LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Google “most stressful job” and air traffic controller invariably pops up near the top of the list. Being responsible for the movements of large aircraft full of human beings onto and off of runways and around each other in the sky can put a lot of pressure on a person.
There’s another high-stress job that consistently tracks even higher on that list – Soldier.
The air traffic control specialists of 3rd Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force Corsair stationed at Forward Operating Base Shank do both.
The ATC’s at FOB Shank, the only Army-controlled air field in Afghanistan, execute the same tasks as their civilian counterparts do back in the States – except without as much advanced technology and in the middle of one of the most kinetic war zones of Operation Enduring Freedom. It’s kind of a big deal.
The U.S. could not control the country’s air space with absolute authority like it does without them.
They work in shifts of three from the control tower on the main base and a ground control point next to the landing strip, scanning the skies and memorizing flight routes 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“We control between 600 and 1,000 air movements on a typical day,” said Spc. David Hamilton, an ATC from Zebulon, N.C., explaining that, “A movement is any time an aircraft moves. From starting up to departing it takes about five movements.”
With eleven landing surfaces that accommodate both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, the FOB Shank air field can get hectic, fast.
“A lot of people think it’s chaos, but to us it’s controlled chaos,” said Spc. Spencer Smith, an 82nd CAB ATC from Monument, Colo. “The main part of the job is looking out the window. When pilots fly into our airspace, it’s our job to know where they are. We have to know all the sectors by heart, so we can keep control.”
The control room itself is a modular unit with large windows on all sides, placed atop a stack of shipping containers to give the ATC’s the best possible view. It’s about the size of a coffee cart, and with three Soldiers inside scanning sectors, radioing pilots, and jotting down notes, it gets as noisy and bustling as it would behind the counter of your busiest neighbourhood Starbucks.
“You can get really nervous because you’re dealing with 15 to 20 people’s lives at a time,” said Hamilton.
People with even moderate knowledge of how the U.S. Army operates might be surprised to learn that its local ATC’s keep track of all the aircraft within their airspace in their heads, without the aid of computers or radar – except in inclement weather – which would seem to go against the U.S. military’s normal methods of operation.
One reason for this is the stringent standards prospective controllers must meet to pass their courses at the ATC advanced individual training school at Fort Rucker, Alabama.
“The ATC school is a very difficult school,” said Sgt. Maj. Russell Lowrey, from Fayetteville, N.C., the Task Force Corsair Command Sgt. Maj., who himself was an ATC earlier in his career. “In the enlisted force of aviation the ATC’s have to have a higher general technical score than the average Soldier.”
“It’s one of the hardest [Army training] schools to get through,” said Hamilton. “As local controllers, we learn how to build up a mental picture of where all the aircraft are and what they’re doing. You have to sit down and figure out your personal way of remembering. I’m not saying we’re the smartest people [in the Army], but we’re up there.”
“You have to have a naturally good short-term memory,” said Sgt. Miles Arnspiger, an ATC from Lee, Mass. “And you have to know when to dump the aircraft from your mind so it doesn’t clutter.”
“To be a pilot, you have to have a tad bit of arrogance and somebody has to be able to put that in check,” he added, smiling. “Somebody has to keep control of it and say – no, he’s first.”
“When it gets really busy you’ll see a lot of controllers [closing their eyes] because they’re concentrating on that picture,” said Lowrey. “The aviators throw out a bunch of numbers to you – call signs, how many miles out they are . . . it’s constant. You don’t necessarily have to be good with numbers, but you have to have a great memory.”
“FOB Shank is kind of a gas-and-go,” said Smith. “We’re a cross roads.”
“They get a good amount of traffic here,” said Lowrey. “The controllers do a great job and provide a great service.”
It’s also in the crosshairs, with kinetic activity just outside the wire and frequent medical evacuation flights, making it necessary to divert air traffic through different sectors at a moments notice.
“This is definitely atypical air traffic control,” said Arnspiger. “At any given time out here you can have half your airspace closed down.”
When things do get exciting in the sandy hill country just outside the wire, the ATC’s have the best view in the house of all the action, and often relay what they can see to aid the troops in the field.
“You can watch it all from up here,” said Hamilton.
“I think we really affect the missions,” said Hamilton’s wife, Spc. Laura Hamilton, an ATC from Riverside, Calif., who is also serving at FOB Shank. “Just because we’re not in the fight doesn’t mean we’re not doing something worthwhile.”
And do they ever worry that they might provide a tempting target, working as they do in a tower that sticks out like a sore thumb in the middle of the FOB?
“No,” said Lowrey. “We’re all targets here.”
By Sgt. Ken Scar