Face of Defense: Airman Discovers His Trainer Supervised His Father

by Samuel King
Eglin Air Force Base

DUKE FIELD, Fla., Nov. 1, 2017 — At the top of the air traffic control tower here, F-35 Lightning IIs zip by at eye level. Air Force Staff Sgt. Brian Morris keys up his headset to tell those fighters where to go, when to turn and who to talk to next. A few steps behind Morris is Steven Kates. He monitors the action throughout the tower and keeps a keen eye out across the 360-degree spectrum of the bright blue yonder.

Morris is an air traffic controller with the 96th Operations Group. He’s new to the tower here and its ATC flight, and completed his qualification in the three controller positions -- flight data, ground and local -- here Oct. 4. This means he can control aircraft on his own, without being monitored by a trainer. Some of his training was conducted by Kates, the tower’s watch supervisor.

During Morris’s training, the trainee and his trainer discovered they shared a generational ATC bond, possibly dating to before the new staff sergeant was born.

“We were basically getting to know the new guy on the crew,” said Kates, who has controlled aircraft at Eglin and Duke Field for 20 years. “We discovered his father and myself were at Davis Monthan [Air Force Base, Arizona] tower at the same time in the early nineties.”

Like Father, Like Son

Kates remembered training and supervising Morris’s father in the tower between 1990 and 1992. Kates was a technical sergeant and Brian Morris Sr., was an airman first class.

“It took a bit, but my dad did remember a Sergeant Kates,” said Morris, who followed in his father’s footsteps to become an Air Force air traffic controller.

Kates joked about possibly seeing Morris as an infant at unit events or family functions. Morris, who was born in 1991, went even further, speculating that Kates may have signed his father’s leave paperwork so he could be at his son’s birth.

Right now however, Kates looks on as Morris issues a bird sighting to an incoming F-35 during his final tower evaluation. Kates helped both father and son become qualified air traffic controllers approximately 26 years apart.

Morris is one of a few new airmen assigned to the 96th Operations Group flight to help with the increased traffic above the Duke Field runway.

The 14 airmen and civilians on the day and night crews control aircraft from every base in the local area, to include Tyndall Air Force Base and Pensacola Air Station. This means a continuous rotation of all varieties of aircraft from helicopters to the F-22 Raptor. The bulk of their traffic is F-35s and Air Force Special Operations Command aircraft.

Something New Every Day

The demand for runway approaches at Duke Field challenges new controllers and keeps veteran controllers on their toes. Recently, Runway 18/36 has become the go-to path for unique training opportunities. The controllers work all requests for nonstandard approaches, atypical special operations landings, parachute drop training and night vision flights.

“It is something new every day we come to work,” said Kates, a retired master sergeant and Texas native. “The constant changes make it challenging and overall very satisfying work.”

He compared controlling aircraft to a 3-D chess board.

Kates also said when training a new controller he always tries to impart some wisdom from his years of experience that could benefit the trainee in his current position and possibly throughout their career.

“He really helped me grasp how different Duke Field traffic is from Eglin,” said Morris, who is now qualified at both locations. “He made me understand how the puzzle fits together.”

Kates estimates he’s trained more than 40 controllers over his 37-year career. He only has five more years before he can retire and he said he plans to keep sharing his knowledge and techniques until he finally hangs up his headset.

Morris has two more years in the Air Force and plans to again follow his father’s path and become an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration.

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