Eyes in the sky and on the ground

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Hailey Farrell
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

A ready fighting force depends on its units working together.

Radar Approach Control and the Air Traffic Control tower work together as closely as any two other units at Whiteman Air Force Base.

The ATC tower monitors everything from aircraft landing and departing, to vehicles on the flight line, while RAPCON monitors aircraft in the air outside of visual range of Whiteman AFB. Together, they ensure that aircraft and ground vehicles are operating safely on the flight line.

“We’re the focal point to make sure that everything is running smoothly,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Johan Guevara, 509th Operations Support Squadron, ATC tower watch supervisor. “We decide everything that happens in the airfield and we’re responsible for safety.”

The Federal Aviation Administration credits more than half of all aircraft mishaps to human error and ATC tower focuses training on eliminating human error as much as possible.

“It’s important to foster the idea that you can’t make a mistake because when you’re performing your job, it’s not just a mistake; it’s the magnitude of the mistake,” Guevara said.

All Air Force ATC tower controllers complete on-the-job training to meet FAA regulations.

Safety is one concern, but providing good customer service is another, Guevara said. The tower receives flight schedules from all the different aircraft at Whiteman AFB and coordinates to ensure those flights can take off and land as planned.

“If everyone gets to do what they intended without anyone getting hurt, then it’s a good day in the ATC tower,” he said.

To ensure no safety incidents occur, the tower sequences aircraft into patterns when they are arriving or departing. This way, each pilot knows which aircraft they are following when they take off or land, ensuring aircraft don’t come into conflict with each other or ground vehicles.

Communication is the key to maintaining a safe environment and protecting the aircraft and people on the flight line.

The ATC tower has contingency plans in place for unforeseen communication problems. If the tower loses one radio frequency, they have backup frequencies, backup radios in case of equipment failures, and as a last resort, light guns can be used to communicate with aircraft. 

Another tool the tower uses is a certified ATC tower radar display to identify aircraft that are further out than the radar scope can identify.

While the tower controls traffic on the ground and the immediate air space, once an aircraft leaves that range, RAPCON takes over. U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tyler Wynne, 509th Operations Support Squadron, senior watch supervisor, said clear communication and steady coordination between RAPCON and ATC tower is essential.

“Basically, every aspect of aircraft arriving and departing Whiteman AFB is coordinated between the two of us,” Wynne said. “It speeds things along when you have good coordination.”

RAPCON manages the safe and expeditious flow of air traffic by monitoring the airspace and working with the ATC tower to sequence aircraft within RAPCON’s jurisdiction of about 60 miles out from Whiteman AFB and up to 9,000 feet up in the air. RAPCON is also responsible for eight other satellite airports and service to the National Airspace System. For example, they work with the University of Missouri flight school and the Sedalia airport. 

Wynne said RAPCON coordinates with incoming aircraft and then relays the location to the tower. The tower then puts that aircraft into sequence in the traffic pattern for the base. 

RAPCON also plays an important role when an aircraft has an in-flight emergency, coordinating emergency arrivals with the ATC tower.  According to Wynne, in case of an emergency, the supervisor of flying will call RAPCON, and RAPCON will forward the information to the ATC tower. The tower then requests alert responders to the scene.

“Our day-to-day mission of providing air traffic service is so important, not only to the 509th Bomb Wing, but also our tenant units,” Wynne said.

ATC tower and RAPCON Airmen work together to support Whiteman AFB, helping aircraft get off the ground and in the air quickly and safely.