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The jets come in, the jets go out

Kadena ATC

The Air Traffic Control tower overlooks the airfield at Kadena Air Base, Japan, May 24, 2018. The tower allows for successful operation of the airfield, both on and off the ground. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jessica H. Smith)

Kadena ATC

Air traffic controllers with the 18th Operations Support Squadron, monitor and direct the airfield at Kadena Air Base, Japan, May 24, 2018. Air traffic control relies on precise communication for success of the flying mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jessica H. Smith)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- Most people in the Air Force are well aware of the pilots and maintainers behind the flying aircraft, but what about the ones looking, listening and communicating?

From one of the oldest and smallest towers in the Department of Defense, air traffic controllers with the 18th Operations Support Squadron watch over aircraft and pilots alike by monitoring both, the airfield and airspace.

“As an air traffic controller, our primary duty is to separate aircraft and provide an efficient flow into and out of Kadena,” said Master Sgt. Kirk Miles, 18th OSS, ATC assistant chief controller.

With all the extra eyes up in the tower, controllers are essentially acting as the traffic system of the sky – the red lights and green lights for those flying.

“We are telling aircraft when they’re headed toward another aircraft, when to move, where to move, how fast to go, how high they should be … We separate the aircraft that are in the sky so they don’t hit each other – without us, it could be catastrophic,” said Tech Sgt. Christopher Anderson, ATC watch supervisor.

Working in the tower isn’t just for monitoring the sky, but essentially anywhere an aircraft is mobile. From parking locations, taxiways and even vehicle movement on the airfield, controllers are responsible for deconfliction.

“When you’ve got all these taxiways and everybody wants to go at the same time – which happens quite often – the ground controller is there to basically direct traffic from the tower and make sure nobody goes nose-to-nose,” Miles explained.

With so many moving factors – literally – safety is truly a top priority in the ATC world.

At every new duty station, training essentially starts over. While it may seem odd to ask someone with years of experience to retrain, it’s because no two airfields are the same – it’s like house rules, everybody has their own unique set of them. The Airman can look at a map and see the flow of things, but needs to understand the ins and outs of daily operations.

“You have different obstacles, different radar towers,” Anderson said, “Runways are lined up different … The aircraft that are flying are different.”

With such an emphasis on safety, controllers have to be sure they’re at their best for every shift. Managing stress and getting adequate rest and recovery is essential for controllers – one person can affect the entire team and potentially lead to a mishap.

“People have to focus on their personal health – we’re trying to maintain a certain level of alertness,” Miles said. “Within our own little community we place a large emphasis on personal accountability for keeping yourself healthy.”

Although controllers aren’t considered flyers, they’re on flying status to guarantee they’re well rested and can ensure the safety of those they’re controlling, he explained.

Right along with the importance of safety comes the importance of communication in the tower. A lack of communication could lead to an air-to-air or air-to-ground collision.

It’s key to use precise language in the tower to avoid any confusion. Not only what a controller says, but how they say it can play a major role in the confidence of the pilot and can either make them question the call or feel assured in it – voice quality is crucial.

“Communication is definitely key – choosing your words wisely and being direct not just with what words you’re saying, but the inflection in your voice,” Miles said. “Critical communication is paramount.”

Controllers have to be able to effectively communicate in a moment’s notice and handle any situation in a split second.

“You have six or seven aircraft flying around in the pattern and aircraft are trying to land in between those guys or trying to take off in between those guys and you have to figure out a hole or time that you can get these aircraft out but you don’t have time to sit down and really think about it, “ Anderson explained, “You only have a matter of maybe two minutes – less than that if you’ve got guys in the pattern – you’ve got less than a minute to figure out how you’re going to get somebody in and out.”

While this may seem nerve-wrecking and next to impossible to some, this is a highly valued ability in the tower. Being able to analyze and quickly fix an issue regardless of the circumstances is something every controller can appreciate.

“I think what makes a good controller is your ability to fix problems even if you create them – you can’t just fall apart,” Anderson said. “You can feel nervous but you always have a gap where you can fix something.”

Although the job may come with long hours, cramped work spaces and a lot of stressors, the Kadena controllers gain a great deal of satisfaction in the services they provide to the aircraft on Kadena and all others that use the airfield and are proud of their ability to get fighter jets, tankers – anything – up in the air within a matter of minutes.

“I think everybody up here takes pride in the fact that whatever the Wing is doing, we’re playing an integral part,” Miles said. “Air traffic control is involved … we kind of have our fingerprints on everything, we’re basically allowing all these different customers to utilize this airfield and without air traffic control it would just be a nightmare.”