To the untrained eye, watching a plane soar through the air seems almost effortless. What most people don’t see though is the intense coordination that air traffic control Airmen orchestrate to ensure it’s possible.
“We’re the ones who make sure our aircraft and pilots are safe,” said Master Sgt. Michael Beals, 375th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control craftsman. “As air traffic controllers, we’re responsible for keeping the aircraft away from anything that puts them at risk.”
Air traffic controllers spend five months in technical school learning FAA orders, which is a requirement for all air traffic controllers, not just military. They also study Air Force specific guidance and practice in a simulator before graduating.
“It’s not for everyone,” explained Beals. “A lot of people see it as an easy pass into a six figure salary on the outside, but there’s a reason that it has one of the highest washout rates in the Air Force.”
The washout rate for air traffic control doesn’t just include tech school.
“We’re the only career field that you can be washed out of your base,” said Beals. “Every time we arrive somewhere new we have to be certified at that base or else we lose our certification.”
Air traffic controllers are always training as rules and regulations are constantly changing, and it’s up to them to be constantly up to date on standards and practices.
“Book knowledge is key in this career field,” said Beals. “In ATC, being proficient in what you do is the standard, because if you’re not, people can get hurt.”
At Scott, being proficient means being familiar with the Joint Use Agreement. It’s an agreement between Scott Air Force Base and the civilian airport, MidAmerica, to use the same resources, like the air traffic control tower.
“It’s a very unique setup,” said Beals. “You have to learn how to coordinate with commercial and military crews, and it’s not always easy.”
While the tower is the most notable part of ATC, there’s also the Radar Approach Control, or RAPCON, that’s responsible for monitoring 60 miles of airspace around the base.
“Of course, when people think about ATC they think about the tower,” said Beals. “But there’s RAPCON and Air Route Centers that also monitor the skies at varying degrees, so even ranging as far as over 100 miles of airspace.”
ATC is a 24/7 requirement for the base. That’s why the ATC tower must be manned at all times.
“We arrive to our shift 15 minutes early so we can be briefed by the previous shift to ensure a seamless transition,” said Airman 1st Class Nicklas Hartman, 375th OSS air traffic control apprentice. “We have to make sure we don’t skip a beat to ensure the safety of the aircraft on and around Scott.”