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Air traffic control: Keeping Herk Nation airspace safe

A plane flies at sunset.

A C-130 takes flight at sunset at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Aug. 6, 2019. Air traffic controllers maneuver aircraft on the flight line and in the airspace 24-hours per day, seven days per week. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kristine M. Gruwell)

Two men stare out a window.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Tanner Bohannan, (left) 19th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control apprentice, and U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jared Asher, 19th OSS air traffic control journeyman, watch a C-130J take flight at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Aug. 6, 2019. Air traffic controllers take care of maneuvering aircraft within the airspace and flight line to ensure all Airmen in the air and on the ground remain safe. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kristine M. Gruwell)

Two men stand in front of a window.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Tanner Bohannan, (left) 19th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control apprentice, and U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jared Asher, 19th OSS air traffic control journeyman, guide aircraft in airspace and on the flight line at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Aug. 6, 2019. There are three different positions air traffic controllers learn: clearance and delivery, ground control, and local. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kristine M. Gruwell)

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. --

Team Little Rock sends out aircraft every day supporting a variety of missions around the local area and across the globe. The 19th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controllers take care of maneuvering aircraft within Little Rock Air Force Base airspace and the flight line to ensure all Airmen in the air and on the ground remain safe.

“Essentially we’re putting a puzzle together,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jared Asher, 19th OSS air traffic control journeyman. “With our ground traffic and the planes flying back to base, we have to work a puzzle. If the pilots listen and everything flows the way it’s supposed to, the puzzle comes together. There are times when there is generalized chaos and it causes the puzzle to get jumbled, but it’s our job to put it back together.”

Similar to other careers, on-the-job training for air traffic controllers is a must in order to ensure agile Combat Airlift is delivered anywhere and anytime. Airmen assigned to this unit learn alongside a fully qualified and experienced trainer, so there is no room for error when it comes to mission success.

“We monitor the newer Airmen closely, but when they’ve received certifications for the numerous positions, we let them work as though they are fully trained,” Asher said. “We sit back and watch unless we need to step in.”

While the trainees are learning, they move throughout three different positions: clearance and delivery, ground control, and local. Each position has one goal in mind – ensuring aircraft stay a safe distance apart, whether they’re on the ground or in the air.

“I didn’t understand the importance of the job in technical school,” said U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Tanner Bohannan, 19th OSS air traffic control apprentice. “It was rewarding becoming operational and understanding our role within Herk Nation: to bring aircrew home safely when they return from a mission.”

Luckily, Team Little Rock’s routine operational and training missions utilizes the same airframe – the C-130. This means air traffic rules and regulations don’t differ much when guiding aircraft on Little Rock AFB.

“The mission aspect makes air traffic a lot easier because we only have one airframe, with similar missions,” Asher said. “Air traffic is an interesting job because every base does the same job and follows the same procedures, but it differs when it comes to the size of the airspace and type of aircraft being used.”

Combat Airlift is a constant mission – 24 hours per day, seven days per week – so air traffic controllers must stay ready to lead air traffic at all times. The high risk of guiding aircraft on a base comes with high reward.

“I wouldn’t trade any job for this one,” Asher said. “Receiving a short-notice call about a humanitarian mission and seeing the C-130 come back knowing our mission helped save people’s lives is why it’s all worth it.”