Air Traffic Control: Eyes in the Sky

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- “When I was first notified of the emergency, it was an, ‘Are you serious?’ moment. I couldn’t believe it,” said Staff Sgt. Wolfgang Jubell, 5th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller. “We immediately notified the Fire Department, Air Field Management, hospital and other base agencies with all the information on the aircraft. There was constant communication between us all.”

During any in-flight emergency, it’s an air traffic controller’s responsibility to get the aircraft safely on the ground by clearing the airspace, communicating with the aircrew and ensuring emergency personnel are prepared to meet the aircraft when it lands.

“Once the pilots informed us that the aircraft was structurally sound and everyone was okay, a lot of weight was lifted off our shoulders,” said Jubell. ”I just wiped the sweat off my brow and we proceeded to get the aircraft back on the ground.”

Communication plays a major role in ensuring that aircraft return safely. In the event that communication systems stop working, air traffic controllers have alternative ways of letting aircraft know when it’s safe to land.

“If there is only one-way radio communication, we have a light gun we can use. Different colors and patterns to tell them what to do,” said Senior Airman Jalah Patten, 5th OSS air traffic control journeyman. “The aircrew can also signal us back by rocking their wings or doing other motions.”

Additionally, air traffic controllers always work with at least two other Airmen or a watch supervisor who can provide their experience whenever needed.

“We have a lot of Airmen who come from other bases and have experience with other aircraft,” said Jubell. “Each aircraft has different characteristics and abilities; those abilities will dictate how you can work them.”

From the moment air traffic control Airmen arrive at technical school, they are taught air traffic control principles and procedures so they are prepared for any possible situation.

“Tech school is very intense and mentally demanding; I believe this helps Airmen cope with the stress the job can cause,” said Tech. Sgt. Nathan Jeter, 5th OSS assistant chief controller.

“It’s more intimidating once you get to your first duty station because the people you hear over the headset are real,” added Patten.

Along with their extensive technical school training, air traffic control Airmen are required to complete their Control Tower Operator Certification and train on the simulator to prepare for any situation that may arise.

“In training I teach them the basics, then once we get further along in training I try to help them develop their own technique on how to handle operations,” said Jubell. “We can’t possibly teach them everything that could happen, but we do have a lot of checklists in place to help guide them through a majority of scenarios.”

Although the job can be challenging, Patten enjoys seeing the immediate effects his role has on aircraft and aircrew when they return.

“My favorite part of the job is the experience,” said Patten. “It’s a cool experience to see the jets take off and come back, and to know that I helped these guys get home safe to their families.”
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