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Tinker’s air traffic controllers have an eye on the sky

Located at the foot of the Air Traffic Control Tower, the training simulator is a 360-degree Tinker virtual tower. Lead by instructors through customized events, the trainees learn Tinker-specific language, aircraft and scenarios that acclimate the Airmen to the real world high above. Training, in the tower and in the simulator, may take up to a year before the Airman is rated. (Air Force photos by Margo Wright)

Located at the foot of the Air Traffic Control Tower, the training simulator is a 360-degree Tinker virtual tower. Lead by instructors through customized events, the trainees learn Tinker-specific language, aircraft and scenarios that acclimate the Airmen to the real world high above. Training, in the tower and in the simulator, may take up to a year before the Airman is rated. (Air Force photos by Margo Wright)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The Air Traffic Control tower on Tinker operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year, but all of the responsibility lies on only 35 to 40 people within the unit.

These people, many ranked senior airman or below, control all air traffic in and out of Tinker, safeguarding about $3.3 billion worth of aircraft on a daily basis.

So what exactly goes on inside that control tower that seems to be watching over the entire base? It is more than what some might think.

"We just want people to see what we do," said Senior Master Sgt. John Thornton, ATC chief controller in the 72nd Operations Support Squadron. "There are times when you really need us, and then there are times when you don't. But that's when we still have to be vigilant and alert. We still have to be up there, keeping our eyes on the airfield to see what's going on."

Working in a 10-story tower on the south side of the base, air traffic controllers' main priority is to control, guide and assist ground traffic on the airfield, and air traffic within a 5-mile radius and up to 3,000 feet elevation. They work with two intersecting runways that span across 1,453 acres.

"We control every aircraft that comes in and every air craft that goes out," said 1st Lt. Jeff Kreisel, airfield operations flight commander in the 72nd OSS. "Basically, we control every vehicle and aircraft that moves on the airfield; an airfield that takes up at least 50 percent of Tinker Air Force Base. We are deemed mission-critical at Tinker, and for good reason."

ATC staff control an average of 110 aircraft operations each day. Annually, ATC sees between 39,000 and 40,000 operations that come in and out of the base. Because of Tinker's central location in the United States, and because it is the only Air Force base in Oklahoma that is on alert 24-7, Tinker often takes the role of the transcontinental refueling location.

"We basically see just about every airframe in the United States Air Force inventory come through Tinker, and many from other branches as well," said 1st Lt. John Casey, airfield operations flight, director of operations officer in the 72nd OSS.

Intense and meticulous training is required to become a certified air traffic controller. Military trainees must go through a four- month tech school before they can start training at Tinker. Once stationed on the base, they are required to complete another nine months to one year of live training before they can actually be classified as an air traffic controller.

The thorough training within ATC does not slow down the rate of training, however.

"We have over 800 percent of our training load," Lieutenant Kreisel said. "We currently have 12 trainees and four additional inbound trainees over the next few months. So in our training load alone, we set the standard for the Air Force."

All controllers at Tinker must earn a Federal Aviation Administration certificate, or a license to operate (CTO), which is a custom requirement of trainees.

"Once they have their CTO, they can basically train to work anywhere they want in the world," Lieutenant Kreisel said.

Supervisors and leaders within Tinker's ATC unit develop their own training guidelines that are not developed specifically by the Air Force.

"Most of it is done through on-the-job training, which is based upon Tinker's ATC policies and procedures," Sergeant Thornton said.

As always, with responsibility comes safety and sacrifice. Trainees are taught through a combination of working live, but supervised, traffic and the use of a Training Simulator System, which is valued at roughly $900,000. The simulator is designed to be a complete replica of the tower view, and allows trainees to practice skills necessary for ATC in a realistic, computer-generated version of the Tinker airspace.

Trainees are always monitored by rated air traffic controllers with override capability until they are "facility rated" themselves, typically nine to 12 months into their training at Tinker.

All training and air traffic is conducted under the eye of the watch supervisor position in the tower. Typically a staff or tech sergeant, the "watch sup" is the conductor of the air traffic symphony and switches people in and out of position, makes critical and dynamic air traffic decisions and keeps the pulse of every position in the tower.

"I don't think there's a NCO position in the Air Force that sees more daily responsibility than a watch supervisor in the tower," said Lt. Col. Dan Furleigh, 72nd OSS commander.

In addition to military personnel, Tinker ATC also has six civilian controllers working full-time. All six are former military controllers with a combined experience of 102 years. As part of the safe handling of aircraft, Tinker controllers work with their civilian counterparts to cover the Oklahoma airspace.

"We work hand-in-hand with Will Rogers Airport and their air traffic controllers to accomplish our job," Sergeant Thornton said.

The training and experience within ATC has proven crucial through many in-flight and ground emergencies at Tinker.

When there is an emergency on base related to air traffic, the air traffic control tower is usually the notifying authority for critical responding agencies. When notified of an emergency by aircrew, controllers activate a primary alarm system and once it is rung, they will notify primary agencies.

Controllers in the tower respond to all nature of in-flight and ground emergencies, from smoke in the cockpit to landing gear malfunctions to minimum fuel emergencies.

Sergeant Thornton said he has seen cases at Tinker where "[controllers] recognized need prior to the aircraft commander ever asking for it. That's one of the priorities of the tower."

Lieutenant Kreisel said they make the emergency process "as smooth as it can possibly be."

ATC supports all civilians and military personnel who would like to see first-hand exactly how the tower operates. The tower is a stop on most tours of the base.

"We accommodate as many tours as we can," Sergeant Thornton said. "There are people who have been in the Air Force for a long time who have never gone into a tower, yet, they've dealt with it and they've seen it. So it really helps open their eyes to a whole different aspect of the Air Force."

(1st Lt. John Casey contributed to this article.)