TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
Air traffic controllers are tasked with monitoring and directing aircraft throughout all aspects of each flight in order to prevent accidents.
These specialized skills are put to the test every day, but even more so during Tyndall’s concurrent aerial exercises Checkered Flag 17-1 and Combat Archer 17-3.
Air traffic controllers assigned to the 325th Operations Support Squadron ”Silver Knights” are responsible for managing the aircraft within five nautical miles and up to a 2,500 foot ceiling. Their mission is to control air traffic by use of visual, radar and non-radar methods while providing a safe and orderly flow of aircraft. They must also observe weather conditions and assist aircrafts during inclement weather while offering emergency aid during aircraft malfunctions.
“We provide an efficient and safe flow of traffic in and out of the airport,” said Staff Sgt. Ashley Leroy, 325th OSS air traffic control watch supervisor.
In addition to normal operational levels, Checkered Flag 17-1 brings an influx of air traffic with more than 40 aircraft operating in support of the exercise.
“Adding more aircraft to an already busy flightline increases the difficulty, but our controllers are trained to adapt and handle the increased workload,” said Tech. Sgt. Christopher Coffey, 325th OSS air traffic control watch supervisor. “Having an increased number of aircraft and condensing them into a smaller time-frame makes the operations tempo significantly higher and more difficult.”
Operating with more aircraft increases the chances of in-flight emergencies, and that increase could potentially lead to shutting down portions of the airstrip. Coffey said he believed airfield real estate is already limited due to the sheer number of aircrafts.
“This scenario forces the watch supervisors and controllers to be more vigilant and flexible to meet mission needs as they evolve,” Coffey said.
Air traffic controllers perform a challenging and ever changing role in the safety of both aircraft and Airmen, so their responsibility is elevated during exercises like Checkered Flag.
“The biggest contribution the tower makes to this exercise is the positive control of sequencing aircraft when non-standard situations arise, such as during multiple, simultaneous emergencies, or rapidly changing weather conditions,” said Lt. Col. Andrew Shurtleff, 325th OSS commander. “These types of events can quickly lead to an unsafe situation without the proactive separation of aircraft from the tower controllers.”
Coffey stated that training the next generation of air traffic controllers is a top priority. The increased traffic density brought forth by the exercise allows supervisors to expose less experienced Airmen to new and more stressful situations which can lead to faster training times, as well as making them better air traffic controllers.
“Every unit is pushed in a more combat mindset, thus, our Airmen are better prepared for wartime should the need arise,” Coffey added. “It also builds a more cohesive warfighting unit, which strengthens our team and makes them more capable of defending our nation.”
Although all Air Force aircraft are kept mission ready, the occasional mishap occurs. In times like this, the professionals of the 325th OSS and other units work together to alleviate danger and keep the mission continuing safely.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the work the tower controllers are doing to ensure the safety of all aircrew flying in and out of Tyndall Air Force Base,” Shurtleff said. “For example, last week a jet caused a grass fire on the airfield forcing tower controllers to close one of the two runways and re-sequence arriving aircraft to the remaining open runway. At the same time, there were several simultaneous in-flight emergencies all returning to land on the sole remaining runway. The tower controllers did a fantastic job safely prioritizing and controlling the airborne aircraft and ground emergency response vehicles to mitigate the multiple emergencies.”
During the combined exercise, the 325th OSS air traffic controllers continue to maintain safe skies above Tyndall and on the ground below. They also take the lessons learned from the exercise, ensuring the expert level of combat readiness known throughout the Air Force.
“The mission of the 325th Fighter Wing simply does not happen without the unwavering support of the 325th OSS Silver Knights,” Shurtleff said. “Exercises such as Checkered Flag demonstrate the tremendous impact the 'Silver Knights' have on every aspect of flight operations from providing intelligence briefs to aircrews, to scheduling airspace and tanker support, to maintaining a fully operational airfield, to integrating personnel recovery into the exercise, to delivering safe and efficient flight operations. There are truly no flights without the Knights.”