On the watch around the clock

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Keenan Berry
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
Despite the ease with which they carry themselves and the cool, calm and collected attitude they display to the public, pilots have one of the most intense jobs in the world - flying multi-million dollar aircraft to their destination. 

 Part of being a pilot is possessing excellent vision, but even then, they cannot always see everything. They often need a second pair of eyes to help them execute missions successfully. 
That second pair of eyes is known as Air Traffic Control.

Air traffic controllers maintain expeditious flow of air traffic within a safe environment, said Staff Sgt. Blaine Caudill, 509th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control watch supervisor.

"We have a lot of training just like the pilots," said Caudill. "Each position is manned; you have one controller who monitors another controller. As soon as you get out of basic training and technical school, you come to your first base and get on-the-job training."

Air traffic controllers monitor the skies every day to ensure pilots are able to safely leave and return.

"We are a 24-hour facility, so we are pretty much on-call all the time, including holidays," said Caudill. "Here at Whiteman, it is a unique situation because we have the B-2 Spirit; its mission is constantly changing. We control when they depart and land. We clear them for take-off here at Whiteman to perform their duties, and when they are done with their missions, we will land them safely. We are direct responsibility for that happening."

Established procedures for making this happen involve direct communication between the pilots and the air traffic controllers, said Senior Airman Kyle Ellis, 509th OSS air traffic control journeyman.

"As soon as the pilot starts the aircraft, he will call for engine start-up," said Ellis. "We guide him to the runway and make sure it is clear of any vehicles and animals. Then another controller visually scans for birds and clears him for take-off."

Any air traffic controller can scan for birds and clear taxi runways, said Caudill. These are mission-essential tasks each air traffic controller must perform, but members of the unit also have specifics tasks for which they are responsible.

"There are five positions in the tower. There is a ground controller who taxis the aircraft to and from the runway and directs vehicle crossings," said Caudill. "The watch supervisor oversees all operations and can 'over-key' other controllers to fix mistakes.

"The flight data [supervisor's] job is to coordinate information to outside agencies, as well as between controllers. The local controller is in charge of separating and sequencing aircraft in the air to include take-off and landing clearances. The coordinator's primary job is to help direct the flow of information to the local controller as well as flow of traffic when the local position is busy."

Air traffic controllers also use displays to see weather, examine the cloud layer and obtain information on aircraft that are inbound or outbound through a resource called pilot reports, or 'pi-reps,' said Ellis.

"If I am flying around and I take on any weather, I have to relay that to the controller who then relays that to a B-2 preparing for departure," said Ellis. "When pilots call and they get their plan and route of flight, they get pi-reps. So if a plane lands and there is icing, we will give pi-reps to all the pilots so everyone knows there is icing in the area."

This dedicated group of professionals oversees thousands of flights on a regularly basis; 3,000 to 5,000 planes take off from, and land at, Whiteman every month during the spring and summer. During fall and winter, the flight numbers are lower, but changing weather conditions can keep the job challenging.

Although staying on watch around the clock is an incredibly demanding task, the 509th OSS continues to ensure pilot safety and mission success.