Air traffic controllers keep our skies safe

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Tony Sutter
  • 23rd Operations Support Squadron chief controller
A call comes from downstairs at 8:30 a.m. The radar approach control technician advises the control tower of an in-flight emergency. An aircraft is 20 miles outside of base.

The flight data controller initiates the Primary Crash Alarm System to alert base agencies.

The ground controller is monitoring the crash net to coordinate with the on-scene commander.

Fifteen miles now, the flight data controller activates the bailout alarm for critical buildings near the runway. Three minutes later, the aircraft is now four miles out. The tower team ceases all airfield operations.

With binoculars on hand, the watch supervisor confirms that the landing gear "appears" down.

The local controller issues light gun signals, communicating to the pilot that he is cleared to land. The airfield is silent and motionless as the aircraft touches down. Crash response vehicles, stand-by on the taxiways, to witness an uneventful landing.

It's 8:45 a.m. and normal operations resume. Emotions are almost non-existent in this day-to-day operation.

A typical morning in Moody's Air Traffic Control tower can at any time unexpectedly turn into a higher stressed environment that requires personnel to safely land an aircraft experiencing an in-flight emergency.

An air traffic controller's first priority is to issue instructions and advisories to create enough space and order of priority to land and depart an aircraft; their operational priority is to provide this service on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The responsibilities of the tower are separated into four positions: local control, ground control, flight data, and watch supervisor. These four positions work hand-in-hand to safely land an aircraft.

Local controller, the "royalty" of the tower, separates and sequences aircraft in Moody's airspace. They operate a myriad of radios, as well as airfield lighting. This person also issues landing and takeoff clearances and is considered to "own" the runway.

The ground controller is responsible for vehicular traffic and taxiing aircraft that are in the radio-controlled portion of the airfield. They monitor all engine runs and aircraft tows.

The controller responsible for flight data coordinates take-off and landing times with other base agencies, receives flight plan, engine run, and aircraft tow information from airfield management. Flight data duties also include the operation of the Primary Crash Alarm System and the Automated Terminal Information System.

Finally, the watch supervisor assumes ultimate responsibility for all positions and the actions of the controllers in those positions.

Information management does not ensure a high degree of safety. Instead, there are many actions taken to ensure safe operations.

Total awareness and strict radio communication procedures are the keys to an orderly flow of more than 80 aircraft operations a day.

Dealing with five miles of airspace to the west and restricted airspace to the east, tower personnel work as a team, constantly watching each other's back.

Together, they visually locate traffic and maintain positive control over it, whether airborne or on the ground. Everyone on duty constantly scans the runway environment for animals, people, vehicles and anything else that may compromise safety.

Being safe is the utmost priority at all times, no exceptions. Unsafe actions are at the back of everyone's mind in the tower.

Controllers are continuously visualizing and revising their control instructions to provide an accident-free environment.

The job of an air traffic controller is the epitome of accountability. In comparison, a controller's job is like playing the most intense video game, only gleaning pertinent information to successfully complete the game. Focused controllers don't notice stress until they walk away, knowing that this is no game.