Last frontier for tactical air control

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Stacia Zachary
  • Air Forces Central Combat Camera Team
Weather can often be the deciding factor on an aircraft landing. As soon as a weather system moves out, operations generally resume their normal tempo. That is, unless the airstrip in question is in the middle of an Afghan mountainside.

These mountainside airstrips at austere locations have minimal roadway infrastructure in place and zero construction to mitigate flooding and ensure the structural intactness of the airstrip.

For joint tactical air controllers here, it's not just about being ready to launch a full-scale attack on the enemy. It's also about guaranteeing the landing zone is still certified and safe to land aircraft on so cargo and personnel can continue to move throughout the theater as missions dictate.

"We're qualified to run the dirt," Tech. Sgt. Jason Rutledge, the 807th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Squadron Operating Location - Alpha NCOIC. "The (Forward Operating Base) Davis airstrip is a major air corridor between Kandahar and Kabul. We have everything from (unmanned aerial vehicles) to combat aircraft to rotary, fixed and civilian aircraft shuttling throughout the (area of operations). We help mitigate the risk of colliding air assets."

The weather and the terrain have posed an immediate challenge to the JTACs. As of late, the area has been inundated with heavy rains and subsequent flooding causing an unsure airstrip for aircraft.

"Recently, the amount of rainfall we have had has been a significant factor in airfield operations," Sergeant Rutledge said. "Before aircraft can land, we need to make sure there is no standing water, no ruts and that the ground isn't too soft."

If the ground is too soft for the aircraft to land on, the landing zone will have to close bringing an immediate halt to any aircraft landing.

With all the rain, the hammerhead was too soft for aircraft to use as a turnaround point, Sergeant Rutledge said.

"I (had) to advise the aircraft that there (was) less runway for them to use and (left) it up to their discretion on whether or not they (wanted) to press or abort," he said.

Moreover, the conditions hindered ground movement because the unpaved roadways leading out to the airstrip were too soft to carry the weight of the military vehicles.

"Providing security here has been challenging this time of year," Sergeant Rutledge said. "Vehicles are getting stuck out on the (landing zone) or creating deep ruts on the (landing zone) or hammerhead. There hasn't been a lot of visibility which is bad when you are operating in blackout conditions. Just trying to get vehicles out to the (landing zone) is a challenge."

A typical mission for the JTACS here when attached directly to the 2nd Stryker Calvary Regiment is assisting with the landing of aircraft on the dirt airstrip outside of FOB Davis -- a military post adjacent to FOB Lagman.

"Standard operating procedure for us is to make sure the landing strip is secure, track any dynamic weather changes and integrate with other units in the area to make sure everything is set up for the aircraft's arrival," Sergeant Rutledge said.

Without this liaison between the ground forces and the air assets, there is potential for mass chaos due to all the moving parts in the bustling airspace.

"Without us, there would be a lack of information and that information can be passed wrong between the different parties," said Airman 1st Class Brandon Shamhart, 807th EASOS radio operator, maintenance and driver. "That could cause an immediate danger to both the aircraft and the people on the ground waiting to recover the cargo."

Ingenuity is the key to outpost living. On FOBs, tools of the trade are a luxury and the people assigned to these places often have to tap into their imagination to see what will work as a substitute.

"In place of the real thing, which (is) always in short supply downrange, these TACPs thought outside the box and came up with something that can be used across the board and with great success to signal aircraft," said Lt. Col. Stacy Maxey, the Headquarters Combined Joint Task Force 101 air mobility liaison officer. "It's all about working smarter, not harder and with limited resources."

In lieu of a control tower or tools to read altimeter settings, the TACP Airmen call in to other units on the base for those readings and the current weather and winds.

"Without our own gear to track altimeter and weather changes, we link up with the UAV guys and get the most current information to pass to the aircraft," the sergeant said. "I also communicate with (FOB) Lagman tower to get a general awareness of what assets are in the air and pass this to the pilots."

In terrain that is unforgiving and requires airlift to get people and resources in and out of the area as the main means of resupply, it's imperative to ensure airstrips and landing zones are safe.

"Our job is to communicate everything to the pilot about the airfield so they can land safely," Airman Shamhart said. "Without that information, the plane can still land, but the people inside might not walk away okay. That would be a really bad day -- something we're here to make sure doesn't happen."