ATC Airmen train to keep skies safe

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Ryan Lackey
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
A bird's eye view of the airfield allows Fairchild air traffic controllers to fulfill a vital mission role in orchestrating the operations of everything on the field and in the air, and work to keep aircraft safe.

The tower is the authority for anything that moves on or off the airfield, coordinating traffic in a 10 mile by 5,000 feet circle, nothing comes or goes without their approval.

These skilled multitaskers are able to handle a slew of information coming at them from all directions, and their training reflects that.

“Airmen undergo an assessment during technical training to ensure they can do this job,” said Senior Airman Joshua Kirk, 92nd Operations Support Squadron air traffic control journeyman. “It’s a demanding field that requires multitasking, memorization with quick and accurate responses.”

ATC Airmen start with four months of technical training that gives them a foundation in radar and tower operations, yet this is just the beginning of what must be learned. ATC Airmen do not continue with follow-up schooling and tests like many job fields, but become certified while on the job.

"This is a job that must be learned by doing it,” said Senior Airman John Lewis, 92nd OSS air traffic control journeyman. “After technical school, we undergo nine to 10 months of on the job training before we get journeyman status and can work air traffic solo.”

Trainees start with an initial 30 days of “front load training” to learn the base’s layout, its local airspace map and the location of all the local airfields and what their capabilities are, before moving on to learn the three main tower positions.

"Once you know where everything is, the next step is flight data,” Lewis said. “The position acts as the tower secretary and keeps a log of all the information received so the ground and air controllers can focus on what is happening out there.”

Training continues with ground control, the position that manages all traffic of vehicles and aircraft on the field, and then completes with local controller position, who manages everything in the sky within the base’s airspace as well as keeping track of the radar for long distance tracking.

“Local controllers have to position aircraft in not just three-dimensions, but four,” Lewis said. “Accounting for speed can be challenging as these planes don't just sit there, they are moving in real-time and you have to account for that, it’s mentally taxing.”

It can be daunting to be responsible for providing correct and timely information that is vital to keeping pilots and flight crews safe, so trainers help trainees develop good habits to help balance their unique workloads, Lewis said.

“When you first try a position and have to deal with the noise and distractions around you, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and lose sight of other important things,” said Airman 1st Class Eyleen Colon-Colon, 92nd OSS air traffic control apprentice. “They work on breaking us of that habit early on, because we have to remain aware of everything happening around us, and be sharp in using the correct phrases and terminology in each situation. At first, you can’t understand what the pilots are saying and it can be stressful to be under pressure to know how to respond to anything, but you know you have a trainer right there with you; you have that security blanket and little by little you get better at it.”

Air traffic controllers follow the Federal Aviation Administration rule book, a worldwide standard for both military and civilian aviation, to be consistent with air crews, radar installations and towers from around the globe.

At the end of qualifying on all the tower positions, Airmen undergo a FAA final test to become fully certified to handle any aircraft, anywhere in the world.

“Even after being certified, we all get proficiency tests about once a month and receive evaluations yearly,” said Tech. Sergeant Beau Hunker, 92nd OSS NCO in charge of air traffic training. “There is a wealth of knowledge that has to be burned in our brains. To know it, to understand it, not have to think about it before using it as this must become fairly automatic.”

These airmen truly train like they fight, preparing themselves constantly to keep aircraft and air crews safe.

"We are ready for anything that may occur. We train to make any happenstance be every day for us, because if we can't control a chaotic situation, aircraft and lives may be in danger," Hunker said. "It's a fun job and very rewarding. It is a good feeling to know that you have a direct role and make an impact to the mission, as we are working hands-on with them to see them off and welcoming them home."