ATC: A challenging and rewarding path

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jacob Jimenez
  • 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
What would it be like to be responsible for the lives hundreds of people and millions of dollars worth of assets?

From more than 100 feet in the air, Team McChord air traffic controllers face this reality daily.

Responsible for coordinating aircraft in McChord Field's airspace, 62nd Operations Support Squadron controllers ensure the safety of all aircraft and crews landing and departing.

"The Air Force's job is to fly planes," said Staff Sgt. Logan Williams, 62nd OSS air traffic controller. "We ensure they do it safely."

To ensure the highest level of safety and proficiency, controllers complete rigorous training, inspections and tests to meet the approved standards of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force.

The road to becoming a controller is a long and difficult journey that begins in technical school, said Williams.

The school is a 16-week course involving both memorization and book work. Students must prove they can quickly learn and remember the information presented. They are tested weekly on the information taught and must maintain above an 80 percent on all test to progress. The course concludes with the FAA's certification exam.

Technical school is just the tip of the iceberg to becoming a controller, said Williams.

Following technical school Airmen undergo more than a year of on-the-job training and further book work at their assigned duty station. Training includes hands-on training in a simulator as well as at the actual control tower. Once Airmen prove they are proficient and capable to control on their own, they're allowed to work as controllers without a trainer.

"Once you get experienced in this career field, it gets easier to do," said Williams. "The training is a lot of work but's worth it in the end."

Although training and memorization play a major part in becoming a controller, the hardest skill a controller must learn is how to respond under pressure, said Williams.

"No day is like the next as a controller," said Jennifer Harrison, 62nd OSS air traffic controller. "One minute we could have no one in our airspace and the next, a civilian aircraft is making an emergency landing. At any given moment we have to be alert and ready to respond to anything."

New controllers are very closely observed by their trainers who have high expectations of ensuring they become proficient in the established standards and regulations of air traffic control.

"We take little mistakes very seriously because we can't correct a big one. It is our responsibility to determine whether or not they will be capable of making the right calls in the case of an emergency."

Controllers at McChord Field typically work one of three positions in the tower: ground control, local control and flight data.

Ground controllers are responsible for all areas of the airfield except the runway. They control all aircraft movement on the ramp.

Local controllers are responsible for the runway and airspace. All aircraft landing, taking off or flying within the airspace must communicate with local control.

Flight data controllers are responsible for providing pertinent information to flight crews such as information about local airports, base agencies, weather, maintenance, and fuels.

Airmen in each position work closely together to maintain an open line communication between the tower and aircrews, said Harrison. Controllers constantly look out for one another to better each other.

"This job is a constant team effort, where we are always working cohesively together to ensure zero defects," said Williams.

In addition to using teamwork to improve safety, controllers are closely monitored by a watch supervisor each shift. The watch supervisor has the final authority on all decisions made in the tower and is responsible for ensuring the accuracy and proficiency of every controller on his or her shift.

Although sometimes very challenging, being a controller can also be very rewarding said Williams.

"It's awesome to be presented with scenarios and put all the pieces together to ensure everyone arrives and departs safely," said Williams. "I also like this job because I'm always learning. It's taught me to become a better communicator and how to operate in stressful situations."

Due to the fact that Air Force air traffic controllers receive the same certifications as civilian controllers, it's easy for them to find a job as a controller in the civilian world, said Harrison.

"This is a great career to work your way into and get experience," said Harrison. "I love knowing that I can go anywhere in the U.S. and find a job as an air traffic controller."