The Guiding Voice
By Airman 1st Class Zachary Heal, 36th Wing Public Affiars
/ Published September 25, 2019
ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam --
The air traffic control tower, a sentry for Andersen’s flightline, sits in the golden glow of the sunset. Air traffic controllers man the cab of the tower, waiting, ready to assist any aircraft that flies into the airspace.
Whether the aircraft is returning from a Continuous Bomber Presence mission or from a rescue mission off the coast of Guam, Andersen air traffic controllers are on the other end of the radio ready to bring them home.
“I try to treat every flight that lands here as if it’s a customer receiving a service,” said Master Sgt. Nathan Crawford, 36th Operations Support Squadron Chief Controller. “We give the bombers the same treatment that we would give the tankers or fighters that pass through here.”
Before they can provide that service, however, air traffic controllers go through extensive training in order to acquire their Federal Aviation Administration certifications. In addition to the initial four-and-a-half months of technical training at Keesler Air Force Base, an air traffic controller will typically receive six months to upwards of two years of on-the-job training, said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Jacobs, 36th Operations Support Squadron Air Traffic Watch Supervisor.
Crawford noted that the OJT can be stressful for new controllers and that this career field has one of the highest washout rates in the Air Force.
Both the stress levels and the washout rate are to be expected, however, when considering the responsibility that lies in hands of an air traffic controller.
“There’s a lot to learn and a lot to apply,” said Jacobs. “Being in a scenario where it’s potentially two planes coming at each other, you don’t have time to not be sure. So in the training, you have to be a little stricter than what you would be for a job where the consequences aren’t so dire.”
An air traffic controller’s job is to manage the flow of aircraft into and out of the local airspace, guide pilots during takeoff and landing, and monitor aircraft as they travel through the skies using radar, computers, or visual references.
“Here in the tower, we manage the arrivals and departures of all the aircraft,” said Jacobs, “Anything inside of five miles, we control.”
Outside of five miles, it’s the job of the Radar Approach Control, RAPCON, to manage the airspace. However, Andersen does not have a RAPCON facility on base like most other bases, making the situation different for controllers here.
“Working with a civilian RAPCON center is a unique part of controlling here,” said Crawford. “Normally we have the authority to implement any procedure we need to for the mission, but we don’t have that authority over the local RAPCON. Because of that we have to make sure we have a strong working relationship with our civilian counterpart.”
Despite both Crawford and Jacobs suggesting that ATC can be stressful, they also each mentioned that it is fun and rewarding.
“It just feels good to provide that service,” said Jacobs. “And when we have an atypical situation, it’s rewarding to succeed in working through that scenario, almost like finally completing a puzzle or a tough math problem.”
Another major benefit to the job is the opportunity to transition into the civilian sector when an Airman’s enlistment is completed. Because of the FAA certifications that air traffic controllers acquire during their service in the Air Force, controllers do not require further training and can immediately begin work outside of the Air Force in the same career field.
“It may be the career opportunity that draws us into controlling,” said Crawford, “but it’s the love for the job that makes us stay.”