HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
Nestled between the Sacramento and San Andreas mountain ranges, Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, is home to the 49th Wing and the Air Force’s largest pilot upgrade training wing.
With hundreds of aircrew graduating from the six training squadrons, keeping the chaos in the skies of the Tularosa Basin in order is no easy task.
“We currently do about 50 to 60-thousand (flying operations) a year,” said Senior Master Sgt. Nicholas Day, 54th Operations Support Squadron chief controller. “Compared to a lot of bases, stateside, our operation’s tempo is fairly high.”
Not only do the air traffic controllers of the 54th OSS ensure the safety and efficiency of Holloman’s aircrew training, but they do it at one of the Air Force’s most complex airfields.
“Having three intersecting runways is a huge challenge here for controllers that come from another base because that’s not something they’re used to,” said Senior Airman Able Gonzalez, 54th OSS air traffic controller. “To a controller here, we look at it as having a lot of different options when it comes to landing and sequencing aircraft.”
Having a lot of different options is essential to the flying operations of the 49th Wing. In addition to the complex runway configurations, Holloman’s controllers must mix the fast moving F-16 Fighting Falcon with the slower MQ-9 Reaper.
“Mixing in the different aircraft characteristics of the MQ-9s with the F-16s can be difficult, but we make it work,” said Gonzalez.
While the job is tough, and the airfield is busy, the controllers of the 54th OSS understand their role in Holloman’s training mission and the bigger Air Force mission.
“We feed an insatiable animal when it comes to aircrew,” said Day. “Pilot retention is at an all-time low, F-16 pilots are in high demand and the unmanned (aircraft) community is only getting bigger. We directly feed all of those shortages by ensuring those (Airmen) get safe and quality training here at Holloman.”
Air traffic control is more than ensuring pilots and sensor operators get the training they need. The Airmen in Holloman’s air traffic control tower assume responsibility for the lives of every aircrew member who taxis onto and takes off from their airfield.
“You always have to have in the back of your mind the things that could be at risk and the things that you have in your hands,” said Gonzalez. “You have lives in your hands and millions of dollars of equipment in your hands. That alone helps you stay focused. If you lose focus for just a couple seconds that means that someone may not come home to their family.”
Ensuring the lives of tens of thousands of aircrew members per year is not a task one can do on their own.
“The atmosphere is a team effort and everyone is in it together,” said Airman 1st Class Antonio Saenz, 54th OSS air traffic controller.
When you are controlling flying operations for the Air Force’s premiere aircrew training wing, trust in your fellow Airmen is essential.
“Being confident with your fellow controllers and having that trust in them is make or break in this career field,” said Gonzalez. “It’s a team and you have to work with each other. You can’t be constantly worried about what the person next to you is doing.”
The busy operations allow the controllers to both grow stronger as a team, and stronger in their technical skill set.
“I think the group of controllers we have here are some of the best anywhere you’re going to find in the Air Force,” said Day. “They get to practice with busier traffic more often, so their skills are phenomenal.”