraft and runways, can take up to two months to complete.

Kalina explained there are two different parts to working in the ATC tower -- radar, which can take up to two years to train, and tower, which is anywhere from eight months to a year.

"Once you know how to talk to aircraft and be a controller, the rest is just understanding how everything else works," he said.

Being in this career field, he believes those wanting to work in the tower need a specific personality type to be able to handle the everyday stressors of being an ATC.

"I think you have to be a little bit more 'Type-A' than most," Kalina said. "You have to be extremely confident because the moment your voice cracks, you make it sound like you don't know what you're doing on the radio and that's when pilots lose faith in you. So, one of the first things I teach our trainees is that confidence is everything."

Whether it's bird strikes on police helicopters late at night to civilian gliders that have had altitude failure and need to land on the runway, ATC Airmen are there to protect and guide pilots safely and expeditiously on the flightline.

"Our Airmen are qualified and respected throughout the world," said Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Sollers, the 100th OSS ATC chief controller. "We use International Civil Aviation Organization standards in our training, as well as Federal Aviation Administration and Air Force Instruction guidance, which we are certified in. That's what gives the U.S. Air Force ATCs credibility and gains the trust of pilots around the world."