Air traffic controllers ensure safe flow of aircraft

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Tim Jenkins
  • 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Poorly-planned transportation systems can cause significant delays, which is evident from the millions of Americans facing deadlocked traffic on daily commutes. But there is no room for traffic delays when the vehicles include several facets of American air power.

The 379th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron air traffic controllers are on hand here 24/7, avoiding jams by directing the constant ebb and flow of aircraft traffic at the most diverse and active hub in the area of responsibility.

The air traffic control tower is manned all day, every day. Several positions within the tower maintain several specific responsibilities: the local controller, ground controller and watch supervisor. A fourth position, the supervisor of flying, works directly for the operations group commander, serving as the eyes and ears for a pilot who may be experiencing difficulty.

Together, the team maintains the installation's five-mile airspace, safely directing aircraft on the ground and air.

The installation runs more than 5,000 operations monthly, meaning an aircraft takes off, lands or moves roughly every 10 minutes. With such a high operations tempo, it's crucial each member of the air traffic control team fills his or her role, making sure air tasking orders take flight without a hitch.

Keeping traffic flowing on the ground, the ground controller directs traffic by talking to vehicles and aircraft moving from parking spots to the runway, and vice versa.

"(The ground controller) helps the aircraft get to the runway and back to their parking spot," said Senior Master Sgt. Tad Cahow, the 379th EOSS control tower chief controller. "Once he gets them to the runway, control is handed to the local controller."

The local controller clears the aircraft to take off and land, maintaining the separation between aircraft to ensure they land and take off safely.

Timing is critical in orchestrating aircraft movements, said Staff Sgt. Tyrone Edwards, a 379th EOSS air traffic controller,  

"One has to be off the runway before one can land," he said. "You kind of anticipate separation to make sure one will be off the runway by the time the incoming one lands. We keep them safe in the air and on the ground. They wouldn't be able to go without us."

Sergeant Edwards, who has been an air traffic controller for eight years, is deployed from Keesler AFB, Miss. He said the fast-paced atmosphere here is what makes this such a great deployment.

"I've been to two bases stateside, and this location is definitely fast paced," Sergeant Edwards said. "We have something going on every 10 minutes, whether it is an aircraft landing, taxiing or taking off."

Tech. Sgt. Anthony Accoo, the 379th EOSS NCOIC of air traffic control training, serves in the watch supervisor position.

Acting as a third set of eyes, he oversees the ground and local controllers, ensuring the overall operation runs smoothly and according to rules and regulations. For Sergeant Accoo, serving here is rewarding, knowing his contributions are sending aircraft straight to the fight.

"I enjoy getting to see the ins and outs of everyone going into the war zone, especially going straight into Afghanistan and places like that," said Sergeant Accoo. "Just knowing that you're in support of something like that gives a realization of what really is going on and why everyone is flying."

It's the standard layout for any Air Force air traffic control tower in the world, but what really makes the air traffic controllers here unique is the they work closely with those from the host nation.

"We work side by side with host nation controllers," said Sergeant Cahow, a 23-year veteran to the field. "It's definitely a coalition effort pushing our gas and bombs forward and delivering people to the AOR."

The air traffic control tower is a host-nation building. Eventually, this location will be the host nation air force's central base, at which point they'll start taking a bigger piece of the responsibility. In the meantime, host-nation controllers serve in the local and ground controller positions.

"Since the watch supervisor can only be an Air Force NCO, all the (host nationals) fall under the watch supervisor and have to perform to the watch supervisor's standards," Sergeant Accoo said. "So we're pretty much molding them to make sure they can maintain what we'd maintain at any facility."

Host-nation controllers undergo their own training process to become certified. According to Sergeant Cahow, there is no segregation between U.S. and host nation controllers -- the roles are virtually indistinguishable. The partnership is in working together, making sure they support the needs of the host nation here.

"We get to work with our coalition partners and forge alliances with those people in pursuit of our nations' will," he said. "I know there are valuable friendships made, too. It's truly a forging of friendships."

According to Sergeant Accoo, it's an easy friendship to forge when using a universal language.

"Air traffic control is a language all in its own; so as long as we all know our job, we can all speak the same language," Sergeant Accoo said. "So usually, that all works for us because when we can't communicate, we just put it in air traffic control terms and everything becomes clear. It's really that easy."

Sergeant Accoo added working with them is enjoyable, but also offers a great learning experience in how the host-nation controllers operate. The arrangement doesn't establish a training environment, but rather an exchange of knowledge. Because host nation controllers are trained within International Civil Aviation Organization standards, and the Air Force uses the Federal Aviation Administration, both of those standards are merged together to affect the mission.

"Working with them is fun," he said. "They influence us by giving us their methods and teaching us how they do things and the reasons why. We share the comparisons based on the FAA rules. So we see where the two standards meet. Usually, the FAA rules are more stringent than ICAO rules, but it's only because we have higher airspace criteria."

Working within a joint environment is not without its challenges.

According to Sergeant Edwards, procedures are typically the same, but there are minor differences.

"Equipment wise, it's not the same as what we normally use," he said. "So you have to get familiar with the equipment. Also, each airport has a different runway configuration and taxiways."

Despite the challenges of working in a joint deployed environment, the real focus is on the mission, which takes center stage here.

"At a stateside base, it's all training and you'll have constant aircraft in the air all the time, whether practicing on the range or practicing touch and go's or low approaches," Sergeant Cahow said. "Here, it's all strictly mission. It's take off, go, deliver whatever it may be, come back here and land, refuel and start over. We're the first to say hello, and the last to say goodbye, executing our mission of getting them there and getting them back safely."

Sergeant Cahow added the performance of all the controllers here is nothing short of incredible.

"Air National Guard, active duty and host nation air force are all working together to affect the 379th mission, which is incredible," he said. "It's amazing that those three groups can come together and do such a phenomenal job."