Air Traffic Control: Keeping eyes on the sky

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Nicolas Z. Erwin
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

The fin of a beast weighing more than 190,000 pounds maneuvers through the flight line, looking reminiscent of a great white shark prowling the ocean in search of its prey.

Tourists in South Dakota may mistake the steel grey tail of a B-1 bomber as a mechanical monstrosity until they see the full might of the bomber. In a tower sitting half a mile away from the flight line, a team of Airmen and civilians with full view of this aircraft coordinate this beast’s takeoff.

The 28th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control team is ready for any situation, whether their eyes are on the flight line or on a radar watching the sky.

“Air traffic controller’s jobs are basically keeping planes from crashing into each other and getting people where they are going on time,” said Staff Sgt. Anthony Morgan, the 28th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control standardizations and evaluations noncommissioned officer in charge.

Though it sounds plain and simple, the attrition rate for these controllers is over 20 percent at technical school and then another 30 percent at their first duty station.

“[Our technical training] is 72 days,” said Senior Airman Grant Krause, a 28th OSS air traffic controller. “You learn the basics of air traffic control, fundamentals, and you get a little experience using a simulator for the [radar approach control] and tower environment.”

Morgan explained the career field’s technical training is more of an aptitude test to see if candidates have the capabilities to succeed as an air traffic controller. During their initial training, technicians practice with simulations rather than real-life flights.

After arriving at Ellsworth Air Force Base, controllers undergo a 12-14 month training period to qualify to operate in the skies above Ellsworth; Minot AFB, North Dakota; and Minot International Airport.

From there, Airmen will be assigned to one of two different sections: the tower or RAPCON. The tower directs aircraft on the ground, landings and takeoffs, while RAPCON communicates with aircraft in the airspace of South Dakota, Minot AFB, and other parts of the Midwest.

“In the RAPCON, we control several airports [in South Dakota],” said Senior Airman Ayleen Recavarren, a 28th OSS air traffic control journeyman. These airports include Rapid City Regional Airport, Black Hills Airport, Sturgis Municipal Airport, Custer State Park Airport and Custer County Airport.

Even after becoming qualified, air traffic controllers must take a monthly proficiency test that contains questions about different skillsets required of the career field. They also need to get a specific number of hours in each control position in the tower or RAPCON.

To succeed in this career field, candidates must have a plethora of skills, most importantly: situational awareness.

“There’s a lot going on,” Krause explained. “Depending on the position you’re in, you might not think you need to be paying attention to what someone else is doing, but you need to be on the ball with what everyone is doing.”

With or without this situational awareness, working with aircraft at every moment of every day is stressful. Dealing with the stress is another important factor of the career.

Morgan explained that controllers are mandated to work no more than 10 hours a day due to the high stress and intensity of the job. Along with that, South Dakota is in the middle of the country – aircraft frequently fly through and around the state.

“Our airspace is not the biggest, and the B-1 is kind of a large plane, so if you get two or three in the pattern it can get a little tight,” Krause said.

Krause described how the pattern is like a racetrack in the sky where planes fly to practice their landings.

“It can get stressful,” Krause explained. “But, we are trained for the job and can handle most situations.”

To provide airpower — anytime, anywhere – the 28th Bomb Wing air traffic controllers are always prepared with eyes on the sky.

“We’re the Air Force,” Krause said. “Our battlefield is in the sky, so it would be kind of hectic if we were trying to fight a war without air traffic control keeping people from colliding into each other and keeping the skies safe.”