UNDER CONTROL: ATC Trainees Gain Skills at Selfridge

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
Sitting in a darkened room on the ground floor of an air traffic control tower, Leah Ned outlines the goals for her Air Force career, not quite yet a year old:

"I just want to be a good controller," says the Airman 1st Class, a long radio cord clipped to the front of her uniform. "I don't want to slide by. I want to learn everything."

She's off to a good start, say the air traffic controllers at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, located near Detroit in southeastern Michigan.

"Constructive criticism - if you can't take it, you aren't going to make it here," said Dave Holmberg, a civilian air traffic controller at Selfridge. "LN is not going to have a problem, she's very eager to learn."

LN - A1C Ned, in the air traffic control world, controllers end all radio transmissions by using their first and last initials - is in the second phase of her training to become an air traffic control technician in the Louisiana Air National Guard. Upon completion of her training, she will return to Louisiana and be assigned to England Airpark in Alexandria, La.

Becoming an air traffic controller in the Air National Guard is a fairly lengthy process. After completing Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, Ned, like all ATC trainees, attended the 72-day ATC operator course at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. From there, Air National Guard trainees are assigned to one of several control tower facilities around the nation that are operated by the Air National Guard. That brought Ned to Selfridge in September 2011. Depending on how quickly she is signed off on her training requirements by the senior controllers, Ned will spend up to 11 months at Selfridge getting her seasoning training. Typically, trainees spend about eight months at Selfridge, before earning certification as a Radar Approach Controller.

"Stress management and multi-tasking," said Michelle Kisner, a civilian controller at Selfridge. "Those are the two things you have to be able to do to be a good controller. When things start happening, you have to be able to stay calm and think clearly about what you are going to do next."

Kisner spent 10 years on active duty in the Air Force and spent time as an ATC in Iraq. She joined the Selfridge tower as a civilian about two years ago.

"When the trainee first arrives, we do what we call a front load on them," Kisner explained. "We dump a whole bunch of information on them all at once. Then, we begin working with them, both at the live radar and in our simulator to work through everything we gave them up front."

There are actually two different duty stations in the air traffic control tower - the radar approach, known as RAPCON, and the actual control tower itself. The RAPCON deals with aircraft from about 60 miles away to five miles away. The tower, which uses both radar and visual methods - think controllers with binoculars - handles everything within five miles of the tower. Air National Guard controllers are taught the RAPCON portion of the procedure at Selfridge.

During training, a trainee always has a qualified controller sitting next to him or her. If needed, the senior controller can override any commands given by the trainee to an aircraft.

After the trainee has any interactions with live traffic, the trainee and the trainer review the situation and talk about other ways it could have been handled.

"We want to put as many things possible in their bag of tricks," Holmberg said of the trainees. "What works in one situation, there may be a different way to do it that would work better next time.

"Some trainees hear that and they think we are criticizing what they are doing. That's not the case, we just want to add another way to view it, so that you have more options to keep in mind next time," said Holmberg, who worked as a air traffic controller in Bosnia during that conflict in his days as an active duty Airman.

The Selfridge air space provides a variety of challenges to the trainee, Holmberg explained. In addition to A-10 Thunderbolt II and KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft flown at the base by the host 127th Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard, the Army National Guard and Coast Guard both have helicopters assigned to the base and Customs and Border Protection flies light fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. Even with that, the overwhelming majority of the traffic handled by the Selfridge tower is civilian. The civilian aircraft doesn't land at Selfridge, but the tower controls several small and regional airports that serve the Detroit area. Detroit Metropolitan Airport, the region's principle passenger hub, has a separate control facility. Adding to the mix is the fact that about a third or so of the air space Selfridge controls is actually in Canada.

Typically, there are 3-7 trainees at Selfridge at any given time, working a variety of shifts with the senior controllers.

For Ned, the trainee, all of this has meant plenty of things to know, plenty of things to memorize and - she hopes - plenty of opportunity in the future.

"When I complete my training and go back home, I want to go to school and get an education," Ned said. "Education is very important to me, that's why I am trying to learn everything I can here.

"I want to learn everything I can so that I am ready if I need to deploy or if any opportunities come up," she said. "You just never know what might happen next."