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Alert eyes watching the skies

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Donald C. Knechtel
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. – Whether it’s an exercise, training, show-of-force or kinetic operations: aircraft need open skies and safe runways to operate.

This wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of air traffic controllers, who provide pilots with all the information they need and ensure safety for the aircraft and her pilots.

“As line controllers, our basic duties involve clearing aircraft and ensuring flight safety,’ said Airman 1st Class Joseph Monsees, an air traffic controller assigned to the 28th Operation Support Squadron. “In the tower, we have clearance deliveries, so we make sure their route is filed and good to go. All while working on any transient aircraft coming in from other bases.

When large force exercises come about such as Combat Raider, a three-day exercise involving more than 25 aircraft, controllers working the tower must deal with the pressures that come with the extra amount of aircraft involved with flawless performance.

“When events like these come up, it gets a lot busier – especially if the aircraft that we have from our exercises do pattern work,” said Staff Sgt. Phillip Threlkeld, an air traffic controller watch supervisor assigned to the 28th OSS. “It becomes a lot more complex with all the different aircraft types and frames and it’s a limited airspace, five miles in radius surface up to 5000 feet.”

Threlkeld explained in such a tight airspace with all the different types of aircraft it can be difficult trying to separate them and ensuring they are applying all the rules correctly.

With the heavy mantel they hold air traffic controllers must be alert and ready at all times. Even the smallest mistake can lead to major consequences in worst case scenarios.

“We are kind of like the eyes and ears of the airfield in a way,” Threlkeld said. “We are essential because we keep the B-1 and the pilot’s safe, ensuring they aren’t hitting each other or vehicles on the runway. We are up here to paint a picture for our pilots, let them know what’s going on the airfield so they have the most up to date information and know what to expect.”

Though some days are calmer than others, controllers still face unique stressors every day. The amount of knowledge they are required to know is extensive and a large amount of responsibility rests on their shoulders.

“Depending on the day, the job can be very stressful,” Monsees said. “You’ll have those easy days where not much is going on, then you’ll have days where multiple planes are flying in a pattern that just don’t mix.”

Monsees explained that without proper spacing it could potentially put the pilots' lives at risk.

Though this career field is not always an Airmen’s first choice since it’s a seemingly daunting task, many Airmen who are given the opportunity fall in love with the job, regardless of the struggles they face.

 “The job wasn’t in my top five,” Threlkeld said. “My recruiter told me it gets you into basic sooner so I said ‘sure why not,’ and it has been the best decision of my life so far. I love this job.”