Air Traffic Control: You’re on their radar

Story and photo by Airman 1st Class Hailey Haux
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Ramstein tower, this is Ironhide 19. Two A-10s, one-zero miles north of Ramstein, inbound for visual to runway two-six, full stop.

Every day, thousands of aircraft take off and land anywhere and everywhere in the world.

The mission of an air traffic controller is to provide safe and expeditious air traffic flow by separating aircraft, issuing safety alerts and by giving pilots a clear and precise picture of what is in the airspace near them.

“Radar air traffic controllers keep the steady flow of air traffic into and out of military airfields by tracking aircraft on radar screens and providing pilots with voice instructions by radio,” said Staff Sgt. Danielle Naja, 86th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control watch supervisor.

Along with knowing the different call signs and radio equipment, air traffic controllers need to know weather reports, the aircraft’s speed, its direction and its altitude. Additionally, they must be able to give pilots safety information, landing instructions and identify aircraft positions on the radar equipment.

There are two aspects to air traffic control: tower and radar.

“Radar is responsible for approximately 20 miles of air space,” she said. “The tower here takes care of everything within about seven miles of the runway.”

Performing air traffic control can be stressful. Add in being in a foreign country, and that makes things even harder.

“It was difficult for me at first to understand the German controllers with the accents,” said Naja, a Houston native. “After working and listening to them, their accents got easier to understand.”

Working as a team and keeping accountability helps with the everyday stresses of being an air traffic controller.

“We have the tower team concept,” said Airman 1st Class Fredrick Leary, 86th OSS air traffic controller. “No one person will ever be responsible for everything. There are other Airmen who back you up and help you out in the tower.”

Supporting approximately 40,000 operations and more than 500 distinguished visitor movements a year, the Airmen of the 86th OSS are always training.

“The technical school to become an air traffic controller is 72 class days,” Leary said. “Once we get to our first assignment, we are in upgrade training for another six months to a year and a half.”

When air traffic controllers PCS they have to be trained and recertified on the new base’s systems and airspace configuration, which is where simulators come in.
Both radar and tower sections have simulators that cater to their requirements. Whether a computer screen to simulate a radar “scope” or a 360-degree view from the tower of the airfield and surrounding airspace, newcomers have something to train on.

 “The simulator helps tremendously because new people come in and can be nervous or uncomfortable in new conditions. The simulator allows controllers to develop those initial skills necessary to facilitate local air traffic,” Leary said.

The radar team is in the process of implementing a new radar system to increase efficiency of their everyday processes.

The new system is called the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System. This new system helps radar air traffic controllers more effectively track the location of all aircraft in the surrounding airspace.

“The STARS equipment has more capabilities than the old system, allowing us to be more effective and efficient with our work,” Naja said.

The older system air traffic controllers currently work with what was manufactured in the ’50s and ’60s and though it works, it’s essential to keep up with the technology of the 21st century, Naja said.

“With the old system we would have to type in a long command to find particular information, but with the new system all that needs to be done is click a button and we have all the information,” Naja said. “It’s a huge relief to be getting the STARS.”

Even while facing the many challenges in air traffic control, including severe weather conditions, older equipment, complex traffic situations and special pilot requests, the controllers work as a team to keep everything running smoothly.
“We sometimes have to think quickly, and it can be a matter of life or death,” Leary said. “Knowing that I have other controllers to back me up and help me out means a great deal.”

At the end of the day, air traffic controllers do their part to help with the Air Force mission.

“This is a very fulfilling job,” said Senior Airman Jeremii Van Komen, 86th OSS air traffic controller. “I feel like it’s important and that what I do immediately affects the mission.”

Ironhide19, Ramstein tower. Proceed direct three-mile initial, cleared visual approach runway two-six, traffic off your right wing four miles, eastbound, altitude indicates 1,300.