Air traffic controller ops in high gear for RED FLAG-Alaska

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eric Smith, a 354th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, speaks to a pilot on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 16-1. Eielson air traffic controllers face a unique challenge during RF-A with the different style of flying pilots from other countries use compared to U.S. Air Force pilots. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Turner/Released)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eric Smith, a 354th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, speaks to a pilot on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 16-1. Eielson air traffic controllers face a unique challenge during RF-A with the different style of flying pilots from other countries use compared to U.S. Air Force pilots. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Turner/Released)

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 18th Aggressor Squadron taxis on the Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska flightline, May 2, 2016, during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 16-1. RF-A is a two-week long exercise that takes place within the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, a 67,000 square-mile training range, the largest instrumented air, ground and electronic combat training range in the world. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Turner/Released)

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 18th Aggressor Squadron taxis on the Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska flightline, May 2, 2016, during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 16-1. RF-A is a two-week long exercise that takes place within the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, a 67,000 square-mile training range, the largest instrumented air, ground and electronic combat training range in the world. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Turner/Released)

From left, U.S. Air Force Senior Airmen Robert Wallace, Anthony Marshall, and Eric Smith, all 354th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controllers, manage the air space around Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, May 5, 2016, during RED-FLAG Alaska (RF-A) 16-1. Eielson air traffic controllers must know how to operate radio equipment to relay flight and landing instructions, weather reports and safety information to pilots. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Turner/Released)

From left, U.S. Air Force Senior Airmen Robert Wallace, Anthony Marshall, and Eric Smith, all 354th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controllers, manage the air space around Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, May 5, 2016, during RED-FLAG Alaska (RF-A) 16-1. Eielson air traffic controllers must know how to operate radio equipment to relay flight and landing instructions, weather reports and safety information to pilots. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Turner/Released)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eric Smith, a 354th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, watches two F-15 Eagle tactical fither jets assigned to the 67th Fighter Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Japan, May 5, 2016, during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 16-1. RF-A usually brings various airframes into the mission which, adds complexity to the air traffic controllers’ mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Turner/Released)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eric Smith, a 354th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, watches two F-15 Eagle tactical fither jets assigned to the 67th Fighter Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Japan, May 5, 2016, during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 16-1. RF-A usually brings various airframes into the mission which, adds complexity to the air traffic controllers’ mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Turner/Released)

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 80th Fighter Squadron, Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, taxis in front of the air traffic control tower on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, May 3, 2016, during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 16-1. Eielson’s air traffic controllers monitor all aircraft in order to prevent accidents by directing the movement of aircraft into and out of the airfield. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Turner/Released)

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 80th Fighter Squadron, Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, taxis in front of the air traffic control tower on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, May 3, 2016, during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 16-1. Eielson’s air traffic controllers monitor all aircraft in order to prevent accidents by directing the movement of aircraft into and out of the airfield. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Turner/Released)

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --

RED FLAG-Alaska 16-1 is in full swing and the air traffic controllers are the backbone to ensuring every aircraft takes off and lands safely.

RF-A usually brings various airframes into the mission, which adds complexity to the air traffic controllers’ mission.

“Mixing all the different airframes presents a unique challenge,” said Staff Sgt. Benjamin Missel, a 354th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller. “There’s specific separation criteria as well as different aircraft characteristics that we have to take into consideration.”

Eight different airframes are participating in this RF-A, including three from the Indian air force. This creates additional challenges for controllers, with the language barrier the most prominent.

“The language barrier is probably the most significant challenge,” said Missel. “I usually speak very slowly, reiterating things as needed, and I keep my ears open to listen to what’s being said more carefully than I normally would.”

Another challenge air traffic controllers face is the different style of flying that pilots from other countries use compared to U.S. Air Force pilots.

“Usually the patterns seem to be wider; they tend to take bigger turns,” Missel said. “If you’re not on your toes and really watching what the aircraft are doing, it can surprise you with some of the things you see. You just have to be ready for anything.”

Missel said the biggest reward is mission involvement and knowing he’s doing something with a purpose.

“It’s rewarding to see the integration, the different countries and different bases working together to accomplish the mission,” said Missel. “It definitely makes you happy to go home at the end of the day knowing that you accomplished something special.”