Air traffic controllers keep Offutt flying

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. James M. Hodgman
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
An aircraft may have a pilot at the controls, a dedicated crew and no mechanical problems, but it won't take off or land here without approval from Offutt's control tower.

From 110 feet above the ground day or night, Offutt's air traffic controllers keep watch over the sky above, as well as the ground below and manage the base's busy arrival and departure schedule.

The 55th Operational Support Squadron currently has 36 military and civilian air traffic controllers assigned. These air professionals typically work six days in a row spending two days on day, swing then mid shift.

The duty day starts with a briefing from the watch supervisor who covers important topics like runway and weather conditions, as well as expected arrivals and departures.

From there, Offutt's air traffic controllers perform their duties, all the while keeping Offutt's aircraft in the air.

One of these managers of aviation has been an air traffic controller for 12 years and has served at bases from Oklahoma to Japan.

Tech. Sgt. William R. Green is Offutt's assistant control tower chief controller. He's responsible for ensuring the tower is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week with qualified air traffic controllers.

He said there's nothing quite like working in the tower here.

"Every day can be an air show for us," Sergeant Green said.

"Growing up as a kid, everyone has looked up at the sky and watched airplanes fly overhead," he added. "Now, I get to sit up there and get paid to watch airplanes."

While Sergeant Green enjoys being an air traffic controller, he stressed that there's a tremendous amount of responsibility that comes with the job.

What makes the mission so important for air traffic controllers here are the high profile alert missions, which operate at Offutt. These include the flights of the National Airborne Operations Center, which is on alert at all times. At any moment this highly-secretive aircraft could be called upon by the secretary of defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff or even the president of the United States.

It's Offutt's air traffic controllers who clear this bird to fly.

"For any aircraft to (perform) any sorties, (that aircraft) first needs clearance for takeoff," said Airman 1st Class Phillip L. Suazo, an ATC apprentice with the 55th OSS. "As air traffic controllers, we give them that clearance and we assist them with safety issues as needed."

Airman Suazo recently graduated from the Air Traffic Control Operator Course at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. During the 72-day course, he learned about a myriad of topics including flight characteristics of aircraft, how to use aeronautical charts and maps, the limitations of radar and much more.

Since arriving at Offutt, he has spent many months training to become a certified control tower operator. For now, his days are filled with study time, simulator and real world training under the watchful eye of a qualified trainer.

Once he passes the control tower operator exam, which includes a written test and a practical portion, he'll be able to work in the control tower unsupervised.

He'll also be able to deploy to locations all across the globe in support of contingency operations.

At each of these forward areas, Airman Suazo will familiarize himself with the characteristics of a new airfield and the various aircraft that operate from that location.

"Unlike many other jobs, every place we go there's a different airfield," Sergeant Green said. "As long as you know the basics of air traffic control, you can apply those skills anywhere."

Sergeant Green also said it takes most controllers approximately one week to learn the characteristics of a new airfield.

For instance, Offutt's airfield doesn't have a taxiway that aircraft can utilize to get to the end of the runway.

"Our runway is unique," Sergeant Green said. "For the most part, every aircraft has to back taxi down the runway. That's unique because everywhere else you go once aircraft reach the end of the runway they're ready to depart."

At Offutt however, Sergeant Green explained, those aircraft have to back taxi a few thousand feet and then depart.

Master Sgt. Terry Watson, control tower chief controller for the 55th OSS said he's incredibly proud of his team here at Offutt.

"Our air traffic controllers have a lot of responsibility," he said.

They have to be concerned with the pilot and everyone on board, the Air Force assets on the aircraft and the people who are on the ground anywhere near the runway or airfield, he added.

They're intelligent, hard workers who oversee 28,000 operations annually, and they've earned the right to be a little cocky, Sergeant Watson said.

"It takes a lot of drive to even get rated at your first base, and at each deployed location you're taking what you know about your base and integrating different airframes you've never seen," he said. "They're able to do it, and I'm very proud of them."