Skip to comments.Controllers keeping Iraqi skies safe
Posted on 12/29/2005 5:01:45 PM PST by SandRat
12/29/2005 - ALI BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- Another small dot drags a string of numbers with it as it hesitantly shuffles onto the screen. Now there are 30 dots with numbers.
Airman 1st Class Grant Gers slips a strip of paper, no wider than a magazine and shorter than two end-to-end sugar packs, neatly but quickly enters the squawk (four of the numbers - the call sign) and the time, adjusts his microphone and makes contact. Welcome to my sky, he said.
The aircraft was in the 50,000 square miles of Iraqi airspace controlled by a small group of Airmen at 407th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadrons Area Control Center - a shoebox-sized container too small to fall down in.
The aircraft will be under control until one controllers releases it to a controller in a neighboring airspace. It doesnt matter if the aircraft is Air Force One, a coalition fighter, civil airliner, tanker, cargo bin or John Travolta tooling around in his Boeing 707. If its flying in the southern third of Iraq the control center Airmen own it. The center sees every move the aircraft makes while its in range of the radar, which sweeps every four seconds, arcs into two other countries and north of Baghdads suburbs, and scours from ground level to a ceiling of 60,000 feet.
Controllers help aircraft stay on course, log its progress through the airspace (so theres a record of the last contact point in case of in-flight emergencies or radar failure), tell the pilot when to exit the assigned airway (routing to the destination, refueling track or kill box) and keep it a safe distance from other aircraft. The controllers are so good at their job they can (and do) fly civilian and traffic through airspace being used for combat operations.
Its all about moving them safely and smartly, Airman Gers said, deployed from the 436th Operations Support Squadron at Dover Air Force Base, Del. He thrives on the responsibility and trust placed upon him.
The challenges of moving civilian and combat aircraft through the same airspace have increased for the controllers of Air Expeditionary Force 7/8. Civilian air traffic through southern Iraq has increased 14 percent and the Southwest Asia Combined Air Operations Center has reported significant increases in close air support and other combat operations for October through December.
Both situations are deliberate. Combat operations were in support of the constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections. The increase in civilian traffic is designed to provide Iraq overflight tariffs.
With increasing stabilization of Iraq and progress toward returning control of the skies to an Iraqi civil authority, airways have been carved in skies that were previously hampered by the no-fly zones created in April 1991 after the Persian Gulf War.
Although none of the east-west routes cross the southern third of Iraq the Airmen control, all traffic coming from the south flows through the units controlled airspace.
Looking down, controllers seem oblivious to the sweep line as it swings around the center of their radar screens. They are focused on the dots and numbers left in the wake of the line that float across a backdrop featuring the north and south air routes, borders of neighboring countries, the northern cutoff line of their area of control, air refueling tracks and a grid overlay.
The cells of the grid are called kill boxes during combat operations.
Fighters supporting ground operations or targeting the enemy with offensive measures fly into the kill box with the help of controllers, traveling the same flight paths as any other aircraft, and then go into visual flight rules for the shoot-and-destroy part of the mission when the controllers releases them. Meanwhile, the same controllers nonchalantly direct non-tactical traffic through and above the same space - giving a vertical cushion between operations and the friendlier skies above.
Things can get a little crazy here sometimes, said Airman Gers, drawing an outline around four of his cells. The quad gets a lot of tactical action and has a major air route traveling right through the middle. His unit controls 70 potential kill boxes.
Even if there is no activity in an area, We have two major airways with refueling tracks alongside each. The civilian traffic is flying right through the middle of our military operations, said Staff Sgt. Monica Pubillones, deployed from the 509th Operations Support Squadron at Whiteman AFB, Mo.
A refueling track is a designated route in the sky that tankers fly to rendezvous with receivers -- the aircraft gassing up. Tankers fly around the path at a set speed and altitude waiting for scheduled customers.
Although the refueling part of the units mission can be low-key by itself, fighters will often yo-yo, one of them working a kill box, going for gas, and returning to the kill box while a companion fighter does the same thing, each crisscrossing the north-south airways in opposite directions and on the opposite schedule as the other.
That can get pretty hairy, Airman Gers said.
Sergeant Pubillones said, This is much more intense than stateside traffic control. When you have tactical and non-tactical aircraft sharing the same space your situational awareness is expanded to every level, but at the same time you have to be very spontaneous.
Every controller that I know is a Type A [personality], she said.
Controllers handle all that traffic -- working more than 100 aircraft in six hours at the screen using a facility designed for temporary use. The trailer and radar were designed for four months of use. That was three years ago.
And thats where the strips of paper come in to play.
Notations are made on a flight-progress strip each time a controller speaks to somebody in the aircraft: time, position, speed and altitude are monitored closely. The strips are used to guide the aircraft when the radar has a problem.
With only a blank view of the airspace on their screen and the information on the flight progress strip, each controller is able to work an aircraft through to its destination or keep them on the right path. They dont even view the situation as emergent when the radar fails: a similar process is used when somebody has to take a break. A little coordination and a handoff of the flight progress strips transfers control of aircraft from one controller to another. The pilot hears a new voice, but doesnt question why -- because its routine -- and the mission continues.
In many ways its all about teamwork, said Staff Sgt. Caroline Parker, the C-Crew shift supervisor, deployed from U.S. Air Forces Europe at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. We have to work together, count on one another and take care of each other in this job. Too many people are depending on us to do our jobs perfectly.
The job is not for someone with no patience, Sergeant Pubillones said.
But I love it, she said. I truly enjoy coming to work everyday.