ATCs ensure pilot, aircraft safety

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Sandra Marrero
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
In a 108-foot-tall tower surrounded by windows, air traffic controllers get a bird's eye view of Moody's airspace and flight line. In an adjacent building, another group of ATCs in a dimly-lit room observe black-and-green radar screens.

Although they work in different environments and use different tools, these Airmen all share the same goal: protecting lives.

It is the ATC's duty to help protect pilots, crew, passengers and aircraft for Moody, Valdosta Regional Airport and 11 satellite airports.

"Whatever the [pilot's] mission, we get them to that point and help them with any needs they may have [at their destination]," said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Ryan Connors, 23d Operations Support Squadron watch supervisor. "Once the mission is complete ... we make sure there are no risk factors involved and give them instructions or guidance on their way back."

ATCs inform pilots of weather conditions, keep aircraft apart, maintain an efficient flow of air traffic, and assist during emergencies.

The task is shared between Airmen working at the base tower and radar approach control, who work hand in hand to keep pilots and aircraft flying safely.

Senior Airman Michael Zientek, 23d OSS air traffic control journeyman, said tower employees control five miles of airspace starting at the tower.

Once the aircraft passes the five-mile point, responsibility transfers to RAPCON, who views 5,500 square miles of airspace via radar technology.

"We are in direct communication with tower at all times," said Connors, who works at RAPCON. He said they relay information they see on radars about the number of aircraft flying and their position and flight conditions. If more than one aircraft is set to approach the tower, they will coordinate a landing sequence with tower.

Constant communication among the tower, RAPCON and pilots ensures the safety and efficiency of flights, helping Airmen get the job done.

Because of their responsibilities, ATC training can take years. Technical training at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., takes 72 days to complete and is followed by on-the-job training, which can last more than a year.

"You are responsible for that pilot's life and anyone else in the aircraft," said Staff Sgt. Sohnian Henderson, 23d OSS air traffic control watch supervisor.

She said ATCs are required to memorize a lengthy book of Federal Aviation Administration regulations and learn a set of base-specific regulations on top of that to ensure pilot and aircraft safety.

"The rules are the rules- you can't bend them, you can't break them," said Henderson. "You must follow them and know them like the back of your hand."

Henderson said knowing she acquired the necessary knowledge and successfully completed her on-the-job training provides a sense of accomplishment.

"For me, just being able to say I'm an air traffic controller is rewarding ... because not everybody can do it," said Henderson. "Being able to wear this [occupational] badge and do my job is enough in itself."

Zientek said he enjoys helping Airmen get back safely from deployed locations.

"You know you're directly participating in the mission and helping bring those guys home," said Zientek. "We're bringing them home safe and from our view it's cool because we don't see that every day."

For ATCs, the safety of others and mission success are the main priorities, and they train constantly to ensure those objectives are met.