ATC Shares Iraqi Air

Sept. 13, 2006
One-third of Iraq’s air traffic is now under U.S. control as the enlisted overcome language barriers and exhaustion to control 120,000 blips on the radar annually.

With more than 10,000 aircraft flying through their airspace each month at Ali Base, Iraq, the men and women of the 407th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron's Air Traffic Control Tower and Area Control Center stay very busy.

"We are responsible for one third of Iraq—any aircraft coming in or going through," said Senior Master Sgt. Troy Hammond, 407th EOSS chief controller, who is deployed to Iraq from the South Carolina Air National Guard. "We are the second busiest radar in the AOR, with Balad being busier."

Air traffic control at Ali Base is managed by controllers in two sections—the ATC tower and the ACC radar.

The air traffic controllers in the tower are responsible for all aircraft within five miles of the airfield and all aircraft landings as well as takeoffs.

After they are five miles away they are turned over to the ACC, which controls the aircraft within a 200-mile radius from the surface to 40,000 feet.

The sheer number of flights coming through the airspace can make the job interesting.

"I consider it fast-paced," said Staff Sgt. Chuck Wichert, a controller at the Ali Base ATC Tower. "You have to stay on your toes no matter where you're at or what you are doing.

Being an air traffic controller in Iraq isn't much different than doing it in the United States, but it does have one main difference. The one limiting factor both the tower and radar controllers experience is the language barrier. While they say all the countries coming through the airspace speak English, it can sometimes be difficult.

"Everything is pretty much standard," Sergeant Wichert said, who is deployed from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. "The only thing is getting used to the language barrier. Other than that, phraseology is almost uniform. They all speak English but just with heavy accents. They are asking for the same thing and all come in doing pretty much the same thing."

In the air traffic control tower, the job is different because their responsibility lies in getting the aircraft safely on or off the ground.

But before the aircraft gets to Ali Base, the ACC crew ensures each aircraft maintains the proper altitude, direction and distance between other aircraft.

An average day for a radar controller is looking at a large radar screen for hours at a time controlling numerous aircraft transiting through their airspace.

"We are constantly busy 24-hours a day," said Senior Airman Andrena Guerra, a radar controller from the South Carolina ANG. "We have lots of missions at a time. We are at the heart of the whole mission, at least with the traffic coming in and out. If it wasn't for us here, people would be stranded."

"It gets real busy," said watch supervisor Staff Sgt. Jesus Reyes, who is deployed from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. "We will get anywhere between five and 25 aircraft at a time. It is real different because a lot of these guys come over here and aren't used to working traffic like that. They have been doing excellent the whole rotation."

Having a lot of aircraft traffic doesn't bother them though.

"I love air traffic," said Sergeant Reyes. "I love getting busy. There is a stereotype of air traffic control being a real stressful job, but for the guys who do it and do it well, they love getting busy and talking to as many aircraft as they can. That's why I love coming over here. Back at your home station you don't really get to talk to that many guys. It can be slow at times. When you come over here it's busy and you know what is going on with the mission."

Staff Sgt. Scott Williams agreed. "The radar facility has faster traffic. You get to be more creative directing traffic. When it gets really busy the adrenaline starts pumping. It's not like anything I've ever experienced."