Controllers of the sky

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Anthony M. Ward
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs
For most people, air travel is a simple matter of purchasing a ticket, checking in at the airport, and hoping the flight attendants don't run out of salted peanuts. However, what happens behind the scenes is not as simple.

At any given minute, thousands of aircraft may be trekking the skies, facing the many dangers they pose. Storms, wind, volcanic ash, passengers, other aircraft and malfunctioning equipment all have the potential to threaten airborne aircraft. These examples are only some of the possible dangers, and if an aircraft is faced with one, who would it turn to for help?

The answer sits in position at the many airports, military installations and airfields around the world. Whether departing, arriving or any situation in which a pilot would need assistance, the air traffic controller is there at a moment's notice.

The controllers in the tower at Holloman are no exception. These Airmen and Department of Defense civilians control Holloman's airspace in various shifts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

"At the start of an average shift, we come to work and get the pre-shift briefing," said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Thomas Waski, 49th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller.

This briefing familiarizes the controllers with all current and future NOTAMs, or Notices to Airmen, affecting the assigned airspace. These notices contain essential flight information such as weather reports and current positions of airborne aircraft.

"After the briefing, we head upstairs and take position and depending on whether you're training, working with a trainee or by yourself, the day can differ a lot," said Waski.

For an air traffic controller, constant training is part of the job. Even after Airmen leave technical school, they must complete on-the-job training.

"Training is probably the most difficult part of the job," said Waski. "Even after leaving tech school and arriving at our first base, we are in a constant state of training. Once you're rated, you then have to train all the new guys."

For air traffic controllers, it seems many acknowledge training as being the most difficult part of the job as another controller offers his own point of view.

"As far as being a trainee, the most difficult part is just studying and getting to know everything," said U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Daniel Lugo-Thomas, 49th OSS air traffic controller. "(You have to know) the whole broad aspect of air traffic control and just ensuring that I know everything so that it runs smoothly."

Using the Holloman runway, dozens of aircraft take off and land during the day, and at times, some more frequently than others.

With several factors ranging from airspace with a high density level of aircraft, to high priority aircraft, the number of controllers it can take to land a single aircraft can vary.

"It can take anywhere from 2 to 10 controllers to land a single aircraft," said Waski. "When talking to radar, or approach, or arrival, it will be just one person on each," said Waski. "If it's busy, however, they might have an assistant helping them. When it comes back to the tower, it's just whoever's in position unless we are busy also. Then we will have an assist."

Holloman's airspace has proven capable of being difficult to control, but this only allows the ATC Airmen to perfect their abilities.

"On average we have maybe 40 to 45 aircraft coming in and going out each day," said Lugo-Thomas. "Those are just single aircraft. There's a lot of training where they'll do practice approaches and touch and go's. It can sometimes feel like there are 150 aircraft."

The difficulties of being an air traffic controller are not limited to the number of aircraft or various situations they face. Aircraft come in so many shapes, sizes and weights, and they all handle differently no matter how slightly.

"Base assigned, we have the F-22, T-38, QF-4, MQ-1, MQ-9 and the German Tornados," said Lugo-Thomas. "As far as the fighters, they're pretty similar in terms of landing and taking off. The RPAs [Remotely Piloted Aircraft], however, they are the hardest to get down because they're much lighter and the wind can affect them a lot."

Though stressful, ATC offers many rewards to those up for the challenge. These rewards include the bragging rights of being capable of performing air traffic control duties and seeing a personal impact on Holloman's mission.

"One of the biggest rewards of being an air traffic controller is seeing the direct impact on the mission," said Waski. "When we're here, we're assisting with the training of traditional aircraft pilots, RPA pilots, as well as the German Air Force pilots. That's the mission and we're right here doing it. Even when deployed, the mission is seen that much more. We're right there launching the planes that are dropping the bombs."

As an Air Force base, Holloman has a mission to perform. In many areas, this mission requires the use of several types of aircraft, which the controllers are able to view first hand.

"The most enjoyable thing is probably seeing all the aircraft and what they can do," said Lugo-Thomas. "That and knowing that I'm working with something that directly affects the mission."

Along with the many rewards of being an air traffic controller, there is also opportunity for rare experiences and memorable moments while in position.

"One of the most memorable moments for me as an air traffic controller was deploying and getting able to talk with planes that had just dropped bombs," said Waski. "To actually clear an aircraft to land that had just dropped ordnance on the enemy is just amazing."

As complex, stressful and rewarding as ATC is, not everyone can do it. Aerial travel would be next to impossible without these highly skilled and dedicated individuals.

"The importance of having ATC is to prevent aircraft collisions, offer support and ensure the aircraft are safe in the air and that everything goes smoothly," said Lugo-Thomas.

So the next time you are traveling by air, relaxing in your seat and enjoying the in-flight movie, think about what it took to become airborne and what it will take to return safely to the ground. Think about the men and women who are hard at work to ensure your safety. Think about the controllers of the sky.