Air Procedures Flight provides critical mission support

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. James M. Hodgman
  • U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa
Pilots rely on a range of vital information to safely fly through the skies and perform landings and take-offs.

Much of this information is provided to aircrews that operate over Europe and Africa by the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Air Procedures Flight. The flight's primary mission is ensuring safe and compliant flight procedures are delivered to aircrews operating over both continents.

"We're responsible for pretty much everything from the mid Atlantic Ocean all the way to Cyprus," said Staff Sgt. Derek Larue, Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of the European Central Altitude Reservation Facility for the USAFE-AFAFRICA Directorate of Operations, Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration.

The EUCARF coordinates airspace reservations to support a variety of missions, and it's the only facility of its kind in the USAFE-AFAFRICA area of operations.

"We primarily reserve altitudes for air-to-air refueling operations, and we coordinate with every country that specific air traffic goes through," Larue said. "We may be in contact with five countries at one time for one mission."

Larue explained that his office typically receives airspace reservation requests about a week before a mission is to be flown, and his team normally completes reservation requests within three days.

However, weather or maintenance delays can cause issues, he said.

"When this happens, I have to immediately start calling each nation affected by the delay and find out if those nations can still support that mission," he added. "If the answer is 'no,' then that mission is likely conflicting with another mission vying for the same airspace. If we can't separate that mission by time or altitude, then that mission will have to fly on another day."

Along with supporting U.S. Air Force aircrews, the USAFE-AFAFRICA EUCARF has also coordinated airspace reservations for the Royal Air Force out of England, the German air force, Canadian air force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In 2013, the facility supported more than 3,000 missions for 13 nations.

Reserving altitudes and coordinating with various countries is just one of many responsibilities the APF has. The section's Air Base Support Terminal Instrument Procedures team analyzes airfield survey data to build and maintain instrument flight procedures for 17 bases.

The section performs obstacle assessments for airfields up to 105 nautical miles out from the center of those airfields. These assessments provide pilots with the exact location of anything that could have an impact on their flight path, said Staff Sgt. Kevin M. Keszler, international terminal and en-route procedures specialist.

The assessments are documented in flight information publications, which are provided to pilots through the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. This information helps pilots initiate an approach or departure, even if they can't see out the aircraft's window, Keszler said.

When an aircraft is coming in to an airport, if the weather is bad, the pilot may have to use instruments, such as the instrument landing system (a system that provides vertical guidance), to help him land, Keszler said. If a pilot can't see the runway while making an approach, this system makes it so he does not have to look out the windows to know the plane won't hit a power pole, tree or radio antenna.

"The assessments we do provide pilots with that level of awareness," Keszler said.

Staff Sgt. Elizabeth F. Edmonds, a TERPS technician, works in the non-accredited TERPS section of the APF.

She is responsible for reviewing flight procedures for 30 countries. As part of her review process, she rebuilds flight procedures, including any additions that would bring those procedures in line with U.S. Air Force standards.

Edmonds said common additions she includes in her reviews are greater climb gradients, which is how many feet per nautical mile an aircraft can climb and greater weather minimums, which is the ceiling and visibility required for a specific flight procedure to be flown.

"I review each procedure and rebuild it while trying to stay as close to what the host nation produced as possible," Edmonds said. "The whole process can be pretty time consuming. We have to build it and have it approved. From start to finish for a brand new procedure it could take between two-to-three days."

There are also moments when reviews must be conducted on short notice. Edmonds recalled working several short notice requests in support of former South African President Nelson Mandela's memorial events.

"We were hit with several last minute requests for reviews to be completed on procedures for countries all across Africa on really short notice," Edmonds said. "I think there were probably about 15 short notice reviews that we had to complete that day."

Supporting Mandela's memorial events made her realize that she plays a vital role in the USAFE-AFAFRICA mission, Edmonds said.

"We ensure that pilots are safe, that's what we do here and the passing of Mandela was the greatest example (to me) of how we were helping people," Edmonds said. "It was obvious to me that we were a critical part of those missions. I understand we're helping pilots accomplish missions, but we are behind the scenes, we get requests, build procedures and put them out there.

"I don't really think about it, because we just do it so often," she continued, "after the Mandela support I took a step back and realized 'that was us,' 'we did that.'"

The APF performed more than 30 procedure reviews for seven airfields across Africa in support of Mandela memorial efforts.

According to Gen. Frank Gorenc, USAFE-AFAFRICA commander, the command benefits from forward-based combat airpower with forces ready to respond to a range of contingencies in Europe, Africa and beyond. The command is forward, ready, now and the APF team is an important element of that capability.

"We're here where the mission is happening," Larue said. "If I were in the States, it would mean many more man hours to do the job. By being here, I'm able to coordinate missions in real time and that reduces the number of people needed around the clock."

"We're always ensuring everything is up to date, that we are able to produce the safest product and most current product out there," Edmonds added. "We're just a small step in the whole process of all these missions around the world getting accomplished. We're one little building block in the whole concept of forward, ready now; but we're a critical part of that."

Having such a profound impact can provide a great sense of accomplishment, Larue added.

"I love seeing the outcome when you put in the man hours and you get an e-mail back from someone you never met thanking you for what you do," he said "And just seeing it; you see some of our top officials traveling all over the world and you know that when you see the Secretary of Defense or Air Force Chief of Staff show up somewhere; you know when you helped that person and you know why he or she is there."

"It's nice to be a part of that, it's very rewarding," Larue said.