Nellis Air Traffic Controllers: keeping the skies safe with perfection

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Tonya Keebaugh
  • Nellis AFB Public Affairs
449,000 aircraft operations annually ... hundreds of millions of dollars 

Air traffic radars and equipment ... tens of millions of dollars 

19-year-old airman 1st class telling colonels where to go ... priceless

Being an air traffic controller is commonly known as a stressful job - add to their job the busiest air traffic control radar facility in the Department of Defense and the fifth busiest control tower in Air Combat Command, and that's where the 100-plus Nellis air traffic controllers hang their hats. The air traffic controllers work in either the Nellis Air Traffic Control Facility, commonly called the NATCF or the control tower.

"The impact these young people have on the operations at Nellis is immense," said Capt. Eric Schmidt, 57th Operations Support Squadron deputy Airfield Operations Flight commander. "We ask a lot of them - we expect them to be perfect every day."

Striving for perfection is one thing, but achieving it is unattainable for many hopeful Airmen training to be air traffic controllers. There is little to no margin for error, which contributes to the career field's relatively high washout rate. According to the captain, 20 to 30 percent of the Airmen who begin the training do not finish.

Those who do make it through the training understand the immense responsibility they have. Senior Airman Lynn Jackson, air traffic control journeyman, explains, "You can't let your guard down for a second because of the fact that so many people are depending on us."

With so much riding on their ability, the controllers follow strict rules and regulations that guide them to do their jobs, said Airman Jackson.

Airman Jackson has been in the Air Force for three-and-a-half years - most of that time has been spent at Nellis.

In the control tower, it takes approximately 16 months for a controller like Airman Jackson to be fully qualified and obtain a 5-skill level. The first four months are spent in technical school, after basic training, and the rest consists of on-the-job training.

"By the time a person is fully-qualified, under a four-year service commitment, the Air Force may only receive a two to two-and-a-half years' return on its investment," explained Chief Master Sgt. Ward Hanning, chief controller in the NATCF. "Also, these folks have some marketable skills - they can easily walk out of the Air Force as a staff sergeant into a job with the (Federal Aviation Administration) making $100,000."

The Air Force has recognized the high turn-over rate for controllers, and as a result, the required service commitment has increased from four to six years.

Aside from the technical training and obtaining qualifications, the job of the air traffic controller is one that requires lifelong learning.

Air traffic controller apprentice Airman 1st Class Noah Jenkins quoted his flight commander, Maj. Michael Grogan, "Once you receive your 5-level, you're licensed to learn."

Airman Jenkins, who has been training in the NATCF for eight months, agreed with the major's philosophy, "It's true - because all the while you're in training, you are doing things the way your trainer does them. After that, you develop your own style and start learning what works best for you."

There are 17 controller positions in the NATCF. Newly assigned apprentice controllers begin their training in one of the two approach control and one assist positions. It normally takes 18 months from the time a 3-level enters training in the NATCF to obtain their 5-skill level. In the control tower, the Airmen are required to be certified in the local, ground and flight data control positions.

Because training is a never-ending process for air traffic controllers, once qualified, their day normally consists of rotating between training and monitoring in the NATCF or the control tower.

Eventually, if an Airmen is in the career field long enough and completes the required training, he or she may become a watch supervisor in the NATCF or control tower. He or she must be qualified to operate all 17 positions in the NATCF and five in the control tower and be a staff sergeant or above. Experience is key to progressing in this challenging career field.

Two of the final positions Airmen train in the NATCF are the "en-route sectors." These sectors are normally reserved for NCOs because of their complexity and workload. During a large-force exercise like Red Flag, the numbers of aircraft transitioning in, out or through the en-route sectors can be daunting.

One of the exceptions to the "NCO" rule is Senior Airman Sarah Champney, air traffic control journeyman. Airman Champney is not only qualified on some of the most difficult tasks in the facility, like en-route, she's also one of the top trainers.

"How my day goes, depends on how well the trainees do," said the Illinois native, who said training is her favorite part of air traffic control.

One of the challenges for the trainees is understanding the language of air traffic control.

"We spend our lives learning English then we come here and learn to speak broken English," said Master Sgt. Darrell Browning, deputy tower chief controller. "We say what we need to say in as few words as possible."

Learning the language and understanding the job are integral parts to the job, but another integral part is the controller. Airman Champney expressed the importance of being calm in high-stress situations. "I think you have to be laid back," she said. "You have to be able to turn it on and off - swap out personalities when you're in position or out of position."

Airman Jenkins added another thing that most controllers share - job satisfaction. "I love getting up in the morning and coming to work," he said. "It's very complex, but you have to dive right in."

Airman Champney agreed, "I don't think I would've liked the Air Force as much as I do if I wasn't doing this job - when it's really busy, and people depend on you, that's when it's all worth it."