AFAFRICA builds on partnership in Rwanda

KIGALI, Rwanda -- U.S. Air Forces Africa conducted a military-to-military engagement with Rwandan Air Force air traffic controllers April 20-24 to expand on the two nations' existing partnership. 
Seventeenth Air Force planners (AFAFRICA) from the plans and programs directorate organized the Theater Security Cooperation event as a follow-up to the March 24-26 senior leader engagement visit to Rwanda by Brig. Gen. Mike Callan, AFAFRICA vice commander. During that visit, discussions between senior leaders focused on developing a plan for the future for Rwanda's air traffic control program.

"This was a great opportunity to capitalize on the discussions that took place between General Callan and the Rwandan Defense Force officials during his visit," explained Maj. Blake Smith, deputy director, Theater Security Cooperation branch for AFAFRICA. "We moved fast to put this ATC event together while interest and momentum are high." 

Without assigned forces who have the necessary expertise in air traffic control, Maj. Smith reached out to two members of the North Carolina Air National Guard who have worked extensively on both the military and civilian sides of ATC operations. Col. Robert McGrath and CMSgt. Robert Fort, both from the 145th Airlift Wing, Charlotte, N.C. ANG, traveled to Kigali to assess the existing ATC program and recommend a future plan. 

"The Rwandans' ultimate goal," said Col. McGrath, "is to make Rwanda an "air hub," by providing world-class ATC services and to expand their ATC operations where they can implement a fee-for-service program and ultimately make revenue with their ATC program" 

The Rwandan visit began with a tour of the ATC facilities, to include the air control tower at Kigali International Airport and a separate radar site, in addition to meeting with civil aviation and airport officials to determine what level of planning is already underway for the dual-use ATC operations, which accommodate both military and civil aviation traffic. 

"This was really a validation of the efforts underway on the civilian side by the International Civil Aviation Organization, and that a steering committee already exists to oversee implementation of a new ATC system," Col. McGrath said. "Because this is a dual-use operation, many of the controllers who run ATC operations as civilians are also in the Rwandan Air Force and receive their initial ATC training in Kenya or Tanzania. Our job was to determine the skill level of the controllers and determine how we can best help them build on the basic fundamentals to reach their ultimate goal."
Over the next few days, Col. McGrath and Chief Fort met with a group of 24 Rwandan controllers to discuss current training procedures, the basic fundamentals of Air Control Center operations, and the vision for Rwanda's future in ATC. 

"Just to be here, to see the facilities, and to be a part of something from the ground level is really special," Chief Fort said. "For the future, their main focus needs to be training. They have basic approach control training, but not Air Control Center training. They need assistance in designing airspace, site surveys, radar maps and a ramp structure. They have the energy and the vision and they want to's just a matter of putting it all together." 

Second Lieutenant Anthony Mpagaze, an air traffic controller in the Rwandan Air Force and chief of communications at the Kigali airport in his civilian capacity, visited Ramstein Air Base in February 2008, along with three of his counterparts in the RAF. They visited ATC operations there where Lt. Mpagaze said the group saw firsthand how U.S. Air Force ATC operations work. 

Based upon that visit, "we suggested that the U.S bring experienced controllers to Rwanda to see how we do things here," Lt. Mpagaze said. "We need training instructors, so they can develop a curriculum...we don't have training instructors. And we need to learn local procedures, which we don't get at the school house," he said. Col. McGrath and Chief Fort were exactly what Lt. Mpagaze had wanted. 

By the time Col. McGrath and Chief Fort wrapped up the final discussion, the group had heard from various presenters from civil and military aviation organizations, and discussed safety management, human factors, and the implementation of more robust communication, navigation and surveillance procedures to enhance Rwanda's ATC operations. 

"We have achieved what we set out to do," Lt. Mpagaze said. "We gained a lot of experience this week. We know what we need and what we have to achieve." 

On the last day of discussion the class enjoyed an impromptu visit and address by U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda, The Honorable W. Stuart Symington, grandson of the first Secretary of the Air Force, who perhaps best summed up the way forward for Rwanda's ATC operation with quick history of another major air hub -- Atlanta, Ga. 

Through the vision of "a certain mayor" of Atlanta, the city built a world-class airport and a world-class airline that brought "hundreds of thousands, if not millions of jobs to Atlanta and to Charlotte and to that whole part of our country," Symington said. "It was the greatest instrument to economic development the city of Atlanta had ever grabbed. It wouldn't have been possible without the airport, and the airport wouldn't have been possible without the controllers. So as you all think ahead, and you think what you want Rwanda to be, I'm absolutely sure of one thing: air traffic control will be at the center of Rwanda's success for years to come and I hope to one day be in a holding pattern over Kigali!"