BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, LA (KSLA) - Every day, hundreds of military aircraft take off and land around the world. While the pilots and crews have their own operational responsibilities, their safety lies in the hands of air traffic controllers.
“This is very much a mental stressor, so you work your brain a lot here,” said Senior Airman Adrian Thomas, an air traffic controller at Barksdale Air Force Base.
"(And) you need to be focused because at any second, anything can happen. You have aircraft moving 200, 300 mph that can close into a space. So it can get very, very dangerous.”
Those sentiments are echoed by another of the military installation’s air traffic controllers.
"If we get lazy or if we’re sleepy or different things like that, these planes can break separation, " Staff Sgt. Derrif Bellomy said.
“Essentially, it could cost pilots their lives if we’re not on top of our game.”
Like their civilian counterparts, Air Force air traffic controllers oversee and direct all aircraft once they begin to move on the flight line and within 5 nautical miles in the air.
“We make sure they’re not getting too close to any other planes," Bellomy explained. "We are giving them traffic advisories, helping them get around weather.
"We help them and guide them to enable them to have a safe flight, to get home to their families. And, in a nutshell, that’s what we do.”
Thomas added: “From the time they get in the aircraft and leave their parking location to the time they get back to the parking location, they’re always talking to air traffic controllers.”
Air traffic controllers have a keen sense of alertness and the ability to direct air and ground traffic using radar and by means other than radar.
“When it gets really busy and you’re talking to 15-20 planes at a time and trying to communicate with all of these pilots trying to ensure they are safe and the planes are doing what they’re supposed to do, the adrenaline rush is unreal,” Bellomy said.
Their job only intensifies when the weather turns bad.
“We have to help these pilots to the best of our ability. And when we can’t even see the runway because visibility is bad, it’s hard to help them out.”
Due to the critical nature of their mission, air traffic controllers have access to a simulator that enables them to hone their skills in a risk-free environment.
The simulator is used daily to sharpen their skills as much as possible, no matter how long they've been on the job.
After all, the lives of those in the air heavily depend on those in the tower.
“Anytime you see a plane flying, we’re part of it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a civilian aircraft or military," Bellomy said.
"If you see a plane flying, there is a controller talking to the aircraft and ensuring that aircraft is safe and getting to where it needs to go.”
Barksdale’s air traffic control tower is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week with no less than three people working eight-hour shifts.