Air traffic controllers critical to runways

Cannon Connections photo: Argen Duncan Master Sgt. Scott Underbrink, left, prepares Senior Airman Aaron Otero-Bunker to take over ground control in the Cannon Air Force Base air traffic control tower. Six people man the tower at a time.

By Argen Duncan: Cannon Connections

Senior Airman Aaron Otero-Bunker spends his work days with five other people in a small room at the top of a tower, tracking the movement of aircraft.

Otero-Bunker, 21, is an air traffic controller at Cannon Air Force Base. He said the job is exciting.

Although some people see air traffic control as stressful, Otero-Bunker said it’s no different than any other job.

“Once you get to know what you’re doing, you can do it well,” he said. “There’s really no stress in it.”

Two groups of air traffic controllers manage aircraft landing at and taking off from Cannon. The Radar Approach Control group uses radar to track planes over a large area.

The second group, Otero-Bunker and his co-workers, control air space for six miles around Cannon and up to 6,800 feet of altitude. They radio instructions to pilots to keep planes apart, a process called “separation,” and give safety alerts.

“Even though we have the equipment to do radar separation, our main priority is visual separation,” Otero-Bunker said.

The air traffic controllers in the tower look out the windows to see where planes are and need to go, and to make sure runways are clear. Otero-Bunker said they use radar to find out what’s coming and locate hard-to-see aircraft.

To keep aircraft apart, controllers must send them on the proper paths and time movements with conditions and plane capabilities.

Each day, Otero-Bunker estimated, consists of five to six aircraft assigned to the base and four to six that aren’t used for the air strip.

“We relay any information to the pilots that they may need,” Otero-Bunker said.

Those facts may include weather conditions, birds in the area and placement of other aircraft. Controllers also let pilots know if it’s not safe to land and why.

“They’re critical,” pilot Maj. Chris Portele said of air traffic controllers.

Although the primary responsibility for keeping the plane clear of obstructions lies with the pilot, he said, the controllers’ help is important.

Portele, who flies MC-130 cargo planes, said the controllers’ most important job is handling traffic flow to avoid mid-air collisions. The worst thing they can do is clear aircraft into a corridor in use or in bad terrain, he said.

Otero-Bunker, as well as the other controllers in Cannon’s tower, may do any one of three jobs on a given day, under the oversight of a watch supervisor, he said.

The flight data controller coordinates activities, answers phones, gets necessary approvals and takes care of problems. The ground controller handles movements on the inactive runway, basically coordinating taxiing aircraft.

The local controller, Otero-Bunker’s favorite job, handles the active runway.

“Nothing gets onto it or takes off of it without my permission,” he said.

The job also involves controlling any aircraft flying within the 6-mile radius.

To become an air traffic controller, Otero-Bunker said, airmen train for 4 1/2 months at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. Then, they have six to 12 months of on-the-job training.

“It just depends on who you are and how fast you can go through the training,” he said.

Air traffic controllers must keep up with changing Federal Aviation Administration rules, Otero-Bunker said. Also, if they move to another base, they must become certified again because each air strip has different procedures and situations.

For Otero-Bunker, the hardest part of training was book work. Except for knowing he is dealing with people’s lives, the controller said, the rest of the job is like playing a video game because the aircraft do what he says.