CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, New Mexico --
The cockpit windows on most U.S. Air Force aircraft don’t exactly present the grandest of views into the surrounding airspace for pilots. In fact, if there is any kind of inclement weather, the windows reveal nothing and are rendered useless. So how do pilots fly with a calm confidence when they can’t see in front of them? Of course, they rely on their instruments but more importantly they put their trust into another human being: A Radar Approach Control air traffic controller.
“RAPCON ensures the safe and efficient flow of all air traffic operations here at Cannon,” said Master Sgt. Monica Warren, 27th Special Operations Support Squadron Air Traffic Control assistant chief controller. “We work together with the controllers in the ATC tower to ensure that aircraft launch, fly and arrive safely. However, it is RAPCON that deals with the aircraft at larger distances and can’t be visually seen.”
That area of responsibility stretches approximately 60 miles in each direction of the base and ranges from the surface up to 17,000 ft. They provide critical flight information to any aircraft within those parameters including non-military flights coming from nearby air traffic facilities, also known as overflights.
“Overflights are aircraft that are transitioning through the parameters of our airspace,” Warren said. “The surrounding sectors will transfer those aircraft to us to be under our control until we send them off to the next sector.”
With that many different types of aircraft coming in from all directions, a busy day requires multitasking balanced with quick, yet accurate, decision making.
“You can have numerous aircraft in your area that all fly differently,” Warren said. “You have to think about how fast each one is going, what direction they are headed, what type of maneuvers they are capable of, who should go first, who should go second. We have to process all this information to make sure we tell everyone to make the right moves at the right time for it to go smooth.”
For one person to coordinate that amount of information can be a hefty feat and that’s why RAPCON uses the team concept to have each other’s back.
“You’re never alone,” Warren explained. “Although you may be the person directly giving instructions, you also have an assistant, a coordinator and a supervisor that is watching the overall safe operations being performed. We always have an extra couple set of eyes on everything going on.”
That type of insurance and comradery is a direct result of the respect given to one another in the controller career field. However, it isn’t earned overnight.
Even after a four-month long technical school, Airmen in training will often spend a year or more when arriving at their first base before they are awarded their career badges and the trust to work on their own. Even that is not guaranteed since there is a 50-60 percent washout rate during that year after technical school.
For Senior Airman Alex Koufos, 27th SOSS ATC journeyman, receiving his badge was proof he was ready for the job and accepted by his colleagues.
“Getting that badge is like the entryway of getting more respect,” Koufos said. “People trust you and you have become part of the group.”
However, the one thing the badge does not represent is a cease in training. For ATC Airmen, moving to another base during their career means learning a whole new set of variables.
“We never stop learning,” Warren said. “No matter what base we go to, we have to go through that specific training program. That includes myself, even at a master sergeant rank. We have to learn the new airspace, the altitudes that we own, the runway configuration and the type of aircraft assigned to that base and their performance characteristics. It brings us back to the basics.”
Those basics are the foundation keeping order between aircraft in the world’s busiest Air Force. Warren explained how they contribute to that order at the Air Force Special Operations Command level.
"What we do as air traffic controllers, day in and day out, here at Cannon or wherever the fight takes us, falls right in line in support of our AFSOC mission statement: Provide our nation's specialized airpower, capable across the spectrum of conflict. Any place, anytime, anywhere."