News: Unseen heroes: The 612th Air Base Squadron's air traffic controllers
Story by Capt. Zachary Anderson
SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras - U.S. aircraft flying into or out of Soto Cano Air Base deal with a variety of challenges, including terrain, weather, and other aircraft. Each of these presents a potential hazard, and pilots operating in Soto Cano airspace rely on the work of a few members of Joint Task Force-Bravo to assist them in safely navigating the area.
That responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the air traffic controllers of the 612th Air Base Squadron. Any time a U.S. aircraft enters Soto Cano airspace, it becomes the responsibility of these highly-trained professionals.
"Our job is directing traffic," said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Rocco DeSalvo, an Air Traffic Control Ground Control Approach (GCA) watch supervisor assigned to the 612 ABS. "All U.S. aircraft within our designated boundaries, anything that is near us, we are talking to."
Directing aircraft traffic at Soto Cano, where there are a variety of different airframes operating at any given time, requires a team effort between the airmen working in the GCA facility and those working in the base control tower.
"We coordinate with the GCA to get the aircraft into and out of our airspace," said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Charles Simper, an Air Traffic Control watch supervisor who works in the base control tower. "We are all one team. We have to communicate - communication is key."
When an aircraft enters Soto Cano's airspace, it becomes the responsibility of the airmen in the GCA facility. In some areas, that airspace extends out to 25 miles from the flight line.
"When the aircraft is passed onto us, we radar identify it and then we pass on advanced information, such as current airfield conditions," said DeSalvo. "We give it service to the airport, provide it with vectors or clear it for the approach, at which point we hand it over to the tower."
DeSalvo said the role the GCA plays in providing safety for aircraft operating in Soto Cano airspace is critical, especially when flying conditions are less than ideal.
"If we have a bad weather day, when the pilots can't see the airport and can't fly visual flight rules (VFR), they are relying on us to be their eyes and ears to get them safely to the airport without running into something," said DeSalvo.
The GCA accomplishes all this while working with equipment that is older than the airmen operating it. The current TPN-19 radar system being utilized by the GCA is more than 40 years old, but DeSalvo said the airmen in the GCA facility don't let outdated technology stand in the way of accomplishing the mission.
"It's challenging, because it's old and it does break down sometimes," said DeSalvo. "But we have a great team here. Our maintenance guys are always in here working on stuff and do an incredible job, and our leadership is always on top of things. Anytime we need something here, they are there to help us."
Once an aircraft has reached the airspace surface area, a five-mile radius around the airport up to 3,000 feet above ground level (AGL), the tower takes over responsibility.
"We work any traffic moving on the ground or departing or arriving from the airport within that five mile radius," said Simper. "We also control all of the vehicle traffic that occurs in the controlled movement area (CMA), which is anywhere around the landing zones and runways."
Working in the tower at a joint-forces, international base like Soto Cano brings with it some unique challenges, not the least of which is working with counterparts who speak a different language. For that reason, the U.S. air traffic controllers at Soto Cano are required to be fluent in Spanish.
"We control U.S. aircraft only, and work in coordination with our Honduran counterparts who work with all the Spanish-speaking aircraft under their control," said Simper. "We work in unison, sharing the same frequency and working air traffic together."
U.S. Army Capt. Matthew Malkowski, B-Company commander and a CH-47 Chinook pilot assigned to Joint Task Force-Bravo's 1-228th Aviation Regiment, said the work of the air traffic controllers cannot be overstated.
"The controllers are vital to our helicopter operations," said Malkowski. "They facilitate our situational awareness and allow our helicopters to safely and efficiently do our job. They're also there and ready to help us out if, heaven forbid, we have an emergency situation and need assistance."
Air traffic control is widely considered a very demanding career field. Both Simper and DeSalvo said it takes special qualities to be able to quickly assess a situation and provide direction for operating aircraft.
"Multitasking skill is an absolute must," said DeSalvo. "An air traffic controller has to have the personality to figure things out on the fly and make things happen. If you can't do that, things can snowball and a bad situation can build up very quickly."
Simper echoes those sentiments.
"The pilots are depending on us wholeheartedly," he said. "They trust that we know what we are doing and that we will help them do their job safely. In this job, we make split-second decisions, and that safety hinges on those decisions. It's demanding, but you also get a tremendous sense of accomplishment from it as well."