Airmen keep watchful eye from tower

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kali L. Gradishar
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman! No, scratch that. It was just a plane - a plane being directed by 39th Operations Squadron Airmen in the tower.

In a position where multitasking is implemental to their mission, air traffic controllers work 24 hours a day ensuring approximately 25,000 aircraft per year arrive and depart safely. This is done through coordination with radar approach control, airfield management operations, the 728th Air Mobility Squadron, the Turkish air force and myriad base agencies such as weather, command post, fire department, security forces and ambulance services.

"Everything in this job involves memorizing, applying, coordinating and multitasking - you're always multitasking," said Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Rowles, 39th OS tower watch supervisor.

At Incirlik, there are four positions in the tower: local control, ground control, flight data and watch supervisor.

Local control speaks to pilots in the air, separates aircraft within the tower's airspace, and clears aircraft for takeoff and landing. Local control also has jurisdiction over the runway unless released to ground control. Ground control communicates with vehicles and aircraft on the ground. Flight data coordinates with AM Ops and RAPCON and can be tasked with anything from relaying departure and arrival times to obtaining clearances.

The watch supervisor oversees those positions and must be at least a staff sergeant with a year of upgrade training and must be rated in all ATC positions.

"A typical shift starts with a brief from the previous shift including what runway is in use, what the weather is like and what the weather is going to be like. We get a position brief to see what's happening at each position, all following the checklists we use. Then we go over the NOTAMS, or notices to Airmen, which is information about or near the airfield that pilots should know about," said Staff Sgt. Donald Mills, 39th OS tower watch supervisor.

"After that, we go through opening checklists, check all of our equipment, make sure everything is working, make sure we can transmit and receive on every frequency, call our different stations to make sure we can hear them loud and clear," said Mills, "and then we work."

Airmen covering three eight-hour shifts ensure the tower functions 24 hours a day with their Turkish counterparts, as both Turkish and American aircraft transit through the base.

Coordination, cooperation key to ATC

Working seven stories above ground, controllers have a far-reaching view of the airfield and air space, but their reach also extends to various agencies on base that work together to ensure airfield operations at Incirlik run smoothly.

Airspace is divvied up between the tower, RAPCON and beyond.

"Control of an aircraft goes from one agency to the next: the tower has control up to five miles from the airfield, RAPCON takes control up to 50 miles, then control goes to (Ankara Center in Ankara, Turkey) after 50 miles," said Rowles. "The whole job is about coordination."

As an aircraft prepares to land or depart, the pilot contacts the appropriate agency for instructions.

"There are so many agencies that we work with here," said Mills. "A pilot will check in with the tower 30 minutes to an hour before their proposed departure time. They run through their pre-flight checklists and make sure their (diplomatic) clearance is good. They'll request engine start, go through their checklists and start their taxi. Once they start their taxi, we request clearance through RAPCON, and RAPCON will call Ankara to get clearance.

"When aircraft are flying in, they talk to RAPCON first at about 50 miles out, and they won't talk to us until they have the airfield in sight. Depending on how clear of a day it is, it could be zero to 15 miles out when they can contact us for clearance to land," he explained. "On bad weather days, if the pilots don't see the airfield, sometimes I won't even talk to them. I'll give RAPCON the clearance to land, and the aircraft will contact us once they're on the runway."

Training the controller

From Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Airmen designated to become air traffic controllers travel to Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., to attend the 15-week Air Traffic Operations Apprentice Course. Airmen make their way to their first duty station upon successful completion of the course as 3-level apprentices ready to become certified as an air traffic controller by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"In this base, we don't have 3-levels here. You have to be certified at least once by the FAA. There's not as much time to train, so we need people who are qualified," said Rowles. "Plus, as 3-level Airmen straight out of tech. school, they were learning FAA rules and regulations. When you go overseas, we operate following (International Civil Aviation Organization rules)."

"They want someone who's already knowledgeable about the job, not someone who is new to the field," added Mills.

For each permanent change of station, prior-rated controllers must accomplish on-the-job training, hours of self study and numerous tests to become rated at that location. This is to learn the new airspace and location-specific rules and regulations.

"Every base has instructions tailored to that base ... We get something called a PCG - a position certification guide - that has tasks with objectives that must be met, and there are references that you have to read per objective," Rowles explained. "It's a lot of reading. It's a lot of memorization. The point of it is, though, to be able to apply the rules to live traffic."

Air traffic controllers train in one position at a time to become rated at a new base. Once the on-the-job-training and self study time is complete, controllers take a written test and conduct a live certification with the chief of standardization and evaluation who ensures the controller in training can handle tasks such as sequencing, traffic advisories, wake turbulence situations and emergencies. To become a watch supervisor, the controller must be certified in ground, local and flight data positions before being certified.

"Because I'm prior-rated from different bases, I had half the amount of time to get rated than a new person," said Rowles who arrived at Incirlik June 4 and was certified June 26 as a watch supervisor.

Along with technical school and base-specific training, controllers must also take a monthly, 20-question proficiency test to ensure they are current on all rules and regulations. To pass, they must answer 80 percent of the questions correctly.

"It's important to be proficient on regulations because somebody's life could be on the line if we make a mistake," Rowles said.

"We're also responsible for millions of dollars in assets at any one time," added Mills.

Adjusting to life overseas

Operating in an overseas location requires adjustment as rules and regulations differ in international airspace. In the U.S., air traffic controllers follow FAA rules as noted in FAA Order 7110.65, Air Traffic Control. Internationally, controllers follow International Civil Aviation Organization's DOC 4444, Air Traffic Management.

"Those are the bibles of air traffic. The rules and regulations are similar, but there are some differences between the two," said Rowles. "When we come here, we have to basically retrain ourselves to be able to apply the ICAO rules and regulations for aircraft.

"The difference in phraseology is the hardest thing for me. It's a simple thing, but when you've been in the military for 10 years and come to a base where they have different phraseology, you have to train your mind to think about what you're saying versus spitting out what comes natural," she added.

While overseas, diplomatic clearances are necessary for aircraft to cross bordering airspace.

"A diplomatic clearance is like a hall pass to go from country to country. You can't just break borders. Embassies contact other embassies for coordination," said Rowles. "The main thing that makes a flight a go or a no-go is the diplomatic clearance. If it's not perfect, the aircraft won't fly."

Working in an overseas ATC tower also requires adjusting to working with host-nation counterparts.

"We work side by side (with the Turkish air force). This base is different from every other base in the Air Force because they have their aircraft and we have our aircraft. We work in a small, five-mile radius," Rowles noted. "There's a lot of coordination that goes on between us and the TURAF, and it makes really unique from any other base."

Satisfaction and success

"I love this job. I love doing my job," said Mills. "A lot of us here are on 15-month short tours, so we become a really close-knit group. That's important because it makes it easier to communicate in that kind of environment."

From the family-minded mentality and multi-tasking mindsets to the necessary perfection in their daily tasks and successful completion of approximately 25,000 operations per year, air traffic controllers share a comradeship here that has led to noted accomplishments in the ATC world.

"We have checklists for everything, and we just recently revamped them," said Mills. "We had a big inspection in December, and our checklists got best practice. Now they want them (throughout U.S. Air Forces in Europe).

"In that inspection, we had zero write-ups for over 100 inspectable items," he said. "We got an outstanding."