Andersen air traffic controllers face deployed, foreign challenges
ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam -- Amidst the cacophony of sounds in the air traffic control tower, a radio hisses to life and spits static transmission. Sometimes the voices coming through the radio are speaking in accented English. An Australian F/A-18E/F Super Hornet approaches the south end of runway and prepares to land during a recent international exercise. Nearby, a Japanese Air Self-Defense Force F-2 Viper Fighter waits to taxi for departure. The pilot calls in to the tower.
Airmen from the 36th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control hustle to ensure the simultaneous air traffic operations happen seamlessly as the base conducts hundreds of events daily supporting exercises like Cope North, an annual tri-lateral exercise. The controllers face unique and frantic challenges throughout the year and credit the organization's training plan to prepare them for Andersen's unique air traffic mission.
For Senior Airman Nick Luciano, 36th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control specialist, coming to Andersen was a completely different change of pace.
"I have never worked with these kinds of aircraft or the nationalities, so it was a very big change for me," Luciano said. "It's one of those things where you try to catch and learn as much as you can every day."
Staff Sgt. Joshua Corpening, 36th OSS watch supervisor, said no controllers come to Andersen straight from technical training due to its unique aspects and high operations tempo.
All controllers come to Andersen with a little bit of experience under their belt so the majority of their training is learning how the traffic and other specifics of Andersen work.
Senior Airman Shaun Roach, 36th OSS air traffic control specialist, said the best way for new controllers to catch up to speed is by using the tower simulation system, which is comprised of six large LCD screens that provide a 270 degree realistic view of Andersen's airfield and is programmed with more than 100 different scenarios.
Newly assigned Airmen spend at least 30 hours of training time on the simulator before they actually get to do on-the-job training in the tower. They also accomplish 30 minutes of training each month thereafter on the simulator each month to practice for different scenarios.
Language barriers and the consistent rotation of new crews with the deployed aircraft are some of the challenges ATC Airmen learn and adapt to be able to communicate effectively.
"It's common to deal with a language barrier once you come to Guam," said Staff Sgt. Charles Kulat, 36th OSS watch supervisor. "It's especially hard when you're talking to multiple maintenance people and multiple aircraft and dealing with multiple language barriers. Your brain isn't used to having to translate things like that and then having to act on it within the next second."
The controllers said that while day-to-day operations are fairly standard to them, large-scale exercises cause the tower to hum with activity.
The ATC supports four major joint and multinational exercises throughout the year, often bringing in hundreds of aircraft. During Exercise Cope North 2015 in February, the control tower had an operations increase of 270 percent. The other exercises are Valiant Shield, Multi-Sail, and Forager Fury.
"I came into Andersen around the same time Cope North was kicking off," Kulat said. "Working Cope North was almost like shell shock. I saw all of these new aircraft and it shocked me a little bit. I had to learn to multitask and prioritize quickly; I took things as they came."
ATC also supports the Aerial Training Relocation program for F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the F-22 Raptor. The jets come to Andersen from U.S. Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps bases in Japan and Alaska three times a year to do training because the weather is generally more permitting than in Alaska and they can have full use of the ranges here. They also come from Japan to lessen the noise impact near their home base.
Between the exercises and routine operations, the controllers said operating in the tower here has been an invaluable experience they are grateful to take with them for the rest of their careers.
"I've spoken with air traffic controllers who have had permanent changes of station moves to other bases from here who felt Andersen more than prepared them for their next assignment," Kulat said. "They said Andersen gives you a leg up on other Airmen at different bases who haven't dealt with all of the aircraft.
"This place teaches you more than you think because you're so caught up in the moment you don't even realize you're learning."