RAPCON: A guiding force for DOD aircraft

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kali L. Gradishar
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Following 8 ½ weeks of Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and 15 weeks attending the Air Traffic Operations Apprentice Course at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., freshly sculpted Airmen step to their first duty station to become an air traffic controller.

Depending on the needs of that base, Airmen will either be positioned in the air traffic control tower or in radar approach control. While the two positions operate under similar parameters, they are separate entities that work cohesively to ensure the safe and smooth travel of Incirlik's inbound and outbound aircraft.

Responsibility of airspace a multi-national task

"RAPCON here is responsible for all air traffic operations - military, civilian or otherwise - within 50 nautical miles of Incirlik," said Senior Master Sgt. Rebecca Gallagher, 39th Operations Squadron RAPCON chief controller.

Within that airspace, U.S. Air Force members working in RAPCON ensure the safe maneuvering of aircraft into and out of Incirlik's airspace, specifically monitoring and directing Defense Department aircraft.

"My job is to make sure aircraft in the air get where they need to go by monitoring the radar and talking to pilots on the radio. We keep in constant radio and radar contact with the aircraft when it's in our airspace," said Senior Airman Brian De Los Santos, 39th OS air traffic control journeyman.

As the job requires an enormous amount of responsibility, air traffic controllers in RAPCON must be dependable and accountable to ensure safe, efficient operations.

"The most difficult part of my job is knowing I'm responsible for other people's lives," said De Los Santos. "When you look at our equipment, it may look like a game, but it's definitely not a game. It's a huge responsibility.

"Some people can't handle that, and that's why some people don't make it through tech. school," he added.

Responsibility for air traffic operations within that same airspace is shared, however, with the Turkish air force.

"Under the (Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement) with Turkey, it's written that Turkish controllers will control Turkish and NATO aircraft, and U.S. controllers will work DoD aircraft," explained Gallagher. "We operate drastically different than any other base in the world. We have two different controllers working on two different frequencies in the same airspace. We're in constant communication with the Turkish controllers to ensure safety of flight.

"Our controllers are taught from day one that the only way to maintain safety is to have one controller, one piece of sky. Here, they're taken out of that comfort zone," she said. "It goes against their basic instincts; but as they become more accustomed to being here, it becomes second hand to them."

Prior experience required

Airmen must be prior rated to be stationed here because of Incirlik's unique airfield operations, meaning they must have been rated as an air traffic controller and have already been upgraded from a 3-level apprentice to a 5-level journeyman.

"We don't have any 3-levels here. Airmen come to us as what we call prior-rated," said Gallagher, "but every time we (change stations) we'll go through training as if we were a new Airman at our first duty station. The basic rules that we follow don't change. All we have to learn is base-specific information, but it's a lengthy process.

"There's a huge learning curve, so it's almost like being a 3-level again," she said.

That prior rating and experience is necessary as Airmen accustomed to operating under Federal Aviation Administration rules need time to adjust before transitioning to an overseas environment where they must follow International Civil Aviation Organization rules. Here, Airmen must also adjust to host-nation requirements that differ from other overseas bases.

Once an Airman arrives at Incirlik and is slated to join RAPCON, there's a training agenda to follow to become certified in the position.

"There are a few things that person has to do to become radar approach control certified," said De Los Santos. "First, that person will learn the specifics of air traffic at Incirlik, the equipment we use and any other basic information needed on the job. Then, they'll get trained in the different RAPCON positions.

"They'll train in the assist position where they assist the scope controllers, relay information and communicate with Ankara Center. Then, they'll move into approach control where a majority of the work is done. Approach talks to aircraft and has overall responsibility for the airspace. Finally, they'll train in arrival. Arrival owns from 5,000 feet to surface and 30 miles out and is responsible for all arrivals," he explained. "Once that's complete, they'll be RAPCON certified in all positions."

An around-the-clock job

"We have three eight-hour shifts working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year - including Christmas and my birthday," said De Los Santos. "There's always someone here; and even when we don't have aircraft ourselves, the Turkish air force is still talking with us and keeping us informed of what's happening with their aircraft."

Within that 24 hours, RAPCON is coordinating with the air traffic control tower, airfield management operations, weather, the 728th Air Mobility Squadron, airfield lighting systems and various other base agencies.

There is also continual contact between RAPCON and Ankara Center in Ankara, Turkey.

"Ankara Center is the agency we hand over aircraft control to and they send aircraft into our airspace," said De Los Santos. "We coordinate outbound and inbound aircraft with them."

Primarily, though, RAPCON controllers are always communicating with their Turkish cohorts.

"We're talking all day. Even if we don't have any aircraft, they're still keeping us informed because we work in the same airspace," said De Los Santos.

"Every time controllers give an aircraft direction, they immediately turn to our Turkish counterpart and repeat that information; and (the Turkish air force controllers), in turn, do the same for us," added Gallagher. "So if one of my controllers gives an aircraft clearance to descend, that controller turns around and relays to the Turkish air force that we have an aircraft descending."

As members of Team Incirlik are constantly moving in and out with either 15 or 24-month tours, Turkish air force controllers are the constant in RAPCON.

"The Turkish air force controllers play a vital part in keeping the airspace safe," Gallagher noted. "They are our continuity. They are our anchor."