Spangdahlem GCA Airmen keep aircraft safe through physical distancing

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Valerie R. Seelye
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs

For some people, physical distancing is a new concept, but certain U.S. Air Force Airmen here practice it daily to make the mission happen.

Airmen from the 52nd Operations Support Squadron Air Traffic Control Ground Controlled Approach radar facility make sure aircraft remain safe in the airspace through aspects such as remaining separated.

“Using our radar, we instruct aircraft where to go and keep them separated from other aircraft flying around,” said Staff Sgt. Ashley Aring, 52nd OSS ATC watch supervisor. “We are the eyes of the skies for planes that are not visible from the tower.”

When people think of ATC, they may think of the control tower, but the GCA facility provides different support.

“The main difference between our radar facility and the tower is that radar controls the aircraft in the air and within about a 30-mile radius of the airfield,” said SSgt Kelly Laws, 52nd OSS ATC watch supervisor. “The tower controls all aircraft on the ground and within a five-mile radius.”

GCA Airmen not only keep aircraft separated, but they keep themselves separated by remotely communicating with other teams.

“We talk to about seven different facilities in a day, whether it’s the tower, surrounding airports, and even the weather facility,” Laws said. “There are over 20 local regulations that we need to follow with all kinds of rules and guidelines.”

Although they call themselves the “eyes of the sky,” they actually can’t see the sky.

“If you’ve been in a radar facility, you’ll notice there are no windows and depending on the shift supervisor, the lights will be turned off as well,” said Laws. “A radar facility relies on radio communications and radar displays to separate aircraft, while towers rely on their windows. A darker environment allows us to see our screens better with no distractions.”

The radar team can be small and Airmen may find themselves working alone, depending on the flying schedule.

“Depending on the amount of positions needing manning, we can work with as few as one person by themselves,” said Aring. “The smaller team concept is actually kind of nice. You develop relationships and become a team with those you work with, and eventually that's your work family.”

Laws agreed.

“Honestly, there’s not really a need to keep up morale in our facility,” she said. “Everyone contributes equally and makes sure the job is done. We enjoy our little building and being away from all the hustle on base.”

Laws offered advice for those who aren’t used to feeling alone or isolated.

“In our current situation, many people are experiencing isolation and that’s our specialty at the GCA,” Laws said. “The advice I would give to those is it’s the perfect time to ensure additional duties are complete, and as long as your leadership and facility allow it, there’s no better time to start or finish your education.”

Aring added that the most important thing about staying physically distant is to pass the time by staying busy.

Although GCA Airmen work in an inherently isolating environment, they stay busy making sure the 52nd Fighter Wing mission is safe.

“ATC is an extremely important job,” Laws said. “There are times we have to make split-second decisions that affect hundreds of lives. We prevent collisions, organize and expedite the flow of air traffic, as well as provide airfield and weather conditions to pilots. Pilots cannot fly airplanes without a safe air-traffic system and reliable controllers.”