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All clear to land: Air traffic controllers ensure smooth flying

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- At 12 stories above ground level, Eielson's air traffic controllers have their work cut out for them: Acting as the start-to-finish force of the entire airspace for the area, the controllers track, manage and ensure operational safety for all aircraft taking off and landing at Eielson. 

To perform their job, the tower controllers use visual recognition with assistance from radar to track aircraft and use two-way radio communication to speak with pilots and utilize light-gun signals during emergency radio failures. 

When a controller says they "work the tower," affectionately known as "the cab," it means they are controlling the aircraft on the airfield at Eielson and the five-mile radius outside of Eielson. 

"Working radar," means they are controlling anything outside of that five-mile radius, which is done here by the Federal Aviation Administration in Fairbanks. 

"Essentially nothing can prepare you for how fast things can change up in the tower," said Airman 1st Class Patrick Trexler, 354th OSS air traffic controller. 

"When we're busy with aircraft, we're talking to all the pilots and we're trying to make sure they are all at the right pattern altitude and visual with each other so no incidents occur. Sometimes aircraft seem to come out of nowhere on the radar and we have to accommodate them as well," he said. 

"To facilitate arrival and departures in the radar environment, a controller will communicate with the approach control at Fairbanks, and on occasion, the en route center in Anchorage," said Senior Master Sgt. Johnny Turner, 354th Operations Support Squadron control tower chief controller. 

The controllers are in training for approximately a year before they become facility certified and most of the training is done on the job, said Airman Trexler. 

The training stresses on academics and practical application of ATC fundamentals, said Airman Trexler, who has been certified for more than two months now. There are strict regulations, phraseology and operating procedures controllers must memorize to safely control air traffic. 

Controllers use a state-of-the-art training system called the Tower Simulation System, a series of computers realistically depicting air-traffic scenarios, which can be tailored to a controller's specific training needs, said Tech. Sgt. Devlon Harrison, 354th OSS tower simulator administrator. 

Airman Trexler said the simulator helps a lot, as far as becoming familiar with the basic principles of air traffic and practice-handling a multitude of emergency situations not seen frequently, but nothing is as good as being up in the tower doing real-life operations. 

"Not only is it fun to see the Airmen out of tech school come up and do their job for the first time," said Sergeant Turner, "but it's also very rewarding to shake a controller's hand once they're done with such a rigorous training program." 

Incase of an aircraft emergency, the controllers are more than likely the first people to take action, he said. The controllers start off the sequence of response by initiating the Primary Crash Alarm System or "crash phone" contacting the hospital, airfield managers and the fire department, which consequentially, disseminate the information to other agencies on Eielson. 

"I know our procedures are sound, and we rarely have any problems," said Sergeant Turner. 

"Last year, we controlled more than 30,000 take-offs and landings, incident free," said Sergeant Turner. "Doing our part contributed greatly to Pacific Air Forces being recognized as the MAJCOM with the year's best flying safety record." 

"It's easy to do a great job with such an all-star team," boasts Sergeant Turner a 17-year air traffic control veteran. 

The awards the controllers have collectively won include 2005's PACAF Controller of the Year, the Air Traffic Control Officer of the Year and the Lt. Gen. Gordon A. Blake Aircraft Save Award. 

"It takes a team effort from everybody to get our jets up and down safely--we're just another piece of the pie; but if the airfield was a body, we'd be the heart," said Sergeant Turner.