ATC Airmen aim for checkmate

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jonathan Stefanko
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
A small room with walls made of glass stands 11 stories in the air, filled with only a few air traffic controllers and the quiet chatter of their radios.

Tracking, coordinating and directing aircraft coming in and out of Germany, air traffic controllers from the 86th Operations Support Squadron place each piece as though playing an elaborate game of chess. While they look out their window planning their next move, the sun begins to rise from the hills casting a long shadow of nostalgia for a home far away.

"I love working here in Germany," said Senior Airman Israel Cruz, 86th OSS air traffic controller. "There are no words that can express how amazing the view is up here. Although I'm away from my family and friends, they understand the role I play in the Air Force and they are proud of me for it."

Air traffic controllers at Ramstein Air Base, are responsible for providing safe and efficient air traffic flow by policing the movement of aircraft, issuing safety alerts and giving pilots a clear and precise picture of what is in the airspace around them.

"You have to be able to think on your feet and try to anticipate what could happen next," Cruz said. "It's a strategy game in a way, but unlike a game, our pieces are people and we can't just restart if we lose a life."

With a washout rate of approximately 50 percent from technical school to their first base, air traffic controllers work more as a close-knit family than colleagues.

"There aren't a lot of us in the tower," said Senior Airman Jeremii Van Komen, 86th OSS air traffic controller. "Making it that much more important for us to work together, without the constant guidance from our peers and leadership we wouldn't be able to keep up with all the aircraft."

Learning the ins and outs of the job as well as the base's specific air traffic regulations can be a lengthy and discouraging task for a new Airman, but once the approximately year-long training is completed, a badge is awarded to prove they have moved to the next level in their career.

"Completing all the training and becoming a rated controller is a significant mile stone in our career field," said Airman 1st Class John Moreno, 86th OSS air traffic controller. "While other Airmen may receive their occupational badge after technical school we have to wait until we arrive to our first base. From there we continue our training and once everything is completed there is a ceremony where we get the badge pinned on for the first time.

"It's not just another part of the uniform we get to show off," Moreno continued. "It identifies us as the few who were able to complete all the challenges along the way and is now entrusted to control the traffic of various multimillion-dollar airframes."

From the day they arrive, throughout their upgrade training, to the day they leave Ramstein, the traffic controllers here have a constant flow of airframes. In one year more than 25,000 aircraft come through Ramstein, making their chess game in the sky a never-ending match.

"We are broken up into three shifts to ensure the safety of the pilots and their aircrafts all day every day," said Senior Airman Kevin Xaynhachack, 86th OSS air traffic controller. "While coming home during the middle of the night to a sleeping family may be rough, I am lucky that my loved ones understand the sacrifices we as controllers have to make and I am grateful for them. I really love everything about the job, this is what I wanted to do my whole life and when my little ones run up to me asking, 'daddy, daddy did you talk to airplanes today?' To see the excitement in their eyes because of what I do makes having this job a dream come true."